This marks 19 years of releasing records for The Genius. Better known as GZA, this emcee has always joined RZA at the opposing head of the table for the Wu-Tang Clan. He’s quiet, calculated and brings a precision to his craft that often made him if not the most lyrical member of the nine-man click, certainly the front-runner for all his brothers in the record business.
Within his path to constant elevation, GZA slipped up a bit last week. As one of the Hip Hop elite in Austin, Texas (along with Bun B, Chamillionaire and Killer Mike), GZA missed a flight due to complications that made him absent from the Brooklyn Vegan showcase on Wednesday. Then, on Thursday, the veteran emcee delivered a slurred-speech performance at the Eastbound and Found party. Although comrades Killah Priest and 9th Prince assisted the Liquid Swords creator, GZA says he left Austin with embarrassment.
Speaking with HipHopDX Monday evening, GZA explained himself to critics and fans. After tough reviews from some festival wraps, the 20-plus year master of ceremonies acknowledges his wrong-doing, but had good reason: Bill Murray’s peer pressure. And anybody who grew up on Saturday Night Live or respects Rushmore, Lost In Translation or countless other films will tell you, we’d miss our jobs too to on a bender with Bill.
While we were speaking, a talkative Genius and DX drifted into a conversation about the art of emceeing, Rap prodigies, and his rarely-discussed 1991 debut Words From The Genius. A lengthy career, a lengthy discussion, but the rhymes forever remain “half short, twice strong.”
HipHopDX: Peace GZA. How you doin’, how was your South By Southwest?
GZA: [Laughs] It was a mess. [Laughs] Nah, it was aiight. I had fun.
DX: I had heard a little bit of what happened, as far as your situation coming into Austin. But I wanted to hear from you, as far as letting the public know, and fans that were expecting to see you… do you care to speak on that at all?
GZA: Yeah. First of all, I’d just like to apologize to the fans and the people that came out, for the under-performance job that took place [Thursday] night. What actually happened… first of all, on [Wednesday] night, I missed a show. Security fronted on me at [Newark International] Airport. A guy tried to make me check a bag that I really didn’t need to check, and there was other people with bigger bags. He was just bein’ an asshole. He took me over to that little, square, metal thing to try to see if your bag fits. I just wasn’t feelin’ that; I kind of cursed him out. Power-trippin’. Nowadays, [Transportation Security Administration] really thinks they’re fuckin’ Secret Service or something.
DX: It stresses me.
GZA: They’re tryin’ to do their job, but they don’t know what the fuck they’re looking for. They have no clue of what’s goin’ on. Just the whole they double-check your license, and look in your eyes with the flashlight. “Dude, come on.” That was the thing.
Then, when I got out there [Thursday], I did the first show and had totally forgot about the second show. I was thinking [my next show would be Friday]. For the first show, I started hanging out with Bill Murray. I got so wasted. Then, I started hearin’ about the show later on, and I was like, “Show? What show?” I was there, I didn’t eat that day, and I really had a lot to drink. I did another show, and it was really bad. It was to the point where [I debated performing drunk or not performing at all]. Even right now, I’m still tryin’ to figure out which was better. When [U-God‘s manager] Domingo get me [on stage], I have no recollection of most of it. It was what it was.
DX: I had heard that Killah Priest and 9th Prince filled in for you on Wednesday…
GZA: I actually heard that too, from [GZA’s tour manager] Heathcliff [Berru]. I didn’t really speak to people who were out there, but I didn’t read anything online about it. Heathcliff told me they got on and did their thing. That was cool.
DX: That happens to the best of us. [Laughing] What do you drink when you go on a bender with Bill Murray?
GZA: It started off with some beers. I actually forget the name of the beer – it was dark, like a Guinness. It had a funny, foreign name. I drank maybe four of those, which was cool. I probably drank two on stage, throughout the show. I had a shot too. After that [first] show, we went across the street to this bar that Bill was in earlier, and he just started drinkin’, man. Shots was goin’ down, down, down. A couple of more drinks, and boom! You know when it hits you? Then dude starts talkin’ about, “Come on, we’ve gotta go do this other show.” I was like “what!” I was messed up. Most people could see, I was out of it. Lesson learned.
