NEW YORK (WABC) — The concrete jungle of New York City has grown and cultivated an impressive lineup of hip hop stars since the birth of the genre in the Bronx five decades ago, including one figure that would become part of a cultural revolution during the “Golden Age.”
Clifford Smith Jr., aka ‘Method Man,’ was just 2 years old back in 1973 — a “young tyke.” But even at a tender age, the future Wu-Tang Clan founder would find out that his power with the pen was mightier than a sword.
Ahead of hip hop’s 50th anniversary, Method Man sat down with Eyewitness News anchor Shirleen Allicot, and described his humble beginnings, his rapid ascent to rap stardom and the legacy he hopes to leave behind.
Watch our half-hour special ’50 years of Hip Hop: The Bronx and Beyond’ now, followed by a one-hour extended look on Channel 7 at 1 p.m. on Sunday, August 13. Both editions will be made available to stream on-demand at ABC7NY.com or our ABC7NY app on Roku, FireTV, Apple TV and Android TV.
DISCOVERING A LOVE FOR HIP HOP:
Born in Hempstead, Long Island before moving to Park Hill, Staten Island for middle school, Method Man would weave his way into the hip hop scene with the help of his friend and fellow Wu-Tang Clan member, Raekwon ‘The Chef.’
Shirleen Allicot: What was it for you? What sparked your ascent?
Method Man: I’ve always been a music lover. Since I was a young tyke, we’re talking like kindergarten. I used to memorize all the jingles from The Electric Company and Sesame Street. I was one of those guys. I was lucky enough to, at a young age, hang out with guys that loved music. You kind of take on what crowd you’re with. I could have hung out with the guys that sold drugs, I could have hung out with the guys that drank a lot of 40 ounces and smoked a lot. And I kind of did hang out with some of those guys. But my love was with these guys to create. I like to think of myself as a creative. So when I fell into it, I fell all the way into it. Just the love of it, you know, and it was still in its infant stage. I will say that around the time that I discovered hip hop, I might have been 10 or 11 years old at the time. So for it to be 50 now. I remember when KRS-One said you can’t call us old school artists, hip hop isn’t even 20 years old yet. And by the time it is, you will be the old school artists, and I was like wow, that’s prolific.
Shirleen: Tell me about that chance encounter. How did everything start to unfold?
Method Man: I was in junior high school, just moved there. I moved back to Staten Island from Long Island, and started attending Dreyfus 49 Intermediate School Middle School. And one of my best friends at the time, I used to walk home with every day was Raekwon ‘The Chef.’ One day, he asked me to hang out with him. Just let me give you guys a little history on ‘Chef.’ Oldest child, old soul, always been like, mature beyond his years. He’s hanging out with me. I’m feeling like I’m hanging out with a 22-year-old. He’s 13. I’m 12. And we’re just standing around and I’m like, this is it. This is it. And then these guys came by and more or less like, ‘yo, we’re going upstairs.’ ‘Alright, let’s go.’ At this point. I’m just following. And I’m listening to these guys. Like, you know, one guy’s beating on the wall, one dude’s beatboxing in the corner. And Raekwon starts rhyming. Up to this point I didn’t even know he rhymes. And he was good at it. But the funny thing is this, I thought those were his rhymes. They weren’t, they were other people’s rhymes. He was saying other people’s rhymes in there. And I didn’t know that until those actual people showed up to one of these sessions. And that’s where it started for me, in that staircase. I was so impressed that people my age, preteens and teenagers, were doing things that so-called professionals were doing at it better than Slick Rick. That was just my opinion at the time, we were nowhere near better than Slick Rick, but it was like these guys are almost better than Slick Rick, they’re like Doug E. Fresh. Some of my favorite rappers and these guys are doing it. So you know, when I got my opportunity to step up, I had no rhymes, so I had to write some. And my first rhyme I wrote was with Raekwon, ‘The Chef’ and it was called ‘I’m on a Mission.’ And from there, the rest is history.
THE LANDSCAPE OF 90’S HIP HOP:
Back in the early 90’s, the emergence of the powerhouse rap collective ‘Wu-Tang Clan,’ would spark a cultural revolution, impacting not only music, but the way the industry would come to view hip hop as a brand. From their music, to their fashion, Wu-Tang became a symbol that many could identify with, leading to a record deal that would forever change the game.
Shirleen: Fast forward a little bit. Just toggle forward a little bit. So, when you guys get your start. Take me to the 90’s. Set the scene for hip hop.
