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Clannish Boys: Rza & Mathematics On The Latest Chapter In The Wu-Saga
Angus Batey , October 30th, 2017 15:59

They may be better known these days for in-fighting and taking each other to court, but most of the surviving members of the Wu-Tang Clan have reunited for a better-than-you-might-expect LP. Interview by Angus Batey

Time was when the Wu-Tang Clan seemed invincible. In 1997, after Rza's five-year plan took the nine-member New York group from obscurity to the top of the album charts, the world was theirs. Solo albums from Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, Gza and Ghostface Killah had turned each rapper into a major star, and laid the foundations for something that looked less like a pop career than a beats-and-rhymes dynasty. That it all started to crumble somewhat may not have been any more of a surprise than that the Clan got as big as they did; but this month's release of a new group album comes wrapped in the kind of confusion and apparent disarray that has characterised each of their periodic reappearances en bloc since the turn of the century.

After the comparative success of their third LP, The W in 2000 - the group's last million-seller - the release of a new Clan album has seemed to be less about anticipating great new music and more an exaggerated excuse for public airing of dirty laundry. Between the intra-band insults, the lawsuits and the disagreements over musical direction played out in public, via radio shows and websites, almost the last thing that anyone seems to care about is the tracks that end up getting released.

Little wonder, then, that the release of The Saga Continues seems to be the least remarked-upon of the recent headlines in Wu-Tang world. Questions arise over things as basic as whether or not it's actually a Clan LP, given that it's credited to Wu Tang (no hyphen; no Clan), and is produced entirely by Mathematics - the group's on-stage DJ, a member of the Wu-Elements extended production family mentored by the group's original and resurgent driving force, Rza, and designer of the band's iconic winged logo. Similar questions have been raised about its immediate predecessor, Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, the single copy of which sold by auction for $2m in an attempt to prove that music still had a value in the age of digital superfluity (a brave grand gesture that got rather missed in the melee that ensued when it turned out the album was bought by one of the most reviled men on the planet). According to an apparently well-sourced story published by Bloomberg in September, that record - produced entirely by another group associate, Cilvaringz - wasn't an official Clan album either.

All of which, of course, may just be some necessary sleight of hand to permit the release of a Clan album on a different label to the one that had the distribution rights to the group's last release. The Saga Continues arrives not via the Warner Brothers imprint that released the 20th anniversary comeback, A Better Tomorrow, a year late in 2014, but via the music division of film distributor E One. (It is one of the more delicious ironies that this makes the band - who the late Ol' Dirty Bastard once memorably claimed were "for the children" - labelmates of Kermit, Gonzo and Miss Piggy.) But there's also the question of U-God's quarter-million-dollar claim for unpaid royalties - the second time he's sued the band he claimed to have left in the early 2000s; and Rza has found himself caught up in the fallout of the Harvey Weinstein maelstrom when Azealia Banks accused him of condoning alleged racist and physical abuse of her at the hands of his friend, Russell Crowe (his response to Banks came via a Facebook post published a few days before tQ's interview; the topic was declared off-limits by the group's UK publicist).

And yet, despite all that, there's actually a record here worth fans' attentions. Mathematics' beats seem tailor-made for those who'd taken Raekwon's side in the lead-up to the 2007 release of 8 Diagrams (the Clan member wasted no opportunity to tell journalists and fans that he hated Rza's musical direction, and believed that the group would be better served by a sound more in keeping with their trademark aesthetic) and, once again, every Clan member bar U-God turns in verses worthy of the group's storied discography. In particular, Method Man continues the outstanding work he's contributed to every Clan LP since Iron Flag, when the penny seemed to drop with him that if he wasn't hauling more than his fair share of weight, the group as a whole were going to falter. Several of his verses on the new record follow the template set by the brilliant stanza he contributed to 'Keep Watch' in 2014, a series of richly resonant ideas open to multiple interpretations, all carefully stitched into lines that either share the same rhyming sound, or use a restricted number of different ones.

TQ sat down with Rza and Mathematics in a London hotel room last Monday (October 23) to talk continuing sagas, ongoing beefs, and as much else as could be squeezed in to the allotted 30 minutes.