DX: Lesson learned. I wanted to talk music while I have you for a few minutes. Honestly, I think that Protools kind of set it off, as far as this level of quality and this renaissance we’ve seen in Wu-Tang, from Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. II, Dopium, Wu Massacre, and now these albums from Rae, Meth and Ghost, as well as Inspectah Deck and Masta Killa. How have these last two years been for you.
GZA: I think it’s a great thing. [Wu-Tang Clan] has been around for years, and we definitely put our work in. [Raekwon‘s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. II] is great. I think it’s a compliment for you to say that, about Protools. I really put a lot of work – time and effort into it. The whole [Babygrande Records] deal started off as being a compilation album, because the money wasn’t really great or anything. But I had a cool relationship with [Babygrande CEO] Chuck [Wilson]. It was supposed to be a “GZA Presents…” It took me a while to give them this album, it took several years. As time went on, I was doing certain songs. I was just gonna grab up a bunch of brothers and put some new brothers on it. Then I thought about it, I can’t really just be throwin’ anything out – I don’t care what it is. Then the album started to become more and more developed as time went on – as far as the ideas and the thoughts. [Despite the planning], I recorded that album in maybe four days. Last minute, crunch time.
I haven’t heard Clan members say much [about Protools]. Nowadays, I don’t know who hears what, of our own stuff. You probably have two Clan members that even heard Protools. [Chuckles] You know? But if it was somethin’ that opened them up or inspired them to do somethin’ or upgrade their work, then that’s good. Rae’s album was received well, it was a good album. I always try to put my best into anything I do – even if it’s a mixtape. I don’t really put out mixtapes, but I just can’t throw anything out.
DX: That’s my next question. I respect you a lot for not doing that compilation. Few “rapper presents…” compilations are ever very good. Your catalog is real. They’re all records that need to be in every store. I’m not trying to flatter you in saying that either, that’s fact. Over these last 19-plus years, what’s the importance of respecting your brand? I also know, if it’s not your project, your feature verses are never sub-par.
GZA: It’s very important to keep your brand in tact, and always represent – on any level. Even to bring it back to [my mistake last week on stage], you’ve really got to be on-point and sharp.
There was one time in my career where I [compromised that]. I said I’d never short-change myself on anything I’d get on. One time I jumped on a track [“KFF 2000”], I think it was in 2000 or 2001. It was a guy from Japan [Nigo] who wanted me on a track. I basically went to the studio, got the beat from him. It was probably the most I ever got paid, cash-up to do a verse. I must’ve went in and laid the verse in about 10 minutes. It was damn-near off-the-head. It wasn’t anything that was strong. I just did it real fast. About six, seven years, I was in a store somewhere in Manhattan, and they was sellin’ it on vinyl, for like $100. My boy called me. I felt bad, ’cause I never thought this song would surface in the states. It was bad to listen to. It’s probably the only verse you’ll ever hear from GZA and ask if I did that off the head. [Nigo also created the] Bathing Ape [clothing line] too. It was the first and the last.
DX: A lot has been said about the recording you’re doing now. Can you speak about the themes at play, as well as the lyrical challenges you’re creating this time around?
GZA: Throughout my whole history, I always choose to keep it vivid. Straight to the point. “Half short, twice strong” : that’s my motto. That’s the M.O. [Recites from “As High As Wu-Tang Get”] “Too many songs / Weak rhymes that’s mad long / Make it brief, half short, twice strong.” So I’m always a believer in writing in 24 bars and sayin’ it in 16 bars, or eight bars. Keeping it visual, and just keepin’ it strong.