Method Man: It was crazy because at this point, we were in the shiny-suit era. And nothing wrong with the shiny-suit era — not even shiny-suit, it was suit and tie. Hip hop artists were dressing like R&B singers. So, I believe that that was going on, because we just wanted a seat at the table, some form of respect, and it was fly, it was fly with the Father MC suit, or the Big Daddy Kane suit, you know, and go out there and, you know, appeal to the ladies. But we knew that the majority of the people that were listening to the music didn’t dress that way, or had access to clothes, like that. So, when you get a Wu-Tang, or you get a Nas, and they’re spitting the same lyrics as this, but they look like you. Like there’s, there’s no fancy jewelry, there’s no name brand clothing, just the stuff that you would see if you walked out your door and saw dudes hustling, or whatever they’re doing in your neighborhood. So, when Wu-Tang came through with that energy, I think that people gravitated to it, you know, they could just identify with it. But it was a big change from what it was. That didn’t seem real to us, even though it was real. And I respect Kane, and all of them for doing their numbers, because they pushed us to a different level of maturity as far as hip hop went. But that look, that was the whole package. And people were like: this is what I identify with. This is not selling out. This is culture. This is the way of life that we were talking about.
Shirleen: So, debut album, ’36 Chambers.’
Method Man: It’s funny, when you’re in the midst of the beginning of your career, and you get a little bit of recognition, you know, and the people that see that recognition, whether it be a video getting played, or you did a quick interview, off top they think you’re rich, off top they think you’re famous, but in all actuality, you could be watching your video on TV, which I was, and eating a bowl of rice with ketchup on it, because that’s all you had to eat in your house at that time. And then to go out on the road, and we’re green as hell, so we don’t know what a tour bus is we’ve heard of them. But we got a 15-passenger van, we’re a 10-man unit on the road, trekking from state to state in this 15-passenger van. Now the love. The love was kind of non-existent as you went outside of the Tri-State when you start hitting down south and all that, they got their own flavor out there. So it was kind of hard to go out there and do those shows for those people and not feel the appreciation that you felt you deserved because your music was like that. But as time started to go on and months started to go on and the record started to get traction, we started to see a difference in the crowds. The crowds got bigger, more people were paying attention. The money got better, because we were getting $30 a piece. In the beginning. $30 a piece for each man, a show. And I didn’t mind because for me it was time enough that I didn’t have to be in the trap.
Shirleen: How groundbreaking was when you guys did get onto the scene? Because not many artists were able to parlay their careers the way that you guys did, because you were a group. You were billed as a group, but the nature of your deal allowed you guys to have your solo deals as well.
Method Man: Love that. Because people always say, we changed the game, but they can’t give you an example of how they changed the game. Wu-Tang literally changed the game when we got our deal. Thank goodness, Steve Rifkind, Rich Isaacson, people over at Loud (Loud Records) and RCA. We signed as a group with the option to sign as solo artists. Now mind you, the first album wasn’t even fully done yet. And Ol’ Dirty was already signed off to Elektra. Sylvia Rhone saw the star in him, signed him off top, he got the first deal contrary to what people think. Then Def Jam came along, and then these people. So, the biggest thing that I say that we got out of this deal was yes, we changed the game, we came with a deal that people call a ‘Wu Tang deal’ to this day. But not only that, we were solo artists on all these different labels, and who were forced to work with each other. Because we’re a group. And they all were forced to work with each other for our cause. Which is crazy. Unheard of. So yeah, we definitely changed the game. And the impact is still felt today.
METHOD MAN: THE SECOND ACT:
In addition to his career as a hip hop artist, Method Man has put together quite the impressive acting resume, with one of his most recent roles portraying a lawyer in the popular crime drama TV series ‘Power.’ But the road from the music stage to the big screen wasn’t always a smooth journey. In fact, it’s one that he calls “humbling.”
Shirleen: I just remember the first time I saw you in something other than a music video, for me it’s ‘Belly’ and ‘How High.’
Method Man: ‘How High’ was easy because it was written for myself and Redman in our vein as far as our characters. But over the years, I’ve cut my teeth a bit, you know, going on the auditions, doing the classes, been on screen with some of some of your favorites, you know, and held my own. I refuse to embarrass myself in any way, shape, or form. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to make sure I do my due diligence like you would. And with the acting thing, I had to take the classes, I had to go on the auditions. I even slept on my manager’s couch for about a month doing like three and four auditions a day. But once I got booked and they saw that I was serious about it. It snowballed from there. The audition stopped and people started hiring, so I guess I did well.
Shirleen: Talk about a second act.
Method Man: Wu-Tang had a great run. And even now, it’s such a love for that era of music that we’re having a resurgence, we’re due to tour again. But that being said, there was a moment where everything was drying up. And I was just tired, very tired. And I knew I could contribute more. So I’m like, what else can I do? Acting? Do I really want to act? It’s going to be hard to get back in (to music). I’m thinking like… I’m thinking, I’m the thing of all things, like everybody knows me. No, they don’t know you in Hollywood. Your name goes as far as your audience goes. And that wasn’t my audience. So I had to work my way into that. Humbling, humbling, very much.
FROM ACTOR TO … PRODUCER?
One thing you can’t do is put Method Man in a box. So could the next step in his evolving career have him stepping outside the camera frame and deciding what goes in front of it?
Shirleen: Where do you want to see it (acting) go?
