A Conversation with GZA

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Photo courtesy of GZA

On the 1993 classic Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) a snippet of an interview with members of the Wu-Tang Clan was used as a skit on the album. The skit acted as an introduction of the Clan’s members to the world. When mentioning the band-member known as “The Genius” Raekwon the Chef proclaimed, “He’s the backbone of the whole joint.” The charismatic Method Man famously added, “We form like Voltron and the GZA happen to be the head.”

The proverbial head of the Wu-Tang Clan is one of the greatest lyricists that Hip-Hop has ever seen. His distinct delivery and descriptive rhyme style put him in the upper echelon of emcees. Although the GZA hasn’t released a full-length solo album since 2008’s Pro Tools, he continues to tour with the Clan and on his own.

GZA will co-headline the 2019 version of the Muddy Roots Festival with a live band. Muddy Roots is a three-day festival beginning on August 30 and ending September 1. The event takes place at the June Bug Boogie Ranch in Cookeville, Tennessee and features artists from every genre of music imaginable. GZA will share the stage with artists like MC50, Fishbone, Municipal Waste, and Orange Goblin among others.

The Real Hip-Hop had the pleasure of speaking to GZA about his upcoming performance at the Muddy Roots Festival, seminal moments in his career with the Wu-Tang Clan, and why he plans to hang up the microphone in the very near future.

TRHH: It’s been 28 years since Wu-Tang was formed, but 2019 has been one of the top years of exposure for your group with the Showtime documentary, Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men and the upcoming Hulu miniseries, Wu-Tang: An American Saga. It seems like a resurgence of the Wu. What has the reception been like for the group this year and have you gained new fans based on the TV exposure?

GZA: I was going to say that it seems like a resurgence. That’s what it seems like. The reception has been good. I haven’t really noticed any new fans. There hasn’t been an experience where someone walks up to me and recognizes me that hasn’t recognized me before. I’m sure it will probably happen at some point. The response has been great. People are loving it. I guess it was way overdue in some people’s eyes. It’s a good thing.

TRHH: The Clan looks to you as the head of Voltron; you inspired them, but who would you say inspired you?

GZA: They say [laughs]. I was inspired by many. As far as emceeing?

TRHH: Yeah.

GZA: That inspiration goes way back to the early days of Hip-Hop. Some of the greats from back in the day; the Treacherous Three, Fearless Four, Cold Crush Brothers, Spoonie Gee, Melle Mel, just about all of them. Spoonie Gee was a favorite of mine at a certain period of time. That was the late 70s. He had this song called “Spoonin’ Rap” off the Love Rap beat. I was inspired by many. Aside from those, even those that came after. I’ve been rapping for years but you go into the golden era with Rakim, Slick Rick, G Rap, Daddy Kane, and so on and so on. It’s so many that I’m leaving out. I don’t even like to start naming because it’s so many that brought and gave inspiration. There were those who I grew up listening to when I first started rapping who I got inspiration from, and there are those where I was already good as an emcee but still got inspiration from them also.

TRHH: You’re without question one of the greatest lyricists of all-time, what’s your writing process like?

GZA: It’s very long. I think some of it is because I’m so laid back. Being laid back can be laziness at sometimes [laughs]. I sit for a while. Sometimes I might go a year or two without really writing a rhyme. I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing [laughs]. Sometimes I’ll just sit for a while and when I get an idea I’ll work on it. I may come back to it, but it depends on the subject matter, the rhyme itself, or what kind of song it is. If it’s a song where I’m flipping names and words such as Fame, Animal Planet, Publicity or Queen’s Gambit where I’m using all the names of the teams in the NFL and I have to flip it in a certain way using it as a metaphor, sometimes a rhyme like that can take three weeks if I’m on it every day or every other day. Maybe two weeks or a week, but never twenty minutes. I don’t think I’ve written too many rhymes in fifteen or twenty minutes like some people do. Some people are fast with it.

TRHH: Is your writing process the reason why we haven’t heard a GZA album in 11 years?

