By Eric Diep (Billboard)
The Wu-Tang Clan‘s GZA has been known as The Genius since his early career. When his nickname (Genius/GZA) is written on the iconic comic book cover of Liquid Swords, it foresaw GZA’s legacy: a pure lyricist utilizing intellectual rhyming to spread his knowledge.
“Liquid Swords just represents a sharp tongue, sharp words,” GZA says of the album’s concept. “The more you craft your rhymes in a wittier, intellectual [way], the sharper your sword becomes.”
On Nov. 7, 1995, the oldest member of the Wu put that mentality on full-display with Liquid Swords. Among his clansmen (Method Man, Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Ghostface Killah) who released commercially successful albums between 1994 and 1996, GZA was viewed as a rap veteran with his approach on RZA‘s grimy and stark production. Cold and calculating with a crunchy flow, GZA took you through the dark depths of Shaolin on Liquid Swords. While 1995 was the year the East Coast started to make a presence in a West Coast-driven hip-hop world, it was Wu Tang’s commercial dominance, coupled with excellent projects like GZA’s sophomore set, which elevated them to a high regard in rap circles.
Although Liquid Swords lacked any radio-friendly singles, songs like “Cold World,” “Investigative Reports” and “Liquid Swords” established his reputation as an MC who could guide the listener to feel the moments he’s describing through poignant narratives. It was cerebral — full of violence, but nothing too unsettling. Upon release, the album peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard 200 chart and No. 2 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. Those numbers weren’t surprising considering how much love the Wu were getting from underground heads and casual listeners.
Twenty years later, Liquid Swords is still one of the most influential albums from the Wu-Tang catalog today. From the dialogue samples of Shogun Assassin to GZA making his mark as a lyrical force, Liquid Swords has become a large part of pop culture. The album made another stride this year when it became certified Platinum in September. It just goes to show that the universal support really is forever.
On its 20th anniversary, Billboard spoke with GZA on the recording process and impact of Liquid Swords, working with RZA in his basement and more. We also asked him about his lyrical role models, as well as his thoughts on the state of rap in 2015.
What can you remember about those early days before the album was released?
A lot of excitement, a lot of fun, a lot of anticipation. Just a great, fun moment for me at the time. I was signed to a major label for the first time. I mean, I was signed to Cold Chillin’ before and it was distributed through a major, which was Warner Bros. That deal didn’t quite work out for me due to the lack of promotion and support from Cold Chillin’ because they were into other acts on the label that were quite bigger acts as far as popularity and record sales. I didn’t really stand a chance on being on that label. When I got signed to Geffen, it was like, “Mm, strike back.” You know? I’m excited, I got a deal. Wu is poppin’. It felt good.
How would you describe the buzz of Wu? I know C.R.E.A.M. was really big and a couple of solo members got album deals.
I mean the buzz was very strong. It was poppin’. Wu World Order at the time. [It was] something fresh that was out, something new to the listeners. A lot of members in the group. The gritty styles and the rugged rhymes. Different metaphors and philosophies and all kind of stuff that was combined in our music that it was something fresh and the timing was right.
ODB, Rae and Meth all dropped solo projects. When you were creating Liquid Swords, what were you trying to do differently?
I didn’t have to try to do anything different because our styles differ in many different ways. The subject matter is different. The approach is different, as far as writing. It has been pretty much the same for me — my style and approach to a project — but our styles differ. I didn’t have to try to do anything different. It was going to be different regardless. My goal was to make great songs, and tell great stories and use metaphors as ways of explaining what I was doing. The only thing I would say, as far as being different, “Cold World” and songs like “Gold” were urban street tales. I was just striving to make those songs as visual as possible without it being a typical urban street tale.
There were a couple of tracks featuring a few members of the Wu. Were they written together?
