“Liquid Swords changed my life.”
This interview, from September 2007, was originally intended for the now-defunct Harp magazine’s back-page feature, “Reflections,” but never made it to print. Artists were asked to discuss an album that changed their lives; GZA was hard pressed to think of an album other than his own that qualified.
“I can’t think of any,” he said, sounding genuinely perplexed. Inside his car, where he’d moved because a bowling alley was no place to do a phone interview, the silence roared. Confusion and quiet are unusual for a rapper, especially one of the notoriously and justifiably boastful Wu-Tang Clan, and who also goes by “The Genius.” He was really stumped. He stammered about Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” but “to say somethin’ changed my life—”
That’s where the confusion ended. Suddenly, he knew exactly what to say, choosing his second solo album, which came two days short of the two-year anniversary of Wu’s debut. It was produced by cousin and Wu leader RZA, who worked his usual magic with classic soul—The Dramatics, Willie Mitchell, the Bar-Kays—and occasional oddball samples like Three Dog Night. Pretty much the entire Clan made guest appearances: Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Raekwon, Masta Killa. And it was rife with themes and imagery common to their music—Shaolin and Samurai philosophy, comic-book existentialism, redemptive thugs—it could have borne their brand. What made it bubble up to the top of the Wu and Wu-affiliated canon was GZA’s lyrical ability.
Clever, not uncontrived but still genuine, GZA’s lines were fierce and thoughtful, spontaneous but well-crafted, with internal rhymes that could and couldn’t be accidents: “You know your town is dangerous when you see the strangest /kid come home from doin’ the bid and nothin’ changes.” Fittingly, praise was slathered on Liquid Swords, and GZA was crowned Wu’s craftiest wordsmith—a nice compliment to RZA the studio rat—by the press. It was certified platinum, too, and it remains one of hip-hop’s true classics. “It catapulted me to another level.”
He first heard it start-to-finish, “right after it was mixed and mastered” in his car, driving home from the mastering session—on cassette because CD-burning technology wasn’t so prevalent in 1995. “I was comin’ from the city,” he recalled. “I was lovin’ every minute of it.” It was, however, not bassin’. “I don’t really play loud music.”
It wasn’t about digging his own work. Not really. “I imagine myself as bein’ someone else, and hearin’ it, whether a journalist, a fan, my cousin John. Each time I listen to it, I’m a new person.” From these imagined perspectives, and subsequent real reactions from critics and fans, it was a triumph. GZA himself saw it that way, too. His first solo album with Cold Chillin’/Warner Bros. “didn’t even launch itself off the ground. It was depressing.” Making Liquid Swords was redemption. “It was like doin’ my debut album all over again. It was a great feeling.”
He still listens to his music “as an outsider,” and though he puts much emphasis on how Liquid Swords affected his career trajectory (“It was the beginning, I must say. The Alpha”), it’s the fan reactions that really resonate with GZA. “To this day, people approach me. … I just ran into a dude today, in the supermarket, who said Liquid Swords was a ‘huge inspiration on my life.’”
“I met a female about five years ago in Virginia at a show. One time, she was drivin’ home from school. It was snowy, and she had an accident. Her friend died and all she remember was bein’ out in the snow and trying to grab her CDs. The one CD she was able to grab before she passed out was the Liquid Swords CD. And that was [what] she brought for me to sign.”
Although he’s released five albums since—including Pro Tools (Think Differently/Babygrande) which came out Aug. 19—GZA is still focused on the album that started it all: Liquid Swords. GZA comes to town this week on the Liquid Swords tour, where he’ll perform the album in its entirety.
The Urban Lounge, 241 S. 500 East
Friday, Aug. 29, 10 p.m., 24Tix.com