‘The Saga Continues’ is a return to form so we meet the hip hop heavyweight to talk protégés, the problem with new rappers and Harvey Weinstein
There’s a fighting spirit right the way through Wu-Tang Clan’s history. Anyone into hip hop trivia will know that the group’s name derives from an 80s martial arts film about two friends from rival Chinese fighting schools – Wutang and Shaolin.
Battling then came to define the group in its early stages as the nine members struggled to fit in the tiny recording studios they could afford in New York. RZA, whose role in Wu-Tang Clan is somewhat of a commander (producing tracks, overseeing and directing the creative process, devising song and album concepts), chaired battles between the MCs. The winner would then make it onto the record to spit over his revered beats. He’s now passing the beat-making mantle to his protégé Mathematics, who is responsible for the group’s unmistakable bladelike ‘W’ symbol. Mathematics has been given the unusual honour of producing the entirety of their seventh studio album The Saga Continues.
However, when I meet the two of them in a hotel room in Kensington, West London, a far cry from their Staten Island beginnings, they’re not at all combative. “What can we get you? Do you want a water?” asks RZA standing by the window in dark shades as he gestures to an empty chair. When I remark on the strangeness of hip hop royalty offering me a water he riffs off a bible quote about humility. “You have to be willing to serve,” he says earnestly.
We flip from subjects like spirituality to the importance of staying true to who you are – and I’m struck by the stark contrast in demeanour from the days when they declared: if you want beef then bring the ruckus. “Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothing to fuck with, that hasn’t changed,” laughs RZA. But in 2017 that’s taken on less antagonistic undertones. The group are laser-focused on the battle to preserve their own legacy and prove that Wu-Tang are forever rather than on public feuds with pop culture villains like Martin Shkreli. For RZA in particular, Azealia Banks (who recently announced she wanted him to drop dead over the Russell Crowe debacle), is a strictly forbidden topic. “I don’t feed into that stuff,” he explains.
As they near their 25th year, the two members share the knowledge and wisdom that has kept them at the top of the rap food chain.
ON THE SOUND AND MEANING OF THEIR NEW ALBUM THE SAGA CONTINUES
Mathematics: It has the majority of the brothers on what I feel is good music, great music. I feel I can put my chest out a little bit. Brothers already told you Wu-Tang is forever. It doesn’t stop. On this specific project, I still wanted to stay true to my roots. So I went back to my first sampler that I ever used which is the ASR-10 and used it differently and applied different techniques to it. We want to continue as long as we can physically, mentally, spiritually, but it doesn’t just end with us.
RZA: This is one of the first projects of Wu-Tang where I’m not the dominant producer, and in fact, I’ve done no physical production on this album – only did the executive. That doesn’t happen a lot over the course of our career, but the saga continues because there’s another capable person amongst the group who can do that.
ON THE DIFFICULTY OF COMPETING WITH YOURSELF WHEN YOU’RE GREAT
RZA: It’s hard to keep up with yourself when the bar is set high. But if I can say something about myself – this could be my blessing and my curse – I have a hard time doing something twice. I just don’t like it. I have a hard time doing something someone does after me. Even right now if I have a hotel room, it’s my room. I’m not letting nobody use my bathroom. (laughs) I’m serious. So when I make beats I keep trying to change what I’m doing. I constantly am like, ‘You know what, I’m not doing that no more.’ Some people will say: ‘Why don’t you just keep making C.R.E.A.M.?’ I don’t want to.
ON WHO COULD ENTER THE WU-TANG FAMILY NEXT
RZA: That’s a question for all Wu-Tang MCs to sit around like a council and say. But I love what Kendrick, J. Cole, Logic, Joey Bada$$, Lil Wayne. I like what the Migos is doing, their particular swag. The thing about these MCs – Pusha-T and Kanye and that crew – they all some dope MCs. But if I can take a moment to be egotistic to say I don’t think there is a collection of MCs that can fuck with us. Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothing to fuck with, that hasn’t changed. I’m looking for it, I’d love the day to come where I’m like holy shit, these mother fuckers are fucking me up.
ON SHKRELI AND PUBLIC FEUDS
Mathematics: Sometimes the media twists and turns. I know you’re doing your job. I got asked a question a second ago about the shot at Martin Shkreli (on ‘Lesson Learn’d’). That wasn’t a shot at Martin Shkreli but I saw a headline ‘Wu-tang Clan disses Martin Shkreli on a new song’. Or that it’s a diss song. When it comes to situations like that, don’t feed into it.
RZA: Right, right that wasn’t an intention. Don’t feed into it. Every man stands on his own two feet. Rise above. I would produce another exclusive album again but I still wouldn’t have limits on who could buy it. That’d be like bigotry, discrimination. How can I deal with discrimination? That would be counter to my personality.
“I don’t think there is a collection of MCs that can fuck with us. I’m looking for it, I’d love the day to come where I’m like holy shit, these mother fuckers are fucking me up” – RZA, Wu-Tang Clan
ON NAVIGATING BEING A SOLO ARTIST AS WELL AS BEING IN A GROUP
RZA: Sometimes there’s a blessing to (breaking away from a group), sometimes there’s a curse to it. The curse is more the corporate level which we couldn’t foresee in your youth days, there’s actually an equitable value in staying a collective. But there’s also a more expansive, exposure value by spreading out. I guess it’s similar to how sunlight spreads out over the world and it feeds everything, but a laser beam will penetrate right through the target.
We compete with each other, and by us competing with each other, we keep bringing more and more out of each other. Wu-Tang probably consists of all alphas. Some guys are not alphas, they see a guy wearing his shirt one way, they’ll wear their shirt that way.’ We’re not that guy.
ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE HIP HOP GOLDEN ERA AND NOW
RZA: The originality has seemed to disappear.
Mathematics: That’s my biggest problem with it. I guess that goes back to what Snoop was saying, but sometimes it may not even be the artist, it’s the labels. I’ve come across certain artists who I thought was just one-dimensional, but then you hear them rhyme and freestyle and you’re like, ‘Oh, you got some talent there.’ They do it just to get up there. So I blame the business of things, the industry, the way how it's set up – it won’t allow you to be you.
ON WEINSTEIN AND THE PERILS OF WANTING TO BE LIKED
RZA: As far as with Mr Weinstein, I just wish all the women well. I hope they are able to deal with life and be normal, I know it’s hard when somebody violates you. That’s not that easy to walk away from, so I just hope that doesn’t happen to them again. And for Mr Weinstein, I just hope he finds clarity in dealing with people. Deal with people, as he would like to be dealt with himself. It’s very surprising that all this stuff is happening so much, like not just one or two, you know what’s going on here?
Mathematics: I think he surpassed Cosby.
RZA: Don’t let your ambition, your hunger, your eagerness lead you down a foolish path (women in the industry). Seriously. When you’re young, sometimes you may go to the club and girls will come over to the table with the bottles, and some of those bottles are spiced yo. And then you end up in some hotel room, zoned out, worried and embarrassed. Don’t be eager to be in a crowd, your talent is your talent, what’s yours is gonna be yours, I think that’s the biggest glitch with the young mind is the desire to be accepted, the desire for the opportunity. Just work hard at your craft, the best is gonna come. The cream is gonna rise to the top, seriously.