Interview: GZA on Uniqueness, Lyricism, and Science

GZA is often cited as one of the most intelligent, ferocious, and important MCs to have ever touched a mic. From his founding role in the Wu-Tang Clan, to his own successful solo career, the rapper is undoubtedly integral to the art of hip-hop. In 1995, GZA released the beloved classic, Liquid Swords. The album became a cultural staple, and remains his best-selling project to date. While he’s often associated with the sophomore LP, the artist has spent the remainder of his career, carving out an entirely unique path. Now at 50 years of age, GZA has grown into an avid chess player, a lecturer, and a science nerd.

We sat down with GZA in a small park, near the University of Toronto. The Wu-Tang rapper happened to be in the city, where he was taking part in Vice and Fido's excellent, Extra Credit series. It was a fitting location to interview The Genius, who Polygraph determined as having the second largest vocabulary in the game. Before we managed to speak with the rapper, GZA held up the interview for a few seconds. He stopped everything, in order to snap a few pictures of a black squirrel, casually rummaging in the grass. “We don't have them this colour”, he quips. After carefully zooming into the critter's face, he slips his phone back into his jean pocket. “Ok, now let’s begin”.

You've never seen a squirrel that colour before? Do you visit Toronto frequently?

No, I haven't seen them like this before [laughs]. We just have those brown tails. But yeah, I visit Toronto every now and then. Maybe twice or three times a year, for the last 20 years. Mostly to perform, but I’ve done a few lectures up here as well. I’ve visited the University of Toronto, and I’ve spoken in Montreal. Toronto’s a cool place. If I had the time, I’d be back and forth frequently. It’s a beautiful city.

Are you becoming more passionate about lecturing? You've been doing it for a while now.

I think it’s a good transition for me. You know, I’m getting older. I’ve been making music professionally since ‘91. I think it would be cool to do lectures for the next 10 years. It wasn’t anything that I planned, but it just happened. The first speaking thing I did, was at Harvard. The reason I did it, was actually because Ghostface Killah didn’t want to do it. I stepped in, and I didn’t know what I was going to speak about. I felt the same way he did. Afterwards, I started getting more involved with speaking. It helped, because I was working on an album where I used science as subject matter. It was a domino effect, and got to the point where I was meeting physicists and scientists for inspiration. I actually just worked on a television show about it all.

When you began to do lectures, you were also pursuing chess. Did it ever get difficult to balance out time for all of your passions?

No, but it was a lot of preparation. With speeches, you have to write a lot of it down. Then you have to figure out what you’re really going to say. Lots and lots of writing, but it’s the same with music.

Let’s talk about your music. Liquid Swords just turned 20 years-old, and many still cite its influence. For hip-hop fans, it’s a quintessential album. When you look back at the release today, what does the project mean to you?

I mean, it was just an album that I was working on. I had no idea the type of impact that it would have on people. I still don’t today. I was just doing what I loved to do, and it turned out well. People respect it a great deal. Some people come up to me and say that it’s their favourite album of all time.

I think that speaks to Liquid Swords as being a cultural staple. The musical significance has extended into cultural significance. When I was first getting into hip-hop, Swords was presented to me as an essential project.

I’m happy to hear that. I'm grateful to have had a career this long, even if I’m off of the mainstream radar. You know, I still get to do shows today. Our presence (Wu-Tang Clan) isn’t necessarily felt in the mainstream, but we still headline festivals. And one thing I notice, is that our crowd is still young. It’s not like we’re performing for a lot of people my age. Our audience is like 19, 20 years-old.

Before I sat down with you, I was sent this amazing clip of The Arsenio Hall Show. I believe it was the last episode that they taped, and you were on-stage with Wu-Tang, KRS-One, MC Lyte, A Tribe Called Quest, and a bunch of others. It was almost like the Mount Rushmore of hip-hop. Do you remember this night?

