It’s hard to imagine a time when hip hop was still a purely revolutionary, underground movement and not just a convention of pop music.
As with all groundbreaking musical ideas, there was a spark about hip hop that big executives couldn’t fully grasp before it was commodified and embraced by the mainstream. It was cool. Untainted. Most essentially, it still belonged to the communities that birthed it. Perhaps nobody captures that integrity like the Wu-Tang Clan. The Staten Island rap collective featured nine original members, including Ghostface Killah, Raekwon and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Each member brought a unique voice to RZA’s (a member of the group) beautifully murky style of production.
The second season of “Wu-Tang: An American Saga” continues to follow the formation of the legendary group through a narrative-driven crime drama. While it’s typically unusual for a biographical story to be told in such a long form, the Wu-Tang Clan’s history is dense enough to support an entire series. There are so many important figures, each with their own riveting stories, and because of this, the series doesn’t drag on. The pacing keeps up steadily.
The first episode of season two focuses on Wu-Tang’s frontman and producer Bobby Diggs (Ashton Sanders, “Judas and the Black Messiah”), a.k.a. the RZA. After shooting his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend in self-defense, he is put on trial for attempted murder.
For a while, Bobby nearly gives in to the false charges, feeling hopeless about his situation; a common symptom of institutionalization in the American prison system. It takes him some moments of reflection, and a few talks with the right people, for him to remember his purpose and find the courage to fight the case. Thankfully, and surprisingly, he is declared “not guilty.”
While strongly addictive, the show can often take itself too seriously, making it susceptible to some occasional corny dialogue (“You smoking again? Damn, you really are the Method Man”). Additionally, while there are certainly many — and often successful — attempts to keep episodes interesting with the cinematography, there’s a lot of over-editing and an almost too-high quality of production that doesn’t quite complement the raw feel of Wu-Tang’s signature style.
However, it does make efforts to stay innovative with its storytelling. The third episode is broken into small chapters, each with its own title, and it’s gratifying to see each character receive such an in-depth arc. They’re all trying their best to survive, feed their families or make some kind of life for themselves. Most are trying to find an alternative to dealing drugs, but find it nearly impossible to secure a career when coming from neglected, low-income areas.
Instead, working on music becomes a source of hope for the Staten Island artists. It’s their way out — something to keep them from danger.
Smartly, the show leans into the crime genre and spends time building up a compelling world in the Staten Island projects. There are some well-directed action sequences, including a shootout that ends with Dennis Coles (Siddiq Saunderson, “Mother’s Milk”), known as Ghostface Killah in the group, taking a bullet in the neck.
However, “Wu-Tang” is at its most compelling when it focuses on the group’s music. Hearing Raekwon slowly craft his iconic verse on “Can It Be All So Simple,” or Inspectah Deck piece together his verse on “C.R.E.A.M.,” is a welcome gift to fans everywhere. Additionally, watching how different members react to West Coast rappers like Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg on the radio helps provide context for the state of hip hop in the early ’90s. This is crucial, considering that Wu-Tang’s sound emerged as the dark antithesis to the laid-back, sunny style of California.
Hip hop has changed a lot since the ’90s. With the emergence of social media culture and audio distribution platforms like SoundCloud, it’s been a long time since rap has been “untouched” by the mainstream.
For instance, the recent FX series “Dave” is about a white rapper who finds success making viral comedy songs such as “My Dick Sucks” — a very far cry from the New York City housing projects where the sound was first invented. While “Dave” is a smart show in its own right, “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” by contrast, serves to remind audiences how much hip hop’s original culture has been lost to an industry of commercialization and, frankly, appropriation.
While there’s plenty of evidence to support the argument that the genre has evolved, the existence of a show like “Wu-Tang: An American Saga” is important. It’s history. And the circumstances that created this form of expression deserve to be given this kind of reverence.
Whether you’re a fan of their music or not, Wu-Tang’s biographical series is one of the most exciting and uniquely American dramas streaming right now.
Daily Arts Writer Ben Servetah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.