GZA: Professional Tools for Sharpening Swords

I almost abandoned this review.  I’ve been swamped trying to do too much at once–building a website, transferring content, learning to read code, networking, editing, etc.–but during that entire time, I have been thinking about writing.  GZA/The Genius, from the infamous Wu-Tang Clan, is still on tour and his latest album, Pro Tools (Baby Grande), is still fairly new, but the particular performance that I saw took place on the the 26th of last month and I was seriously beginning to wonder if the topic was getting stale.  It’s true, I almost abandoned this review until I remembered this quote that I had read from GZA himself, “I’m not one to write a rhyme in 30 minutes“.  He continues by saying, “Once RZA came to me and was like, ‘Don’t take two fuckin’ weeks to write a verse man, don’t strain your brain.’ Then when I take two weeks to write something he’ll be like, ‘This is a masterpiece man!’ That’s how I have to do it, I like to work like that.”  These quotes hit me instantly and, not only encouraged me to continue, but also epitomize the basis of the GZA’s appeal to me and the reason for his endurance and consistency in the unstable and oft-criticized realms of Hip-Hop and rap music.

The Backdrop

In 1993, after recruiting 6 new members to their crew, Force Of The Imperial Master (AKA: All in Together Now), Gary Grice (GZA) and his cousins Robert Diggs (RZA) and Russell Jones (Ol’ Dirty Bastard) released one of the most influential Hip-Hop albums of all time under the moniker of the Wu-Tang Clan.  Although ’93 was an important year for Rap music, Enter the WU-Tang: 36 Chambers managed to become a critically acclaimed breakthrough amongst such releases as Midnight Marauders (Tribe Called Quest), Doggystyle (Snoop Dogg), Black Sunday (Cypress Hill), and Strictly for My N.I.G.G.A.Z. (2Pac).  While Cypress Hill made us want to hit the bong, Pac spoke of uprisings, and Tribe rapped about consciousness in their Cross Colours overalls, more than any other artists, WU-Tang displayed the skills that made people want to rap.  One of the more famous quotes from 36 Chambers came from Method Man in a portion where he and Raekwon are trying to describe the 9 artist’s various roles in the group, “He the head let’s put it that way.  We form like Voltron and GZA happen to be the head“.

When the swarm of the WU dispersed in different directions to establish their own solo careers and identities, some individuals made more of an impact then others.  Method Man’s Tical (1994) and Ol’ Dirty’s Return to the 36 Chambers (1995) separated their unique voices, reinforced the artists’ almost mythical personas, and enhanced their own individuality while other members like U-God and Inspectah Deck tended to fade more into the shadows of the lime light.  GZA paved his path somewhere in the middle and made it clear that he was less of a personality than some, but would make his mark quietly through quality and well crafted lyrics.  His solo album, Liquid Swords, as well as Raekwon’s Ghostface heavy Only Built for Cuban Linx, dropped at the end of ’95 and was hailed as a masterpiece.  I have personally listened to Liquid Swords as much as, if not more than, any other release ever, Rap or otherwise, and I regularly catch myself subconsciously repeating verses from that album in my day to day life, even now.  These releases, along with the RZA (Gravediggaz/Bobby Digital) and Ghostface (Iron Man) solo albums, struck hard, fierce and quick at the height of the WU’s popularity and with solid/groundbreaking production from the RZAThe Clan’s second wave of solo albums were less successful as WU-Tang related merchandise and music over-saturated the market and the presence of RZA’s production became increasingly absent.  By the time WU-Tang’s Iron Flag was released in 2001, the iron was cooling off and, although the Clan had a somewhat triumphant return with their release of the group effort 8-Diagrams (SRC) last December, the following months were plagued with everything from public bickering, financial and artistic discrepancies within the group, and even a lawsuit.  With a lot of conversation in Hip-Hop circles relating to both the past and future of the WU-Tang and it’s members, the GZA just dropped his latest album, Pro Tools, but opted to embark on a tour performing his 13yr old classic Liquid Swords album from start to finish.

