GZA: Strong Rhymes in Turbulent Times

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Wu-Tang: That collective of cockamamie characters who camp-fucked hip-hop culture with their Shaolin antics and ideals starting way back in ’93. As the storming samurai conglomerate, their musical weight ebbs and abates as the 2000s tick on. But out of the excess and expenditure of Wu, something new within GZA was able to emerge.

GZA: A genius, and one of the founding fathers of the Wu-Tang Clan.

His strong and collected presence was always felt, but rarely featured on previous Wu endeavors. This is not to say he never put forth solo efforts. 1995’s Liquid Legends, GZA’s first official solo solute, is a classic. But his crazy Wu brethren ran the album rampant. The excess of Wu was intrinsic, claustrophobic nonetheless.

GZA’s latest solo event, Legends of the Liquid Sword, is more candid and less arcane. This is not to say he doesn’t spin some seriously twisted occult tales, where fictitious words divulge recondite realities. His words are coy and almost threatening if you can encode their intended meanings.

Keen on observations, GZA is “that guy” who sits aloof in the corner while his quiet but powerful thoughts bewitch a room. He knows things, be they facts or just his insides. I applaud his efforts to continue to bring forth strong rhymes in a culture so seeped in the indulgent profundity of everything.

We had an engaging chat on a slew of subjects.

’93 was brilliant. You came out with such force and covered every angle, pillaging the music scene. You made it hard to not have hip-hop culture become obsessed with Wu-Tang. You released albums when you wanted to; you have your own studio, Wu Wear apparel, comics, and so on. But even though the abundance of Wu culture seems to have subsided in the early 2000s, the excess of Wu is still blinding. Do you think the Wu thing spun or is spinning out of control, or is the greater Wu agenda yet to be realized?

Basically, it all started from the love of hip-hop many, many years ago. You know, we’ve been doing it, myself & Rza, Dirty, for so long, before rap was even on wax. We weren’t even thinking about all this years ago. And it was a struggle when we was tryin’ to get a deal & all that. I mean Rza probably saw it. You see, we both had deals earlier. I was on Cold Chillin’ and that fell through. Rza, who went by Prince Rakeem, was with Tommy Boy. Tommy Boy wasn’t with the Wu-Tang plan, so Rza hit the block. Then we got Raek & Meth. We all went way back, 25 years & better. It was so many years ago, we didn’t see it like this. I mean, this year is the tenth anniversary for Wu-Tang. We’ve accomplished a lot. We could have accomplished a lot more. But we’re very grateful for the outcome of the whole thing. We’ve been able to live comfortably, raise our families, and do our thing at the same time.

As your own MC, you’re most respectable. You’ve managed to steer clear of the spotlight, keeping your internal mission (be it Wu or you) direct; lo-fi. Do you think some of the other members strayed from their paths, making them suckers to the masses, or overexposed?

OK. In one way, that’s just how I am; I’m more to the back. I’m not really out or up-front like that. On the other hand, when it comes to lyrics and lyrical content, I critique everything. Every word is considered & then re-considered. I feel that what I say is strong enough that I don’t have to put myself in an uncomfortable situation in front of ‘the masses.’

With regard to that, Legends of the Liquid Swords seems like a much more personal, Gza, adventure. It’s more stylized, more about you.

Well, obviously this album is a little more personal. I mean, I’m featured more on it. On the last album, I may have had three solos. On this one I have about nine. On Beneath the Surface I had more artists spread out all over the songs. I don’t think I was heard enough. And if you look at the history of hip-hop, when you look at Rakim’s first album, no one but Rakim was on it!

It’s interesting how it’s a must to have eighty-two guest appearances on an album.

It’s sorta like a format that people follow, which I don’t want to be a part. This is not to say I didn’t have featured people on my album. If I want them on, it’s only because I want them on. Nowadays, the label is always tryin’ to think for you. You know, ‘we gotta get this person to produce the beat because he’s hot.’ I don’t search for producers like that. I don’t care who you are

What about Arabian Knight, who produced most of the tracks on your new album?

Arabian Knight, that’s my peoples right there.

It was interesting to hear you without the per-usual Rza production.

See, that’s the thing. Rza was very, very, very busy at the time. He still is. Arabian Knight, he actually engineers for me a lot; he did the last two albums. I didn’t even know at the time. The first beat I heard from him was the “Breaker, Breaker” beat. So that’s how we hooked up. To get back to what I was touchin’ on, it’s like a format now where artists have all these other side artists on their album just to fit some silly criteria. I don’t even like the idea of mentioning who’s on the album. Your album should be strong enough to stand on its own. Whatever, I guess that’s just a way to promote the album.

And that’s what’s so great about Legends — there was so much less of the hoopla.

