Wu-Tang Clan's presence in the music and hip hop world since their debut single Protect Ya Neck in 1993 has been undeniably profuse. The group has become resonant in culture. If you haven't seen the Wu-Tang logo on countless clothing, side-streets, graf murals and bathroom stalls; you're either lying or not looking hard enough. Among others, their influence on hip hop culture and years of presence in this industry is immense.
We had the privilege of speaking to Mathematics; an indispensable affiliate of Wu-Tang, designer of the Wu-Tang logo and the producer of their newest album, The Saga Continues. The album breathes ‘80s and ‘90s reminiscence with an assorted balance of patient skits and beats that elevates Mathematics’ originality. If you haven't listened to the album that RZA himself named a masterpiece, read below and then check your priorities by listening to this sublime, seamless piece of work.
We chat to Mathematics about the artistic process behind The Saga Continues, the changes in technology as a producer, and the evolution of hip hop over the years. Elizabeth Linsdell writes.
So I’ll just jump straight into it. We’re here to talk about The Saga Continues, so first I just want to say congratulations. It’s an awesome album and I absolutely loved it. How do you feel about it?
Well, thank you. I appreciate it. I feel great. You work hard on a project and you hope that people love it (laughs). So, I feel really good about it.
Can you tell us about the process behind putting the record together? Was it talked about for quite a while in regards to you producing the entire album?
It basically started from the making of the last album, A Better Tomorrow, and he [RZA] basically said I think you should do the next Wu-Tang Clan album. At the time I thought “ahh... I don’t know…” It was a little overwhelming and I just wasn’t too sure about it at the time, but I guess he saw something in me that I didn’t see myself. Shortly after that, I really buckled down and really got into my music, and that’s where it started. I got music together for the project, and when I started getting it together, I cut myself off from all music. I just listened to two albums, which were Enter The 36 Chambers and The Chronic 2001. I listened to those two on repeat and really got to working. I tried to create something that was timeless and really pushed to put together some great music and ignore reality. Once I had the music together, I started bringing it around to the brothers and that was the start of it.
100%. I think you really gathered the essence of that original Wu-Tang sound. It’s very consistent and it’s evident that you’ve made an entire album rather than hitting a whole lot of singles.
Yeah, definitely. I come from the era of albums. I want to hear albums (laughs).
How do you think that the dynamic has changed over the years? Since being a part of such a massive movement in the 90s, what’s changed over the past 25 years?
The only thing I think that’s really changed, is that everybody’s been growing since then and coming into their own. I think when it comes to music, we have the perfect connection. When the emcee hears that beat, I think it’s the same feeling that we always had. It feels good in that capacity. The fact that I’m still working with my brothers still to this day just says it all. I wasn’t really looking at it like that when I was working. I was just in the zone and got caught up in the moment (laughs). Now I can look back and go “yeah, that was dope.”
You also designed the Wu-Tang logo. When you put that design together, did you think that it would become such an iconic image?
No! I sure didn’t (laughs).
Who did the cover for The Saga Continues album?
I got Gano. He’s another graffiti artist who basically did a lot of graffiti art in videos like “Why Can’t It Be So Simple.” Then he got this other brother, Serve and another brother by the name of Griff.
In regards to the production of the album, did you work quite closely with RZA? How much did he have to play in the production?
Nah (laughs). RZA played his part as far as an artist. He came into the studio as an artist, he didn’t try to step on my toes. He’d give suggestions from the standpoint of an artist and other than that, it was all me. He definitely trusted me throughout whole thing from beginning to end. I went to see him at the end, though. It was essentially finished, but there were a few things that I just wasn’t sure about. He gave me a few notes, which was a little pound around the nose, but I took it and I applied it, and it really helped open up the album.
When you started out in the Golden Era of hip hop, who did you look up to as producers at the time?
If I had a Mount Rushmore of producers, it’d be RZA, Dr. Dre, and Marley Marl. Who else is dope? Teddy Riley, Larry Smith, Jazzy Jay. There were a lot of influences.
How do you find the progress as a producer in regards to using new technology? Did you use a lot of technology on The Saga Continues and how was that for you?
I actually do use new technology. I use a lot of different sound modules to help me get the sounds that I want. I use Pro Tools and I use a lot of instruments. What I did for this album is I went back to my original sampler. The first sampler I ever used was the ASR-10. I used it a bit differently and instead of using it as a sampler, I just played into it to try to get that frequency with the ASR and then bring it back out. So, I kind of meshed both worlds.
What was the reason behind not using many samples throughout the album? Was it in regards to sample clearance?
As a producer, you want to try and take it to the next level. I’ve always been a fan of the soul. There are certain things that I wish I could have played back in the day, but now as you progress, you don’t think on the same level. So now, you start playing and putting into your repertoire. It’s just a part of growth and development. You want to try to create sounds and songs that sound like their samples. It becomes more of a project, but at the same time you feel better. I felt great after creating it, you know, it was my work and I did that (laughs)! It’s not the same as using a sample and chopping and changing it.
Do you think that hip hop has evolved in a negative or a positive way? There are now so many sub-genres of hip hop that are going in so many different directions. What’s your opinion of hip hop in today’s age?
It’s like all music. You got good and you got bad (laughs). Before maybe 10 years ago, it was still heavy radio-dependency. Now with the Internet and technology, it’s more open and easier to find new music. Hip hop is now so big. People can find what they want when they want it. There’s a lot going on. You can find some good things, you can find some bad things. I always think there should be a balance. I think the only difference is that artists back in the ‘80s or ‘90s, kept the balance between themselves. If you have a group like N.W.A., who was doing all the gangster rap, but still telling you what was going on. They wanted better, they wanted a change, whether it was “Express Yourself” or “Fuck Tha Police.” Then you got Slick Rick who did songs like “Treat Her Like a Prostitute,” but then he’d have a song like “Hey Young World.” So, we kept the balance between ourselves.
We’ve seen Kendrick Lamar with To Pimp A Butterfly and the growth of Anderson .Paak utilising strong elements of Jazz and Soul. What are your thoughts about the resurgence of those genres?
Yeah, of course. It’s always really been there, you just have to find it. You’ve got Kendrick, you’ve got the A$AP Mob, J. Cole, Vince Staples. There are a lot of dope emcees that can really rhyme. There’s a lot of talent out there and it’s good to hear it. Even when Jay-Z came out with "4:44", I thought that was beautiful. It was a hip hop album that stayed true to itself.
Absolutely. Now just to wrap it up, having been in the game for so long, what do you anticipate for the future?
I’m just looking for good hip hop. I think hip hop still has a very bright future.