Sketch me in a little bit about where this record came from and how it came together - and how you both see it fitting in to the wider picture. It's Wu Tang, without the hyphen and the Clan; it's most of the Clan but not all the Clan, and it's Mathematics and not Rza on the beats. Where does this fit in the canon?

Mathematics: Well, basically, it just started from a love of music. The whole project was a natural, organic project. It started with me perfecting my music, working hard. As you know, I DJ for Wu-Tang Clan, I DJ for Method Man - so, being on the road with Meth, he was hearing a lot of what I was doing, and me an' him just really started bangin' out joints. Other brothers started hearing it while we were out on the road, and joined in; and eventually I got a nice little pack together - maybe like five, six songs. Went an' saw Rza, he listened to it, and he was lovin' what he was hearing. You have the majority on there. Everybody's not on it. It's hard to do it when you dealing with grown men and schedules, and everybody doin' their own thing.

That's always been the case, hasn't it?

Rza [whose laughs always seem to come out in high-energy, maximum-volume bursts]: HAHAHAHAHA!

M: We tried to make it work as [much as] possible, you know? There was one particular time I definitely know U-God was in the studio - he was in there writing. But he never finished writing and by the time everything happened, you know, with his schedule, it just never... Yeah.

R: And how it fits in the canon o' things is that... the title tells you. It's Wu Tang, The Saga Continues. We're continuing our legacy, continuing our sound of music: continuing the emcees' point of view on lyricism, world events, pop culture, underground culture. You're hearing our take, in 2017: what are these guys thinking about? What are these guys writing about? Where are their heads at? Well, you can hear it, from a grown-man perspective. I have the executive position to... er... validate or not validate the product, you know what I mean? And when I heard this in its early phase - just the beats, and a few rappers on there - I was like, 'Yeah, that shit sound like the Wu.' It sound like that Wu sound that not only some of the fans been screamin' for, but even some of the emcees been screamin' for. And what it also did - it inspired me. And that's when you know it's Wu. Wu has the inspiration to it. Wu-Tang Clan? Yeah, you can put a face on it; but the Wu inspiration, you can't really put a face on that. And this album has captured that.

From the outside looking in, and going back to the 8 Diagrams time when Raekwon was particularly outspoken about the direction of the sound, I was wondering whether the so-called 'official' albums - 8 Diagrams and A Better Tomorrow - are where you're able to try and take the sound somewhere else; and these ones, like The Saga Continues and maybe Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, are where you can go back into the traditions of what the Wu sound's supposed to be. And it maybe lets you have two different directions at once - almost like the two wings on the logo.

R: Actually, I'm bold enough and confident enough and comfortable enough to say, even with the creative differences that me and some of the emcees have faced over the years, I'm comfortable to know that I did what I grew up with, what I evolved to as a musician. But I'm also, as an emcee, as a performer, comfortable enough to say that Mathematics brought it back to the sound that was vintage. And I could appreciate it. I'm not egotistic to beyond where I can't appreciate, you know: 'Yo! Damn! That's that shit!' Like, when 'Lesson Learn'd' come on, you make that same frown that you made when 'Triumph' came on, or when 'Bring The Ruckus' came on, or maybe even Liquid Swords by the Gza. I guess it's like a guy who hasn't had cocaine in a while because he's moved on to something else - then somebody bring him some good coke and he be like, 'Wooh! I forgot about that!' Mathematics had no objective - he just kept doing what he did, not being tampered by anything.

M: I was already doing things musically, and the God - Rza - saw it in me actually before I did. Because at the end of making Better Tomorrow he came to me, he said, 'I think you should produce the next Wu-Tang Clan album.' And at that time, I was like, 'Nah, I don't know.' Because the bar's set so high. And not only that, I seen what he went through, as we were just talkin' about.

R: Frustration! Heheheheh.

M: Yeah. I didn't wanna deal with all that. But musically, I think I had something in myself to prove too, and I wanted to really buckle down. So after I dismissed that, when I got to this point, I was gonna listen to a couple o' albums, you know, just get a little inspiration. So I put in 36 Chambers, and as soon as I put it on, I zoned out on the music, and I started hearing all types o' things, so I just really started studying it. Then I went to 2001 - those are my two favourite producers: Rza and Dre. I was just listening to his sonics - there's space in the music; there's certain things Dre did. And I really studied that album. So after I listened to that, I had a few more CDs but I said, 'Nah, I'm good. I got all the food I need right there.' And I took what I learned from each CD, because I knew there was no way in the world I could replicate either one of them - they are what they are, so I have to become what I am. So I just took what I learned from both of those and applied it to what I was already doing.

