Fifty years of Hip-Hop means a legion of rappers and DJ’s have come and gone, leaving varying degrees of impact on the culture. That sizable enough group becomes a smaller fraternity when considering who not only established themselves in an ever-crowded field of talent but maintained their star power, for years, and sometimes decades. Method Man, aka Hot Nickels aka The Iron Lung aka the renowned lyricist and thespian, is one of those megawatt talents whose star manages to burn brighter with every rotation around the sun, and he’s managed to make it seem effortless, but every win has been hard earned.
We all know Meth, sort of. With his distinct vocal timbre and boundless energy, he succeeded in shining on the megawatt debut Wu-Tang Clan single “Protect Ya Neck” among a nine-deep crew of rap titans. Then, he pretty much rhymed his career into high gear when the aforementioned song’s b-side, the solo cut “Method Man,” became a hit in its own right. A Def Jam Records album later, 1994’s Tical, along with a Grammy-winning single “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need To Get By” featuring Mary J. Blige, and Meth was a certified rap superstar. From the flow to his style, to the movie star good looks, Johnny Blaze checked all the proverbial boxes, yet felt fresh and unique. Having the audacity to cut a record with the Notorious B.I.G. (“The What”) despite RZA insisting the Clan keep everything was a hint that Meth could never be contained.
Over two decades later, and in hindsight, it’s easy to forget Method Man the actor scored his earliest roles in Cop Land and 187, both released in 1997, before getting kudos for portraying “Shameek” in Hype Williams’ Belly a year later. Meth is candid about not doing much actual acting in his early gigs.
“In the beginning I have to admit I only took roles that, ya know, were me, there wasn’t any acting involved whatsoever,” says Meth. “I was very green, and you can tell now it’s apples and oranges to where I am now. I decided to take it serious when I saw exactly what these actors go through just to get a part and to survive on a daily basis. For me, that is motivation enough to go through every step that I have to go through in order to give my best performance. And not just my best performance but my 110% effort to make sure that I’m not the weakest link on this set. ‘Cause there are people that show up hours before I do to make sure everything runs smoothly. Who am I to come unprepared?”
“When you start valuing other people’s opinion of you more than your own opinion of yourself, that’s when you have a problem.”
Who Meth is, is a Hip-Hop renaissance man, along with the work ethic to match. Pick any of his let’s call them “specialty talents” and the man born Clifford Smith has thrived and flourished. As a rapper, we already mentioned the whole Wu-Tang Clan, a key cog of an iconic supergroup that shifted Hip-Hop culture to its will thing. There is also his success ably running solo or with his rap (and occasional acting) partner in rhyme, Redman. And while the bars are forever sharp (“I love words and wordplay, so I’ma hang my hat on that more than anything else”), as an actor, he’s surely graduated from a bit player whose name recognition probably secured those neophyte roles to a legit thespian. Meth’s filmography is stacked with notable performances on the big and small screen, bringing life to characters like Prop Joe’s miscreant nephew Melvin “Cheese” Wagstaff in HBO’s The Wire or, more recently, attorney Davis MacLean in Starz’s Power Book II: Ghost.
Distilled to his core, Method Man is the chill homie with an array of interests that he’s been able to wrangle into a prolific career. Take for example, his love of comic books. After confirming that he does indeed have the first appearance of Marvel’s Wolverine, in a Hulk comic “locked up somewhere,” he relayed how the X-Men character’s stories in particular molded his own moral compass.
“The code of Bushido, honor,” says Meth. “As I got older I seen that—I didn’t understand it then, but I understand it now—but it was an internal fight for him always questioning whether he was more man or animal and how much he would give into his base instinct, violence. So yeah, a lot of that now I take in stride. It was a template for my way of life so to speak.”“I love being creative. But as far as the acting goes, Hip-Hop has nothing to do with my acting.”
Many fans hope that his life path someday includes finally securing a spot in Marvel’s MCU, and it would be past due. That rumor of Meth making a good Bishop in a new X-Men movie was calculated. “I was just putting it out there to see if I could hook something,” admits Meth. “Those guys at the MCU, they know their stuff. I haven’t had any problems with any of their casting choice so far. So whoever gets the job… I think Omar Sy did an excellent job as Bishop, but that was before MCU. If they chose him again, I think he’d kill it. There’s a few people out there. But if they’re willing to give me a shot, I’d go for it. Plus, I’ve done all the research already.”
Preparation, whether the public saw it or not, has always been crucial to Meth’s success, be it for a role or to rock a stage. But he’s still getting used to the whole evolvement into a zaddy or fine uncle or whatever the male version of a MILF is these days. At the Space 620 studio space in Atlanta, when he strolled out with a bop in the third look of the photo shoot for this story, and the eventual cover, he exhorted “Big Unc is here,” to laughs from the assembled coterie of stylists, PA’s and lookers on. Meth has always been comfortable in his own skin as he is now sharing his age, 52, and even more so now. Never taking himself too seriously, but keeping it real with himself, is how he’s never fallen off.
“I can’t speak to their stories or why they’re in the predicaments that they’re in, but I do know some of the pitfalls that come with the industry,” says Meth of the peers who came into the game with him but are no longer on the board. “A lot of them are self-inflicted by the artist themselves. There’s nothing like getting an ego-stroked man, but it becomes very addictive and when [it] isn’t up to par with your standards, you tend to slide into seclusion to the point where you become a recluse. When you start valuing other people’s opinion of you more than your own opinion of yourself, that’s when you have a problem. And for me it became me basically not valuing what people said about me but what I said about myself. Not valuing what people thought about me but what I thought about myself. And it’s definitely working. The fact that I’m still here is a testament to my work ethic, and people fucks with me heavy, for real.”
Part of that devotion to Meth is baked in considering his and the Clan’s classic debut, Enter The Wu-Tang, aged gracefully and is approaching its 30 year milestone. “You seen how it went from a million dollar business to a billion dollar business,” says Meth of the three decades he’s witnessed, as an artist, of Hip-Hop’s growth. “Just know this, Hip-Hop sets the trend for a lot of the cultures. A lot of the fashion, whether it be Timberland boots or those ugly ass Balenciaga sock sneakers, Hip-Hop did that.”
Forgive the Balenciaga slander if that’s part of your aesthetic, respectfully. He adds, “There’s no denying that this music genre has changed the landscape of how music is even listened to or how music is accepted. They keep moving the goal posts on us ‘cause every time we get a little win it’s something [that] drags us back, or they put something in the forefront that doesn’t represent all of us, just a small group of us. But you live and you learn. In those 20 years I’ve seen people come, I’ve seen people go. And I am glad that I am still here, not just here but relevant enough to be mentioned amongst some of the greats that came before me.”
Being born in Hempstead, Long Island, then coming of age in Staten Island and managing to escape the hold of the streets is as real as a Hip-Hop story can get. Interestingly enough, while he’s no doubt a Hip-Hop head through and through (more new music is always on the way), he insists it has nothing to do with his acting. “I love being creative. But as far as the acting goes, Hip-Hop has nothing to do with my acting, whatsoever,” says Meth. “What has a lot to do with my acting is post-traumatic stress disorder from my childhood and real-life things that happened. Not things that happened on the stage, interviews, concerts whatever. Real life shit. Grocery store kind of shit. Laundromat kind of shit. Going back to school shopping for your kids type of things. Something genuine that keeps you grounded.”
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