The Album

The album Pro Tools is being labeled as The Genius‘ 5th full length album despite his constant efforts to market it as a compilation, with comments like, “I saw an ad out there where it’s promoted as a GZA album. I’ll probably be on most of the tracks but its supposed to be a compilation album, there’s various artists on the album.”  The term “compilation” is confusing and even a bit misleading, which is probably why this album, which originally had an early January release date, bagged that angle in the labeling which now simply reads “PROTOOLS GZA/GENIUS“.  I got a copy of the album the day that it was finally released (Aug 19th) and was quick to notice that it actually had less guest appearances than his other albums.  Only 2 WU-Tang members, RZA and Masta Killa, even appear on it.  The compilation angle may have originally been an attempt to help showcase other artists on the album (his son Young Justice appears on two tracks) but is probably more likely an issue of the GZA not wanting to lessen the anticipation for his “true” solo album which is slated for an ’09 release and to be entirely produced by the RZA.  He says of his future release, “My next album is going to be no guest appearances. Emcees need to start carrying their own weight.”  I have mixed feelings about this statement because, something that I’ve always appreciated about Liquid Swords was the contributions from the other members.  Everybody seemed to make a conscious effort to deliver their best work when recording those parts with GZA and they gave birth to some of the most memorable moments on that album.  Everyone remembers Inspectah Deck’s verse on “Deul of the Iron Mic” that featured the classic line, “Building lobbies are graveyards for small-timers.  Bitches caught in airports, keys in they vaginas” and Killah Priest actually penned and performed the entire last track, “B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth)”, by himself.  To me the collaborations were like Jazz throwbacks where, even though Wayne Shorter may have written and performs a song, you still know that it’s a Miles (Davis) album.  I understand that, but I don’t understand how Pro Tools should have any other label than the one that eventually appeared on it.

The album is surprisingly cohesive, unlike some of the more criticized Wu-family releases that came out in the late 90’s, which often had too many producers in the kitchen.  Much of the tracks contain more of the classic WU Camp style beats that are both, simplistic and subtle enough to put the lyricist in the forefront and allow them too truly shine, yet engaging, powerful, and ominous enough to draw you in.  The ironic part is that the classic WU-Tang sound was achieved mostly because of, and not despite, the other producers who were brought in beyond RZA, who only produced two of the albums 14 cuts.  The featured producers/extended members of the WU-Tang crew, like Mathematics and True Master, have retained more of the original classic sound than their mentor, RZA, who has tended to travel in more experimental directions in recent years.  The Mathematics track, “Pencil“, is one of the strongest tracks on the record.  “Pencil’s” beat reminds me of such legendary tracks as “Shadow Boxin’“(Liquid Swords) and “Bring Da Ruckus” (36 Chambers) by using a heavy and consistent drop with a simultaneous laid back groove that gives its sound an effect of audio hangtime.  It features Masta Killah and a very capable verse by RZA.  “Groundbreaking” is produced by Bronze Nazareth and the beat is solid.  The second verse cuts back and forth between GZA and Young Justice with vocal transitions that are a little choppy and sporadic; sometimes alternating lines and randomly switching mid sentence.  I still feel that it’s a good re-introduction to Justice and I like that, although it’s obvious he’s taking notes from his father in the writing department, his voice and cadence are his own; sounding a lot like Mad Lib’s alias, Quasimoto. The track “0%” balances the album well with its quicker flow and consistent and thriving immediacy, while “7 Pounds” has a more lackadaisical delivery with hints of MF Doom’s Viktor Vaughan work (Vaudeville Villain) or Gangstarr’sRobinhood Theory“.  One track that I find really impressive is the True Master produced, “Alphabets“.  Beyond just the infectious beat, that track will sneak up on you lyrically.  GZA has the ability to weave so much into a small area, maintain continuity, and create tracks that creep and often don’t jump out of the shadows and kick you in the teeth until the 30th listen.  With a cadence you’d have to hear to fully understand, Grice dices up and spits out the alphabet in its entirety through the chorus,

