Thirty years ago, Wu-Tang Clan DJ and producer Mathematics laid on the floor drinking a 40oz of Ole English and smoking a blunt, sketching what would become rap’s most iconic logo. The Wu-Tang Clan’s golden “W” is one of the most recognizable symbols in music. Like the Rolling Stones’ Tongue and Lips, or Iron Maiden’s Eddy the Mummy; the “W” is a pop culture phenomenon but history is often overlooked.
Before the Wu, Mathematics was a graffiti artist in Southside Jamaica, Queens. “I started doing graffiti probably like when I was in like junior high school, early 80s. When I got down with the crew like in ‘82/‘83, that’s the first graffiti crew I was really cool I got down with,” Math recalls. One night after working carpentry in the city, Math would get the call from the RZA (after previously working on his stickers on Tommy Boy records) to work on the group logo. RZA needed the logo finished by the morning. “Got me a Philly blunt, rolled it up, smoked the blunt, I was on the floor while I was still drinking the 40, smoking a blunt but I’m drawing and yeah, that’s just what happened. That’s just what came out.”
I had the chance to catch up with Mathematics, born Ronald Maurice Bean, going back in time thirty years ago. We spoke on the early days of graffiti culture, meeting GZA and RZA, designing the legendary logo, and the new season for Wu-Tang: An American Saga, where his character is introduced.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
Before producing, you were a graffiti artist?
Yeah I did graffiti. I did all elements of hip hop from breakdancing, graffiti, DJing and then of course production.
You pretty much you embody everything that that hip hop was.
Oh definitely. I mean when I was young, hip hop was new, it was fresh. It was the calling. Nowadays there’s a calling because I guess it’s fashionable and people see the money that you can make from it and you know when I first started doing it, we wasn’t really making money from it. It was all love and you know we were attracted to it. We did it we loved it.
How long were you a graffiti artist for?
I started doing graffiti probably like when I was in like junior high school, you know probably like early 80s. When I got down with the crew like in ‘82/‘83, that’s the first graffiti crew I was really cool I got down with. It was out of Southside Jamaica.
I could draw, my older brothers can draw, you know my mom could draw. It all started from drawing and then you start seeing the graffiti all over the place. Going to school, you see all on the train like you see pieces all over the handball courts and you will sit there and you will start drawing and making all graffiti pieces and doing your own graffiti art. What’s beautiful about graffiti especially back then is that it was your expression so you know nothing was wrong as long as people could look at it and be like, ‘yo, that’s fresh’. You could create as abstract as you wanted or as simple as you wanted.
I feel like graffiti culture hasn’t changed much since then because you’ll still get beat up for tagging over someone else’s piece.
Well that’s how it was back then. It’s like even going into the yards and whatnot, if there’s another crew that was out there, you know, it probably would be a fight. Or somebody tagged over your shit. You got to respect other people’s pieces. And, but a lot of times you got tagged over, it was somebody’s toy, you know, if there’s some bullshit tag over there then get the f*ck out of here. If you see beach Street, you know, they couldn’t do pieces, they was jealous, and they would go around and f*ck up your shit.
What’s beautiful about graffiti especially back then is that it was your expression so you know nothing was wrong as long as people could look at it and be like, ‘yo, that’s fresh’. You could create as abstract as you wanted or as simple as you wanted.
Do you still do any type of graffiti or art?
Just really got back into it recently with the TV show you know, they actually recreate a few pieces and do a few different drawings. This is the first time I actually drew in years but you know it came, the love is still there so I actually enjoyed it. And they’ll give me a couple more black books and some more markers and you know, found myself drawing in between time. Nowadays especially with the NFTs that’s going on out there it’s like the art world is big, and with our music, this is a perfect match. Hip-Hop and graffiti is synonymous, they go together.
It absolutely is. How did you feel to finally pick up your art again?
It was cool because it’s I went back to my old black book and I’m seeing my old sketches and old drawings and of course, you get that nostalgic feeling and that’s what made me really enjoy drawing again. I think it was a blessing and you know, in many different ways love because it’s, it’s part of my history, and it helps tell my story as far as Wu-Tang goes. Because I really did enjoy drawing. Nowadays I’m on to production, DJing and traveling but like you know, with COVID, it’s a little complicated. You got to get a love for the things that you do again. It seemed like everything we did that was a hobby pertaining to hip hop, you can actually live off of nowadays. You could make a career out of it. When we was first doing it, you couldn’t make a career out of it. You see a graffiti artist — like how do you make money doing graffiti? But now every day when you look at TV, you look at commercials or you look at businesses, you see they do graffiti letters and graffiti artists which is big.
That’s what’s really special about all this because a lot of kids nowadays don’t understand how big authenticity was back then. All that authenticity in the music was a big major factor, you know?
