Wu-Tang Clan’s story is about to be told on Hulu, and it is more than well-deserved. The legendary hip-hop collective will go down in history as one of the greatest rap groups of all-time. Songs like “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Check Ya Neck” off their 1993 smash Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) aren’t just nostalgic jams at this point, they’re timeless classics. The new series Wu-Tang: An American Saga, produced by Wu member RZA and writer Alex Tse (Sucker Free City, Watchmen, and the 2018 Superfly remake) hopes to serve as a definitive biopic in series form, depicting a timeline of real-life events from their journey to the top of the music industry.
Set in the early 1990s in New York, the show spans 10 episodes covering a period when the crack cocaine epidemic was at its height. It was RZA (real name Bobby Diggs) who had a vision for the group, striving to unite 12 young men battling hard choices between the streets and music.
T.J. Atoms plays the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, a character who’s known for his wild and outrageous ways and his equally bold half-rap/half-singing vocal style. The Philadelphia actor and musician clearly relishes the role, providing a realness to the character and showing how ODB’s contributions helped the group become superstars. Since they got together, WuTang has released five Gold and Platinum-selling albums, pushing over 40 million units worldwide.
L.A. Weekly caught up with Atoms to discuss his first gig as an actor, the preparation to play ODB’s role, and what audiences can expect from the highly-anticipated show.
L.A. Weekly: Tell us about your love for music, specifically hip-hop.
T.J. Atoms: I grew up, of course, listening to hip-hop. I was in a group called the Bakery Boys when I was 16, so it’s been in my soul my whole life pretty much.
Are/were you a Wu-Tang Clan fan?
That’s why I mentioned being in the Bakery Boys, because we thought we were Wu-Tang Clan. We used to flip the T-shirts and everything. This was 5 years ago way before I got casted.
The manifestation is crazy, that’s why my last name is Atoms.
You got your start in entertainment after a woman on the street randomly asked you to be in a video shoot three years ago, right?
This was in Rittenhouse Square in Philly. She said, “I want you to be in this video shoot,” I’m like, “Are you paying me?” [laughs] She wound up paying me, it ended up being an August Burns Red video [which is] a heavy metal rock band. The video’s fire, we fucking set this car on fire and burnt it. We were really acting, so I was amazed. It was like a little movie set.
How did you land the role of ODB for the Hulu series?
I auditioned for 3 months, going back and forth. I went in for Raekwon originally. Of course, I’m not Raekwon [chuckles]. So they called me back for ODB. I’m like, [whistles] “I don’t know if I could play ODB.”
It’s heavy. It’s a huge character, you gotta kill it. You gotta do it justice. I just didn’t see it.
I mean, Raekwon can spit too.
Yeah Raekwon is dope, but ODB, I’m like Damn yo. But I ended up killing the role. I can’t wait for everybody to see it, it’s amazing.
How did you prepare for the show?
I studied a lot of old footage of ODB. I studied some of his son’s shit, his son has a movie on YouTube about the Wu-Tang. I studied the movement and body language… had to really master It.
What is it about Ol’ Dirty Bastard that was challenging or rewarding to portray?
The whole character is very challenging because you have to really embody a legend. He’s so over the top and outgoing, but you don’t want to be too over the top. You don’t want to overdo the character, you gotta be in a certain pocket. The whole character was a challenge, but it was fun. I think ODB is the funnest character ever on TV.
Why was it fun?
Because he’s radical. The character, you gotta watch it. Whole character is just funny, it’s ODB [chuckles]!
The show features Ashton Sanders (Moonlight), Dave East, Erica Alexander, Shameik Moore (Dope). What was it like working with them?
I really love my whole cast, I’m not just saying that. Ashton is really a cool ass dude. Shameik is the homie. Zoey, Erica, Dave, etc. I really love them. It was amazing. I got to learn some shit.
What did you learn?
I learned how to carry yourself more, because this was my first huge movie. It was just a hell of an experience.
Who did Dave East play?
Method Man. He killed it too. It’s going to be super fire, Dave’s a really cool person. Joey Bada$$ is in it, he plays Inspectah Deck. Joey, me, Ashton… it’s hella fun.
What’s your favorite episode and why?
Oh my god, Episode 8 is going to be a fire episode because it’s all one scene. All shot in one scene, just one hour straight of- bam, bam, bam! Usually you “cut, action,” but that day we worked. It was all in one scene, so we had to be on point. Fuck that, we should win an award for Episode 8 alone!
What made the legendary hip-hop group so special in terms of their songwriting and chemistry together?
The camaraderie amongst them and the fact that they all came from different boroughs. They came together to make something that was unique to themselves. No one was doing that at the time, that makes them really special.
What do think this show will do for the hip-hop community?
This show will show not just the hip-hop community, but the black community that you can believe in yourself and you can accomplish your goals. Hard work, talent and not quitting on yourself, that’s really going to show.
How is it different from other rap movies (Straight Outta Compton) or music industry TV shows (Empire)?
First of all, it’s a fucking whole series. Every episode is a movie by itself. I’ve never seen anything like this out. It’s one of the hottest shows, all twist and turns. It’s about the Wu-Tang of course, but it’s some shit you don’t know. Some shit I didn’t even know about Wu-Tang that’s in the show, and it’s real-life shit that happened. It stands out because it’s a real crazy story. A legendary story.
What does the show reveal about the group that people might not know?
There’s a lot of shit. Too much shit, I can’t say without giving you an episode. People might not know that they were fucking beefing before they came together as a crew. Raekwon and Ghostface were beefing because my character ODB been rocking with Ghostface growing up. You wouldn’t even have known they started beefing, and they came together to make something unique and creative.
Is there anything else you want to let us know?
I’m working on a new music project called All Is Well, coming out very soon. I also have a few other shows, I’m on Power Season 6. I’m also on Godfather on Harlem.
Wu-Tang: An American Saga premieres Wed., Sept. 4, 2019 on Hulu.