Oh yeah! I remember that. I was the one that did the verse, but Dirty wanted to do it. He was begging me, “please, please, let me do it!”. Eventually, he let me perform. That was an amazing moment, actually. Everyone was there.

I have to talk about Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. RZA has said that it'll come out in 88 years. Is that still the plan?

I don’t know. I guess so, but I was never really part of that plan. I mean, 88 years from now, music will be so different.

It would be like Cole Porter’s estate releasing unheard music.

Yeah. Can you imagine somebody releasing something after 88 years, today? The masses wouldn’t be waltzing to it. We don’t know what music is going to be like in 88 years from now.

Do you want it to be heard now, while there is still a hunger for it?

I don’t care. I mean, I haven't heard the album myself.

You haven't heard it front to back?

I’ve never heard it period! I don’t think any Wu member has heard it, with the exception of RZA. It was an album that was assembled over a long period of time. The guy that produced it (Cilvaringz), did it over the course of 12 years. He would record us every time we did a show near him. The last time I did a verse for it, was six years ago in New York. The last time before that, was about 10 years ago in London. Those verses may be on it, but I don’t know for sure. He paid for the verse, and then he pieced everything together. I don’t know what it sounds like.

Does it bother you that Martin Shkreli purchased the album, or that he’s forever connected to it now?

He’s a bit of a fool. I don’t really care what he does with it, but yeah, it’s disappointing.

You were mentioning earlier about your love for science. Did that love come naturally while you were making music?

Normally when I do an album, I have a concept behind it. I thought, it would be cool to have science as my main subject matter. There’s so much information to choose from. You can go and on, about the science of anything. What happened, was when I spoke about it, people ended up really digging it. I did The Legend of the Liquid Swords album in 2002, and there’s on a rhyme on there. On it, I say:  "The nature and the scale of events don't make sense. A storm with no warnin', you're drawn in by immense. Gravity that's gone mad, clouds of dust and debris. Moving at colossal speeds, they crush an emcee".

It’s not like I just started talking about planets and space. When I was growing up, to be an emcee meant to write the most clever, intellectual, and wittiest rap. And that’s what we did. We incorporated what we were learning at the time. You know, when we were young, we were learning about the mother and child. RZA had a rhyme when he was like 15, where he says “my mind flashed back to an eerie mood, when I was just a sperm cell in a fallopian tube.” We were always rapping differently. I just decided that I was going to use science as subject matter.

The Wu-Tang Clan were unique in embracing "nerdy" things, like Shaolin Kung Fu. Hip-hop wasn’t really touching upon "nerdiness" at the time. Did you ever feel pushback from the rap scene?

In the beginning, nobody was incorporating stuff like that into their music. They might not have been fully embracing Shaolin or anything, but rappers were still witty and intelligent. Then, rappers started to have names like "Scientific Wizard". You know, Kool G Rap was the “Kool Genius of Rap”. Nowadays, it’s totally different. Instead of “genius” in your name, people have “murder” or “pimpin”. Mind you, we have three “killers” in the family - Ghostface Killah, Killah Priest, and Masta Killa. But they weren’t talking about killing people, that was about being killers on the mic.

Does the current state of hip-hop bother you?

It’s kind of fucked up. Lyrically, there’s no growth and development. That’s not a knock to the entire genre, there are a lot of really talented artists out there. I get that music is changing, and that’s cool, but the lyrical part of the genre has regressed. A lot of what I hear today, you don’t have to sit down and write that. Rappers should sit down and construct quality lines.

As far as hip-hop goes, do you think we’ll ever see more emphasis on lyrical ability? Of course we have conscious rappers, but I mean, as far as the mainstream goes.

It will, but not how it used to be. Rap has always had a braggadocios flavour to it. That goes all the way back to “Rapper’s Delight”. But now, there’s nothing more to it. And it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. You need the message, you need the flow, and you need the cadence. We see rappers disrespecting women, and that’s what the majority of stuff is now. We still have Kendrick and J. Cole, which is representative of what we had in the 90s, with Dead Prez. We had conscious, lyrical stuff. MCs can walk around now without a problem. You couldn’t do that back in the day. You couldn't say you were an MC, because people would want to battle you.

