Inside the Making of ‘Wu-Tang: The Saga Continues’
How engineer Josh Gannet helped Mathematics complete the latest Wu banger
A little over a month ago, devotees of the Wu-Tang Clan were on the edge of their seats, waiting to see if the extremely rare Wu-Tang Clan album Once Upon A Time in Shaolin would be leaked to the world, following Martin Shkreli’s surprise eBay auctioning of the album he paid two million dollars for. A few we earlier we had been treated to the release of “People Say,” a new soulful banger that sampled 1960s-70s D.C. trio the Diplomats’ “I’ve Got the Kind of Love.” The track featured Raekwon, Masta Killa, Inspectah Deck, Method Man. and longtime Meth collaborator Redman. With that release, three things became clear: (1) a new Wu album was coming, (2) just about every Wu member would be on it and (3) elusive Wu-Tang Clan member Mathematics would be producing the whole thing.
With the release of Wu-Tang: The Saga Continues last week, some additoinal questions had been answered about the latest developments from the always mysterious Clan, but we still had many more. Luckily, MASS APPEAL was able to get in contact with Josh Gannet, Redman’s longtime engineer who mixed all of The Saga Continues. A New Jersey native, Gannet’s career in hip hop has seen him hold many roles, from being a session musician, to eventually linking up with one of Jersey’s biggest rap legends. His journey into the culture, however, begins no differently than most rappers: high school, with some friends, in a cypher. In our interview below, Gannet discusses his career beginnings and how he came to be one of the navigators of this monumental album.
Your background includes a lot different types of music. You played guitar on a Maino track, you’ve played with Keith Richards. How did you get into working in rap?
I started as a guitar player and when I was in high school the old Sidekick two-way pager phones had come out. They had the first monophonic ringtones where you could have a beat playing for your ringtone for the first time. A lot of my friends that were into hip hop liked to spit and have a cypher. Then one day we had an idea. Someone played a beat on the Sidekick and I had my guitar in my hand and I started playing along with the loop. That pretty much just became what we did, I’d play the lead line to whatever beat they wanted to spit to and we’d go around and everybody would spit their bars. Word of that spread around and eventually I got asked to step in the studio and play guitar on some hip hop records. That was actually before I ever engineered.
So you were in hip hop first?
Well, I was in a rock band, but as far as the engineering side of it, hip hop is a big part of what brought me into the studio. I did produce my own album for my band though, in the early 2000s. And there was another punk rock band who had heard our album and they reached out to me and asked if I’d be willing to produce theirs. I never produced for anybody besides myself at that point. So, in the process of doing that album it gave me a lot more opportunity to look over the shoulder of the engineer and better understand what was happening on the other side of the glass.
That really happened around the same time as when I started getting called in to play on hip hop records. I just didn’t get pulled into the engineering side of hip hop for a couple years after that.
Usually you engineer until someone gives you a shot at producing their album, unless you start out laptops or a personal computer where you do everything yourself. What were some of the techniques you were able to apply from working with rock music to working with hip hop artists?
That’s an interesting question. I guess most of the time, when there’s someone who comes up straight digital working on their laptop, probably working with samples, they don’t have the experience of dealing with a live instrument or live sound. They can’t get that snare the way they want, and they just can’t figure out why it’s not hitting the way they want it in the mix. It can just be that maybe they have the wrong snare! Maybe they’re treating it the wrong way, maybe it should be more of a live instrument feel. Things like that are stuff you always go through when you’re recording live bands. For example, if I’m recording drums for a song, working with a band, we could be playing the song and it doesn’t feel right and we’ll swap out a snare drum—physically grab another snare and have the drummer hit that and sometimes that’ll fix the issue and it’ll sound great. That sort of thought process—knowing how to consider the sound of the instrument, and even the different uses of the room, the natural reverb of a room—all that can help you have a better base when you’re trying to accomplish a certain sound. And you just may not have that if you just stay in digital.
Was there a learning curve for you, transitioning from rock music to rap and hip hop? I know from my experiences with rock-based engineers that a lot of times they do crazy things like cut out too much bass from the music. But eventually they get accustomed to the music style and the sound. Did you have have trouble adjusting to the music?
I learned hands-on. I didn’t go to engineering school. Didn’t gain technical knowledge base from text books or teachers. I learned by being a studio rat. I spent my 10,000 hours in the studio before I even mixed a record or engineered a record, let alone the time I’ve spent since. The benefit of that is that I always just worked off of the vibe and instinct, seeing what worked for other great engineers that I know or work with along the way and was able to learn from.
Yeah, there’s a big difference between the university-trained engineers and the “I was in the studio engineers.”
