Talking to GZA/Genius I feel very intimidated. Playing at Coaster Festival as well as touring the country performing his seminal album Liquid Swords, it’s hard not to see him as a Samurai; a Ronin without a master, and hearing his muted and gravely voice for the first time I can’t imagine he’d have much trouble skewering a few Ninja with his Katana if he needed to.
Without a doubt one of the most influential artists in the history of hip hop, his work with Wu Tang as well as his solo albums such as Liquid Swords, Beneath The Surface, GrandMasters and his latest Pro Tools has earned him a reputation as one of the most credible and respected rappers working today.
What sets him apart from the flock of imitators and the uninspired is simple: his lyrics. His albums bounce from tales of the Samurai with Liquid Swords to an exploration of Chess as a metaphor for the rap game with GrandMasters. Match this with producers like RZA (Wu-Tang Clan; Liquid Swords) and DJ Muggs (Cypress Hill; GrandMasters) and what you get is hip-hop of a calibre that can tear through the gaudy battlements of the mainstream rap world and splinter into your organs like a lyrical hollow-point.
Music Feeds: What do you think it is that makes good lyrics?
GZA/Genius: I have this rhyme on the Wu Tang Forever album, it’s a song called High As Wu Tang Get. I start it off by sayin ‘too many songs, weak rhymes and mad long, made it brief, half short and twice strong.’
It’s just like writing. It’s like script writing. Less is more. Half short and twice strong. That’s a step towards being a good lyricist, being able to craft your work, bring people into your world.
I’m not really in your world if you talkin’ about your rims, your house and your car. You have to say somethin’ about your life, how you feel to actually bring people into that…
For instance, I don’t know if you listened to Pro Tools but have you heard the song called Zero Percent Finance? (I hadn’t) Anyway that whole song is about cars, in a whole different way, in a metaphorical way. It’s a story about a female, but the whole story is about cars but the cars are actually people. It’s not me talkin’ about how I drove a Lexus, and how I traded my Benz in for the Range Rover and how I put new seats in, none of that, but it’s a metaphor, you know, and it has double, triple and quadruple meanings in that song.
Much like the central character of Liquid Swords wields his blade, GZA/Genuis wields words, as line’s like ‘I ‘m on a mission, that niggaz say is Impossible/But when I swing my swords they all choppable/I be the body dropper, the heartbeat stopper/Child educator, plus head amputator/Cause niggaz styles are old like Mark 5 sneakers/Lyrics are weak, like clock radio speakers,’ strike like tempered steel.
MF: What is it that makes you choose a metaphor? What is it about chess, and about the samurai…
G: It’s usually by accident, or it’s usually by experiment. For instance, you know how some inventors, they invent things by accident. You ever heard of corn flakes? The Kelloggs cereal? I was reading one time, the creator was trying to bake something else and it came out all wrong. It came out to be all these dry little crumbly flakes and that’s how Corn Flakes started, and it’s the biggest selling cereal to this day. So, he just happened to stumble across that.
My point, that I use as an example, is that when I do these songs, like Queen’s Gambit, which is a story about another female, but I use all the NFL teams, it usually starts from a sentence or a phrase. When I did Animal Planet I was watching… I may have been watching Animal planet or National Geographic and the guy was showin’ something about polar bears, and there was a line that polar bears feasting on the blubber of seals and just from that sentence I was like ‘wow, that’s so visual, that’s so strong’ and I took that and I made a song.
I said ‘welcome to the Jungle where the cat loves to scratch the rat squeals And the polar bear feasts on the blubber of seals. The pack of wolves be scheming on a bunch of gazelles, where the leopards grab the wilderbeast down by it’s tail. You see the chimps they grow hemp, they hustle and sling in trees. Got elephants for security that move tons of leaves.”
MF: Definitely. Is it very much like stuck in a bit of a freestyle thing, and like you said that one line leads you off onto a system of thought and suddenly you’ve got a concept behind it?
G: Yeah, if I hear something strong enough. I just thought that was really, really strong. It was so visual… polar bears feasting on the blubber of seals. It’s all in your wordplay too. It’s not like I would say ‘yo, you see the polar bear? He got mad blood on him, he flyin’ across the ice son. Yo, he don’t need a coat.’ I don’t do it on that level.
I gotta write it like I’m writin’ somethin’ where I can bring you into my world. You know they say when you write a script or a book, that it should be a page turner meanin’ that you should keep turnin’ pages because it’s interestin’. Most songs are not page turners. When I hear a song, after two three, four lines and I hear the dude talkin’ about his rims, his chain, how much it cost and his house I’m like ‘o.k. There’s nothin’ new’. I keep it movin’.
His music aside for a moment though, GZA/Genius the name, along with other members of Wu-Tang is now recognised all around the world, even by people who aren’t especially hip-hop fans. Having appeared on The Chappelle Show (Konichiwa Bitches!) as well as starring alongside Bill Murray and fellow clansman RZA in Coffee & Cigarettes it’s easy to see why.
MF: Wu Tang have got to this point where even people who don’t know your music know who you are. Is that a bit surreal? Meeting people who know who you are but don’t know your music?
G: Yeah but it happens vice versa too. I also run into people who know my music but don’t know who I am. Once I was in Kentucky, and I was sitting down at the bar, it was a festival and I had to perform like forty minutes to a hour. I was sittin’ next to a guy and we was talkin’, he said ‘yeah man’, he was talkin’ about the festival, he said ‘there’s quite a few people out there.’ He looks over at me, says ‘yeah, they’ve got Del tha Funky Homosapien on right now, but I’m here to see Gza.’ I say ‘wow, I’m like to catch his performance too.’
It’s interesting why some people recognise you though. It’s funny like I ran in to a guy one day at another festival, he didn’t know who I was and… (laughs) Let me tell you how ironic this is, ’cause he was introduced to me, and he said ‘what is it jeezee, jeza, jism jaza?’ We seperated and he walked back over to me ten minutes later, he said ‘straight fuckin’ delirium.’ You know, that’s from Coffee and Cigarettes.
He said ‘I feel so stupid for not recognising you’ but look how ironic it is. Out of nowhere he did the same thing Bill Murray did in the movie: ‘What is your name geezee, jeffa, geezee in the reezee?’ He was doing the same thing when he was introduced and not even knowing it was me.