R: If you listen to this album, The Saga Continues, it's his own creation, production; he's doing what he feels. But you can hear the clarity, now, that Dre partly put into his music, but you still hear the grime that you would've gotten with a Rza production. So he actually found a great balance.

You [Mathematics] work with Method Man live, and to me, he's the making of the vocal side of this album. It seems to be based around his verses, and his verses here are among his best that he's ever done. In fact, I'd say that about his contributions on the last couple of group albums too: they're probably better than anything he's done solo - certainly in the way that he writes. Was this record based around his verses, or is it just the fact that he's used to working with you, and you and he share that sort of mind-space, that he just gels well with your beats?

M: Yeah, I think that that's what it is. I was on the road with him most of the time, and we were on the road a lot - so he was hearing everything I was doing at the time. And he was attracted to it, and he was hittin' the joints first.

R: Look: if I was ever to say this out loud, Meth is the lead singer of Wu-Tang Clan. If we had to have a lead singer, he's the lead singer.

He's always been the rock star in the band, hasn't he? But he hasn't always necessarily been the one the fans would gravitate to and say he's the...

R: ...the best emcee. I know what you mean. He's a lead singer. And on this album, he put his dedication into his lyrics, I think, harder than most of us, right? And he also laid down his lyrics first. When Math brought the original first five, six-song skeleton, there was a lot of Meth on it. In fact, at one point, it could've been a Method Man album, if everybody else would've just stayed away! Heheheh. But the music attracted everybody, and you hear Meth do his thing, and, 'Yo, you all gotta give me somethin'! Let me do my shit. Right there! I'm comin' with mines!' You know? That's how Wu is. And that's why you get this kind of energy.

And the cool thing about this album: it was motivated by the music. It wasn't motivated by time, budget, or creative direction. If you think about A Better Tomorrow, that was made because I was inspired to tell the world we have to make a better tomorrow. It was my personal feeling. I went to my crew, and was like, 'This is what I wanna do,' and they kinda unwittingly obliged me. And not being totally engaged...

M: They didn't buy in.

R: Yeah. It wasn't until, I think, after [Jay-Z's] 4:44 came out that a couple of the brothers came to me and was like, 'OK, I see what you was doin'. You wanted us to be grown.' And I did want us to be grown, because I think the world looks at Wu-Tang in a certain eyesight: not just in music. They've followed us; they've been with us. I tried to tell some of the guys to write about their children so that our fans, who are now taking their kids to the movies - and are not showin' up at our clubs any more, heheheh - they could have a chance to understand the experience of fatherhood through the men who may have gotten them to that level.

I've come across fans who didn't know how to talk to women until they heard some Wu shit; who didn't know about movies or books or certain things until the Wu turned them on to it. So I thought it was important, with A Better Tomorrow, for us to promote this idea that, you know, today is today, but let's have a better tomorrow, for the whole planet. And that was my thing: but this album had nothing to do with nothing. This album was a music-produced album by Mathematics, who's on the objective to actually move his name up the charts as a producer. It's like, his sword is out, coming for producers' heads - even mine, potentially. He's like, 'Yo! Look what I can do!' And then rappers are hearing it, like, 'Oh, shit! Lemme get on that! Lemme show what I can do.' So it became more similar to the vintage way Wu was created, which was beats and rhymes.

There's one aspect I was a little bit surprised about with the lyrics, and while I know you don't want to talk about the Azealia Banks stuff, we do have to touch on the issue of women and abuse. Often I feel like, when I hear people talking about women on Wu-Tang records, it's not usually caricatures or stereotypes. But on this record we hear of women who are devious our are out to trick you; or they're sex objects.

M: No, I disagree with you. That's why you got a skit like 'Family (Skit)'. We touch on everything. Even 'My Only One': listen to Ghost's verse. Ghost is talking about takin' off for a beautiful night with his woman.

