Q&A: GZA On Wrestling, His Hip-Hop Beginnings, Chess Metaphors, And The Chances of a Wu-Tang Kung Fu Flick
Much has been afoot in Gary Grice's professional life lately. The Wu-Tang Clan colonel better known as GZA or Genius is working on a new astronomy/physics-inspired record called Dark Matter and a re-recording of Liquid Swords, his 1995 stone-cold classic, that will incorporate instrumentation by live bands. Get On Down is issuing a spiffy deluxe version of the original Swords that features a new all-instrumentals disc, a 20-page book, and a miniature chess set. Liquid Swords II should be coming down the pike at some point, too. On top of all this, he has shows to do, like tonight's performances of Swords backed by Latin funk group Grupo Fantasma.
Things were far more dormant when I spoke to the MC last fall for an interview that's sat on the shelf thanks to some bad luck. At the time, GZA was planning to lecture at Harvard University (he's since visited MIT, NYU, and Cornell, too), and as we join the conversation in progress, he's just discussed how his speaking engagement will look at how he puts rhymes together and structures lyrics, and how rappers confuse similes with metaphors.
In "Shadowboxin'," you talk about having a style that breaks backs like Ken Patera. I was so impressed by that lyric. You've got to be a wrestling fan, man.
What kind of wrestling are you into?
Well, no, I was a wrestling fan until I watched the 20/20 episode20/20? Barbara Walters?and this was with Geraldo Rivera. This was years ago, in the '80s. I was still young then. You figure in '81, I was 15. They had this episode about wrestling"Is it real?"and then they pointed out a whole bunch of stuff that made me realize it was fake, that it wasn't real, and people would be cutting themselves with razors inside their wristbands, and how they break a chair over your head. Everything was staged and fixed. Geraldo was interviewing a wrestler named David D. Schultz.
Yeah, wait a minute. This is John Stossel interviewing him.
Geraldo told him, "Well, I feel like it's fake. I don't think it's real," and the wrestler was like, "You think it's fake? Aah!" He says a few words and then he slaps Geraldo. Then, he slapped him again. He got sued for it. Ever since all that was revealed, I didn't like wrestling anymore. It opened my eyes. I mean, I can see it nowI probably couldn't see it thenthat everything is staged and fixed and it's all drama and all that. But before then, I was a big fan of wrestling. We used to watch it on this channel called Channel 47. If you had an old-school TV, the TV would have two knobs. One of them was for the regular channelsABC, NBCand you would have to turn to U and go through all these other channels to find wrestling, which was on Channel 47. We would watch wrestling on there, then we would watch on Fridays until nine, so I was a big fan to mention Ken Patera, which goes back to the '70s. I was a big fan.
Who were your favorites?
I would say Bruno Sammartino. He was like the first champ that we had known about in wrestling[this] Spanish dude Bruno Sammartino. He was the heavyweight champ.
Going back to when you were younger again, you mentioned in one interview in '76 or '77, you would attend block parties where you first learned about hip-hop. Why did you end up as a rapper? Why not a guy who was into graffiti or some other art form?
Well, I had my hands in all that. From the early days, when I first noticed hip-hop, I actually used to breakdance also. We called it breakin' before it was breakdancing. I used to do graffiti also, but I was never really, really good at graffiti. I used to use rulers and books and cardboard to do a straight line, and cups and coins to do perfect circles depending on the letter. If it was a D, I would use a cup or coin to get that round shape, and if it was an A, I would use a tape cassette. I always used devices to do my graffiti. I didn't have that steady hand. I was really, really into graffiti, but I just wasn't that good. I was DJing also, but I wasn't that good. I was never able to get the equipment I needed. One time, I told my father I wanted some equipment and he was going to get me some for Christmas, but he was only going to get me a mixer that year and maybe a turntable on my birthdayall these things at different timesso he kind of discouraged me from being a DJ, but I was highly into all those things. I messed with every one of those.
