OGS will agree: 2017’s best pure hip-hop re­lease was a (sort of) al­bum by the almighty W

Sharp - - ON THE RECORD - By Alex Nino Ghe­ciu

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-ofa-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 hiphop 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 2017. 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.”

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