Almost mythological in scope, the Wu-Tang Clan are a collaboration of nine MCs: RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa, with Cappadonna replacing the late legendary Ol’ Dirty Bastard in 2007.
The clan rarely appear with a line-up of all nine members live, and for this tour it appears as though RZA, GZA, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah and Inspectah Dek will be in attendance; nonetheless, it’s hard to believe these hip hop revolutionaries are finally making it to Australia, for the first time.
A founding member of Wu-Tang, GZA (Gary Grice, also known as The Genius) is one of the most successful and critically acclaimed members of the clan, his solo material highly revered by Wu fans – particularly his 1995 album Liquid Swords which he has recently been performing in its entirety in special solo dates around the country. GZA has moved in hip hop circles since it formed out of the primordial ooze of block parties in New York’s the Bronx. GZA was closely associated with the golden age of New York hip hop throughout the 1980s, before forming Wu-Tang with his cousins Ol’ Dirty Bastard and RZA in the early ‘90s.
Referring to these early days, GZA suddenly erupts into a quote from his 2002 song AutoBio “I was born, with the mic in my hand / Then I took it from Brooklyn, to the S.I. land / I pulled up on the block, got off the truck, it was the first of pit stops / The era of the spinnin’ top, around the birth of hip hop / That was somethin’, I had identified with / So I, made it my point to exploit this fly gift / then Myself and RZA, made trips to the B.X / A mass of ferocious MCs the talent of T-Rex / Giants in every ways, rap flows for every day / We knew we would get a reward with a price to pay / The basic training was beyond entertainin’ / Just the cadence of the verbal expressions, self explainin’.”
Living in Staten Island, New York, a young GZA would travel to The Bronx to hang out with his cousins, who were more “advanced” with the latest hip-hop trends.
“It was around ’76, about two years after the birth of it I think,” he explains. “Just think about it, that was 33 / 32 years ago! We had just started learning how to breakdance [in Staten Island], and my cousins who lived in the Bronx didn’t do it anymore. They were like ‘I don’t break anymore’, like it had already played out.”
Apparently their reason for abandoning this aspect of the hip hp culture was that they couldn’t use it to dance with girls. As GZA points out, luckily others in the Bronx kept breakdancing.
These early days were followed by the 1980s Golden Age of hip hop, based primarily in New York City around artists like Public Enemy, Run DMC, Eric B and Rakim – Rakim’s vocal stylings in particular were a profound influence on a young GZA.
“Some say the golden age was the ‘90s,” GZA counters, “I would say the ‘80s: ’85 to ’88, anywhere between ’85 and ’89, strongest point ’86 to ’88. I mean forget it!”
When GZA refers to hip-hop’s Golden Age he speaks almost exclusively about the east coast.
“I mean, that’s where I was living, I don’t really remember too many of the west coast rappers. I mean N.W.A of course,” he grins, “they were doing their thing and they were strongly represented, but I think they came a couple of years after.
Ice T was around in the ‘80s, but I don’t really know too much. I mean, lyrically Ice T was a developed artist, and respect to him, but I think lyrically and style-wise there is kind of no comparison [to east coast]. Take some song and compare that Microphone Fiend or Follow The Leader [both by Eric B. and Rakim, 1988], I mean I’m just going lyrically – I’m dealing with style, delivery and flow.”
Finally we get to Wu-Tang, and their position as revolutionaries in the evolution of hip-hop.
“I think we changed it,” GZA says simply. “We revolutionised it, Wu Tang as a group. I mean you have people come in certain eras that just do something for hip-hop that no one’s done: Rakim has done it. [Big Daddy] Kane has done it. Public Enemy has done it. Run DMC has done it. Run DMC is one of the greatest groups ever for me as far as production, musically.”
Despite a love for Run DMC, GZA says they weren’t great lyricists, as much as pioneers in the way they worked together, taking from what they did on the streets and managing to transform it to record.
“They had that street block party vibe, and aside from that they were the first to really take hip-hop to the next plateau. Run DMC were like the first hip-hop mega rap stars. I mean, you had Kurtis Blow and you had Melle Mel – Blow was the first rapper to be known, and the first to get on a major label – but Run were the first rappers to be in Rolling Stone magazine; they broke a lot of barriers.”