But writing was my thing since the Mother Goose days since I first started studying nursery rhymes before hip-hop existed. I was into the Last Poets. I used to listen to their albums all the time. My aunt had this album and I used to their songs. In their album, they had the words along the inside sleeve. Plus, this was ' 76, '75, maybe '74. This album had profanity on it, so I used to only really listen to some of the songs because they had curses. I don't think my aunt knew there was profanity on this album. That was one of the major things that drew me into it before it was the lyrical content. I didn't understand the underlying or hidden message until many, many years later 'til I was older, so it goes way back.
Do you remember the first time that you rapped?
Umm, not really. I was probably quoting something that was somebody else's, so I can't remember the first time I actually rapped. It could have been the Last Poets because I was listening to that before I started rhyming, so it could have been something from their album. [Sings] "On the subway, she stares blinking, blinking," and [Sings] "Niggas are scared of revolution!" It could have been something from there that I was reciting. I used to listen to the Isley Brothers. They had a song called "Fight the Power" around the same time, and it was a line where they say [Sings] "By all that bullshit going down!" Just to hear bullshit is why I listened to the record. To me, listening to Ali do interviews and listening to the Last Poets or even some songs that had speaking at the beginnings like the Commodores or the O'Jays. Some songs just had verbal stuff at the beginning, just thinking about the women or whatever. It was kind of like rap to me with the smooth way of laying it down. I think it's the Commodores' ["I Just Want to Be Close to You"]. He starts speaking at the beginning about how he was lonely and the way he delivers [Sings], "A man with no direction and no purpose!" it was almost like rap or delivering a lecture or speaking in front of people with the tone and cadence of it. That played a big part in my early life.
One of my favorite things about you is your voice. How did you develop it?
I would say [it's] natural. The reason why I say that [is] because I ran into three peopleat least three or four people, maybe a little moreand they say, "You sound just like you sound on record." I would think everybody sounds like they sound on the record [but] no, I guess not. Not too long ago, I was somewhere and I was speaking to a dude. He spoke to me for about a minute or two and he didn't know I looked. I guess he didn't know how GZA looked. He ended up saying, "You know, you sound just like GZA from Wu-Tang," so it made me realize that my voice was really, really importantmore important than my face. I don't really put my photo on the album. I've done it on Words from the Genius and Legend of the Liquid Sword. It was interesting to know that someone really knew my voice better than they knew my face. I can't really say how I developed my voice. We practiced for years: sentence structure, delivery, breath control, how to deliver certain words, the tone, the pitch. I guess that plays a major part.
What has changed most in your voice or how you deliver raps from the beginning?
I don't really know. From the beginning, I'm mature, developed now. When I first started doing demos, I never liked my voice. I was about 13, but I was a late bloomer. I was one who probably didn't get a mustache until I was 21 or a beard until I was 24, so I kind of matured late. I never liked my voice. The dudes I used to rhyme with back in the daysome of my homeboys that was part of my crewtheir voices projected well on tape when we made demos, and I never liked [them] because I still came off like this squeaky, not really a girly voice but a young kid that's not really developed or mature yet. I never liked my voice, but I love it now. It has gotten a lot stronger and developed. I'm cool wit it.
Is there someone out there in the rock world and not in the hip-hop world that you really want to collaborate with?
No one I can think of right now, but I've done that thing with Wavvesthe Liquid Swords performanceand I'm interested in doing something in the future with them. I've worked on a couple of indie projects. I've always wanted to do a song with Nas. Hopefully, that will happen in the future. I've always respected him, and he respected me as a great lyrical talent. There are several producers, several artists out there that I wouldn't mind working with. I can't just throw it out right now.
You've been working on a sequel to Liquid Swords. You've talked before about how important timing was to its success. Why come out with a sequel?
Ask RZA. You know, at point, he threw that out there. I wasn't the first to throw it out, and then the fans gravitated to it, so now I have to follow up. I've been put in that position. It's like a chess move. It's only a concept, but just think about it. We play chess and we play touch and move, meaning that if you touch a piece, you must move it. Can you imagine I'm playing you a game and you turn your head to look at a clock that's on the wall to check the time, and then all of a sudden, my cousin walks by. His coat knocks my pawn down, and then you turn back and see my pawn. "Oh, you touched that. You must move it," so now I'm forced that piece because I have no proof. You understand? I don't want to get real crazy, but RZA threw the idea, but it's just a concept, so we'll see what happens.
