Rewind the Rhyme: GZA

“You know dead rappers get better promotion…” -Styles P, “We Gon’ Make It”

Something many forget or refuse to recognize is that art is immortal. Long after an artist’s life is over, they continue to live through their work. Music is no exception. 2Pac and B.I.G. are perfect examples of artists who in their lives made exceptional music, always pushing the envelope to be the illest and in their passing, left behind reams of rhymes that have lived after them keeping their memory alive and inspiring generations of present/future MCs. The integrity of your work is the legacy of any artist, but these days in the rush to produce quickly, to create quantity many have come to consider quality as an after thought in their quest for success leaving behind flippant phrases and soulless songs to be remembered or better yet, forgotten by. Luckily though, there are still some who hold artistic integrity in high regard and continue to create at a standard based on making classics as opposed to just a dollar and they are who make not only keep Hip-Hop alive but make features like this possible.

When your name is “The Genius” you have a very high standard to live up to. There is no room for mediocrity. Your fans expect complexity, creativity, and mind-blowing metaphors, every time, and lyrically the GZA delivers. Part of a crew of nine talented MCs, from the beginning, the GZA has stood out as the most purely lyrical of the Wu-Tang Clan. In this edition of “Amanda Diva’s Rewind the Rhyme,” the GZA takes us back to a time when the lyrics didn’t just make the MC, they made the man. He speaks on where his mind was when he penned “Lyrical Swords,” how he came up with his trademark concept he’s used for the classics “Labels,” “Publicity,” and “Fame,” and which member of the Wu’s verse on “Triumph” had him shook to get on the track.

AllHipHop.com: Do you still even listen to Hip-Hop?

GZA: Every now and then. Not much of it. Not much because I don’t really check the radio out like that. Usually, I hear what I can’t avoid. Like what’s on TV or what my daughter is listening to upstairs on BET. Usually, what I hear in the streets or what’s being played all the time is what I hear but I know there’s a lot of good stuff out there that’s not really being heard. Really, I listen to songs from the ‘70s all the time. Sometimes, when I’m watching cable late at night when there’s nothing on but infomercials I turn it to the “Classic R&B” station and “Classic Disco,” ‘cause those are the songs I grew up off of. I was explaining recently how Hip-Hop is a combinations of all different kinds of music and the songs we used to sample-like most break beats were R&B songs that just had breaks in ‘em. And you know, those songs-I get great vibes off those songs. I grew up off of them and I love listening to ‘em. That’s normally what I listen to. I watch for lyrics. I listen for lyrics and words and things of that nature. The strong content, that’s what it’s about for me.

["Liquid Swords" Liquid Swords (1995)]

AllHipHop.com: Well you’re definitely about strong content in your own music. To me, this was the record that really made people say, “Yo, this cat can rhyme!” Where was your head at when you wrote “Liquid Swords?”

GZA: It’s hard for me to remember sometimes where I was actually at when I was recording.

AllHipHop.com: Hmmm… I wonder why? Spark the lye.

GZA: Hmmm, yeah. I was doing a whole lot of that [smoking weed], which I don’t now.

AllHipHop.com: Really? Does it affect your writing? Because I read an interview with you from 1999, and in the interview you were saying that the weed doesn’t necessarily make you write better…

GZA: Yeah, because when I smoke, or when I used to smoke, it has you thinking about all types of stuff. Your mind is just working faster. You’re thinking about so much but then half of the stuff you might just, delete, or not even use, but you think about so much that you’re constantly thinking about things and you’re writing stuff down. That feeling is great to be stimulated like that. I always recorded records like that. So, I was used to that. It was a great feeling, but I was something I depended on so much. Like everything I did, I smoked. If I read a book, I had to smoke a blunt. Not saying I had to, but this is what I did. At the same time though, I would read the same page three times because I couldn’t focus.

AllHipHop.com: What made you stop?

GZA: [pauses] Twenty years of smoking…blunts…you have to stop at some point. That many years of smoking, blunts at that, is harsh to the lungs or the body. Also, [folks get] that high, [and] look stupid look sometimes. Not that I walked around looking stupid all the time, but it just wasn’t a good feeling. I stayed tired. I would take like four or five naps a day. That’s how it was. So I just had to leave that alone.

AllHipHop.com: Well you may not remember back then, but what about now. You’re in a new space, it’s a new time; Hip-Hop has changed totally, so when you perform “Liquid Swords” how does it relate to the new climate of things?

