Late one evening in 1992, Allah Mathematics got the call. RZA, de facto leader of the Wu-Tang Clan, was gearing up to drop “Protect Ya Neck,” the Staten Island rap posse’s first single, but something was missing. “He was like, ‘Yo, I’m printing up these records tomorrow and I need a logo,” remembers Math, a DJ who dabbled in graffiti at the time. “So I got me a 40-ounce of Olde English, I got me a Philly blunt, and I sat down in the projects and drew that W.”
A quarter-century later, that W is as iconic and revered as the Nike swoosh. Consider the indignation over Martin Shkreli, the pharma bro who bought Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, the one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang Clan album auctioned in 2014, for $2 million just to hoard it for himself (and later sell it on eBay). So widespread is Wu fandom that in August, a prospective juror in Shkreli’s fraud case admitted they couldn’t be objective because the CEO “disrespected the Wu-Tang Clan.”
Though fans still can’t hear Shaolin today, Wu-Tang’s latest effort, The Saga Continues, brings a significant ruckus in its stead. Crafted by Mathematics, it’s “not a Wu-Tang proper” album, as per their publicist, but a Wu-branded compilation released on 36 Chambers ALC, a new lifestyle company founded by RZA (who executive produced the record). Which might explain why U-God — who sued RZA for $2.5 million in 2016, claiming unpaid royalties — is the sole Wu-Tang MC absent from the album.
Nevertheless, Saga is the most Wu-sounding thing the collective has released in a decade. Whereas RZA’s production has veered toward the esoteric lately (as on the Wu’s alienating last album, 2014’s A Better Tomorrow), for this project Mathematics went back to the source: “I dissected [the group’s 1993 debut] 36 Chambers and Dr. Dre’s 2001 beginning to end, like never before,” he says. “And then I listened to nothing else.”
The result is a record that exists in a bong bubble, outside of current hip-hop trends. All the founding Wu principles are here: martial arts dialogue, soul samples, speaker-popping beats, criminology-heavy rhymes. No flutes or synthy trap beats within earshot.
Critics might question the value of a Wu throwback album in 2018. But they’d be wise to also ask how many old heads with corner offices would eat this thing up (and pay good money for it). “People will spend $600 on headphones, but when you put all your blood, sweat, and tears into art, they download it for free,” says Math, adding that RZA put Shaolin up for auction so it would be appraised like a painting. “And it worked! It sold for $2 million. Even on eBay now, the bids are already over $1 million! So there’s still value to our music.”
Inter-crew conflict and all, the Wu Dynasty continues to prosper — as its own genre, a business empire, and an idea bigger than the members themselves. “When I was drawing that W,” says Math, “I had no idea it would be what it would be.”
As they’ve already conquered hip-hop, Wu-Tang Clansmen have been expanding into other industries.
Since 2001’s How High, Method Man has been steadily populating his IMDb page. He just wrapped up his first season as “the pretty pimp” Rodney on HBO’s The Deuce.
This year U-God will release RAW: My Journey Into the Wu-Tang Clan, a memoir detailing the history of the crew. The chapter on RZA should be interesting.
In 2017, Ghostface Killah co-founded a cryptocurrency company (fittingly) called Cream Capital. So much for those dollar dollar bills, y’all.