It’s not there no more, you’re right about that. You know, I’m not going to say it’s not because you still have artists that do things from their heart, that really kind of embody their life and put it out there, but it’s hard. You know, nowadays, you got so many people that do things for clout. I seen this morning, DMC, he was talking, he made some real good points about when he first came on, and he did “Sucka MCs,” and he’s like, “I’m DMC in the place to be, I went to St. John’s University, and since kindergarten I acquired the knowledge and after 12th grade, I went straight to college.” It’s like he was all that positive stuff. Why? Because he was trying to escape what was going on in the street and I think a lot of us back then, that’s what we were trying to do. Escape from the streets, it was an escape as well as the hobby. It’s like you know it wasn’t about who’s trying to be the toughest or the baddest, it’s like all that was dead. We lived through all that and you had to have thick skin and you had to be who he was. Cats would come in and they’ll take your equipment so you had to be ready for that, you had to be prepared. Nowadays I think it’s not authentic and you you don’t know what’s real and what’s not. There’s nothing wrong with having a good life and some people feel that there’s something wrong with that and so they got to create like a whole aura of whether they push drugs or do gun toting, to be gangster. We looked up to people like Chuck D of Public Enemy, Rakim, that were dropping jewels and were giving us some information. You always had a form of rap about the streets, Kool G Rap, or PSK (Schoolly D). PSK came from Philly, some people consider him to be the first gangster rapper but he was just talking about things that were going on in his life, and he wasn’t like “I’ll shoot you” or “I’ll kill you” this and that, he was talking about shit that was going on. Kool G Rap had a song called Rikers Island, about how you really didn’t want to be in rikers island.
Right. When did you first connect with the Wu?
Well, I connected with Wu Tang because I know RZA since the mid 80s. I knew RZA at like 15 years old, connected with GZA later, his family used to live around my way. And I started off DJing for GZA. Like I was on when he was on that Cold Chillin tour. That was the first tour that I ever went on, the first national tour that I ever went on. That was with the GZA. And they knew I drew, I got the call to do the logo. I did that but yeah, it is everything which is authentic, genuine and things just happen naturally. Nothing was forced. It just happened. It was his everyday life that just came together.
So how would you pivot from, from art to producing?
Well, I went from doing art to DJing because I went to school for art actually. I went to Thomas Edison technical vocational high school in Queens and I majored in art and commercial art. But I started DJing around late 86 and 87. There were tournaments out there. I was out there DJing so I really went from graffiti artist to DJ and then from DJing, I went to production, but my production… I could have started producing earlier but I didn’t really know what production really really was to be honest. Then the Cold Chillin’ thing didn’t work with GZA, I ended up getting a sampler. I went back to work and I was doing carpentry work with my pops. I got a sample and a drum machine and you know I was just sampling stuff. Looping stuff, doing drums I played beats on top and me and GZA just did a couple joints. He was looking for another deal at that time, and then RZA came and as like ‘we’re going to do this Wu Tang thing’. RZA was already producing and he was nice.
I’d go and check RZA out at his crib and he started playing some shit. I would stick to DJing because his production blew me away. I didn’t start producing until like years later, I started producing when I saw RZA produce, “Ice Cream”. When I seen him make ”Ice Cream,” that’s when I started. That’s what made me want to produce because I already knew he was moving in a crazy way. But when saw him make it from beginning to end and him in the transition, I had to. Then he started breaking equipment down to me and I want to cop an ASR. This is like in 95. So when I got my ASR 10, I had lost the manual for it, because we went and did a show. We flew on a plane, and I was reading it on a plane but then I took the manual and I put it in the backseat of a chair. And I forgot it when I left the plane. So I had to basically learn how we always learn, you know, we just did things anyway, we learned by doing. Of course, you know, RZA gave me some pointers to get out of ASR 10, as well Inspectah Deck. Deck is a dope producer too. Brothers don’t know, but he’s a dope producer.
You have stories for days. How did you become RZA’s protege?
I knew RZA since I was like 15 years old. We always been cool you know, we went from hanging out drinking buddies to getting into music and me being the DJ for the Clan, being around RZA as well; I mean if you got somebody like that around you that is constantly giving it off, I will be a fool not to learn and not to take it. It’s just basically everything in my career just happened naturally, nothing was forced. Being around and knowing the brothers and just growing and developing and willing to absorb. I know, I don’t know everything I know, knowledge is infinite. So it’s plenty for me to learn. It’s about growing, evolving, living your life and giving off what you have learned. So with that being said, you know, like I said, it’s been around the globe of learning, listening and taking it in. What I’m learning and executing, put me in that place, in that position.
There’s a lot of love there and that’s what makes things come alive. Tell me a bit about making the Wu logo, were there other designs before the one we know now?