GZA: When I listen to the song now, I still think it’s a great song. I think it’s strong lyrically. I mean compared to what’s out there now it’s just crushing a lot of stuff and the song is eleven years old. That’s how I’m looking at it. I always look at back at things I’ve done in the past and I look at it now like, how could I have improved it and made it better? I’m constantly growing. I think lyrically, I [still] haven’t got to “that” point.

[“Labels,” Liquid Swords (1995), "Publicity" Beneath the Surface (1999), and “Fame” Legend of the Liquid Sword (2002)]

AllHipHop.com: I’ve always thought you were one of the illest lyricists of your time a lot in part because of your creativity. Tell me about what inspired you and what was your process behind doing the three themed records “Labels,” “Publicity,” and “Fame”…

GZA: It’s almost accidental in how [they] came about. It’s just like inventors – like how Grandwizard Theodore invented the scratch. How it was with “Labels,” I think I heard someone say, “Tommy ain’t my boy.” I don’t know where I heard it, but it just came to me and I thought about using all the labels like [I did in the song]. It was the same with “Publicity.” It’s just that when I get ready to do an album I don’t sit down and say, “I gotta do another one of those songs,” – even though that’s what I’ve been doing each album. I’ve continued the saga but that’s not how it goes down. Usually I hear something. Like when I did “Publicity” I was in the studio one night and I think Sunz of Man and Dreddy [Krueger] were in there and I think someone-I think it was Timbo King-had something written on paper. It said, “My rap pages are the source.” I was like, “That’s phat, I want that!” Then I asked him if I could use it and everyone in the studio was like, “That’s GZA right there!” So I give him props for that. It was cool ‘cause when I saw that line, “My rap pages are the source,” I knew already I could do something called “Publicity” and throw every magazine and that line in there in a unique way. That’s the funny part about it, how I structure the songs, where the names are not just names. I use them as verbs. Like on “Fame” for instance, usually, the average person would say, “Kurtis was chillin’ and he was blowing.” They would put mad words between the names where I just said, “Kurtis, blow Lena’s horn/Cruise the boulevard, Chris, rock the song.” I wouldn’t say, “Chris was chillin’ when he rocked it.” The names are not just names. I had to use names that were like action words also, or just verbs. It takes time but it’s a unique way of writing.

["Triumph" Wu-Tang Forever (1997)]

AllHipHop.com: In terms of writing songs as a group, you had to be real creative to fit nine cats, all with different styles, on a records. This next song, “Triumph” is definitely a classic Wu-Tang record that featured the whole crew. On these posse cuts, how did it work in terms of you deciding what you wanted to bring to the record lyrically?

GZA: Sometimes I don’t want to hear what’s on it already, and sometimes I do. For instance, when I heard Inspectah Deck, I was damn near terrified! All the lyrics was great on there but that was the really the only thing that had me like, I can’t touch it. I was really like, “I don’t what to say behind that.” How can you even follow that? How can you? “I bomb atomically/ Socrates philosophy…” How can you? That’s how I honestly felt. They was like, “C’mon, you gotta get on it. This is the single.” I can’t even-I don’t know- I don’t think there was anything on there [I said] that even compared to that verse. He got me on that one. I think he slayed everybody on that. Deck is incredible. Deck is one of my favorites.

AllHipHop.com: On a scale of One to Ten, where would you say lyrics are in Hip-Hop right now?

GZA: On a scale of One to Ten? Overall? Lyrics? One.

AllHipHop.com: Damn.

GZA: I mean, listen to the average stuff you’re hearing right now. You gotta say One. Even if you have ten artists out right now that I might give a Seven or Eight to overall, you still have to give it a One because out of ten that’s just ten out of a thousand MCs that’s got records out right now. There’s more people trying to be MCs than trying to be NBA players. I think I once heard that only a certain amount-I don’t know the numbers-out of 50,000 a year, ever make it to the NBA. The odds in Hip-Hop are even greater. At one point, Kurtis Blow had a record where he said, “There are 8 million rappers in the naked city,” or something like that. Right now, there might be 20 million. And it’s the same thing over and over. Usually, I’ll hear a shorty rhyme and it’s the same s**t, his guns, his money, his b*tches. I mean, if all I rhymed about was material things, I would still slay it. It’s not my thing, but if cars was my thing and money and jewelry, I would slay it. Because I would still take the same amount of time I take to write and put it into that.

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