Exactly. And whoever I did have on there was family.

So not only on Legends, but on most Wu albums or hip-hop extravaganzas in general, there’s this ‘documenting of your own life’ that goes on. It’s almost like you’re stroking & creating your ego at the same time. You’re constantly playing yourself off as this almighty cryptic guru. Obviously there’s something about this documenting & creating of the self that’s brilliant, but do you think it’s at all narcissistic or self-obsessive? I’m also commenting on a hip-hop trend and asking you to use your context to help me understand.

Where should I start? All MCs have egos; it’s a part of the game. When we were younger, it was always about being the best. You know, there’s certain things I won’t rhyme about. I don’t talk clothes, mention name brands and certain things. However, when I was practicing the lines in the “Knock, Knock” song, Arabian Knight was like, “this is just brag-a-docious.” And normally in hip-hop, it’s about bragging and flipping the ego. That’s how it started. It’s competitive in nature. I don’t think I’m high on it, I just think that on this album I took it there ’cause it was something that I’ve never really done. Consider it an experiment, for myself.

Hip-hop as a live art form: I know this doesn’t ring true for every hip-hop artist, but it seems as if most of them, MCs especially, get caught up in the fame & glory, and the idea of a production focused around them. Their egos are all over the stage and their skills are struggling.

I can see totally where you’re coming from, but at the same time, myself as an artist, I am just there to perform. Do not expect me to dance. Do not expect me to flip around. Do not expect me to clown. Expect me to come out and deliver those songs.

How do you feel about playing beats off a CD player?

I went through all of Europe like that. I mean, you gotta do what you gotta do.

Yeah, but when it’s played through a CD player, the sound is just flattened, at least from the audience’s perspective. And this is not the digital CD player vs. the analog wax debate. Something’s lost.

You’re probably right. But I can’t hear it how you here it out there. I mean, most of the time us MCs don’t have a proper sound man. And sometimes I never go to sound check ‘cause I don’t understand what it’s about.

You gotta check your levels, how you sound in the house and your personal monitors. I mean it’s not the end-all, but it definitely helps the sound folks understand what you want and how you want to sound. But to take your flip side, many sound dudes don’t understand hip-hop as a culture or a functioning live art form. And this totally affects the presence of the performance.

Yeah, I know. As far as Wu-Tang shows, I always end up with a whack mic, you never hear me.

But there’s so much going on. There’s all these dudes running around, mixing and bangin’ up the microphones. It’s like, hip-hop started as a live thing, but got caught up in the gadgets, expectations and another culture’s ways of performing. Now it’s a mess, at times. It’s almost like it’s evolved into a recording art, which is a totally justifiable art form, just different from the live thing.

So how do you think shows should be done? Records, turntables?

I don’t know.

’Cause to me, I think live bands and hip-hop be soundin’ whack. I mean, I’ve heard live beats and they’ve sounded real crisp. And lots of people think live bands are like a step up. But when I go to a show, the ideal situation is to have a DJ & he’s bringin’ his records. Oh, and there’s this new thing now where all of our songs is loaded into this machine. Everyone has it now. You load and you cue them up. We use records too, depending on the song.

Even with records though it can be strange. It’s like there’s the MC and then there’s some other shit floating in the background. I’m not saying use turntables, use live players…

Right. I think that, as far as CDs, it is a whole different sound, at least in comparison to turntables & “the machine” where you load in the songs. But when I went through Europe I had no choice. I had to rock off CD. My DJ couldn’t make it and I didn’t have a backup. Now, I don’t know what you hearing out there, but yes, it feels like something is missing.

So you do recognize this.

Yeah, yeah.

Ugh…Fix it! [Laughs]

We’ll figure it out.

Ok. Well I feel silly even talking about this considering the present political state of the world, but: Any conspiracy thoughts on the present government/war machine at bay? Or is that question just too easy, or ridiculous?

That’s just something I don’t even want to get into. I have plenty on my mind. I do read a lot of info along those lines. And there’s definitely a whole lot going on out there.

What do you know? [Laughs]

I know a lot [nodding with a smirk of reassurance]. But I don’t like to mix the two. I don’t like to deal with hip-hop…

I’m not looking to you for prophetic answers, but I just want to ask everyone I talk to what they think. It’s just so present and to not talk about it seems strange, like the trap — this luxury to ignore — that we’re all so susceptible to fall into as Americans.

Sometimes it’s deeper than you think.


And on this level with journalism, it’s not as deep.

What do you mean, “not as deep?”

When it comes to media….Can I turn this off?

So I shut off the recorder and we had an intense, but dear, conversation regarding lots of sick shit — vaccinations, modern medicine, illuminati, the Bush dynasty. Gza is a well-informed and thoughtful fellow.