Oh, yeah. I mean, it was like little sketches here and there that we talked about doing the logo. I did some sketches and, you know, brothers would look at it and be like let’s do that. So me being an artist, I did RZA’s stickers when he was with Tommy Boy. And it was the Wu Tang Clan. That sticker was a Wu Tang sticker. And he was Prince Rakeem (RZA’s previous stage name) when he asked me to draw it. So I did Wu-Tang and I drew the sword underneath in the Wu Tang. It is one of my variations of the W if you get a chance to see that approach. But when it actually came to doing the logo, that really came in one night because he hit me up and he was like, ‘Yo, I need it tomorrow. I’m getting these joints pressed tomorrow’. I was like, ‘wow, okay let me work on it’. And I just came in from work because at that time, I was working carpentry in the city. And I was given 40 projects. This is Southside Jamaica, Queens. I went to school 100 and 60th Street. I got me a Philly blunt, rolled it up, smoked the blunt, I was on the floor while I was still drinking the 40, smoking a blunt but I’m drawing and yeah, that’s just what happened. That’s just what came out. The Wu-tang Clan logo.
You’re looking at this logo, like what’s running through your mind?
So when I finished it, I knew I had to go to work the next day. And I know he wanted it the next day. So I was like, ‘dude, I like it, I think it’s cool’. I told him this is it because I can’t do anything else due to shortage of time. I said ‘I hope you like it’.
I got me a Philly blunt, rolled it up, smoked the blunt, I was on the floor while I was still drinking the 40, smoking a blunt but I’m drawing and yeah, that’s just what happened. That’s just what came out. The Wu-tang Clan logo.
Did you ever have a feeling that was going to be so iconic?
Nope. I know what my brothers had was something special. You know, Meth, Ghost, the GZA, Rae, all of these brothers are dope. I knew with the production that it was something special there. But I did not know what it is today. I didn’t see that. I had no idea, I would be lying if I said I do know. RZA is probably going to tell you like ‘nah I knew it’ because he’s seen it all. I never doubt his words because a lot of things he said came into fruition. I mean for me personally, I couldn’t see. I had no idea it would be this big what it is today.
That logo is integrated in the pop culture especially nowadays. You see that logo on shirts, stickers, everywhere you go. Has that success ever inspire you to continue like in the art realm?
Well now I’m thinking about going back. The world is different now and as an artist, now you can actually draw and you have platforms for your artwork that you didn’t necessarily have a few years ago, like especially with these NFTs. It’s another way to express yourself and to make some money, some capital from it but yeah doing the show like I said, I’d love to draw again, So yeah, I mean why not?
Some people may feel like the show was too Hollywood and not gritty enough but at the same time people feel like the history was you accurate. What’s your take on that?
Well I’m gonna say this right, I worked on the first season too as a consultant, like dealing with the music as far as on the technical side. When you see Aston Sanders as a character who plays RZA and when you see him on an ASR, I made sure he knew what he was doing so that if anybody’s watching, they go like ‘oh yeah, he really did that’. We tried to keep everything authentic to that time period. If you look at even the props, you look in the studio you see the equipment, or you’re looking at the clothes that they’re wearing, it’s like that was that time period. I mean everybody’s gonna have their own opinion on it you know, but me personally, I think everything we’ve done, we did a good job all the way around from authenticity of the equipment to the music to the acting and every detail as well as the writers. You know, I think the writers did a good job. This is TV so some things have to be dialed down while other things, you know might’ve been dialed up. But you get a real good understanding in this season of the making 36 Chambers album and you had some great directors too. We can’t forget that, I mean Mario Van Peebles directed an episode or maybe two I think.
Your character debuts this season, how do you feel about the portrayal from Curtis Cook Jr?
First of all, I like Curtis, I like him as a person which is good. I had a chance to talk with him and vibe with him you know, he’s a real good dude. And he’s a great actor, I like watching him on set and it was like I was down there watching myself. Even from certain angles, I was like, ‘wow, he got my look’. Certain mannerisms of mine tune in you know? Yeah, yeah, he did his thing, I like Curtis.
So after all the dust has settled, looking back at that iconic logo, what does it mean to you and the rest of the Wu?
Well, it served its purpose because we wanted something that when people see that, they gonna know it’s the Wu. They gonna know, we coming and that’s exactly what that W did. I mean still to this day, it’s like synonymous with us. That’s our flag and it makes us one.
Has the Clan had any plans on recording again? I know you guys got different things going on nowadays.
I just did a joint for Meth, one of those projects. Meth and Ghost, they working. I just wrapped up a project I should be dropping soon and I’m actually just in the last phase of tweaking it and I got a lot of the brothers on it. So we’ve been working, we definitely been working on some things. I think we work the best together, it’s always something special when we come together.