I think as far as the future work, I don’t think I want to do any braggadocious stuff. I’ve done that on many albums, every albums. What I mean is just how nice I am, and what I’ll do to emcees and I’ll split a nigga’s back like a Dutch. I don’t really want to go there with my lyrical talent and the ego. I want to leave the ego out of it. I want to do things on a conscious level. And when I say “conscious,” don’t think GZA’s gonna start wearin’ robes and singing to the sky. [Laughs] Every thing I do is still hard, and delivered in that hard fashion. Even profanity – I haven’t really used a profane word on any of the last three albums, except maybe once or twice. It’s not even in my writing. It’s not like I sit down and say, “Oh, I’ma be a role-model, I’m not gonna curse.” It just doesn’t come out when I write anymore. On Liquid Swords, it’s totally different. On “Shadowboxin,” I might’ve said “nigga” 14 times. You grow and you develop as an artist. I still use profanity when I speak or when I’m hangin’ out. If I’m rhymin’ about cocaine in ’93, and in 2010, I’m still rhyming about cocaine, you see no growth and development – unless I’m doin’ it in a different way. Unless I’m deliverin’ those songs like it’s Law & Order or some shit, it’s another level.
DX: I was talking to Deck about this recently, but it feels like the “W” is ageless. I caught you on tour last year doing Liquid Swords. It seems like in a lot of ways, you’re enjoying this a lot more than many of your Rap peers that have been around as long or less. Do you love doing as much as you ever have?
GZA: Oh yeah, I have so much more to give. Throughout my career, I’ve wanted to put out albums every four or five years. From Liquid Swords to Beneath The Surface is about four years, then another three, then another two. I don’t put out a lot of work. But I’m very excited about doing songs, working on projects and crafting work out. You take a song like “0% Finance,” that’s a song that might’ve taken two weeks for me to write – just from gatherin’ information about the vehicles, car slang, terminology. This is how I write. I’m not just gonna write about flippin’ an Escalade, or sellin’ a Buick. Each car has to have a double-meaning. Navigator, Explorer, and so on. I really want to take it to a level that we haven’t taken it. I want to uplift consciousness. There’s so many beautiful things to talk about. The Earth, nature, thought-processes. Studying people is fascinating. It’s just crazy how we have so much Hip Hop out, but everything is really the same thing nowadays. It’s so limited what people are speaking about when there’s so much to talk about. Artists don’t know how to do it. I can rhyme about mountains and seas and stuff, and it can sound just as hard as “Triumph.” It can be just as hard as “Clan In Da Front.”
KRS-One, Rakim, Kool G Rap, Slick Rick and Big Daddy Kane, they had a way of makin’ commercial music that was so fuckin’ hard. Still. [Laughs] [On “It’s Been A Long Time”] Rakim had a line where he said, “I leave authors and writers with arthritis.” Boom. Oh man. That’s so incredibly clever! On “I Got It Made,” Special Ed said, “I’m outspoken / My language is broken into a slang / But it’s just a dialect that I select when I hang.” He was 16 years old when he said that. He’d crush one of these 16, 17, 18 year-old corny-ass rappers nowadays! It’s just the way he flowin’. How’d a 16 year-old write some shit like that? [A few years ago], that was the only point I was makin’! I wasn’t goin’ at Soulja Boy! It got flipped around online. I used Special Ed as a reference, and just said, “Hold up.” I think of emcees at 16, 17 years old, like LL [Cool J], dude was a monster.
DX: Even Shyheim.
GZA: Shyheim was a monster! At 14! Come on, man. That’s all I’m sayin’. It don’t have to be so simple is all I’m sayin’. It don’t have to be [freestyles, mockingly] “Here I am / In a car / Doin’ an interview / Drivin’ really far / Drinkin’ water / It’s cool / Sittin’ next to my daughter.” [Laughs] I can write 1,000 songs a day like that.
How many emcees can write something like that nowadays, aside from Nas and your really lyrically clever artists? We don’t have that in Hip Hop. I think every element of Hip Hop: graffiti, breakdancing, deejaying, but emceeing.
DX: Last year, I was hangin’ out with Easy Mo Bee in his studio. He was playing some sessions from Words From The Genius. That honestly might be my favorite album of yours. As the first album to ever come out from any Wu-Tang Clan member, how do you look back on that LP?
GZA: It’s just interesting that you say that. When we go back to talkin’ about Hip Hop and the lack of lyrics and subject matter and the whole beef thing that’s going on, and all this ignorance…Easy Mo Bee once had this line on a song where he makes reference to all this beef. He says, “I bet ya never would’ve heard Whitney Houston tell Aretha Franklin ‘Hot damn, ho, shut the fuck up!'” “Hot damn, ho, shut the fuck up,” came from MC Lyte‘s [“Shut The Eff Up”] song. I thought that was interesting.