Method Man: I want to produce, honestly. I mean, in front of the camera is fun, I enjoy this being a creative, but I want to produce. There’s a lot of stories out there that we’ve been telling for years, that should be told by us. And that’s not slighting anybody of a different race or creed or whatever. It’s just that some of these stories need to be told, authentically by the people that know this world. And I want to be one of those people.
Shirleen: That is like, so quintessentially you. It just seems like we got to see how conscious you are and how much you care about this community when you spoke up during Eric Garner. That was a big deal for our coverage here at Eyewitness News. But we also got to see another side of you like, it has always been a part of you, but we got to see it on a bigger scale.
Method Man: People tend to forget that people of color, especially famous people of color are just that, like we’ve had humble beginnings. We don’t forget where we come from, maybe the people where we come from forget about us, but we don’t forget where we come from. So injustice is injustice, regardless to who it is, what color they are. And honestly, when your voice matters, you’ll know it when your calling comes. You don’t have to speak up about everything. But when your calling comes and you feel like your voice should be heard and you have something constructive to say that helps, by all means. Chime in.
BE HUMBLE. BE KIND:
At Eyewitness News, we understand the importance of being kind, as evidenced by our station’s ‘Be Kind’ campaign. Turns out, Method Man knows a thing or two about the power of kindness as well.
Shirleen: What I find so profound about you is just how down to earth you have been able to remain throughout all your life’s accolades. It blows me away. And I wonder how you do it? Do you make a concerted effort to be the most humble man on the planet?
Method Man: You know, it’s easy when you yourself. And that’s just who I am. That’s my character. I’ve always been like that. And contrary to what fans think about certain celebrities, we do care about our fans. And it only takes a second to take a picture, you know, 24 hours in a day, five minutes to take a picture or sign an autograph or say a kind word. It’s nothing. So yeah, I live my life like that.
Shirleen: It’s a playbook that I think that a lot of young people who are watching your rise and your ascent should be paying attention to. So if you have some advice, for a lot of these young artists who may want to do what you’re doing, how do they do that?
Method Man: The best advice I can give these new artists, honestly, is save your money outside of everything else. Focus on the art and save your money. They don’t have medical plans for us. They don’t have retirement plans for us, you know, even actors have SAG and all that. But when you’re talking about musicians, even with the streaming numbers, there’s a lot of us that came before the computers were even made and the music is being played and they’re not getting paid for it. Just take care of your business, save your money, drink a lot of water and mind your business.
METHOD MAN, AN EYEWITNESS NEWS STAN?
The 75th anniversary of Eyewitness News and the 50th anniversary of hip hop are separated by just one day, and while music has always been a part of his life, Method Man has found a love for news too.
Shirleen: Hip Hop is celebrating 50 years, Eyewitness News is celebrating 75 years. This is a big year for us. I wanted to just have a moment for you to tell us what Eyewitness News has meant to you over the years watching it.
Method Man: For me, I always hated the news when I was younger, but as I got older, I found an appreciation for it. And I think it kind of started for me with Storm Field. I was just so intrigued with his name and that he was the weather guy. I was like, that can’t be real. That’s got to be a made up name. But with that being said, I mean ABC News, there’s that news van again and Eyewitness News and from the commercials and just seeing the news vans in the hood. You knew that was Channel 7. You knew that was Eyewitness News. And as time went on I became a fan of you guys as a commentary, because we just turned the TV on. We have three other channels we can choose from to watch the news, but we focused on you guys.
Method Man on meeting Shirleen: When we finally made it here to GMA, I did not think I would meet you. I came down on the surface elevator, and when I came out, I was talking to some of the guys that work here. And I was like – that one anchor. They were like, “yeah, she’s beautiful, right?” I was like, she’s dope. If I can meet her and take a picture with her. And who comes down the elevator? Shirleen.
Shirleen: You changed the game for me because it made me realize the imprint of Eyewitness News and what an important role we play in what we do. And it just made me realize this responsibility is a big deal. Seven is always on your side.
Method Man: Shirleen. They have to know that. I mean, she (Shirleen) is hip hop. This demeanor. This professionalism. All of this is her. But she’s hip hop as well.
CHANGING THE GAME FOR LIFE:
Shirleen: What message or legacy do you hope to leave behind through your music, through your acting and any other endeavors?
Method Man: It’s already been done. I always said to myself, what can I leave behind that will let the people know that Wu-Tang, you know, did that thing? We have a district in our old neighborhood, a street named after ourselves. So 30, 40 years from now? That district right there is proof that I existed. And that’s what I leave behind right there.
Shirleen: 50 years of hip hop. What does that mean to you?
Method Man: It means a lot. I mean, when you think about where it started from, we’re talking about kids, invented it. This genre, kids that had nothing. This came from the bottom. To think that this music can be as relevant as it is today, with where it came from. I mean, if music can have an American dream, that’s it. Right there. It’s a billion- dollar business. It sets the trends for a lot of what goes on today. And yeah, it should be celebrated. 50 years is a hell of a number.
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