Ten years ago... GZA on Liquid Swords, the Last Poets, and Mother Goose / by Andria Lisle

In 2008. I did a quick phoner with GZA, who was on tour in Canada at the time. It was a huge thrill to be able to discuss the shifting ground of the 21st century rap scene with one of the geniuses behind one of my very favorite groups, the Wu-Tang Clan.

Wu-Tang Clan fans call him GZA, the Genius, God Zig-Zag-Zig Allah, but 42 years ago, this Brooklyn-based hip-hop champion was born plain ol’ Gary Grice.

How did you build your formidable MC talents?

I used to listen to the Last Poets when I was about 9. My aunt had the album, and I’d put it on because it had all this profanity on it. I was amazed by all this crazy language delivered in rhyme form. Richard Pryor, too – you never heard cursing like that on wax! But even before then, I had this Mother Goose book of poems, and I studied them until I knew them word-for-word.

You’re known for your lyrical puns and for your descriptive storytelling. When you’re writing, which comes first?

Whichever comes to mind – it can be a thought, a phrase, or a sentence. I have a song called “Labels,” but the idea didn’t come like that. I had that first sentence in my head, “Tommy ain’t my boy,” and then I went oh… With “Queen’s Gambit,” I was responding to a text about the football game that was coming on that day. I said, “Oh you like those Giants flying on Jets…” I thought hmm, that sounds fly, and that was it. My songs are almost written in code, and put together like a puzzle. I may take two sentences from this page, and four from the following, and then I piece them together.

You’ve been heard disparaging relative newcomers like Soulja Boy and 50 Cent. As someone who’s been in the game for nearly two decades, what’s your take on the current state of hip-hop?

It’s a bus moving without a driver. No, that sounds a little corny. [Sighs] It is what it is. Hip-hop is the voice of youth, and it changes all the time, but I don’t think it’s as lyrical as it used to be. If you go back to a certain era, ’86-’88, each MC had his own voice, his own identity. Nowadays, someone might sell 8 million records, but the year after that, 4 million of their fans are gone. And the year after, 2 million more, and they’re forgotten. I’m not gonna hate on others, but I don’t need to write a club banger, something for the car, and something for the ladies – it just comes naturally. Tonight, I’m doing a Liquid Swords show, and the age group I’m drawing is 15-24 years old. I’ve got fans who were only two when I dropped that album, and they know it word-for-word.

Liquid Swords was released 13 years ago, and it shows no sign of slowing down. You performed it live at the 2007 Pitchfork Music Festival, and you’re currently in the midst of a North American Liquid Swords tour. What’s it like for you to revisit old material?

It’s great – I’m one of the few hip-hop artists who has two different generations listening to me. I know the album so well. Tonight it’s just me and my DJ, but depending on where we’re performing, there could be 40-50 people onstage.

Your sixth studio album, Pro Tools, was supposed to be released in January. Why the delay?

[Laughs] It’s definitely coming soon.

And you decided to call it Pro Tools because…

 My label was asking for a title, and one day I said, “We’ll call it Pro Tools, to keep it simple.” I may have looked at my computer – it didn’t take a lot of time to come up with it. You know, the only idea that came to me early was when I did the album cover for Liquid Swords. About three years before, I was playing a game of chess with Masta Killa, and after he left, I realized the pieces were still on the board in a checkmate position. I sketched it out on some construction paper, and then I decided to make the bishops look like hoodies.

These days, more and more hip-hop acts are moving away from sampling to live instrumentation, to avoid paying royalties. What can we expect on the new album?

A lot of producers try to play live, but when you hear it, it sounds so off-key. It just doesn’t sound good.  I’d rather use a sample – especially something from the ‘70s. Something vintage can be two seconds long, and it can make the whole beat as opposed to 10 seconds of somebody playing an instrument. Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the O’Jays, the Stylistics, the Delphonics, Sam Cooke, and Otis Redding… that music is the soundtrack of my life. I’m not a vinyl junkie, thought – I give away too many records for that.

In your work with Wu-Tang and your solo output, you sample equal parts Detroit and Memphis.

One day, I heard Isaac Hayes say on TV, “Stax was rugged and raw and Motown was polished.” The way Berry Gordy prepped his artists, he made them get the routine down pat. I can respect both sides. It’s got more to do with the sound than actually knowing the artist or where they’re from. Even nowadays, all I listen to is stuff from that era. I wasn’t even born yet, but it’s the music I grew up on, and it still gives me the chills when I listen to it.