Right! I was just pay attention to the way people’s heads are knocking, man. I pay attention to the way my head’s knocking. If I think I’m making the correct body movements that are supposed to go with this song, then I’m probably on the right path. But you know, if everybody’s sitting in the room stiff, and this is supposed to be rocking, then there’s something wrong.
How did you get connected with Redman?
Man, me and Red started working together several years ago. I was mixing records for a hip hop group out of Jersey called 78 West, and I linked up with them through a great artist named Nick Javas signed to DJ Premier. They were just looking for a guy to mix all of their records. They were putting together this project that had all these different features on it. They had Gunplay on it! One of the features was Redman.
Now see, when Red agreed to do the song with them, he’s not the type of guy to just touch his music and put it out. Red’s a quality guy. Quality control, he’s the definition of it. He wants everything to feel right, to look right, to be authentic and represent him properly. As he should. Now with that said, he was skeptical about having someone he didn’t know mixing his record. He may have been made familiar with some of my credits from the guys but he didn’t know me personally. So they told me Red would be giving me a call and he wanted to talk to me about mixing the record. I’ve been in the industry quite a while at this point. I’ve heard this a lot. “So-and-so’s going to call you,” and it happens sometimes, but a lot of times it doesn’t.
So I’m going through the course of my day, and my phone rings and I almost didn’t pick up because I didn’t recognize the number. But I think, “Man, what if it’s Redman?” When I pickup of course, it’s Redman on the other line and he starts grilling me immediately. Making sure I knew what I was talking about. Basically by the end of the conversation he agreed to let me mix the record and I told him, “I’ll send it to you for final approval before I even send it to the guys who are paying for the mix. And if you don’t like it, don’t use it and don’t pay me. Easy money! Nothing will be released, nothing will leak.” Now you know when you’re dealing with a brand as big as Redman, they have to be able to trust that nothing will be leaked or misused.
Longstory short, he agreed to give me the opportunity. I think I mixed the record a little faster than I wanted to cause I was just excited. You gotta understand I got out of high school in New Jersey in 1999, so Doc’s Da Name was a huge album in my late-teens. I was a big Redman fan already, already familiar with his material. So I mixed the song so fast, I didn’t want him to think I didn’t put any time into it so I hesitated to send it, and figured let me listen to it again tomorrow and make adjustments if necessary. When I listened to it the next day I was happy with it still, so I sent it off to him and he hit me back pretty much immediately and said, “This thing sounds amazing. I want to meet you.”
So the first time me and Doc actually linked up, man when you meet an artist, there’s a certain amount of them that you’re familiar with already, but you don’t know how much is the character and how much is the person. So the first time Red pulled up, right when he got out the car, I was like “This is Doc. I know this dude. This is the guy I know form high school listening to his records.”
How was it working on Mudface with Redman?
Working with Doc is always a great time. Nobody works like Redman, not anyone that I’ve encountered. He’s like me, a 24-hours-a-day person. When inspiration strikes and you have the opportunity to accomplish something, you’re going for it and you’re working. Now that album was something he’s been working on for a long time. It really came to be during the process of him working on his Muddy Waters 2 album, which is still up-and-coming. So with that he’s recorded a lot over a period of time and sometimes it was like figuring what went together.
A lot of the recording he was able to do himself. He has the knowledge and we have a studio in-house, with the mic setup the way he likes it and we have everything ready to go so if he gets inspired. If he’s by himself, he’ll spend a lot of time just recording vocals on his own. He does his own editing, moves stuff how it needs to be moved, gives me a good idea of how he wants stuff to be mixed, ideas for effects. He knows how to do all that stuff to get the ball rolling. Then from there we took the album and we worked on it all over the place.
Him and Method Man were on tour with B-Real [of Cypress Hill] for the Smoker’s Club Tour, and we setup a studio on the back of a tour bus. He’d hit the stage every night, then after he’d go to the hotel, get cleaned up, then come back to the bus and work on the album—every night on a two-month tour. Then after that we had a couple of changes we wanted to make to the material we wanted to use and not use. We worked on that at his studio, at the studio we setup on the bus, my personal studio at my house, we worked from another studio in Jersey. We took that thing everywhere. Wherever he had to be at that time, if there was something he wanted to work on, we made sure we had access to be able to get in there and work on the album. He’s very into having different speakers and options to hear the music back to make sure it has the clarity and he’s actually capturing that vision. He’s not one of the types to record an album and give it to an engineer and say, “Mix this and send it back to me.” He has a very particular idea and he’s willing to put in the hours to get that.
How did you end up meeting the Wu-Tang Clan and get to mix The Saga Continues?