Going to Words From The Genius, I reflect back on that now…RZA, Raekwon and them, they were always fans of GZA/Genius. I once heard RZA say, “GZA was our Rakim.” That’s an honor. That always bigs me up. I was RZA’s favorite emcee or whatever, and I don’t think it’s ’cause I’m family or whatever. But when I reflect back on that album, and you may disagree, I don’t think I was really on that level as some of those guys, lyrically. I don’t know. I just didn’t feel that way. I mean, I have great lyrics. Words From The Genius, a lot of those lyrics are lyrics I had for battles. I had planned on entering [battles] like the New Music Seminar, and I didn’t make it in time to register and all that. A lot of those was battle-rhymes that probably would’ve won me the Seminar, ’cause they’re really strong lyrics. I dropped that album in ’91, and when I listen to KRS albums or Rakim albums – dudes that came out in ’86, it just felt like [I didn’t compare]. I listen to songs like “Superfreak,” and I get kind of embarrassed. [Laughs] Certain songs I would have done differently, said things differently. To this day people still tell me the album was ahead of its time.
DX: I always liked the “Pass The Bone” remix that RZA produced on the ’94 re-release. I never understood why that happened…
GZA: This is what happened: the guys from Cold Chillin’ Records, they figured that after [Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)] came out, they could capitalize on Words From The Genius. That goes to show you how labels work. Tyrone “Fly Ty” Williams, he was a good dude. All respect to him, ’cause that’s my first deal I ever got. I found out, years later, the budget amount that I got was more than he ever gave [anyone else]. Even Kane with his platinum status, didn’t get the money that I got for that Words From The Genius album – not until [his third or fourth album], he shared that [amount] with me. The advance was good, the album was great, and they had all these other greats on [Cold Chillin’] and I didn’t get the time of the day.
I didn’t think he know how to run a label the way it should’ve been ran. Cold Chillin’ started when Def Jam started, and I think might’ve even had a stronger [roster], considering the Juice Crew. That’s like Wu-Tang in the ’80s. When I ended up getting the deal on Geffen and Liquid Swords came out, he just tried to capitalize. They put Words From The Genius out again, changed the cover and put the remix on there that [the label] didn’t want to have shit to do with. He didn’t even like that fuckin’ remix. Didn’t RZA remix it? “He’s your cousin.” They didn’t like it. They wanted me to make an “O.P.P.” [by Naughty By Nature]. That’s how the industry is. On Protools, I say, “Out of 99 emcees, only one speaks in his own voice.”
DX: As we talk about lyricism and this art of emceeing, what’s the proudest verse?
GZA: Damn! That’s a hard question. There’s so many I’m proud of. Usually, when I record an album, I usually only listen to it up until it’s released. I haven’t heard Protools in maybe a year-and-a-half, maybe longer. When I record a song though, I’ll listen to it over and over and I’ll keep rewinding the verse, over-and-over. I’ll analyze and really appreciate the song. To have so many verses that I like, I can’t really pinpoint one.
When I did Liquid Swords, I was really loving “Duel of the Iron Mic.” It was my favorite song. I was really, really pleased with [“Hells Wind Staff / Killah Hills 10304”]. I wanted to show at that time, which was ’95, some of these street, cocaine Rap cats how to really take that to another level where you it can be delivered in a [new] fashion. “Restaurants on stakeout / Ordered the food on takeout / Chaos outside of Spark’s Steakhouse…” I started with the John Gotti [stuff]. I took it to Spark’s Steakhouse, ’cause that’s where Paul Castellano was killed. I have so many.
Lately, it was “0% Finance.” One reason is it’s an up-tempo track. It’s 110 [around] BPM, and it’s 104 bars straight through. It never gets boring. It starts off about a girl, then her brother,… and it’s about cars! The whole song is about cars. I think it was cleverly put together. It’s one of my favorites, for now. I don’t think I can put above the another, unless I do something so incredibly great that it affects society. Maybe on the next album, I’ll do something so incredibly sharp that it just changes peoples perceptions.