How about movies? You've got all those fantastic sound clips and samples that go on Liquid Swords. Is there anything you're going to take from for the second one?
I have none in mind. The thing with Liquid Swords [is that] when RZA took that [dialogue] from Shogun [Assassin], that was done during mastering. Like in the last day of wrapping this album up, he came up with this idea, and then he said, "You know what? Go get me the Shogun." Then, he came out and used it and we sampled some stuff. It blended well. It was the perfect thread for the item.
How about subjects? Are there any new subjects you want to explore on the new album that you haven't on a previous one?
Yeah, expect the unexpected. That's what I say about Liquid Swords. I spin a wheel. Wherever it lands, it lands, and I go with that, but I know that everything on the wheel, I can work with. I know it's going to land on anything that I'm unsatisfied or not comfortable with, so I just spin it, and then whatever is whatever. "You know what? This is the way I'm going with it." That's kind of how I know. I was doing an interview in 1999 when I did Beneath the Surface. I had a writer in there. I was playing songs for her, and she said, "What's the name of this song?" and I said, "I have no title." Then, she said, "What's the name of this song?" and I said, "It doesn't have a title yet." She said, "You're such a bullshitter." She thought I was bullshitting her, but that's the way I work. I don't go into the song and say, "I want to call this 'The City,' and then in this song, I'm going to put cars and trucks and traffic." It usually gets started with traffic, trucks, and cars, and then later on down the line, I say, "You know what? This is going to be called 'The City.'" That's how it usually is when I'm working, so I don't always have titles. We all have a certain process as to how we do it. Some guys go in with titles all ready. "This is called 'The Taxi.'" I might just start the song talking about the meter and how it just skips 35 cents every five seconds, every bump or every pothole it runs over. I may be on that level than a level of "I can't catch a cab 'cause I'm black," so I always look at a different approach.
The first time I heard about Wu-Tang was through your 1999 video game Shaolin Style. What did you think about it?
Well, I thought it was cool to have our name on the game. I was actually playing it with the Wu-Tang joystick controller, but I knew nothing about the game until it was out. I don't remember how it happened [that I played it], but I thought it was a pretty cool thing. I didn't know much about it. The deal was already done. It's not like I was brought in the early stages of it, like "We're thinking about this idea, this game. What do you think about it?" The game was given to me on a CD. "This is Shaolin Style." "What is this?" "It's a Wu-Tang game." "Oh yeah, am I on there?" "Yeah, you're on there, GZA. You didn't know that?" "Yeah, I'm on there? For real? What kind of weapon I use? Ah, it's not a sword, it's a chain?" So I was introduced that way.Trailer for
The last thing I wanted to ask about was why there wasn't ever a Wu-Tang Clan movie.
It's in the makin'.
You serious? When it's going to come out?
Oh no, no, no. This is the documentary. I mean like a fiction moviesomething with a story, like a kung fu movie.
Oh, you mean like fiction? Well, there's [RZA in] The Man with the Iron Fists.
That's true, but if you're not going to be in it, it's not to be a real Wu-Tang movie, man.
Oh well, I don't know if we're going to have a real Wu-Tang movie and have kung fu. Hell no, that's too much of a stretch. I don't think you're going to see a Wu-Tang movie and we're all doing kung fu in it. I don't think that's going to happen.
That would been pretty cool, though. I would have loved to see that.
You know how you would see that if it's displayed like that? You would see GZA, RZA, and Dirty at 12 and 9 years old, coming from a Bruce Lee flick and then doing kung fu outside the movie when we left, waiting on our ride to go home or waiting on a bus.
Other than that, [nothing] unless you see RZA in the temple training because he's one of the few who has actually trained. I've taken karate when I was younger but not long enough to really be titled a certain belt. Kung fu, lyrically and all that, still all relates, so I'm sure you'll see all the elements, but not actually seeing, "Oh, this is the Clan and they do kung fu." It would be too much of a reach. It's like someone always trying to do a photo shoot with me and always put me at a chessboard. It becomes redundant. It becomes too much of the same thing.
GZA and Grupo Fantasma play Liquid Swords at Music Hall of Williamsburg tonight at 7:30 and 11 p.m.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.