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Words of wisdom from Wu-Tang’s Genius

Nate PetersonVail CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Genuis/GZA, the solemn sage of pioneering New York rap collective Wu-Tang Clan, doesn’t write rhymes fast.In fact, according to the Genius, certain phrases and storylines can remain in his head for years, gestating and gaining traction, before they end up on paper, then fully take form as complete songs.”I can’t cheat myself,” said GZA (born Gary Grice), who was born in Brooklyn and is credited with forming what would become the Wu-Tang Clan with cousins Robert Diggs (RZA) and Russell Jones (Ol’ Dirty Bastard). “I’m not a fast writer. I know people who can write a rhyme in 30 minutes. But 10 of their rhymes won’t compare to one of mine.”It’s a boast that most knowledgeable MCs wouldn’t contest. As a lyricist and a storyteller, GZA remains revered in the ever-changing hip-hop universe, a master of his craft who – despite median commercial success as a solo artist – is esteemed by about anyone who has ever picked up a mic to fire off rhymes. On the Clan’s groundbreaking 1993 debut, “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” GZA’s carefully-crafted stanzas and penetrating delivery made him stand out among the group’s 10 collective voices. His 1995 solo album “Liquid Swords,” which was produced by RZA and featured multiple guest spots from Clan members, is arguably the best Wu-Tang record ever made, and was named by The Source as one of its top 100 rap albums of all time.GZA’s lyrics on “Liquid Swords” cast listeners into a dark world full of shadowy characters – drug lords, assassins, and undercover agents among them – while a soundtrack of gritty, minimized beats spliced by RZA played in the background.Track for track, the word play on the album is arguably unrivaled among other hip-hop records released in the last 12 years. While he has released three albums since “Liquid Swords,” GZA said audiences at his live shows connect with that album’s material – and the early Wu-Tang tracks – more than anything else.His most devoted fans appreciate all his material, namely songs off his two most recent efforts, “Legend of the Liquid Sword,” and the DJ Muggs collaboration, “Grandmasters.” But GZA said he doesn’t pawn off those familiar with only “Liquid Swords” as listeners who haven’t learned to grow with him.”I embrace that forever,” he said. “I always run into people that have connected with the music. It inspires me to meet people who love my writing and love my music. Sometimes they can put it in words and I can’t.”As for the current state of hip-hop, GZA said he rarely listens to the radio, and isn’t moved by most of the records he hears out in clubs. As an art form, hip-hop has become stale and saturated, and lacks the focus with which he approaches his music.”With me, Dirty and RZA, it was always about having the flyest rhymes, critiquing word play, just vibing,” he said. “Hip-hop now, there’s no finesse, there’s no originality. I don’t go into the studio trying to make a club song. That’s never on my mind, I don’t write like that. I hear rapper’s do interviews and they’re like, yeah, we needed a club banger, or we needed this on the album. “… Rappers are so one-dimensional now. They get a club beat and they figure the rhyme has to be about being in the club, too – a club rhyme. It’s crazy. So now in the track you’re in the club, you’re buying the bar and you’re VIP. You know what I’m saying? That’s why my future plans are to write books and scripts and really, really take it there. That’s the time and effort I put into writing a rhyme. I write them like novels or like they’re screenplays. That’s how I am with rhyming.”As for how he creates his rhymes, GZA said he finds inspiration all around him. He compares his creative process to doodling – “where, the pen is just flowing, or the pencil is just flowing and you don’t know what you’re drawing, it just becomes something,” he said.”The story comes to me,” he adds. “I can be inspired by so many things: Music, people, books, anything.”Even just one off-hand phrase can lead to an idea. On his debut, GZA penned “Labels,” a story rap that incorporated various record labels into the lyrics. He followed with similar concept songs on his later releases, including “Queen’s Gambit” off “Grandmasters,” a story rap about a strong, beautiful woman that wove the name of 31 NFL teams into the lyrics.The world play is so deft, that on first listen most listeners wouldn’t pick up the embedded theme.Sample lyrics: I told her to stay strong, not to be ashamed/ You’re a 10 I see, you just need to TITAN your game … Her interesting background, but quite unusual/ A great force grip, but out of bounds for a musical/ She told me to call her, if I came to town/ I started TEXAN her, soon as my plane had touchdown”Everything has to be written metaphorically,” GZA said. “You almost have to have more than one meaning. Or even if it does have one meaning, there’s many different ways to look at it. Like most things, I do that with songs.””What’s so messed up about hip-hop, as far as the lyrical part of it, there’s so many things to talk about,” he adds. “There’s so much to talk about in life. But, you listen to records, and it’s the same thing over and over and over and over.”An industry coup – like the one the GZA and the Wu-Tang Clan piloted in 1993 – may be on the horizon. The group has plans to record some time this year for it’s first group album since 2001’s “Iron Flag,” although GZA said he hasn’t heard exactly when and where that will take place.The group, which last hit the road together for some shows in August and September, will be without founding member Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who died from an accidental drug overdose in 2004.The only member that isn’t on board – yet -GZA said is Ghostface Killa, the group’s most critically successful solo artist in recent years.”This is something that’s been talked about for years,” he said “I think there may be a few issues with a few members that need to be straightened out or whatever. Not myself, per se, but there maybe some little things that need to be straightened out. It’s just a matter of all of us getting together. We’ve been talking about doing another album and I think it’s time. The fans want it and they’re still waiting for it.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is npeterson@aspentimes.com


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