Question in the Form of An Answer: GZA/Genius

Parts of this interview originally ran last Friday at Pop & Hiss. Words from the Genius. How did you end up collaborating with The Black Lips and King Khan? Originally, it came about through my...
By    January 18, 2010


Parts of this interview originally ran last Friday at Pop & Hiss. Words from the Genius.

How did you end up collaborating with The Black Lips and King Khan?

Originally, it came about through my manager Heathcliff [Berru]. The bands were fans of Wu-Tang and I and we decided to perform together. It worked out well; they’re good musicians and we have a mutual admiration and love. The thing is, they were already connecting with me in some way first. I’d never heard their music before, but I was feeling it and when I saw both of those groups perform live, I knew I could work with them. The vibe was there.

Much of current hip-hop — particularly the more mainstream iteration — is characterized by glossy shiny-sounding production. Did some of your desire to work with the Black Lips and King Khan stem from the similarity of their lo-fi aesthetic to the beats you came up rhyming on?

That’s my problem with the stuff today — it doesn’t sound raw and uncut. When the Black Lips sent a track over to me, I thought it sounded like a Beastie Boys track, the way the singer was singing and flowing on it. He was right in the pocket. You don’t get hip-hop that sounds that gritty anymore, you get some Auto-tune, ping-pong computer-made and Casio stuff.

And the collaboration with Devendra Banhart?

I met Devendra at Coachella. I watched him and Gang Gang Dance perform and thought they both put on really great performances. I was like ‘who is this guy,’ because he was rocking, and it turned out that he was a big fan. When I met him, he told me what an honor it was and how much he loved “Liquid Swords” and Wu-Tang. So it was a beautiful connection.

The collaborations that you’ve released thus far are strikingly different from your previous material. What led you to stake such different musical ground?

I think it’s about being original and creative. You’ve got to be comfortable with yourself. There’s no set way to do anything. Sometimes you have to go outside the box, sometimes you can do things the standard way. Like you don’t have to have a beat to write a song, sometimes you can write lyrics without the music. A lot of artists think that to be current, you have to follow what’s out there and do something that’s so unlike what you normally do. It can work but it doesn’t if you chase it.

Most recently, Ghostface’s Wizard of Poetry album did a similar thing by challenging preexisting notions that fans had of an artist. Did you have a chance to listen to it and if so, what did you think?

Ghostface is very versatile. I don’t think a lot of people knew that he could switch it up and write those sort of songs, but I thought he really came correct with that album.

It might not be as starkly different as the most recent singles, but it seems like you’ve been open to working with different types of artists since The Legend of the Liquid Sword. A lot of people don’t realize that you were one of the first to put Santogold on? How did that collaboration happen?

A close friend of mine, Angela Yee, is Santi’s best friend and she and Santi were roommates around the time of Legend of the Liquid Sword, so that’s how it came about. I’d known her for a couple years prior to “Stay in Line.” She’s incredibly talented and a great writer.

On the other hand, there are artists like Raekwon who have had a lot of success refining and sharpening the classic formula.  What did you think about the finished OB4CL2?

Raekwon is an incredible artist. He has one of the most incredible flows and delivery I’ve ever heard. He came hard with that gangsta style and delivery with Cuban Linx 1 and 2. It was a beautiful thing for him to do those kind of numbers, but more to have such a good album. He just wanted to be himself and he had the time to lay out the tracks and do what he wanted with it. He’s an original. In hip-hop, out of 100 artists, only one of them will rap or speak in their own voice. The other 99 imitate. If you hear 100 songs, one of them will be the same. We’ve been hearing that auto tune sound for years back to Roger Troutman and Zapp. It was a great thing to use in their music and then hip hop got a hold of it and it became over-saturated. That’s cool if I wanna jump in and use it after two people have, but after a thousand songs in auto tune, when does it stop.  C’mon…

Do you think it’s a matter of artists not being willing to find their voice because they think conforming to pre-existing stereotypes or tropes will mean more sales?

Here’s the thing, it’s good to see and know who came before you. I’ve been rhyming for so long, I’ve lived in every borough in NYC, and picked up certain flows and patterns from different boroughs to create my own style. I was always open to being different, studying different genres and rhymers until I developed my own style.  It’s always good to be inspired by others. I’ve always taken things from others, I recycle and take things from other songs and flip them.

Willie Mitchell, who just passed away, was quoted once as saying that Al Green didn’t become Al Green until he stopped trying to sing like Wilson Pickett and Sam Cookie and Jackie Wilson.

That’s the thing, it’s cool for a singer to say ‘I love Al Green,’ but we don’t need two Al Green’s. When R. Kelly first started doing his thing, you might’ve heard a little Otis Redding or Sam Cooke, or Michael Jackson or James Brown. What made him good was that he had studied others but never tried to sing like them.

When you made your first album, Words From The Genius, do you feel like you were still in thrall to predecessors like Rakim and Kane?

