Harold Stallworth has never seen a G-Unit licence plate.
Living up to a moniker as swaggering as “The Genius” is an uphill battle. But in the Autumn of 1995, Gza planted his flag at the summit of Mount Wu-Tang with the release of Liquid Swords. The watershed album cemented his place among the rap industry’s elite lyricists. As a juncture for chess, comic illustration, and Jidaigeki films, it’s evolved into the ultimate cult classic by embodying multiple subcultures. Perhaps the most appealing element of Liquid Swords is that despite being a haven for modern nerdery, the record was uniformly immersed in battle rap, street life, five percent ideology, fictional narrative, and black plight. This unique culmination of all things intriguing is what allows Gza to headline tours in 2012 under the Liquid Swords banner.
Both conventional wisdom and common sense would suggest that an artist performing their back catalogue almost exclusively has long since relinquished its influence, but in Gza’s case that’s not entirely true. His decision to take Liquid Swords on the road in itself was a trendsetting effort, as it predates Guerrilla Union’s peddling of the same novelty at their 2011 festivals by at least four years. When once asked by UGHH’s resident interviewer, Van Styles, if he ever grew sick of performing Liquid Swords, Gza responded with a rhetorical quip befitting his stage name:
“Do you ever get sick of hearing it?”
On Tuesday evening, Gza’s patronizing inquiry was answered by hundreds of avid fans that flooded Washington D.C.’s Howard Theater in hopes of experiencing Liquid Swords in a live capacity. Neighboring one of the largest historically black colleges in the country, the venue attracted a level of diversity unbecoming of underground rap shows hosted in the Capitol. Karen Mason, a 26-year-old Bethesda native, was quite possibly the unlikeliest ticket holder in the entire building. She was pale, lanky, and adorable. None of her friends care for rap music and her boyfriend despises it, but she appeared to be comfortable in solitude. Currently studying at the University of Maryland, she was conducting research for a term paper required for her Music Theory course. “I have to write about a facet of [Gza’s] real life personality that resonates during his performance,” she explained.
Karen is a relatively new convert to the church of Wu-Tang. “I came across them on Pandora a few years ago and couldn’t stop listening,” she recalls. While obviously green to the ins and outs of hiphop culture, she’s quickly conforming to the pillars of backpacker-ism (she already loathes Jay-Z and carries an iPod brimming with Stones Throw podcasts). But her callowness was exposed as soon as the undercard emerged. “That guy totally looks like Rick Ross,” she whispered as a scruffy-faced Killer Mike wallowed on stage.
To be fair, the Dungeon sibling was no more than five pounds and a pair of gas station stunners shy of being Rozay’s doppelganger. After building goodwill and momentum by way of politically charged songs from his latest album, R.A.P. Music, Mike splintered off into collaborations with T.I., Bone Crusher, and Outkast. Prior to departing from his critically acclaimed solo material, he drew a line in the sand and issued an ultimatum: “If you don’t like my politics I can live with that,” he declared. “But if you can’t get crunk to ‘Neva Scared’, just leave and go home right now!” Unfortunately, the audience called his bluff. No one cranked, and as a result, his show sputtered out and dissolved into the night.
Gza’s introduction was abrupt. The stage curtains were drawn to reveal the main event standing shoulder to shoulder with his DJ. A half empty champagne bottle was propped beside the turntables. Dialogue from Robert Houston’s Shogun Assassin blared from the speakers and the crowd immediately erupted with anticipation. After teasing the congregation with a promising unreleased record, he staggered to the edge of the stage and surveyed the assembly. Realizing the crowd was sparse considering the size of the auditorium, Gza climbed down into the audience midway through ‘Duel of the Iron Mic’, armed with a single bow tie wearing henchmen that resembled Brother Mouzone from The Wire. “I ain’t scared to come down there with y’all! Just don’t spit or pee on me,” he joked.
He would continue to perform from the eye of the storm for his entire set. Onlookers leaning on the bar or gawking from the terrace above rushed the main floor to participate in the melee. Gza encouraged documentation of the event, demanding the sea of camera phones to “Youtube this muthafucka’,” “Facebook this bitch,” and “Twitter this twat!”
Everyone in attendance was suddenly an integral cog in the spectacle. At one point a fan passed Gza a Massachusetts licence plate with “Wu-Tang” engraved across the face. He hoisted it in pride like an Olympic torch and the crowd once again exploded. And to think, some poor soul buried under the Cedar Junction Correctional Facility manufactured this vanity plate for pennies on the hour, only for an intoxicated trust fund baby to offer it as a gift to his favorite rapper. It’s emblematic of Wu-Tang’s journey from the unforgiving streets of New York to far reaching suburbs of Montgomery County.
Following the concert Gza shook hands, posed for photos, and autographed fan memorabilia backstage. Karen Mason anxiously waited on line for an opportunity to advance her research. “Are you still inspired by Kung fu movies,” she asked. Her subject gathered his thoughts, looked her dead in the eye, and responded as only a true genius would: “You want to hang out with us tonight?” His shallow entourage and a pair of local brown-skinned brickhouses already cherry-picked from the audience burst into laughter. Karen blushed in flattery before informing Gza of her boyfriend back in Bethesda. Brother Mouzone ushered her through a narrow corridor leading to T Street. She was no closer to finishing her assignment than before the show began.
The oldest, most levelheaded member of the Wu-Tang Clan was uninhibited in a way that seldom translates to his music. Gza’s harmless alcohol induced banter stood contrary to his very structured and disciplined approach to writing. After deliberating on her experience for a few days, Karen finally established a narrative for her term paper. “I think he was searching for something new and maybe more authentic by mixing it up with the crowd,” she suggested. “He seems to be looking for something new professionally as well, with his foray into science and being inspired by astrophysics. To me, that curiosity is a sign of intelligence, which has always been consistent with his artistry.”