GZA Interview: Wu-Tang Clan’s Grandmaster Of Rhymes

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by Alex Shtaerman

With the release of Grandmasters, one of the deepest MCs to ever pick up a microphone breaks through the clutter yet again, adding a powerful new chapter to a legacy that began nearly three decades ago when a young Gary Grice first left his home in Staten Island and traveled to the Bronx to try his hand at an emerging new craft. As a core member of the mighty Wu-Tang Clan, Gza’s cerebral rhymes and complex wordplay would catapult the life long MC to an illustrious solo career highlighted by the landmark 1995 LP Liquid Swords. Widely regarded as one of Hip-Hop’s most clever and sophisticated wordsmiths, in 2005 Gza’s unwavering mic game is once again on display as Wu-Tang’s most skilled swordsman collaborates with legendary Cypress Hill producer DJ Muggs. The result is Grandmasters, one of the year’s best albums.

Read the Grandmasters album review.
Read the RiotSound interview with Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs.
See pictures from Wu-Tang Clan show at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom.
See pictures from Wu-Tang Clan’s 2004 concert at Continental Airlines Arena.
See pictures from Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s last NYC show at BB King’s.

RIOTSOUND.COM: The response to Grandmasters has been very positive; a lot of your longtime fans are really praising this album. Has the response been more or less than you were expecting when you first completed the record?

GZA: [pause] more. I feel real good about this project and this album and the work that’s on it. I felt that it would be received well, so it’s a good thing.

RIOTSOUND.COM: How did the collaboration between yourself and Muggs come about?

GZA: I worked with Muggs on his previous projects that he had with the Soul Assassins albums, on the first one and the second one. We did two songs and two videos and at one point a little over a year ago he mentioned something about doing an album. I was like – cool [this could work]. I linked up with him about a year ago in New York and he gave me some beats. He gave me about twelve or thirteen beats and I took them with me and started vibin’ to a few of them. Then I linked up with him again four months later and we completed the album.

RIOTSOUND.COM: The chess interludes you got on the album are a great touch; how did that aspect get incorporated?

GZA: We were playing chess everyday in the studio while I was recording. When I went into the studio in L.A., it was my first time in there, and in the lounge area they had a chess board. I don’t know if they had that there for them or if it was extra treatment for myself, but it was cool, we were playing everyday. I would play with the engineers, the assistant, Muggs, the studio manager. So we were playing all the time and at one point I think it was Muggs [who came up with the idea] to call the album Grandmasters and I thought it was a good call and I was all for it.

We were doing songs and normally how it works is I don’t have hooks or song titles, I just write and I work, I always lay verses first. I don’t think I ever get a hook first, maybe on one or two songs I might of had a hook. So I had did all these songs and then we were putting hooks to ’em and I was like – damn, since Muggs is gonna call it Grandmasters, we should have interludes or skits with chess terms in them and everything should be built around chess.

So I was like, [the way I should do it] is a lot of these songs should have titles that relate to chess – with the exception of All In Together Now. I didn’t want to change that title because that song was about Dirty and that was the name of our crew and the words “all in together now” are mentioned all through the hook. So I didn’t want to change that and also didn’t want to change the title for Those That’s ‘Bout It because that hook also stood out.

So that’s how the whole chess theme came about. Muggs went out and got a couple of tapes with chess players speaking on it. He went and got a female voice [that we used] right before the Queen’s Gambit track. She had the Russian accent and I thought that would be great to use her voice and drop a few things about chess on there. And it worked well I think.

RIOTSOUND.COM: You offer a lot of insight into Ol’ Dirty’s life on All In Together Now; did you record that song to give people an accurate account of who ODB really was or would you say it was more of a personal tribute?

GZA: Well, it turned into a personal tribute but originally I wrote that song for Dirty way before he passed. That song was written for him, the only thing I did was change “I” to “he” and “him”.

RIOTSOUND.COM: So that rhyme was originally meant for him to say?

GZA: Yea, that was his rhyme but he never got a chance to get it. [I wrote that for him] because who knows Dirty better than myself as an MC? No one. The first time I ever went into the studio was with Dirty back in 1984 or ’83 and we recorded a track called True Fresh MC. We had many routines, we battled many people together and we wrote many rhymes together and I know him and I knew that I could write for him. I knew that there was a certain point in time where I felt he needed some good writing because he was over at Roc-A-Fella and you know with his mental state – Dirty, he was in another world by the time he passed, you know what I’m saying.

One time I called him about giving him songs and the first thing he says is – [in ODB’s voice] you got me some party shit?! I was like man – ’cause that’s how they was trying to get him towards, you know, reaching out and doing what everyone else is doing. And I was like – its not you Dirty, people want to hear YOU, your experiences, how you feel. And those rhymes [I wrote] were perfect for him because I was really talking about him but it would have been him talking about himself. And this is what people want to hear – [talking to ODB] people don’t want to hear you poppin’ fuckin bottles. And those were the kind of songs that I think people over at [Roc-A-Fella] or whoever they had in his camp were writing for him. But I wanted to give him something, I wrote a couple of songs, I wanted to give him something very nice. But unfortunately he didn’t get a chance to get it or link up with me or lay it down.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Over the years, one of the trademarks of your style has been to loosely tie together a series of complex elements through rhyme form, where two people listening to the same thing may be able to perceive or interpret what you are saying in different ways, yet at the same time your rhymes are very clear and vivid. How did you develop your style into what it is today from the time you first started rhyming?

GZA: Years of practice; years and years of practice. I started MCing at a very young age, just a few years after Hip-Hop was born. I came into it at a very early point and I used to travel all the time. I have a song called Auto Bio off the last album [Legend of The Liquid Sword] where I explain my introduction into Hip-Hop. I used to travel to the Bronx and the Bronx was way more advanced than where I was staying at in Staten Island, we were so far behind at the time. This was in the 70’s, ’76, ’77. I would travel to the Bronx and get on the mic.

I was inspired to really do the MC thing by unknown artists that came from neighborhoods and streets. I wasn’t really inspired by a lot of the old school greats that were making records because I was rhyming for so long – with the exception of Spoony Gee, I always liked him since his Spoonin’ Rap back in ’78 or ’79. I’ve felt a lot of MC’s, I mean, they were all good to me as far their style and how they rhyme but Spoony was one of the ones I really liked from back in the days. But with the exception of him it was a lot of neighborhood greats that used to get on the mic and rhyme, and a lot of them came from the Bronx.

As the years went on I used to travel to Queens. In Southside Jamaica, Queens they had MCs out there that was doing their thing. I used to go to Brooklyn, I would travel all over because I had family all over and I lived in damn near every borough. So I would travel back and forth and I would incorporate – from a young age I would take stuff that other people were doing and bring it back to Staten Island and change it around with my own words. So I used to take a little from here and there.

Growing up, as I got older and older and started getting into my teens I became good with it. I was always one that stood out, whether I was in junior-high, high school or in my neighborhood, there wasn’t really anyone as far as MCs that was as good as me. Even from the All In Together Now Crew with myself, Dirty and Rza – me and Rza and Dirty used to spend hours on the phone just talking about MCing and going through rhymes. At one point we had a rhyme dictionary, but the only disadvantage with that is that we started having a lot of words that sound the same in our rhymes. You know how artists nowadays do it where they might have a whole verse with “ack” like – he starts back and I attack and mack and flipped off the plaque – you know.

One thing I stress, I’ve said it in a few interviews, when we used to rhyme back in the days a lot of MCs were clever and intelligent. Even if you look at the names, you had Wise Intelligent, KRS One which stands for Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone; everything was about wittiness and being sharp and swift and crafting a good rhyme and its always been about that for me. So I always strive to write the best way I can and I always try to keep it brief and simple.

Less is more for me in writing, but I try to always use anything I can as a metaphor for MCing, and I always do it. Whether its sports, animals, the army, the military, nature, I combine all of that, anything. I’m one with nature and I’m one that admires the trees and the land. I’ve been on the road and I’ve been driving from state to state and I’m bugging off the landscape and the mountains. When I drove through Oregon I was bugging, I was like – damn, I’ve never seen soil so rich, so dark, and I’m moved by that. And its not that my songs are all about nature but I’m able to incorporate many different things into rhyming, I keep it visual regardless of what I’m talking about. And it’s always been that way for me as far as rhyming and I’ve never changed it, I can’t.

One time we was working on one of the Wu-Tang projects and you know Rza, Rza is a great lyricist but you know sometimes he might just throw anything on the track [laughs]. We were working on a Wu-Tang album and he says in these words – “don’t take two fuckin’ weeks to write a rhyme man” [laughs] – “don’t strain your brain on this, why you gotta do it like that this time for?” And I was like “well this is how I write though, this is the only way how I do it”.

RIOTSOUND.COM: When can we expect another Wu-Tang album to drop, there’s been various rumors circulating for quite some time now?

GZA: Uhmm, I can’t really say, I don’t know. It’s something that should have been out, packaged and ready to go and I think certain individuals in the group have to settle a couple of things with each other. There’s a couple of personal things right now that’s going on inside the group and I think some brothers haven’t been around to participate because they’ve been out on the road touring or doing they own thing, but I think there’s a few things certain brothers have to settle with each other before we can come together as a group. I don’t think we should waste any more time than we have already wasted.

As far as songs, I’m going to always be working. I was in L.A. and we were out there to do a Wu-Tang project and all the members weren’t there, so whatever was supposed to be a Wu-Tang project evolved into a Cuban Linx II album. So I’m on that album a lot and it’s bangin’, Raekwon is on fire. But as far Wu-Tang, it just didn’t pop off at the moment, hopefully we can do something. I mean, I’m going to continue to work. I’m going to do something with Rza, I’m steadily writing. Basically I plan to write and write, write a couple of screenplays, some scripts, direct and have Rza do the score. That’s how we’re going to be working as far as the near future.

RIOTSOUND.COM: What kind of subjects do you plan to address through film?

GZA: Anything I could think of, anything that I think is worth making a movie out of. It’s not just going to be geared towards one thing. I’m not trying to do movies about some kid that hustled and how he got into Hip-Hop, like the majority of the stuff that’s out there. My mind is always working so I can do a script about anything and make it interesting. I can do a script about a dog and make it interesting. It doesn’t matter, whatever I put my mind to.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Right now you’re in the middle of a tour, how has that been going; a lot of the dates have been on the West coast, are you coming back out East to do any shows?

GZA: Yes, its all in the makings right now, I should be back in the East maybe some time in the New Year. I’ve been out West for two weeks now. I’m performing in San Jose tonight, San Francisco tomorrow, L.A. the following day and then San Diego and so on. The shows have been great, small venues, four or five hundred people, the majority of them have been sold out, packed, maybe with the exception of one. The response has been great, still got the fans out there. Many of them don’t know about the Grandmasters album but I’ve been performing a few tracks off there and I’m putting the word out and making it known and hopefully more people will catch on.

I love being on the road, I love touring, I love performing and I love doing songs live and doing a cappellas and just doing what I do. I should be back on the East coast soon. I toured out there a couple of months ago so we just want to give it some time and spread things out. I’ll also be in Europe next year, touring and promoting this album. So I’m going to continue to work and have new projects coming out.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Since Wu-Tang first came on the scene the worldwide response to your style and message has been immeasurable. Many years from now when it’s all said and done what do you think your biggest legacy will be?

GZA: It would have to be many things combined in one. It would just be the contribution to Hip-Hop really, and there would be a lot of things that fall under that; definitely our performance because Wu-Tang gives an incredible show. You have nine individuals and when we perform live we also all have solo projects; so I can come out for twenty minutes, Raekwon [can come out for twenty minutes], Ghostface – you can just imagine, everyone has solo projects that the crowd can relate to. And then overall Wu-Tang come out. Sometimes we do it separately like that and then we all come out together and then other times we just all come out at once and just rock like that. It’s always an incredible show. People love to see Wu.

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