GZA: [Laughs] That can have a little bit to do with it. Lyrically, I have a lot of stuff written, it’s just an issue with me with music. I don’t know if I’m at the age where I’m being really picky, not finding what I want, or I’m stuck where I became spoiled with the tracks from the early days of Wu – which was great music. I don’t want a beat that can just be singled out for anyone to say, “That sounds retro,” or “That sounds old school.” I hear a lot of new music like that from some of the classical artists, I don’t like to say “old school.” Sometimes I hear new stuff from classical artists and the tone and the vibe just puts me back in the 90s. I don’t want anything that has that type of feeling. We did have some beats that still sound good to this day. I think it’s been an issue with getting music and myself being picky about what I want and trying to organizing it and put it together. Hopefully I can finish it soon.

TRHH: Take me back to 1995; Dirty dropped his album, Cuban Linx dropped, and then Liquid Swords. Most fans view that time as the peak of the Wu-Tang Clan. How much pressure was on you to deliver a classic being viewed as the head of the group and following great solo albums from Meth, Dirty, and Rae?

GZA: I’m sure from the outside it was a lot of pressure. Maybe something I didn’t really recognize. The only pressure I was feeling was the pressure of time. I wasn’t feeling pressure from competition at that time. Not saying that it wasn’t a lot of good stuff out there, but I felt more pressure on my first album from stuff that came in the golden era! I was like, “Damn! I gotta do something!” As far as time, it was pressure because I take a long time to record and make an album. The label kept pressing that we needed to get this done. I don’t think that was the peak of Wu. As far as Wu as a group, our popularity, our status, and our sales, the peak as a group would have been ’97 with Wu-Tang Forever. That was the peak. As far as ’95, that was me coming back after having an album in ’91 that didn’t get the promotion or the push that it deserved at the time. It was all fresh for me. It wouldn’t have been a peak for me – not as a solo artist.

TRHH: You mentioned ’97 and the Rage Against the Machine tour seemed to be a critical moment for the group. I remember going to the show in Chicago and you and Dirty weren’t there. Right after that, the group jumped off the tour. What are your feelings about what happened on the tour and how things transpired after?

GZA: Well, there are quite a few different stories. Some of them are similar and some of them are different. I don’t really recall what the situation was. Once we did the docuseries and I was being asked questions about it I remember Sacha mentioning something about a problem with Rage getting more money than us. I had no knowledge of that at the time. If I did, I didn’t remember. I remember we left the tour. One time we left the tour to do the Summer Jam thing. It’s kind of cloudy now on why we left. Maybe RZA can have more insight, or maybe he shed more on the docuseries and a lot of it was left out. I just know it was a large crowd every night. We were rocking every night, it was a great response from the audience, and we were well-received. I remember that much. It was packed – 18,000-20,000 people. I remember us going on first and then Rage afterwards. As far as the politics of it, why we really left, and what really happened, I can’t recall. RZA can probably shed more light on that.

TRHH: You recently collabed with Rapsody on her single “Ibtihaj” where she rhymed over the Liquid Swords beat. You don’t hear the GZA on everybody’s songs; how did that collaboration come together and what was it like working with Rapsody?

GZA: Right. Shout out to Rapsody. It was awesome to work with her on the set. I actually didn’t meet her until we did the video. That was the time I got to engage with her and kick it with her – not for a long time. She has a really warm vibe. She’s a very sweet person with a good personality. The energy was just cool. You know how you can feel the vibe and the music people are playing just resonates with you. When I say the music, her energy that she was giving off from the music she was playing. Beautiful person. We didn’t meet in the studio. The track was sent to me. Nowadays artists do songs together and don’t even meet [laughs]. The request came through management about myself getting on a song. I didn’t really know who she was at the time. I did a Google and checked out some of her stuff and I thought she was great. As an artist, a lyricist, her subject matter, some of the things she was saying, her flow, I was feeling it and liking it. I take a while to do something and they were pushing because they probably had a deadline. It was taking a while for me.

I ended up hearing her verse and it was the Liquid Swords beat revamped, remodeled, and remixed by 9th Wonder. I know 9th. I had a chance to kick it with him. I don’t know if we ever worked together or I got on one of his beats, but I know he worked with some of the Clan members. A lot of people respect his work and so do I. After knowing that it was 9th Wonder, Rapsody, the Liquid Swords beat, and once I heard the verse I was like, “Damn, it’s homage to Wu and to myself.” It’s a lot of respect to use the same beat, remix it, hook it up in a different way, rhyme over it, and take some of the hook. It was really just a dedication, not only to myself, but to the Wu, because in the hook she says, “She’s swarming with the bees.” It was just a dedication and I thought that was really great. I’m glad to be a part of it. I probably came in, in the last inning with the verse, but I made sure I knocked it out. I was happy that I was able to get on the song and in the video for her. It was greatly appreciated by her. All love! It’s getting a lot of love. It’s only been a couple of weeks and it’s at 800,000 views. That’s a good thing.

