GZA - Tooled Up
As a member of the seminal Wu-Tang Clan, GZA has risen to the top of the hip hop pile and affirmed his place as one of the few true veterans of the scene. After recently releasing his first solo effort in five years, Pro Tools, he chats to 3D’s Matt Unicomb about metaphorical lyricism, coincidence and playing live.
At 42 years of age GZA is more than an MC – he is a movement. Emerging from the New York hip hop underground in the early 1990s with cousins Ol’ Dirty Bastard and RZA on his flank, GZA has been hailed as being amongst hip hop’s all-time greatest lyricists. As a pioneer of the early/mid-‘90s East Coast hardcore movement as part of the seminal Wu-Tang Clan alongside the likes of Nas, KRS-One, Gangstarr, Notorious B.I.G., Mobb Deep, and Big L, GZA has notched up five critically acclaimed solo albums, while appearing heavily on each of the five Wu-Tang Clan albums.
In August this year, GZA released Pro Tools, his sixth solo studio effort. Perhaps GZA’s most eclectic lyrical effort to date, the album has reached sales of over 20,000 since its release “I didn’t have a concept for this album,” GZA begins. “For the next two albums I know exactly what I want to write about, and exactly where I want to go. I didn’t really have any direction on this. If I don’t have a specific subject, it gives me a lot more room. For the majority of the album, I could go anywhere with it.”
Pro Tools comes five years after GZA’s last solo release, Legend Of The Liquid Sword. Originally penned as a ‘GZA Presents…’ compilation, the album evolved into an entirely GZA release, with nine different producers spread over 12 tracks. Interestingly, long-time collaborator RZA contributes with only two beats. “It was supposed to be a compilation album,” he explains. “That’s what they were paying for, but they ended up getting a GZA album. I didn’t want to sell myself too short. As time went on I wanted to do something meaningful, something that I would appreciate.”
Amongst the 12 tracks are a complex variety of metaphorically thick, lyrically intricate rhymes. A very much-publicised stab at 50 Cent takes form as Paper Plate, alongside Masta Killa and RZA guest spots and a 104 bar monster, 0% Finance, which may rank as one of GZA’s most lyrically technical and talented deliveries of his 20-odd-year career. This intricate lyricism is the result of the consistent re-writing and re-drafting of his rhymes. “I do four or five drafts for each rhyme,” GZA explains. “It has to be [drafted] in order to get it precise. Stuff like that [0% Finance] is usually over people’s heads, because I don’t literally point out everything. With an average artist writing a rhyme like that, everything would’ve been straight up. [When I write lyrics] every line has a double meaning.”
Without delving too deeply into the subjective minefield of Wu-Tang lyricism, 0% Finance is, quite simply, a story. 104 bars over four minutes, over a beat hovering somewhere around 110BPM is no easy feat. GZA’s mellow delivery is pitted against Jose ‘Choco’ Reynoso’s hook-less, live guitar monster, with remarkably fascinating results. “I punched a lot on this album,” GZA explains of 0% Finance. “I’m not one that punches verses. I don’t usually do that. I learn the verse, then go in and knock it out. I don’t like to punch. I was pressed for time – I had just written the rhyme [0% Percent Finance] that day – and was piecing it together, and didn’t know it off by heart. I had to do some reading. I punched a lot. It’s hard to really tell. The first time I performed it I was winded. It’s 104 bars, straight through, and the tempo is at least 110 [BPM]. It takes years of mastering wordplay and flowing to do that – especially when the beat is so fast.”
While these somewhat coincidental results still become apparent after the intense analysing, and re-analysing of his rhymes, GZA has spent part of his career simply ‘going with the flow’. One of GZA’s most acclaimed endeavours, 1996’s Cold World featuring Inspectah Deck from his solo debut, Liquid Swords, was one instance of coincidence leading to musical brilliance. “When it comes to music, things do happen,” he notes. “Most of the things we did were planned. We didn’t go into the studio and freestyle. According to how things took place, some things just happened. I wrote the rhyme for Cold World, but Deck just happened to come into the studio the night I was recoding. He wrote his rhyme on the spot.”
The first single released from Pro Tools is the 50 Cent swipe, Paper Plate. Several incidents in which the two have taken jabs at each other have been highly reported in the hip hop community, with GZA finally taking it upon himself to throw a spanner in the G-Unit machine. “He didn’t really do anything,” he says of 50 Cent. “He didn’t piss me off. I just felt like throwing something out there. He’s a slick talker. He had his little slick comments about me and the Wu-Tang – I addressed it.”
Recently completing a Liquid Swords tour of the US, GZA may just be the most live-experienced Wu-Tang MC. After touring to every inhabited continent numerous times, sometimes several times a year, there are few artists who can claim as much live experience. With thousands of gigs under his belt, the ability to read an audience is never to be taken for granted, nor the so-called energy an artist craves for his live show. “Sometimes the energy isn’t there,” he says of the live experience. “You [the artist] might be tired, or the crowd is not really where they should be. Energy comes and goes. You can get it from people, and people might get it from you. You could have someone in the crowd that’s your number one fan, but he’s looking at you like he doesn’t even like you.”
After having releases hailed as classics, and others branded, by some, as sub-par, the artist’s ability to predict the reception of their release has never been harder – especially for the veterans. “You always have to do stuff for yourself, because you never know what people are going to like. I can feel it [success] out, because I know that the majority of fans that I have listen to lyrics - I understand that they will appreciate the work.”
WHAT: Pro Tools through Shogun
WHEN: Out now