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Shameik Moore was born two years after The Wu-Tang Clan released their groundbreaking debut album, Wu-Tang: Enter the 36 Chambers, in 1993, but his enthusiasm in talking about his latest project would have you believe he was in the studio when it was recorded.
“Oh man, my name is Shameik, people call me Sha, some people call me ‘Meik, I played Shaolin Fantastic and now I’m playing a character 'Sha Rader,' who lives ON Shaolin…it was destined for sure.”
Moore, in his first project since voicing Miles Morales in the hit Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, takes on his biggest acting challenge yet in Wu-Tang: An American Saga, a 10-episode dramatization of the seminal years of hip-hop’s most innovative nonet. Shameik will be playing Raekwon The Chef with Ashton Sanders, Dave East, Joey Badass, Siddiq Saunderson, T.J. Atoms and Johnell Young as the other young men from NYC's Staten Island who would go on to form the Wu-Tang Clan.
Moore’s Wu-Tang education began when he worked with RZA on the 2018 film Cut Throat City, a post-Katrina heist film set in New Orleans directed by The Abbot.
“I was listening to 36 Chambers to get to know him better, and then he asked me to be a part of this project, Wu-Tang: An American Saga. Then I dove in even more [into the music] after he told me who I was playing, and what the goal was with him having me play this character. That’s pretty much how it [happened]. 2017 to 2019 has been Wu-Tang for me.”
Shameik is so excited to be part of the project that even his namesake being infamously murdered on the “Killer Tape” skit (“Shameik got bust two times in his head!”) can quell his enthusiasm.
“Yooo, does that not already feel like I was already a part of Wu-Tang? Does that not feel that way?” he reacts into the phone sounding a bit like Miles telling Peter that he has to make Kingpin pay. “It’s crazy that you said that. RZA — I call him OG — and OG was like, ‘You really a Wu member.’”
“He just has a natural ability to absorb the material and spit it out,” RZA says of Moore. “I really saw him as somebody who could really translate what’s on the page and the art. I got a chance to direct him and I saw how well he is at being the instrument. Miles Davis is a great musician, but if he had a bad trumpet, the music ain’t gonna come out as good. So Shameik is a great instrument.”
To embody Raekwon, Shameik shadowed the MC to capture his walk, body language, speech and lingo, as well as donning a fat suit for his bulkier frame.
“This is the most character-driven thing I’ve ever done. With Shaolin Fantastic (in The Get Down) I got to interpret what a bad boy is in the '70s,” he says. “I did my own research on New York kids and what they sounded like, and I added my hip-hop experience as a battle dancer and I learned how to DJ. They put me in the clothes, they wrote the words, they put me around the right people and I did my thing. Malcolm Adekanbi (his character in Dope) at the time was closer to my character as a person. [This is] different. It’s different.”
While Moore admits that RZA is “hard to impress,” the founding member of the group and executive producer is effusive when speaking on his performance.
“When I watched the series, he was killing it, yo. I’m really proud and happy that this is an opportunity to show his skills,” says RZA. “He’s playing Raekwon The Chef, which is not an easy thing to do, but he’s doing a great job.”
RZA is equally impressed with his fictional counterpart, Ashton Sanders. The Moonlight and Native Son star is tasked with capturing the musical hunger of a young Robert Diggs, future leader of the Wu.
“His observant skill is something to be complimented. He wasn’t shy to watch me,” says RZA. “I was like, ‘We got a studio session tonight,’ and we brought in an old SP-1200 [drum machine]. The original one that I had, that Ghost’s cousin Mo The Barber had because I donated it to him. He produced “Nutmeg” on Supreme Clientele. We brought that same SP-1200 from Stapleton Projects to the studio, and I had to show Aston how to use it. But he was more into learning how I walked and how I moved. I didn’t coach him but he observed me.”
As someone seeing the end result first, Ashton and the other actors had preconceived notions of the group going into the taping that RZA and his brothers had to address.
“There was only one glitch in his matrix, the idea that you’re playing RZA ‘the leader.’ I told him you’re not playing RZA the leader, you have to evolve to that. So just have fun taking that journey. And once that got into his psyche, he was able to let it grow. And as you watch over the season, you’ll see him growing.”
The Hulu series is coming out just months after the Wu-Tang documentary Of Mics and Men, which laid bare much of the controversy and tension that plagued the Wu-Tang members after their meteoric rise in the 1990s. RZA insists that the timing of the series and the documentary was an intentional part of a three-year plan.
“I thought this would come out in November, but they moved it up, which is very rare. Thanks for the pressure [laughs]. But the timing was for the documentary to come first and this to come second. There are things that the documentary speaks on but isn’t able to expound on.
"Give you an example, [in the documentary] Ghostface speaks on having two brothers in a wheelchair — which he also says on ‘All That I Got Is You’ — but you can’t see it. You can’t smell it. You can’t see the pressure of what that really is on his life. In the trailer, he’s saying, ‘I’m tired of this.’ And the girl says, ‘Tired of what?’ And he says, ‘This life.’ And then you see what his life is. His moms caught on the bottle, brother’s up in a wheelchair and the streets are on fire. The series is able to expound upon all of those stories that the documentary touched upon. And the documentary also didn’t touch on everything.”
In real life, the Wu were a family with competitive tension, and having MCs like Joey Badass and Dave East going toe-to-toe with more seasoned actors with deep hip-hop roots was just enough to keep things interesting on set.
“We shooting Wu so everybody came in with their Wu-tang energy,” Shameik says of the mood during filming. “We actually played dice. I took some money. Joey Badass lost some money. We was there to be Wu-Tang, so we was on that. I’ll just leave it at that.”
On 1995’s “Glaciers of Ice,” Raekwon prophesized “My seeds, run with his seeds, marry his seeds/ That's how we keep Wu-Tang money all up in the family.” So it’s fair to ask if 20 years later any of their actual children will play them in the series as O’Shea Jackson Jr. did with Ice Cube in the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton. RZA says it’s not quite that simple.
“ODB’s son resembles him so much and embodies him, but screen acting is a talent,” he says. “There’s a technique, just like rapping. My sons are all musicians, but they don’t rap. My son got into Berkley for singing, and I can’t sing. You never know how the talent’s gonna translate. But it definitely was considered. A couple of our children auditioned. Somebody’s son did make it. U-God’s son has a role in episode 2. That’s how real it is. I invited him to come, he showed up and he delivered.”
The series comes at seemingly just the right time. You can still hear the Wu-Tang DNA in current hits like Nicole Bus’ “You,” which floats on the same Sharmelle sample that RZA flipped for “C.R.E.AM.” But it’s the life expressed between the notes that is probably the most endearing, and that is the life that we will finally get to see on screen.
“The Wu-Tang experience that we recorded, these nine men — 10 men, including Capadonna — all those different things our music expressed, young people have to live through it regardless,” says RZA. “And so even if a young guy finds it 50 years from now, there’s a likelihood that there is something there for him, because we actually recorded our youth. What makes Wu a little different was all the elements that we put into the music. There was a kid reading comic books and he don’t know ‘2 for 5, n*gga.’ But then there is the 2 for 5 kid who don’t know Iron Man Tony Stark, you see? Touching on all those chambers makes it something that will continue to be discovered. A nerd may say Wu is for me, and a street kid will say no, Wu is for me. That’s why it transcends time.”
Wu-Tang: An American Saga premieres on Hulu September 4.
Photo Credit: Hulu