TRHH: You’re performing at the 2019 Muddy Roots Festival with a live band. How did the idea of rocking with a band with a rock influence come about?

GZA: [Laughs] Interesting that you said rock influence. I don’t know of anyone that can recognize that element, unless you went to a few shows of mine. I’ve been doing shows with the band for quite some time. I actually worked with a few bands throughout the years – maybe 5 or 6. I worked with El Michaels Affair, I worked with another family member, a brother-in-law of RZA’s, Trey, I forget the name of his band. I worked with Grupo Fantasma, which is a Latin funk band from Austin, Texas. I’ve done several shows with them. I think I did the first Liquid Swords show with a live band with them at Bonnaroo, which was a really cool set. It was at 3 A.M. and it was packed. I worked with another group called Wavves and I did Liquid Swords on a television show. I like the idea of working with a band. I know sometimes some bands can sound quite different from the song itself.

The band that I’m working with now, I don’t know if they’ve named themselves, but it’s a cousin of mine who is the drummer. He’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s brother, Ramsey. I’ve done the most shows with them, I love working with them, and that’s who I’ll be doing the show with. Working with a live band is different from a DJ. It’s a different setting. A DJ is great – that’s where it started from. They both have their own elements to them. It’s interesting that you said the rock part because what I like to do with the band is when I do a song the verse will be calm, but when it gets to the hook I like it to sound rocked out all the time! That’s the format we’ve been using and it really sounds great. The audience will get to see that.

If you haven’t watched me with a live band you will enjoy it. A lot of times some audiences don’t feel the live band thing. It’s a different element, but I like rocking with them. I think we do well and the sound is good. I don’t think there are any songs that really sound off or doesn’t sound like the song, and if there is it may be one or two that may be a little different. Each band comes with its own element. You’re able to drop certain instruments, you’re able to do things you can’t really do with a DJ. If a DJ is playing a record, everything is playing on that record unless that record has drops on it in the mix. With the band you can drop everything and have the drum running. You’re able to drop everything and have the bass playing or the hi-hats. You can talk over some of the songs. It has a whole different vibe and experience. It’s a different way of drawing an audience and it’s a great feeling.

I worked with the Soul Rebels, which is a brass band from New Orleans. I’ve done several shows with them alone and several with Talib Kweli on the band’s show. That’s a different vibe than some of the bands I work with because this is a brass band and it’s all horns. Although, I don’t really have a lot of songs that have horns, or any, maybe one or two – “Living in the World Today.” I don’t really have a lot of songs with horns and they still pull it off. The performance is great. The whole band thing, I’m cool for it. I’m cool with the DJ, also. We go back and forth. At one time I did five or six shows at this place called the City Winery. I did one in Nashville, Chicago, New York, and a few other cities. When I was asked to do it for a show in New York I originally was going to do it with a DJ. The DJ I work with is out of Oakland and he couldn’t make it. I ended up asking my cousin, Ramsey, to get his band to perform. The point that I’m making is the City Winery is a venue where everyone is sitting at a table with candle light drinking wine. It was the perfect setting for a band and not a DJ, so it happened to work out. The band thing is great.

TRHH: What do you have in-store for fans at the Muddy Roots Festival?

GZA: I’m just going to bring myself, give my all, and give my best performance. I’m going to do what I do. There are no surprises or special guests, unless someone shows up. There have been times where we may have a few Clan members in the same city. One of the last shows I did in L.A., downtown, it was a solo show with a DJ and we happened to have six Clan members in town that day and they just all happened to come. In other words, they got a Wu-Tang show for the price of a GZA show. As far as I know there will be no special guests or theatrics, other than lyrical content and me doing what I do.