Allah, Be or Born, Cee, Devine, Equality
Father, then after that is the G-O-D
He or her, I Islam, then Justice,
King or Kingdom, Love, Hell or right, we still exist
Master, Now end,
Cipher (O), Power, the Queen
Rule or Ruler, Self or Savior, Truth and Square are the same
Universe, Victory, Wisdom, Unknown (X),
Why (Y), Zig Zag Zig and know we’re back home.

If you think that shit’s crazy and are baffled by the amount of complexity involved, you should know that the layers keeps going.  If you so choose to peel back the onion a bit further and find out what the song is really about, you can finish this article, climb the rope ladder to the next level, and kill the rest of the day off by reading about the “Supreme Alphabet“.  Above all, the song that made the quickest impact and that really jumped out for me on first listen was “Paper Plate“.  RZA’s beat on this track shined right off the bat and I loved the overall product, although I was admittedly ignorant to the history and purpose of the song as a 50 Cent diss track the first time through.  Once I realized what it was about, I liked it even more and the appeal of GZA’s spot on delivery and lyrics multiplied exponentially.

Back in early December of last year, GZA performed a show in London where he mentioned Solder Boy while describing the state of rap music and commercialism, “He a young nigga, he my son age“.  The crowd started screaming random shit and GZA pointed the mic out to hear what they were saying, which was, “Fuck Solder Boy!”  The MC wasn’t trying to get the crowed riled up, it was quite the opposite, and he tried to clarify his intentions with, “Hear that solder boy?!  I’m not hatin’ on you, WU-Tang is not on TV everyday.  I just wanna say, it’s a different environment right now.”  He tried to proceed and asked the crowd to “Hold up” but, as they continued, he put the mic back out in the crowd to exclamations of, “Fuck 50 cent!“, “Fuck Nick Cannon!“, and “Fuck 50!”  He tried to proceed again and, as people began to, “Ooooh!” he responded with, “I don’t give a fuck about 50 Cent.  Fuck 50 Cent, okay.  Who gives a fuck about him?” and, “So what?! You got a lotta money nigga, fuck you.  You got a lotta money nigga, you don’t got talent“.  GZA started the whole thing off by telling everyone to get their cell phones out because the shit was gonna be, “… on Youtube, tomorrow“.  He was right and there was a huge reaction to the footage.  He performed at the Knitting Factory in New York shortly after (Dec. 15th) and responded to what he called “dickhead niggas hiding behind moniters, online” who were claiming that he would never have made the same comments in New York that he had made overseas.  “All I did was say a nigga don’t have fucking lyrics.  I said 50 cent don’t got muthafuckin’ lyrics…..I stick by that shit.”  50 Cent’s comeback entailed little more than a few weak responses, one of which was regarding GZA’s age and another claiming that WU-Tang members smoked “dust“.  Lyrically, no one is more respected from the WU-Tang than “The Genius” and the same argument could be made for his place in the rap industry as a whole.  He comes from the school of battle rappers and 50 is one of those figures who has admitted to falling into the music industry as an afterthought, with his sole focus on trying to make some cash.  GZA didn’t come at 50 Cent and challenge him to a footrace or a wrestling match, instead he focused on lyrical ability which is essentially what they are supposed to posses some level of, by definition of their professions.