R: And Cappadonna too - he says: 'Queen of the seven seas'. You know? He says: 'Let me beat that until you say, "Cap"'. Like, he wanna have hot sex! But he says, 'You're not a hood rat/you're from a good batch.' He says: 'Your intellect is like Michelle Barack'. He's complimenting her. In mines, I say she recorded me and put it on the iCloud, and TMZ could report it, and everything. So I went to that world, but I ended off with, 'But this is past fascination; it's past infatuation. It's like she was my soul aspiration.'

OK. I hadn't really got that from that verse. I thought you were saying that she'd recorded it and given it to TMZ. But you're using it in the sense of the iCloud being hacked, and TMZ getting hold of it that way - not because she gave it to them?

R: Yeah, I'm sayin' it's been hacked. She's put it on iCloud - and I let her do it. When you're in love with somebody, you know...

Well, my apologies in that case, because I'd misinterpreted. But it's an interesting wider point. You've had years in Hollywood, and we're seeing what's going on in that industry now. Over the years, you look at a lot of rappers who talk the way they do about women, and you wonder, 'Well, there's probably loads of stories going to come out from the hip hop world now.'

R: Well, I don't know. We'll see, right? Let me just say what I think, 'cos I'd use my own self as an example. I'm no angel, of course - you know, I've had years of promiscuity, and I've had years of just being a good man to my woman. I have two wives in my life, right? But, the glitch in the matrix is this, to me: Most of us in hip hop - most of us; and this is for my generation - don't have a problem with attracting women. In fact, we have to push women away sometimes. When you read the Hollywood story, it seems as if some of these guys didn't have money and power, they wouldn't have no woman. When I made my first song, 'Oh We Love You Rakeem'? I was nobody before I made that song, but I was talkin' about the girls that loved me.

So, I think that the impotence that some men have, in their nerd phase, when they get economics and power, they take advantage in their power stage. Artists have this different kind of exuberance. Like, Mick Jagger, yo - how many girls wanted Mick Jagger, right? They wanted him. He didn't have to ask for them. I remember DMX and them - girls used to line up out the doors. ODB. Pretty girls knockin' on my door. Like, 'Yo,' close the door sometimes. There's a difference. And if a man doesn't have that natural attraction - some men has it because of their intellect; I think every man has it, personally - but the men who don't understand how to use it naturally, they turn to other means, which is money, power, control - because they get to offer you somethin' for somethin. When we're young, I think men are all foolish. I think we've all done foolish things in our youth, because of our lack of experience, our lack of understanding. I don't know if you have any children?

I don't.

R: I do. I have a daughter. Man, I would hate for her to meet a guy like me in his 20s. HAHAHAHAHA! But to meet a guy like me now? A great man she would meet. But I disagree with the way Hollywood have done that. They're my peers, so I'm not happy to hear about it and see about it - it's disgusting, in all reality.

It's surprising to me, in a sense, because men, amongst each other, when we're amongst each other, I don't think that we show that personality. You understand what I mean? I was just reading the James Toback [stories] today. I seen him a few times, had a few drinks with him; he didn't... Like, I wouldn't think he was the type of guy who would go up to a girl and hump on her leg. You don't show that to men - we don't show that to each other. But I guess some of these men, if these stories are true - you know, I guess time will reveal if they're true - I guess it's a lack of something that makes you turn to your power to do it. I don't recall myself doin' that. Even as a big celebrity, I can't... I've been drunk, and...

M: If I can't get it, I can't get it.

R: Yeah. I'm a director, bro. I'm a director, OK? I gotta get people to be in my movie. Yo: I just tell 'em what the movie is. One of my favourite actresses that was in my movie - and she's a beautiful woman, and I will admit that's she's a beautiful woman, and of course I had a crush on her: Lucy Liu. I had a crush on Lucy Liu. Any one of us who's seen Charlie's Angels had a crush on Lucy Liu. I'm a fan of her work. I had a chance to work with her on Kill Bill. I just think she's a beautiful woman - I don't think that there's a relationship gonna happen between us - I just think she's beautiful, and I have a crush on her. Like any other man should, right? But I need her to be in my movie. I don't be like, 'Oh, hey...' I say: 'I got a great character that I think your strength could be.' And we talked about it and we talked about it - and she wasn't sure, because the character wasn't strong enough for her. So I had to send her a scene from another movie that I thought would emulate what she would do. And the scene I sent to her was actually a male character. And I said, 'I want you to be this character in my movie.' And she was able to see that was the kind of strength of a character that she would like to portray. That's how you're supposed to be able to tell your actors and actresses to join your movie - because movies, you need people. You need talent. Let's do one more question, I feel I kinda laid on that for a long time.