If you haven’t watched me with a band then just be prepared. I think it will be greatly appreciated and enjoyed. That’s what I have in-store – to do my best, work with the band, and do another banging show. Hopefully we’ll get great reviews on it and be asked to come back again. We want to create the demand to come back again because it gives the audience a chance to see me and the band. For those who haven’t seen the band it gives them exposure, as well as myself, and we get to do what we do. We all love what we do. It’s a job that we love to do and it’s fun. We get paid to do it and it’s a fun job.

TRHH: It is difficult to come up with a setlist? As a fan there are GZA songs that might not be from Liquid Swords that I like, like Fam Members Only

GZA: And that’s a song I never do. I haven’t done it with the band. I don’t even know if they know it. One thing with the band, I have to do the songs that they’re familiar with and they can play. It’s quite different from a DJ where you can be backstage in the green room twenty minutes before the show and go, “You know what? You got Fam Members Only?” “No, I don’t have that,” “Well send out an e-mail or call Mathematics and get that track and let’s do that!” With the band it doesn’t really work like that. They have to know the song in advance. That’s the only way it can be done – it’s quite different. It’s not hard to get a setlist because we usually follow the same order. Sometimes we’ll switch stuff around, sometimes we’ll add things or take them out, but if we do, there are songs that they know already or have played before at several shows. We may do “Criminology.” It’s not a Genius song, but they know it and they play it well. Sometimes I’ll do that or “C.R.E.A.M.” just to add to the show. Sometimes I’ll do a few Wu songs.

On every show I usually always do “Shimmy” because there always has to be some sort of dedication to Dirty. He’s not here to represent himself and I like to represent for him at shows, so does Wu. We have his son out now doing his verses, but there’s always some Dirty thing in there. Triumph, although I may be the only one that’s on Triumph performing. I’ll do Deck’s verse because it’s the first verse and you can’t skip it. Sometimes I’ll do Deck’s verse and jump into my verse. If I do “Protect Ya Neck” I’ll do Deck’s verse and go into my verse after. Sometimes I may do 3 or 4 verses. It all depends on how you’re feeling, but with the band there’s no messing up because all they do is keep playing. If I screw up with a word or a verse, sometimes it’s good like that and you’ll see that it’s live and not rehearsed to a degree. You can improvise and throw other things in there. The performance is a great thing.

Now with the Clan it may be quite difficult to come up with a setlist, because now you’re dealing with the Clan and we have so many songs. Sometimes we may wait until the last minute to switch the setlist. It’s usually always RZA working with Math like, “Math, throw this on!” or “Maybe we should come out to Bring Da Ruckus?” or “We should come out to Wu Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit.” and somebody else will say, “Nah, we should come out like this!” “We should come out altogether!” “Nah, we should come out one by one.” It gets crazy.

TRHH: I’ve seen you guys perform a million times and one of my favorite performances was the Iron Flag tour when you guys came out one at a time and everybody went deep into their album cuts.

GZA: Okay, we’ve done that at times. Lately we’ve been coming out one at a time, but it’s been on certain songs like “Bring Da Ruckus.” We were doing that on the Gods of Rap tour. Ghost will come out alone for his verse, then Rae will come out, “I watch my back like I’m locked down!” then Deck will come out, “I rip it, hardcore like porno flick bitches!” and then I’ll come out last, “I’m more rugged than slave man boots!” And then we’ll go to “Shame on a Nigga” and YDB will come out, “Hut one, hut two, hut three, hut!” Meth will come out because he’s the second person on the verse, “The RZA, the razor!” Now you got about six of us on stage already, then we go into “Chessboxin’” and U-God comes out, Killa comes out on his part or we go into “Slang Editorial” and Cappadonna comes out. We’ve been doing it like that lately.

TRHH: You wrote many of Dirty’s rhymes, correct?

GZA: Right.

TRHH: What was the process like being in the studio, writing, and working with Ol’ Dirty Bastard?

GZA: Well, this is kind of different. It didn’t happen like that. I wrote two rhymes for Dirty that I wanted to present to him and then he passed and never got to use them. I actually used one of them on the Grandmasters album with DJ Muggs, it was called “All In Together Now.” That was a rhyme I had specifically for him. I’ve used some of his rhymes also, but he didn’t write them for me. This is how it happened, some of the rhymes that he used on his album were written by me, but they were written by me as a teenager. They were routines we used to do. As we got older and Wu-Tang formed we started doing solo projects and he wanted to go back and touch on those. I felt we were grown men at the time and those types of rhymes didn’t fit me at that time. Dirty, his whole style was different and unique. His name was Unique and he was able to pull it off. That’s how that came about. Those were rhymes I wrote as routines with Dirty when we were in our late teens that he just happened to use. I wasn’t in the studio sitting down with him.