RZA would just have a beat, and whoever is around, they try to get on it. And that’s how it went. He’ll have a beat playing and I’ll jump on it. Meth may start off “Shadowboxin'” and I’ll jump on it and he’ll follow it. Whether it was “4th Chamber” where it was whoever could get on it, get on it. And I had to make up for those that weren’t on it. I had to fill in the space, if the space wasn’t being filled. Nowadays, artists when they make an album, they have about 50 guest appearances on it. It kind of overshadows the artist. One of the interesting things about Liquid Swords, what was different, was I may have about eight solos on that album. Usually, artists don’t have that. We come from an era where we had to hold our own weight. I wasn’t expecting the Clan to be on there, being that we were all working on projects and giving support to each other. But I was still prepared to cover as much as I can without the Clan on the album.
You open Liquid Swords with a skit from Shogun Assassin. What made you decide to do that instead of going straight into a song?
Well, the skit came in the last minute. When I say last minute, I mean last minute. We had mixed the album already, and we were mastering this album. RZA sent an assistant out that was working in the studio, and in the last minute [he says], “Can you go get me the Shogun Assassin movie?” That’s how it became part of the album at the last minute.
When RZA does things spontaneously and it works, why do you think he’s such a brilliant producer?
Because music is in his heart and in his soul. In hip-hop, especially, it’s just a passion since we were young. I think every producer has music in his heart and his soul. We were just in the right time to make great music since we were younger. Working with RZA, he’s just brilliant in many ways. He’s a scientist. He’s smart. He’s an intellectual. He’s witty, and we have great chemistry together because we’ve rhymed together for years. We were in groups together as teenagers, and we were flowing back and forth off each other’s vibes and styles and metaphors. We spent years [together]. As teenagers, we’d be on the phone for two or three hours just talking about everything. A lot of it was stemming from hip-hop, and lyrical ability and just go into other deep sciences. Our opinions on certain things. RZA is a producer, he’s an MC and he’s also a DJ. He’s well-rounded when it came to hip-hop. It made it a lot easier for him and myself to make music together.
What can you remember about those sessions with RZA? Did he try to challenge you in any way?
The challenge was the music. Not really a challenge, but it’s the beat that makes you want to rhyme or make you want to spit something on it. You know, a song is composed of music and lyrics: 50 percent is the producer, 50 percent is the artist. So, I’m responsible for 50 percent. All I know is that I have to do my job and I have to do it well. And he has to do the same. And our works have to complement each other in the best way and that worked for us.
A lot of the sessions I can’t give you a full detail. What took place that day and what happened minute by minute. RZA may have more of memory of what was going on which song and why, but I just remember a lot days — because it takes me a long time to write. I just remember a beat playing for like two days straight. I’ll come through in the evening and he’ll put the beat on and it’ll start playing. We’ll be talking and I’ll be writing. He’s doing other things. He may have a few other Clan members in there. We’re smoking weed and drinking 40s here and there. Every now and then I would get tired after writing about four lines. It may take me about six hours to get four lines on paper because I’m such a perfectionist with it also. And then about four, five, six hours, I’m napping and then I’m up in 2 in the morning. I may get another four lines off in three hours and then I’m napping.
And then RZA is up and he’s in the city handling meetings and stuff and he comes back in the evening. The beat is still running. “What you got now?” I got 12. “Damn, just? You ain’t got that rhyme ready yet?” A lot of days were spent like that. Days with the beat just playing for maybe 35 hours straight.
I read you recorded most of the album in his basement. Is that true?
That is true.
That must have been a whole different vibe than recording in a fancy studio.
It was a great feeling because we were in our own space; we were on our own time. I didn’t have to get up. The session wasn’t over. We didn’t have to leave. Everything was in house, and the timing was right. I wasn’t really rushed to do a song. I had all the timing in the world. It wasn’t really a lot of pressure on me although I am a last-minute type of MC. It seems as if I’ve worked under pressure a lot because it takes a while to do a project and put it out. But it wasn’t the kind of pressure you get when you’re actually in the studio and you know you only have 12 hours and eight of them went by. It seems as if not a lot is happening, so were in our space. Our own time. It was comfortable. The atmosphere was nice. It was great. It was the early stage of Wu and all was dandy.