I’ve actually been working with different members with different songs and in different regards, sometimes not even directly through them, for a number of years. And after Redman and I hit it off, I met a number of them through him and on that same tour. Mathmatics was on that tour, so a lot of times after me and Red stopped working for the night, he’d come back and play me some of the stuff he was working on and ask me to help him touch up mixes here and there. It naturally grew through the course of being part of the crew and everybody still keeps in touch with each other.
And I work on the festival circuit as an artist liaison, like running the main gstage for Governor’s Ball in New York City, and this year I happen to have the Wu on the stage. Now I already know Meth, Red, Math and a bunch of these guys from the tours and they see me there and it’s like, “Yo Josh!” The more you’re around and the more people are familiar with you and your skillset, the more opportunities that will come. It’s that simple.
When you got the records to mix, did you notice a distinctive change in the sound from the last few Wu-related records?
Absolutely! Mathmatics had a really interesting process that you don’t really see often. He was working on this stuff for a while on his own and basically got to a point where he was happy with what he had. Then he sent the stuff to two other engineers that he’s friendly with, Salaam and Jamie, and they both put together stems for him and sent it back to him. There were some things that he really loved from each and kind of wanted to find a way to blend the ideas and find a middle ground and build on what was missing. So he brought it to me at that point and I worked off of basically listening through what these other guys had. Each had really great elements for different reasons, so we cherry-picked the things that worked best from each one. Then we added a little sauce on top.
The first time I heard it, it already had a little bit of work. It wasn’t raw, so I immediately turned to Mathmatics, we working in my home studio, and I’m like “I can be on my couch just listening to this right now. This is special.” It felt special to me the first time I heard it. It didn’t have to be a Wu-Tang-branded thing. It didn’t even need a verse on it and it felt a certain way. Then once you get to the fact that it had the Clan on it and it’s the type of hip hip that I’m a fan of, I’m not surprised by the response to the “People Say” single.
I know RZA didn’t produce any of the album, but did he have any input on the project?
As far as musically, I don’t know. I know that him and Mathmatics definitely worked together as far as crafting what the final product would be. But as far as his input beyond that, in the studio, RZA wasn’t overseeing the mixing sessions for sure. He really let Mathmatics do his thing. Mathmatics was really the man that was running this project. Not only from the production angle, but even as far as making sure these mixes are exactly what he wanted in the final product. He wanted to make sure his vision was accomplished.
When Mathmatics set out to do this album, I can’t speak for him, but I’d comfortably assume that RZA’s overall vision was not what Mathmatics’ concern would’ve been. I’d imagine as an artist and as a producer, it’s much more likely that Math just had this feel that he really wanted and he knew that certain engineers could help you understand and get that across. Math is really the one who took the reigns when it came to the sound and direction of the project.
If you’re looking at all of the recent Wu projects, albums, singles, solo efforts, everything, I feel like there’s been an expansion in the sound and the lanes the Clan goes into. Listening to The Man With the Iron Fists, the Wu vibe is there but it’s distinctively different. I think the Clan are continuing to build on their legacy, so what role do you think this album will play in that?
That’s hard to speculate on. I feel like if this was my first time hearing these dudes, I think it’d be very special to me. I hope other people receive it the same way. I anticipate that people will notice, if they’re familiar with the A Better Tomorrow album, they’ll hear it’s not a continuation of that. This would be less of something brand new, it’s more of a revisiting to what they came from, with some modern sensibilities towards the sonics and the music overall.
As far as where the fans take it, I try not to think about it or any of that stuff. When I’m mixing an album, I don’t think about whether Flex is going to like it or whether Dre is going to love the mixes—not unless Dre’s hiring me to do them! What I worry about is when an artist has trusted me with their project, have I done the best I can to educate them on what I think is best to help them be commercially successful. And have I done my best, more importantly, to make sure we’re on the same page and given the proper considerations to make sure I’ve gotten what the artist was hoping for. I just really hope the people who love Wu-Tang and love classic hip hop, and guys like Mathmatics, are happy with the product and that it’s a fair representation of their art.
And as far as the evolution of Wu-Tang, I’ve been fortunate enough to work on projects with Meth and I’m about to head to the studio in a bit with Deck and I’ve worked with a lot of them in different instances. What I can tell you is when I listen to this album and when I list to their individual stuff, it reminds me that we remember stars from where they came from. But these are 20-year veterans, grown men now. They’re still individuals, united in a brotherhood, but they all have their own goals, artistically and career-wise. So they’re naturally going to go wherever they naturally go. But I can say that when I step back and listen to this stuff, it’s still amazing to me that these guys still have so much to say in such a clever and unique way. They can still move you with the pen and say something that’s still uniquely their own. They all still have that gift, from what I can see.