The title of “Paper Plate” came from GZA’s claims that the G-Unit frontman is “light weight” and “disposable” in regards to his impact and place in Hip-Hop history and, although I agree with these statements, the track itself deserves a place in rap battle history among the rivalry of Kool Moe Dee and Busy Bee, Cool J’s reinvention through his response to Canibus (“Momma Said Knock You Out“), and 2pac’s attack on B.I.G. and Junior Mafia (“Hit ’em Up“).  He starts out by saying that 50 Cent has “Got a few hooks but no jabs” and continues with, “I get it, you Got Rich robbin’ those in the industry. Bite off this one, steal from your enemy“. He cracks on his Hollywood style with, “Get your ankles rolled while doin’ your two-step. Leave a Thank-You note for the crutches the Wu left” and, “Enough to make you Vogue on the cover of GQ.  Only missin’ the sheer blouse. Homie, you see-through“.  He also refers to his involvement with Vitamin Water with the line, “Stop sippin’ on that Formula 50.  They want heat, I’ll give it to them burnt and crispy“.  This song is brilliantly crafted and GZA delivers his message by clearly amplifying his message instead of his voice.  He continues to question 50 Cent’s image,, as well as that of his whole crew by rapping, “If you’s a pimp, put chicks on a stroll. And if those your soldiers, give ’em bigger guns to hold” and goes on to let him know that the Clan’s numbers are large and have a history that he shouldn’t disregard. “Have you ever been stung by a thousand hornets?  Five hundred killa bees, buzzin’ and really on it?  Whipped with CUBAN LINX, cut with LIQUID SWORDS, Choked by IRONMAN ’til we crush your vocal chords.”  The song is a genuine piece of art and ends with the classic explaination of why it wasn’t even worth his time, “Super nova give off gamma-ray bursts.  And I’ll finish this, only ’cause I let off first“.

The Perfomance

August 26th
Neumos Crystal Ball Reading Room

The opening acts each made reference to WU-Tang Clan during their sets and, by the time that the “Shogun Assasins” sample from the “Liquid Swords” intro hit the speakers, the crowd was fairly amped up.  Grice took the stage without flash, wearing simple black do-rag and Jordan T-Shirt, and started rapping to a crowd that knew every verse.   The opening track, however, cut out after only the first verse and the momentum dropped for everyone that was expecting to hear, “…niggaz style are old like Mark 5 sneakers.  Lyrics are weak, like clock radio speakers“.  Something was up with the DJ, who operated like a last minute replacement and was misinterpreting GZA’s hand signals.  The Genius explained that he wasn’t going to settle for doing that whole fractions of songs “bullshit” and, even though he tried to uphold that statement, it proved more difficult than you would expect.  A song would swiftly end without warning and the rapper would have to pause and explain to the DJ the difference between his “cut” and his “drop” hand signals.  When everyone else in the building can remember the lines, “camoflouge chameleon, ninjas scalin your buildin’ No time to grab the gun they already got your wife and children“, reciting RZA’s verse should have been cake for the cousin whose album it appears on.  At one point the show was even stopped because the speakers sounded as if they had blown and GZA used the mic to inquire about the source of the distortion.

I know that the show sounds like it was a disaster and, from a technical aspect, it actually was.  I probably should have viewed it that way myself but I didn’t because I still had such a great time and I feel that it became a triumph, in its own way, through alternate means.  I’ve seen a lot of Rap performances where the vocals are muffled and hard to understand, but this was not one of them.  It was similar to when I saw KRS-1 because both emcees had clear vocal deliveries and audience connections and interactions so honest that the rooms appeared to reduce in size like the far end of a hallway at Wonka IndustriesThe Genius conversed with the crowd and was not above coming right up to a camera to pose for a photograph.  “What kind of phone is that? T-Mobile?”  Or he’d ask a question like, “How old are you?”  to a kid rapping along to every lyric and, when he’d get the an answer like, “I‘m 16” he’d respond on the mic with, “He was 3 when this album dropped” or, “This kid wasn’t even born when 36 Chambers came out.”  He’d remind the crowd that “WU-Tang is for the children” and that it’s “forever“.  He reflected on how absurd it is for people to claim that he’s “too old” or “irrelevant” but I think that it was also an opportunity to positively affirm that to himself and to spread that aura contagiously throughout the audience.