Would you consider Liquid Swords your comeback album after what you experienced on Cold Chillin’?
Of course, that’s why I said it was a strike back. Yeah, it was. This is what it is. This is what y’all slept on. You know, the verse I did on “Protect Ya Neck” was so personal that I was over it by the time Wu-Tang was about to drop the album that I didn’t really care to use the verse anymore. I didn’t want to use it because I thought it was so personal, but I was striking back in particular on that song.
When you got signed to Geffen Records, was your creative process restricted in any way?
No, I was free. I was free as a bird that could fly. There were no boundaries. No limits. I’ve directed all my videos throughout my whole career ’cause that’s leeway. I was granted that opportunity to be able to do that. We was so confident in what we were doing, when we were doing it that the label was just open for us to do whatever we want to do at the time. Whatever song. They weren’t questioning anything. Nothing. Not a lyric. Not a verse. Not a flow. Not a beat. Not a concept. [The label was like] “just let us know when it’s ready.”
Liquid Swords cemented your place as a lyricist. You recently wrote an essay called “The Lost Art of Lyricism.” Who inspired you to champion lyricism?
I mean, we’ve been rhyming for so long that there’s been so many that has inspired us from the early days. From the earliest MCs that we thought were lyrical at the time, whether it was the Cold Crush Brothers, The Treacherous Three. You know, Spoonie Gee was one of my favorites at the time since the late ’70s. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Run-D.M.C. As the years went on, inspiration was coming from different artists. If we would have started rhyming in ’86, ’87, then it probably would have been Rakim and [Big Daddy] Kane and [Kool] G Rap that would have inspired us to really look at this lyrical thing in a serious way, in a serious matter. Be it that we were rhyming before even they started making records, we were already aware of what the job was to do or what the goal was. That was to create witty, creative, intellectual raps and also teach and educate if you can while you’re doing it.
How do you feel about the state of rap now? Do you think there are some MCs still doing that?
They are, but I’m not aware of them. I don’t know of any. It’s not like I’m out there searching. I’m doing a lot of stuff on my own. I’m still working on projects, writing. Doing side stuff. Collaborations with artists. Showing support for my Clan whenever they do a project. I’m still doing a lot, as much as I was doing back then. Maybe even more now. So I’m not really familiar, especially in the underground because there’s so much stuff that’s not heard. There’s so many artists that people don’t know about. I think as far as what I am hearing, whether I get in the car and turn on the radio, I’m listening. I think it’s changed a whole lot throughout the years. I don’t think it’s as lyrical as it was 15, 20, 25 years ago. Or even 30 years ago. There’s some sort of regression when it comes to the lyrical side of it and the music is forever changing. That’s how music is. It is not gonna be what it was 10 years ago, and it’s not gonna be what it is now 10, 15 years later.
Was I surprise that it did so well? That could be a yes and no. I was grateful that it charted with those numbers. As far as really being surprised, I wasn’t. Meth, Dirty, several other artists dropped before I did that were doing those same numbers. If not, a little less, a little more. So the buzz was out there. So it wasn’t that much of a surprise.
The album was certified Platinum this September. When did you find out?
I was sent an email or text through management. I had [to] stop searching for numbers on that album years ago. I guess it goes to show that it is still selling units here and there, even if it’s a copy a day for 20 years. It’s great. I think all artists want that plaque, whether it’s Gold or Platinum or multi-platinum. I think we all look forward to getting a plaque and hanging it on your wall and having something to show for the music that you’ve created.
Did you get yours yet?
No, I haven’t. I’m waiting.
Anything else you want to add about the 20th anniversary?
It’s just great. It’s a blessing to have so much support for this album from fans all around the globe. It’s great to be appreciated for the songs that I made or the albums that I put out. I have a line that says, “It was not a hobby but a childhood passion / That started in the lobby and was quickly fashioned.” So it was just a passion as a child emceeing and we just loved it in our hearts. And we were just fortunate enough to make music and make careers out of it. So it’s a blessing and I’m grateful for that.