If you listen to the rhymes, “Sitting at my class at a quarter to 10/Waiting patiently for the class to begin,” I was in high school when I wrote that! He was able to use those. I had verses and lines on my Words From the Genius album before Wu-Tang even existed that Dirty had written. We did them as routines, but he wrote the rhyme and I was able to use it. I wrote, “I grab the mic and I’ll damage ya’/Crush your whole stamina.” That’s a verse that’s straight through that we did together on his album, but he was able to flip it in a way that he out-shined me on the track and took over! We did use each other’s rhymes, but it wasn’t like when he did Return to the 36 Chambers I went in the studio and wrote for him, no, those were routines we did as youngsters and he was able to flip them. “Approach your school, 9:30, you’re late/The time doesn’t have you disillusioned with the date/Get to your class, walk to your chair/Flop in your seat and impatiently stare/At the teacher, the board, students who were blocking you…” That’s a rhyme from high school. That’s his own flow, that’s how he flipped it. I wasn’t rhyming like that. He put his own touch on it!

Even the Liquid Swords song, “When the emcees came/To live out the name,” that’s an old routine from the 80s. It used to be a verse that said, “When the emcees came/To live out the name/Some rocked the rhymes that was all the same/And when I elevated and mastered time/They were stimulated from the high-powered rhyme/They was shocked, ‘cause they knew they were rocked/Like the sucker emcees from off my block.” That’s where it came from. Those were just routines that we used and revamped, and they worked. I didn’t even want to use that, RZA was the one who said to use that. I was like, “Nah, I don’t wanna use that routine for a hook.” He was like, “Nah, I’m telling you, just do it!”

TRHH: And it worked [laughs]. When will we hear new music from the GZA?

GZA: Really soon. In the very new future. I keep throwing out times and dates and contradicting them. The time just has to be right. I know it’s been several years, but it’s coming soon. I’ve got a lot of stuff written. There’s a lot of stuff I want to release and let out and get back again. I look forward to that. I think after dropping the next one it will be an abundance. It will be more than I’ve ever done in a short period of time, because I’m like every five years or six years, now it’s been ten years. It’s definitely time and I think this last run will probably be an abundance of maybe three or four projects within the next two years and, boom, close the chapter.

TRHH: Close the chapter as in you’re done forever?

GZA: I can’t really say. When I say “close the chapter” is kind of along those lines. I want to venture out and do other things. I’ve been speaking at schools and universities. I haven’t put out a book yet or literary stuff. I plan to venture into those things because I do like writing, although I take a while to write, I love creating ideas and writing out things. A lot of times I put so much time and thought into a verse that it’s actually just a story or a script anyway! I can see that being the future for me for the next ten years; going out and speaking on lectures or teaching and doing workshops on writing and lyrical styles and wordplay. It’s something I love to do.

I love Hip-Hop and I love speaking about it. I mainly like talking about rhyming, flowing, wordplay, storylines, metaphors, openings, beginning game, middle game, end game, chess! The chess of emceeing and writing and creating stories. I can see myself writing several books, novels, and maybe a few scripts in the future. I’ve worked on some in the past, but it takes me a while and I sit on them, go back to them, and revamp them. I can see that – maybe two or three more projects – because I already have concepts and ideas that I’ve had in my head for 8 or 9 years that I would like to do after Dark Matter. I have some really cool concepts that have never been touched on in a way. I have some really beautiful things I have as far as writing that I’d like to put out there, then take it somewhere else.

Purchase GZA’s Solo Discography:

Words from the Genius

Liquid Swords

Beneath the Surface

Legend of the Liquid Sword

Grandmasters (w/ DJ Muggs)

Pro Tools

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About Sherron Shabazz

Sherron Shabazz is a freelance writer with an intense passion for Hip-Hop culture. Sherron is your quintessential Hip-Hop snob, seeking to advance the future of the culture while fondly remembering its past.
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