It was a celebration of the work and pride that Grice has contributed to Hip-Hop and it was being delivered to those who have a love for the genre and respect the possibilities there-in.  A lot of rap out there is prone to flash as in, it will blind you, take your focus, and then steal your cash. (Sorry, I started subconsciously rhyming there for a minute)  The key to oppressing others is create an image or idea that is unattainable and feels beyond reach so that those targeted will find it overpowering and unapproachable.  It creates an OZ-style scene where the “Wizard” is behind the curtain, complete with the flames and light show, while Grice comes through post-theatrics, like the man with the hot air balloon offering to simply take your ass back home to the promised land.  50 Cent would, no doubt, be amused by the idea that GZA’s equipment malfunctioned and try to take his battle to MTV’s Cribs but, regardless of the income that he acquires from his image on the back of Coke-A-Cola trucks, Curtis50 CentJackson’s show would have crashed if faced with the same obstacles.  Curtis‘ idea of Hip-Hop is to show how much more marketable he is by recruiting young impressionable teenagers to support his career.  It’s the same angle utilized by white middle-aged racists to recruit young confused pre-teens into those backwoods Aryan Nation groups.  50 walks around in fur coats, throws a huge production, and jumps in a tour bus like he was the goddamn president, while GZA delivers the most thought provoking imagery in a T-Shirt and jeans and encourages his fans to stretch themselves to come up to his level with him.  After the Liquid Swords material, GZA threw in performances of “Guillotine (Swordz)” from Cuban Links and his new track “Alphabets“, but when he did the cover of the late ODB’sShimmy Shimmy Ya“, the crowd went insane.  The venue security guard, who had been trying to retain a professional demeanor with his folded arms, hopped backwards up the few steps to the stage while rapping and pumping his fist towards the audience in unison.  That’s the difference between empowering your audience and elevating yourself above them.  GZA was so energized by the environment that he was reluctant to leave the stage, “Wait, I didn’t do Protect Yo’ Neck!  We could do that.  Cue that one up

The Place for Genius & the Overall State of Rap Music

I came up with a theory in the early to mid 1990s which dealt with pop-cultural patterns, after realizing that every decade seems to reject the prior decade while embracing the one prior to that.  The 90’s were the 70’s and, 20 years ago, I was wearing the same day-glo neon colors on my T-Shirts that are prominantly featured across the hoodies and baseball caps of today.  I would prefer to see a new found appreciation for the film “True Stories” than one for legwarmers, fanny packs, and Kanye West’s slatted glasses, but the cheesiest and most shallow shit is always adopted first.  Instead of a huge resurgance of Prog music and On the Corner style Jazz in the 90’s, huge warehouses/danceclubs with flashing lights and reflective decor were established for people donning over-the-top, fly by night fashion gimmicks, and connecting to the music and their fellow, promiscuous patrons, through the popular narcotic of their time.  The difference is that in the 90’s it was called “raving” and in the 70’s it was called “Disco“.  This raises questions about where trends, longevity, and historical impact intersect and in which ways.  To give you an example of the climate in which Liquid Swords was released, it ended off a year where the number one hit, “Gangsta’s Paradise“, was from a Michelle Pfeiffer film and helped to jump off 1996,  a year where the most successful musical effort was a phenomenon known as “The Macarena“.  Coolio is about to introduce his new reality show and I don’t know what the fuck happened to Los Del Rio, but I do know that they still hold the title for the longest running #1 debut single in American music history.  Liquid Swords, on the other hand, falls into that rare catergory of albums like Dark Side of the Moon, which still sound as fresh and innovative today as they did back when they were originally released.

