Wu Lawsuits, Trump and That Eminem Freestyle: A Sit-Down With RZA and Mathematics
Fans were somewhat surprised to hear a new Wu-Tang Clan album.
The Saga Continues is out now and the project has given surprised Wu fans new music to counter some of the drama that has surrounded the revered collective for the last several years. Wu-Tang Clan has been in a constant state of flux due to ongoing internal turbulence: Raekwon's criticisms of 2014s A Better Tomorrow; the confusing concept and rollout of Once Upon A Time in Shaolin in 2015, founding member U-God filing a lawsuit against the group at the end of 2016 over unpaid royalties.
It all seemed to indicate the Clan was in a state of perpetual limbo, but in August 2017, the track "People Say" was released—with no preceding promo—as the first single from an upcoming album. But was it a new Wu album? Was it a compilation?
Stereo Williams sat down with RZA and DJ Mathematics to talk about The Saga Continues, the state of the Wu-Tang Clan, Eminem's anti-Trump freestyle and RZA's experiences with Azealia Banks.
SW: This project was a surprise—what was the spark for this after all of the discord within the group?
RZA: Allah Mathematics had came to me with songs he was collecting—just making music—and it sounded like the vintage Wu sound that I was famous for, in all reality. And I think I may have forgotten about that essence—because of my growth and my [evolution.] When I heard it, it gave me that spine tingle. That shit where ya face start squinchin' up! I was like "This sounds like Wu."
Mathematics: The inspiration was just like music and just trying to put something out there. When I first started, where I came from, as far as Wu-Tang—I was a DJ and then I started producing. When I started producing, The Abbott [RZA] was already doing his thing. He brought me into production because it was me witnessing one of his sessions—he was doing [Raekwon's 1995 single] "Ice Cream." We had other producers in-house already: 4th Disciple, Tru Master. And Inspektah Deck is a dope producer, too. When I first started, just trying to make the cut was hard enough.
I was able to carve my way in and bring some dope joints. But I never stopped producing and I always felt like I still had something to prove musically to myself as producer. I like to keep learning and keep advancing. The way music is today, we came from the era of that grittiness, that hardcore—that’s something that’s just within me. I wanted to release it out but I wanted it to be in a form that could be appreciated today. I wanted to bring the grittiness but sonically making it a [modern] type of sound.
RZA: Not doing trap, but the clarity and weight of it. If you throw it in the mix behind a trap song, and it’s just as heavy—if not heavier.
RZA's sound is well-established—Math, how hard is it to tap into that vintage sound while still pursuing your own creativity?
Mathematics: That’s what’s in me. As far as Wu-Tang—it’s embedded in me. It’s that raw hip-hop that I was raised on, that I grew up on. That I live and still live to this day. Getting it out was the big thing. I wanted my brothers to be excited for it, too. I was able to do that.
RZA: One of my specialties is actually shaping something. Like you have a sculpture and I could fine tune it from my experience. We went to the Wu-Mansion; this is the home where we recorded Wu-Tang Forever and The Swarm and a lot of classic albums. We put the music in there and I got my legal notepad—didn’t use my phone—and I wrote my notes. It wasn’t a lot of notes but just what I’d see that could make this better. He took that, came back five months later. We did that one more time and got to the point where it was like “OK, this is it right here." Once we got to that point, it was like let’s share it with the world.
A normal executive producer never comes into the studio, but this was kinda like how Master P was an executive producer. I played it that way. And when it came time to do my part as an emcee, I totally submitted to what Math said. I allowed myself to be produced. Which you have to do, I think it all comes out good.
You're established as the leader in the studio and it's sometimes led to friction.
RZA: I’m a Captain Kirk type of dude—and I even get a little Vladimir. [laughs] But at the same time, I’ll get Barack [Obama] on you. I respect that. This album is important because it’s a step into a direction that I’ve submitted to. We wanted to do a Wu-Tang Clan final product for our 25th anniversary, which will be next November. And even for that, I’ve talked to Ghostface to be the leader of that. I’m comfortable knowing the evolution of myself and the evolution of my team.
I’m [Mathematic's] big brother. And for me, it’s good to see the evolution. I can say "Wow, he’s got it." He’s got that spark of energy that motivates the rest of us. You always gotta be conscious of that. What player on the team got the hot rock? When it comes to production right now, he’s got the hot rock. Which one on my team has been most consistent with their musical output? Ghost has been. So I’m wise enough to be like "Tony, you take that helm." Because I can’t deny that I’ve been putting a lot of creative energy into filmmaking and scoring and I spend a lot of time in Hollywood. Probably 75% of my time over the last five years has been out of New York. But these brothers have been in the grot. Let them express it. And let me relinquish that energy and become a servant to their cause. I’m capable of doing that and that’s what you see me doing.
The difficulties kind of came to a head last year with U-God's lawsuit. He's not on The Saga Continues—do you see any kind of resolution any time soon?