It seems the barriers broken by Run DMC allowed for Wu-Tang to build upon this tradition of east coast hip-hop and transform it into their own distinctive style with their 1993 debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36-Chambers), described by many as one of the most influential hip-hop albums of all time; paving the way for people like Biggie and Jay-Z.
GZA says he’s only now seeing this influence on a historical scale.
“Wu has two generations of fans. I run into kids who say ‘my mum’s raised me on Wu-Tang’,” he says proudly. He recently spoke to some kids while in Rhode Island on a solo tour, who told him that Liquid Swords was their favourite album of all time.
“I’m like ‘how old are you?’” Turns out the kids were fifteen years old. “‘You weren’t even born when I dropped it! You were in the womb’,” he laughs. “To me that’s a blessing. I’m having fun. I’m comfortable, I’ve raised children who love hip-hop, put them in school and bought them the best of things with something I did as a hobby.”
GZA stresses that he never got into hip-hop to make money.
“I never looked at it like that, I just liked to write and put rhymes together, it was just something I did, and it got to a point and it was like ‘yo, we can get money for this?’”
There’s been recent lyrical hostility between GZA and notoriously rich hip-hop artist 50 Cent. Conversing with fans at shows in London and New York in late 2007, GZA stated that Fifty had “a lot of money, but he ain’t got no lyrics”. When the statement found its way onto internet sites such as youtube, 50 Cent dissed GZA in the press, calling him “grandpa”. GZA responded by recording the track ‘Paper Plate’ on his latest album Pro Tools, implying Fifty’s lyrics are as disposable as a paper plate.
“He has shit to say,” argues GZA. “Rap is looked at as a young thing [by many] and people like Oprah Winfrey, who don’t care for rap, look at it as an immature thing, I think mainly because of the lyrical content. Also,” he continues, “a lot of rappers act childish and immature. It’s kind of ridiculous. I would judge an MC, rapper, or artist according to his lyrics and according to his flow, his delivery and what he’s rapping about; not according to his age. I don’t look my age, but you’ve got rappers twelve years younger than me and they look older than me. I’m not talking specifically about him – we probably look the same age!” he laughs. “I’m like eleven years older than this dude, but he’s calling me grandpa… How are you going to become too old for something you love to do?”
With that in mind, at the age of forty-three GZA shows no sign of calling it a day.
“I can deliver in a perfect pitch – I can deliver with a perfect flow. My writing is stronger than it’s ever been,” he nods. “I’m writing screenplays and graphic novels because I’m tired of putting so much work into songs and they don’t really see the light of day. [Wu-Tang] don’t have the machine that we used to have. I’m not on Geffen records, I’m not on MCA, I’m not on TV everyday, but I’m still fortunate enough to come out [to places like Australia]. Even with Wu-Tang, this dude who talks all the stupid shit – I won’t say his name – even with his hundreds of million dollars he’ll never have what Wu has.”
GZA believes that, with age, his lyrics are better than ever too. “My pen is stronger than ever, and I don’t use profanity,” the rapper points out. “That’s what rappers need to know what to do, they need to know how to tell that inner city story from the hood, know how to talk about ‘the guy that got shot’, ‘the girl that got raped’, ‘the guy that’s slinging drugs’ in a different way, where you can pull someone into the story with a vivid tale. That’s the difference between me and the average rapper that is running around thinking that it’s all good to be hard, and you’ve got to be gangsta because hip-hop has been made into some other shit.
“The difference is, their story would be: ‘I was chillin’ on the block / And I’m rolling with my glock / I’ll bash your brains out / I’m slinging crack / I’m making two-hundred thou’ a night.’”
The average rapper describes everything in a completely literal way and leaves nothing to the imagination. GZA contrasts this with version, saying it would be more like “I come from a place where they say death comes too soon / In the hood where the boys dance to a different tune / Every night and every day at hotels of foul play / That turns fatal in this hostile land of AKs / On any date if not wait they’re pumping rounds / The reminder it’s a murderous stomping ground.”
It’s obviously with a heavy heart that GZA sees much of mainstream hip-hop as taking a regression lyrically, where “lyrically songs from the ‘80s are slaying songs that we’re hearing now on radio.” At least with Wu Tang still around, there’s still some hope.