I remember trying to form connections with co-workers when I worked at a hotel, by starting conversations about Rap music.  The first was with a black “Christian” girl who’s primary focuses were partying, money, and hooking up with guys in “committed” relationships.  She had little to no frame of musical reference beyond the Pop-Rap that was played on the local R&B station and told me that she was scared of WU-Tang because she had always thought that they were some sort of “cult“.  As a walking contradiction, she tended to migrate towards the “artists” of today who break their careers with a track about fucking around and cheating, only to follow it up with sophomore hits about love and sticking by your lady from the same album.  The other conversation was with a white security guard from the bible belt that tried to tell me why 50 Cent was so “awesome“.  I spit a lengthy battle verse that I had written at him which contained some double, and even triple, meanings.  He grabbed the sides of his head like he was in pain and begged me to stop by saying, “There’s too much going on!  It’s hurting my head!”  He admitted that he didn’t care that “Candy Shop” and “Magic Stick” are basically the exact same fucking song, and that he actually looks for something without substance because it’s easy for him to work out too and ignore in the background.  I liked him and thought that he was a good person over all, but he was the type of guy that buys CDs of wrestling theme songs and would never read this far into my article anyway.  This is a prime example of people wanting to dull and numb their own minds and of what is sometimes referred to as the “disposable masses“.  I’m gonna explain to you what I explained to the security guard and offer you the same deal.  Since these rappers are only singing about how they are spending the money that you dumped on their last album, if you want to send me some loot, I’ll write you a track myself and let you know how I spent your hard earned cash.  It would be more personalized too.  I’ll describe how I went to the movies, took my lady out to dinner, bought a suit or a new wacom tablet.  Hell, I’ll even go to a film or restaurant that you’ve been meaning to try out for yourself and then write you a review that I’ll rap over a beat from my fruity-loops program.  Why experience your own dreams when you can live vicariously through a song full of experiences that you’ve financed for someone else?

The main programming has become nothing more than just a longer commercial with more celebrity endorsements.  It’s only a matter of time before we hear a Rich Boy sample in a Sargento ad reworked as, “Throw some cheese on it, on it! Just gotta have a snack!”  In 1999, I didn’t have any television reception, and would watch the same 2 films, “Boogie Nights” and “The Big Lebowski“, over and over again but they never got boring for me because, every time that I would watch them, I would discover something new.  Last year the films’ directors, The Coen Bros. and P.T. Anderson, dominated the Academy Awards and, although Marissa Tomei and Cuba Gooden JR. are also Oscar winners, I have to feel that the awards and accolades for “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will be Blood” are, somehow, intangibly worth more.  De La Soul’s introduction to “Stakes Is High” gives props to “Criminal Minded” (Boogie Down Productions) and on Talib Kweli’sReflection Eternal” the wordsmith makes reference to the inspiration that he received form hearing “Resurrection” (Common).  Liquid Swords has held a similar inspiration for many and, although I’m not sure if Pro Tools is on the same level, just based on the way it has already began to unfold for me, I wouldn’t put it past the album to sound better and better over time.  An album like this is as necessary now as it has ever been and I have to wonder if the situation with 50 wasn’t an added inspiration for GZA to hold off on the album’s release to allow time to perfect it.   GZA is aware of that same 85% of oblivious consumers that are being targeted by corporations, but has chosen not to view them as “disposable“.  Instead, the rapper has opted to try and offer something of substance and to provide knowledge for his listeners.  The fact that this one man has put so much thought and personal energy into his work, is the very reason that I’m willing to turn a simple concert review into a dissertation for those who want to hear it.

-Dead C

(The Arian Stevens photograph was taken @ GZA’s Portland performance.  To view more from that photoset visit Arianstevens.com or CLICK HERE)

Dead C

Located in Seattle, Dead C is the founder/editor, as well as the principal writer and photographer, of Monster Fresh. Creating the site in 2007, he did so with a specific dream in mind. Unfortunately, being a muscle relaxer-fueled fever dream, it's hard to recall all of the details. "I remember that my mom was there, but it wasn't actually her in the dream, it was actually 70s heart throb, Jan Michael Vincent. And everything took place here, in this room... but it wasn't actually here... it was different. The colors were washed out and, for some reason, there was a raccoon kicking it with us and it was wearing a holographic monocle."

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