Did that ever happen to you? Were you ever challenged on the street?

There was a guy up the street from me, and his name was Captain G. Whiz. I looked for him for weeks. We didn’t have cellphones, we couldn’t text. I just kept going to his area and waiting for him. Killah Priest was with me, and he must have been 14 at the time. We finally found G. Whiz, and I battled him on his corner, surrounded by 30 of his homeboys. When Killah Priest reflects on that day, he says we were going to get jumped. There used to be more motivation to be the best MC. David Geffen once said that he didn’t want to sign any rappers. This was obviously after I signed my deal with his label. But the reason he said that, was because he was tired of hearing the same story.

What do you mean by the "same old story"?

Well, when rappers make a movie about themselves, it’s always the same story. “He was into music, but he was selling drugs”. Rappers could never be writers in Hollywood, it wouldn’t work. We could never do that, because we’d be writing the same story. This is what most people don't realize. Out of 100 artists, only one can rap in his own voice. The rest are imitators. When you have a unique artist, it’s like Halley's Comet, because it doesn’t come often. Take Adele, as an example. She’s powerful, she makes strong music, and she sounds like no one else. That’s also why she sells the most copies in the first week of sales. She’s different. It’s the same with Alanis Morissette, the same with Nirvana, and the same with Wu-Tang.

One thing I've always said of your work, is that it’s very visual. There’s a huge attention to visual details in your lyrics.

That’s because rap is a visual language. You have to create a world to draw people into it. To me, every line has to be visual. Sometimes, it can take me two days to get two sentences. If you look into my notebook, you’ll see that all of my lines are just sentences. Many of them don’t go together, but I work them into each other. If I start writing about trees, maybe I’ll start writing about landscaping. When I wrote the song, "Animal Planet", I was watching the channel, Animal Planet. The narrator of some show said, “polar bear feasting on the blubber of seals”. I was like, “oh that shit sounds strong”. Inspectah Deck once told me that all you need are strong sentences. That’s how you get lines like, “Shackling the masses with drastic rap tactics”.

So I had the “blubber” line for a while, and then I was listening to Guns N' Roses, and got even more inspiration. Then I was able to piece it together, and got “Welcome to the Jungle where the cat loves to scratch. The rat squeals. And the polar bear feasts on the blubber of seals”. In that song, all of the animals were representing people. Each animal had a message, so every line required me to write strongly. “The chimps they grow hemp”, that’s a metaphor, like they’re selling weed. But these lyrics take time and need to be properly put together.

So, in that sense, would you compare your writing style to a puzzle?

Yes, it’s definitely a puzzle. It’s exactly like Rakim said, “fitted like pieces in a puzzle, it’s complicated”. I have to piece it together, no matter what I write. If I’m writing about jeans, I have to start thinking about the dye, the cotton, and where the cotton comes from. But then maybe I’ll start thinking about my own genes, my own genetics. Metaphors and similes don’t just come like that overnight.

Do you think that goes over most people’s heads?

Yes. I once had an artist, and I’m not going to mention his name. Anyways, he once said that he doesn’t like me, because my raps are so smart, they’re stupid to him. But it’s not about that, it’s because he didn’t actually listen. Even though you may be talking in the streets, my stuff will crush your stuff. I have a verse where I say: “I come from a place where they say, death comes too soon. Where the hoods on the block, dance to a different tune. Every night and every day, hotels of foul play. Turns fatal, when this hostile land of AK's. On any date, not wait to pump them rounds. The reminder; it's a murderer stomping ground.” Man, that stuff will crush your little hooks. As an artist, it’s my job to create worlds with my music. So it’s not so smart that it’s stupid. I’m just way more visual. Obviously, that guy never really listened. I don’t think he would have said those things, if he actually listened to my lyrics.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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