I did want to ask a bit about Once Upon A Time In Shaolin as well. It's been up for sale on eBay and it hasn't got sold, or it has got sold but...

R: Nobody knows with the Ebay thing.

But then the other thing that's been around is this story that says it was never a Wu-Tang album to start with, and you've used...

R: I don't know where that story came from. That story... I really was disappointed with the journalism on that story. I love Bloomberg. I love the company. You know. They're in New York. I just thought, like, why wouldn't you... just...

Did they not call you?

R: No, they didn't call me. There was an email in my email thread, from somebody. And I don't answer my emails that quick. But if you really wanted it, you could've got to me, you know what I mean? But of course it's a Wu-Tang album. Every Wu-Tang member's on it - let's start with that, alright? If that's what makes it a Wu-Tang Clan album, then every Wu-Tang member is on it, OK? And more. Almost a whole Wu-Tang empire. Imagine that: imagine how hard it is to get the Wu-Tang empire. Imagine how many rappers and people that is on there. I mean, all the way down to Blue Raspberry. Even her voice is on that album.

There's never been a album like this before. The only way to compare it is to compare it to Wu-Tang Forever. That's the only way to measure those two albums. And Cilvaringz? You know, a student of mine, who took the time to study the craft. What he did different from Mathematics is, Mathematics was able to master the [Ensoniq] ASR [sampling keyboard], and actually for this album he took all of the music that he created and ran it back through the ASR. So that's one of the technical things he did that... A genius idea. If I woulda fuckin' did it before Better Tomorrow we'd've had a different album. I didn't know!

What Cilvaringz did, he actually studied the idea of the mistakes. He came to London when I was workin' on [2005 thriller] Derailed and I had a flat at the Met, and he fuckin' stayed there every day, and went and deciphered my beats. That's what the fuck he did! He was deciphering the beats, and realising that there's a reason why things are off-beat, and there's a reason why things are at a certain volume level. And when he figured that out, he started emulating the beats.

So I'll say this last thing about it. During the MOMA exhibit, when we played 12 minutes of that record to the audience, so they'd realise how real it was, everybody wrote that, 'Wow, it sounds great'. But of course it sound great, because he got some of the original samples and original things from the original Wu sound - and was able to play with it. And more. There's much more stuff than that. So for somebody to discredit it now...? Did everybody know what they was doin'? No.

So the quotes that Bloomberg did get, from guys like Meth's manager...

R: I don't trust no managers. Forget the managers. No, seriously! Who you gonna ask - some fuckin' manager? He asked U-God's manager, who's disgruntled right now - there's a lawsuit. What positivity could he say? But you think about the rapper, Killa Sin, and Shyheim - of course they didn't know what they was doin'. But: did everybody get compensated? Yes. And that's the point of it that pissed me off, because they know: it cost a lot of money to make that album. Everybody got paid.

What we did for that album was, we made a goal to say that music has been devalued, and we need to re-evaluate that, and re-prove our theory. Because for something that you can't have, you want now; but when you want it, you won't dare to give us 99 cents for it. And I'll say this too: the most beautifullest thing about Once Upon A Time In Shaolin is that it now has a life of its own, like the Mona Lisa. It has its own life.

What's your hope for it at this stage?

R: One of my hopes is for it to tour the world in museums. Set it up, set the headphones up, go to the museum, and have people come in and listen. You know? Enjoy the two hours, like any other art exhibit. Enjoy it, and walk away. That was my true... That's what I told Martin [Shkreli]. That's, like, the goal of this thing. And at the end of the day, if it could end up in my hands at the end of the day... 'Cos I have a place for it in my house! I'll say that! But if not, we thought we'd put it in Morocco, up near a temple, at the end of the day, as its final destination. Because it's really something that we really feel spiritually important about.

Wu Tang : The Saga Continues is Out now on 36 Chambers ALC/ EOne