Earlier in the year, Adobe and Showtime hosted a screening and panel at the Metrograph of Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, a sprawling 4-part documentary about the highly influential hip-hop group. The Showtime series, which premiered at this year’s Sundance festival, has just been nominated for an Emmy award for outstanding writing in a nonfiction program.
The Wu-Tang Clan began in the New York City borough of Staten Island, and features ten members. Their 1993 album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is a classic that mixes sound effects from vintage martial arts films, samples from the American funk and soul songbook, and impressive lyrical wordplay and delivery that has made their live shows legendary.
Mass Appeal, the New York-based media company, produced the series. The company began as a graffiti fanzine, but investment capital expanded its activities into a magazine as well as website, film/television production, music label and creative agency.
The panel, headed by Sacha Jenkins, the director of the series, included lead editor Paul Greenhouse and Nick Pacchiano, senior director of postproduction and technology at Mass Appeal. Adobe’s Meagan Keane, senior product marketing manager/pro film and video, chaired the panel.
Post for the Future
Shot in 6K for futureproofing, the film post also included a large amount of historical footage, with the result of the editors having to shepherd everything over a large storage array. According to Pacchiano, Premiere Pro was up to the task and postproduction went smoothly and efficiently. Since animation was often incorporated into the series, he especially appreciated the dynamic linking functionality between After Effects and Premiere Pro.
The four-part series, which first aired on Showtime in May of this year, examined every facet of the group’s career from its humble origins in the projects on Staten Island and Brooklyn, through fame and success in the music business, fragmentation due to solo careers, all amid the frictions that many long-running musical groups inevitably face.
Working on post out of Mass Appeal’s Soho offices, Jenkins, Greenhouse and the others relied on Adobe’s Creative Cloud apps, including editing with Premiere Pro and motion graphics with Adobe After Effects. Photoshop and Illustrator were also on tap as needed.
Making Family Central
Sacha Jenkins, the director of the series and one of the founders of Mass Appeal, is a long-time chronicler of urban culture and hip hop. He explained how the importance of family was central to Wu-Tang over the years and became a key structure of the film: coming from fractured home life, the group’s members would often step in to act as family members. Jenkins directorial insight was informed, he told the audience, by his also growing up in similar circumstances in the hood. Jenkins, an erudite and articulate speaker, attended Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, with one consideration his knowledge of graffiti, one of the true urban art forms.
Lead editor Paul Greenhouse – a self-described “middle-class, secular Jewish white guy who was interested in black urban culture at an early age”– noted how they organized each episode of Wu Tang Clan: Of Mice and Men to examine a facet of the group’s career, focusing on the conflict and struggles they had to overcome to achieve success.
Each Episode Its Own Narrative
The first episode, he said, can be thought of as “rappers versus their environment”. Growing up in the projects in Staten Island meant overcoming obstacles many black men face each day, such as poverty, drugs, crime, and oftentimes absentee fathers. The second episode focused on Wu-Tang versus the music industry; derided at first as an ungainly group of kids who had no hope of a breakthrough, they instead rose up with savvy choices to eventually notch sales worth several platinum and gold albums.
The third episode, according to the editor, can be thought of as Wu-Tang versus themselves. For example, the highly original rapper Old Dirty Bastard, or ODB as he was also known, eventually succumbed to hard living and drugs. We also saw scenes documenting the conflicts that often plague any musical group due to egos, conflicting solo projects and financial misgivings.
The docu-series includes a ‘can you top this’ segment on Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, a double album by the group limited to a single copy run. It was sold to then Turing Pharmaceuticals’ CEO Martin Shkreli at auction for $2 million. Yes, that’s the same disgraced, now imprisoned exec who took a drug that cured a life-threatening infection and immediately raised its price to $750 a tablet from $13.50.
The final episode examines Wu-Tang Clan’s legacy, as a sort of proof that friends and collaborators — even when starting out with distinct disadvantages — can transcend limits by combining a surrogate family structure as well as a brotherhood of independent but like-minded individuals. Their next step allowed the once ungainly crew to become a potent alliance of entrepreneurs, artists and businessmen.
Transcending it All
“I think that their honesty is something that transcends hip hop,” says Sacha Jenkins. “You can watch the series and know nothing about Wu-Tang, and come away with an understanding of not just rap or hip hop, but what young black males experience in America.”
While it is often hard to do things single-handedly, especially in the music business, success can often come with a little help from your friends.