RZA: It’ll work out. When you get lawyers involved—we’re from the street, you ain’t supposed to talk to cops and you ain’t supposed to talk to lawyers, right? But in business, that’s part of business. I’ve been attacked by so many—I got attacked by a lady who tripped over a wire behind a police line at Park Hill Day 2007. She was drunk and I wasn’t there and they sued me. Because they knew I used to live there. When you become a certain individual, you got economics, you become the hamburger in the room. I’ve’ faced that over a dozen times in my career. I’ve seen my peers face it all the time. So it’s part of business. But I know that me and U-God, personally—we love each other. And I know that the business part will be worked out and justice will show it’s face.
A lot of older hip-hop artists, especially emcees out of New York, have been critical of what they call "mumble rap" or trap music, in general. You've shot down that kind of talk in the past.
RZA: When we came with what we came with, everybody was like "What the hell..?" but it was time for us, just like now it’s time for them. The opportunity for people to hear music is bigger than ever. Before it was limited to your cd player or your radio station, it wasn’t accessible. Now it’s at the drop of your fingertips. That means that there’s actually a big enough space for everybody. You go to a radio station like Sirius and you got a Frank Sinatra station. A blues station. If you catch me in the morning between 10am and noon, I put it on spa. I think we should let these young brothers enjoy their time under the sun. They should also respect our time under the sun because our service and our sacrifice allowed them have their time. Just like Quincy Jones and Isaac Hayes and David Porter and all the greats like James Brown paved the way for us. I think hip-hop is leading to that.
Mathematics: You gotta let them do what they do.
RZA: I think within the next year or two, you’ll see it merging more between the generations. Some of our top artists like Kendrick [Lamar] and J. Cole, they’re now crossing the threshold into 30. Drake has crossed the threshold. And then you got Joey Bada$$ bringing the charge behind and Logic and Kodak Black and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie coming behind. Then you see Vic Mensa. Then you see Gucci Mane, who’s on the cusp of balancing both worlds. I feel so optimistic about hip-hop. I saw Waka Flocka last night do his thing, and I’m in the room and I felt it. I moved how he moved. I probably got him by, like, 15 or 20 years—but I felt it. It’s music. It’s hip-hop.
RZA worked with Azealia Banks on the upcoming romance film Love Beats Rhymes. It's a movie you directed, and the two of you then had a semi-falling out over social media afterwards. But as far as actually working with her—
RZA: She is gifted. I didn’t know her because I’d been in L.A. So I wasn’t up on the New York scene like [Banks' 2011 single] "212." I saw her video [interview] with Ebro and Rosenberg and when I was casting, my producer brought the video to me. He was like "Check out this girl." I was like "Wow, she actually is Coco." We had casting calls and a lot of beautiful sisters came in and all did great jobs, but for some weird reason, Azealia was Coco in my mind. I didn’t know nothing about her history or past because she came to set as a professional. She did her job professionally. I think she has a great career in acting, this girl. If she would just immerse herself in her art—the sky’s the limit.
It’s hard when you’ve got 50 people pointing a camera at you and you gotta get up at 6am and put on the clothes they want you to put on and you gotta come here and say what’s written. That’s not an easy job, bro. And she delivered every day. She would switch emotions—which I was really impressed with. On that set, we definitely had a director/lead actress relationship. In the whole 30 days, we might have had one clash. That clash was a political clash and it ended in 20 minutes.
Last week, everybody had an opinion on Eminem's Trump freestyle at the BET Hip-Hop Awards. Some people raved about it and other people said it was overhyped--what was your take?
DJ Mathematics: I thought he had a platform and he used it. He had something to say and he said it. Hip-hop was founded on expression and he expressed himself. He was genuine about it and he took the whole time to address it. It was really something weighing on him that he really wanted to get out there. I dug it.
RZA: I dug it as well. When you write a lyric, you write, erase, scratch and go back and keep it going. He wrote it, got it to where it was, memorized it and then performed it. That means he was committed. I appreciate it because, for a white man to say it gives it a different weight. A black man says it and we’re "complaining." But a white man is like "Nah bro—this is a reflection that is hitting your children, hitting your people."
I got respect for the President of the United States because I’m a patriot to my country. I travel around the world and my passport says "American." If I’m in a country and they say "Americans is getting beat up," they’re gonna beat me up, too. So I respect my President. But he’s doing things that’s making us feel unrepresented. We could feel that through every presidency. My hood didn’t change that much, bro. You go to Brownsville—we still lost 90 bodies last year. You go to Chicago—we still losing 150 kids every summer. That didn’t change from Clinton to Carter to Barack to whoever was there. When it starts leaking over…now this lack of humanity is being recognized by their community. And Eminem became a voice for that. And I’m glad Em did that. I gained another level of respect for Em. He put his balls on the table.
You can stream The Saga Continues here.
Watch Wu-Tang Clan's Video for "People Say" feat. Redman: