Interview: Wu-Tang’s GZA

LOOKOUT got the chance to sit down and talk to Wu-Tang Clan's Genius aka GZA, unquestionably one of the greatest lyricists and MCs of all time....

You’ve been doing something recently that I find pretty interesting, you did the Liquid Swords Tour, where you performed the album in its entirety on stage. Is that how you see the albums you’ve created, as cohesive pieces that should be enjoyed within their own contexts?

Yeah, I’ve always thought like that, but it wasn’t my idea to start doing the Liquid Swords tour. You know, it was an idea that came, I don’t remember who threw it out, but it was pitched to me from the agency I was working with. Some promoter wanted me to do it at Pitchfork [music festival], because I think they were having a concert and everyone was doing the theme of an album. They asked me to do the Liquid Swords album and since then, you know, I’ve been doing it. The last few shows, I kinda changed it up. For some reason, promoters were asking me to do that album and that’s what I was doing.

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Obviously, the recording industry has experienced some major changes over recent years, due to the rise of music piracy and a shifting of focus from albums to the primacy of the digital iTunes single. Some of the biggest records from last year weren’t even full-length releases. When you’re writing today, are you still writing in the mold of creating a full-length album with its own context?

All the time. Yeah.

I know that your latest album Pro Tools started as a collaboration but grew into its own album.

Oh yeah, because after a while – I’m glad you noticed that – because, first of all, it took me several years to give this guy this album who, you know, I was doing the album for, Baby Grand. It was originally supposed to be a collabo, you know, a compilation, and I started thinking as time was going on and on, it was taking a while before I even recorded a song for that album. It was something I was doing, putting people on, and then I started thinking like…you know, I don’t want to just shortchange myself or anybody else. I think, if this has me on it, it’ll be good even though at the end of the day it still feels like they didn’t push it or go at it hard and all that. Sometimes, you know, there’s only so much independents can do. I just felt that it needed to be something good, something strong.

I’d also like to talk to you about the album Grandmasters you did with DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill. What was the concept for that album and how did it come about?

Muggs wanted to do an album, you know, he talked to me about doing the album. He said he had a situation, he wouldn’t mind doing a record with me, and I said ‘cool,’ and we talked about it for months. He came to New York one day. He had some songs on his computer. I picked about 14, narrowed it down to 12. We decided to go out, you know, record the album. We recorded it in about seven days, or maybe a little less. And, you know, I was writing at the same time, while trying to record some of the stuff. There was really a lot of pressure, you know.

Is that how you prefer to write, when a producer gives you a tape full of beats and you adapt your lyrics to that? Or are you writing all the time looking for the right beat to come along?

I’m always jotting down stuff, but usually when I start working on stuff, it’s usually pretty last minute for some reason, like it’ll be crunch time. Even with Pro Tools, I think I recorded it in three days, but, you know, I had a lot of stuff written down in notes, in certain things, and there were some songs I wrote. But with Muggs, you know, we were just vibing and working. You know, if I heard a song and got an idea, I would just go for it. It all came together and he just said, ‘we should call the album Grandmasters’. When he said that I said, ‘hmm, that’s a good theme.’ Then I thought about adding, you know, chess, little things from chess, chess terminology.

Is the chess game still strong these days?

Yeah, it depends on who I play. It may be weak to some and strong to others.

There’s a track on Grandmasters I wanted to talk about – the song ‘Queen’s Gambit.’ It’s ostensibly the track of sort of a lost girl, but it’s woven together with a series of football metaphors. When you write, are you usually looking for multiple meanings, going deeper than the surface?

Of course, of course. I always look for multiple meanings. I mean, have you heard ‘0% finance?’

Hell yeah.

Oh yeah, right? See, that’s kind of like Queen’s Gambit. It’s a story, it’s about a female… What’s interesting about it, what’s interesting about both those songs is that they’re songs about females, but it’s a song incorporating all the NFL teams, and it’s a song incorporating as many models and makes of cars I can incorporate. And I’m using car terminology. That song is 104 bars, straight through, and it doesn’t…it keeps escalating. It goes up through the whole thing, because I start talking about her, where she was from. I go into her great-grandfather – he was a Cherokee Indian. It goes into him, his brothers, they used to fish in Lake Tahoe. It goes into her friends, it goes into the friend’s boyfriend. And it’s 104 bars, straight through! And it never gets boring, in my opinion. I could be really big on myself right now, you know, coming off like that. But honestly, it took a while to write. I mean, I really put the time into it. It took a while to write. Just like ‘Queen’s Gambit.’ I had to figure out how I’m gonna use these teams. Usually when I use names of stuff, I use them where they have to have a double meaning.

Going back to the cheesy way, the easy way out of things, just imagine if I was to do the ‘0% finance’ song and everything would have been like, ‘ Yo, remember when we bought the Lexus? Yo, that’s when I crashed the Benz! Oh word, that’s when he was, you know, driving the Escalade! Oh, that’s when she sold the Volkswagen!’ And the whole song would be like that. ‘When I bought this, when we drove that.’ It would be so literal. ‘When he crashed that, when she washed this.’ You know, because it would be all that. ‘Wash the car, drive the car. Steal the car.’ You know? ‘Park the car.’ I’m not just gonna say, ‘He drove a Cherokee,” when the Cherokee is an Indian! So you want to bring the car to life, and you use the car as a segway to get somewhere, you know what I’m saying?

Hell yeah.

You use it as a metaphor, so it’s like her great-grandfather was a Cherokee Indian, explorer and navigator. I didn’t say he drove an Explorer or a Navigator, he WAS an explorer and a navigator.

They’re two fields that don’t normally go together, but when you go beneath the visible, constructed surface, the links are definitely there. I think both of those songs do that real well and bring them out.

Thank you, I appreciate it. You know, those songs, I love doing them. I usually always do something like that on every album. Just like with ‘Queen’s Gambit,’ I was talking to a friend on the phone and I was asking, where they watching the game? I was like, ‘Are you watching the football game today?’

And the response was, “Nah, those are not my teams. I don’t like any of those teams.’

I was like, ‘Oh, you like those Giants who fly on Jets, huh?’

And then I thought about it, like ‘oh shit, Giants who fly on Jets, that’s kind of slick!’ That’s how the song came about all the ways I can use teams and incorporate them, and use them to make them have double meanings, and sometimes triple meanings. That way it’s like putting hi-definition on your TV or something.

You’re a ten-I-see, you just need to Titan your game.

Yeah, you know what I’m saying? You’re a ten-I-see, you just need to Titan your game, right?

What’s got you writing these days?

I’m getting inspiration from books, movies, and that’s not saying that you’re not asking what movie right now, like I can just pinpoint something. It may be something from a book. It may be a line, it may be a page, it may be a chapter. It may be any song, I mean especially music. Music moves people like no one or nothing has ever moved anyone or anything. You know, I mean I get inspired by stories that I read or that I watch.

I mean, sometimes I watch stories of celebrities. They have certain programs like Behind The Music. They used to have Behind The Music on VHI, or they might have Driven, or The Biography. A lot of artists, we have similar stories, as far as our struggle to get on and get recognized, but just with a little different, you know, road or something that we travel to get to that one thing. Sometimes the stories are interesting yet similar, and you relate to them , and you also get inspiration from them. It can be its own story, it can be a documentary.

You know, you’re not gonna hear me say, ‘ I’m inspired by money. If it ain’t about that green, that paper, that’s what inspires me. Money!’ Fuck outta here. You know? How can we inspire you?

You did a show and record with the band The Blacklips. How did that one come about?

My boy Heathcliff, that’s been working with me on the road, he’s a publicist, he’s doing publicity for Wu Tang, you know, with the 8 Diagrams, and then he worked with me for Pro Tools. I met several bands through him and they were interested in doing work, and it’s really opening up with more doors. We kind of share some of the same fans and it’s a whole different vibe.

There have been some crazy rumors flying around about potential collaborators working with you on some tracks. Do you have any releases planned for the upcoming year?

Yeah, definitely, this year. I’m about to make an incredible album. I mean, incredible, especially lyrically. I mean, really beautiful, man, really beautiful.

You did the one album with Muggs and obviously, RZA is the god, but are you going to be working with any new producers or artists for this one.

Well, I want to do another one with RZA. I spoke to Muggs about maybe, perhaps doing it. I have at least four more things or concepts that I want to do, or I would like to, if I can. You know, some very uplifting stuff and when I say that I don’t mean…because sometimes people read that and they think, ‘Oh, look at this dude, he’s in church now.’ You know, there’s nothing wrong with being uplifted, but don’t look at it as if I’m becoming this nerd, this nerdy religious, clean freak. You know, it’s just hard to explain, but you’ll hear it.

When I told the producer I wanted to do ‘0% finance’ he didn’t really understand, even after hearing ‘Labels,’ ‘Fame,’ ‘Queen’s Gambit,’ ‘Publicity,’ you know, ‘Animal Planet,’ he still didn’t get it. I was like, ‘you’ll hear it.”

He was like, ‘How you gonna do a song about cars?’

I said, ‘You’ll hear it.’ When it started unfolding, it was like, wow. ‘In her tank, she loves to stash my tool.” After that line, he was like, ‘aw, it’s really, really, aw yeah! You slaying it!’

I’m gonna do something really beautiful. Something that has a great level of vibrations that’s positive. Just make you feel, you know, good.

You and RZA did that film Coffee and Cigarettes with Jim Jarmusch, a move that came off as a bit unexpected. What was the concept behind that role?

Jim Jarmusch is a good friend of RZA’s. He’s a big Wu Tang fan, and I think RZA actually met him, I met him the same time, right around when RZA was doing Ghost Dog. He’s a big fan, good writer, great filmmaker, and he’s a cool dude, really laid back, smooth. I guess he had this idea where he was working on some stuff for a while, and I was asked if I wanted to, you know, participate, and yeah, I was for it. It was cool. Got to meet Bill Murray, hang out and kick it with him. He’s a real cool dude, he’s really funny. You know, serious, dry humor.

Montreal is not traditionally listed among the great hip hop cities, but I can tell you that this show has definitely gotten a lot of people buzzing in anticipation. How have your previous experiences in the city been?

My experience in Montreal has always been great. I mean I’ve done, maybe within the last two years, four shows in Montreal and they’ve been great, especially the indoor ones where it’s a GZA concert, it’s not really outdoors or free or there’s a whole lot of other stuff going on. There’s a few opening acts of locals, like tonight there’s several local acts that I’m headlining and it should be a great venue. It’s always been good love. I mean, I did one show with Raekwon, I think Masta Killa, and Deck, I think it might have been Inspectah Deck, of and U-God in Montreal like a year and half ago and it was great. It was a large crowd, around 1500, it was good. Then I’ve done a show with RZA, the Jazz festival, but that was an indoor event, you know, the Montreal Jazz Festival. It was just myself and RZA on the bill that night and he had the band and he went on, I went on. It was, you know, a great response to the show. Montreal has been great, it’s been showing me love.


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