I think so. RZA and Raekwon have always told me how much they love that record and that it’s a classic, but if you look at that album, I think I had lyrical talent and ability but I tried to go in too many different ways. The rhymes came naturally, but they were scattered, there were songs about drugs, teenage pregnancies, the label even made me put on that R&B song. That was the last song I recorded because Cold Chillin’ said they needed something commercial. I don’t knock “Come Do Me,” it sounded different and Rza loved it, he said, ‘yo that’s kind of slick,’ but it made me get looked at as a Father MC type rapper. Nothing against Father MC, but I wasn’t really falling there, I wanted to be looked at in a league with Kane.

So what changed in those two years between Words and Enter the 36 Chambers?

Drama, determination. When Wu-Tang came through, we felt like we were coming back hard. I was coming back off the Cold Chillin’ thing, Rza was on Tommy Boy and he got in some trouble out of state, he got a case and they didn’t want to deal with that. Cold Chillin’ wasn’t trying to promote me, they had so much on their plate and they weren’t running the label correctly.  If you think about it, Cold Chillin started around the same time as Def Jam and they had about the same amount of talent: Kane, Biz, Masta Ace, Shan, Marley Marl, Shante. Of course, Def Jam had a hell of a roster too, but Cold Chillin’ didn’t know how to market it right. At one time, five of us had albums out the same month.

So we were coming back from off that and it was the time to strike back. It felt good and we had a whole bunch of rhymes that we wanted to let out. Rza got some of the Clan from Shaolin — it was just all something that was spinning and growing and growing until boom, we’re here, we’ve been rhyming for years. We didn’t do it to make money, the first goal was to make a demo tape. When I first got into rhyming in the late 70s, the goal was to be heard on tape, then we wanted to be heard on radio, then by the mid 80s when rap was hitting, it was damn, we want a deal.

When I got on Cold Chillin, I was on the road and on tour getting $35 a day for per diem. I was greatly appreciative of that too, coming from where we came from, $35 dollars a day was a lot of money. I didn’t even know what a per diem was. It was all a blessing to me, period. To get everything to come into play and for things not to go right, it was crushing, it was like a stab to the heart. I didn’t know the business, I thought that you get a deal and it’s over. I was like I got mad lyrics, I got these concepts, we taking over. But it doesn’t always work that, unless someone huge like Warner Bros. says, ‘Okay, we’re going to push the Genius, that’s our priority.’

Was it different for you at Geffen?

Geffen was a big company. The staff wasn’t all that big, but it had a good machine and not a lot of rap to compete with. I was one of, if not the first rapper they signed. Plus, it was something fresh. Wu Tang was popping and blowing up, they’d put all their money on me and that’s why I got to direct every video. They gave us a lot of leeway and we knew what we wanted. I knew what I wanted musically, as far as writing songs Rza knew what he wanted and I had the business mind for it. Rza had this plan for Wu Tang blowing up and we popped it off from there and there were like, ‘what y’all wanna put out, what’s next.’

With the industry what it is today, it’s bizarre to think of a world in which an album like Liquid Swords could be released by one of the biggest corporations in music, with its first two singles as “I Gotcha Back” and “Cold World,” and still go platinum. Nowadays, you probably would’ve had to have had Ray J sing one of the hooks.

Because they think like labels. You don’t need an R&B hook. Take a song off Liquid Swords like “Swordsman,” [raps] “when a motherfucker steps out of place and gets slapped in his motherfuckin’ face.” That routine came off an Earth Wind and Fire hook and we revised it, and that’s where it came from. All that pop rock is in hip hop, [raps] “Things ain’t comin fast enough, there is no mountain high enough.” That comes from a Diana Ross and The Supremes, “Ain’t No Mountain.” I just took it and flipped it and made it on some street shit. It’s effortless, it’s just reviving it, and doing you, and being comfortable. It doesn’t matter who the group is or what song it is, if I like the beat I’ll rock it. If you doing a song with this rock band, if I like what they’re playing, I’ll walk all over that.

Do you feel that with less money in the rap game, it’s going to lead to more artists pursuing stuff that they really feel passionately about, rather than just doing stuff to blow up?
Its not about the money, but you need money to pay bills. If I do a deal with anyone, they’re going to give you this amount. Of course, you have to consider money, you have to pay people for guest appearances, mastering, engineering. But when I’m writing a song, I’m never thinking about how much money I can make off it.  I want to create a whole new world. I want to do something good with it. Music is a divine art. I’m a musician. I compose in my heart — that’s what it is until I become one.

Is that what bothered you so much about 50’s approach to music and led you to write “Paper Plates?”

I wanted it to stick with him and I just used the phrase in a slick way as a metaphor. That’s the meaning behind “Paper Plates.” It shows your level of thought depending on what kind of music you put out. If you’re going to be a grown man saying some simple ignorant shit. I had to do it in a unique way to say that this is how I do it and this is how I write. Thing is, there’s so much to write about, you can write about anything, that’s what a lot of artists don’t realize. You can write about anything, you can look at anything and not make it boring, it’s just how you do it.

One of the things that feels particularly vivid about the Wu’s stories is that they feel so real, like on “Killah Hills 10304” or “Investigative Reports.”

Well, on “Investigative Reports,” that was a song that the others had got on before me. Rae and Ghost had already laid their parts and I knew I had to come right with it. That was the way Liquid Swords unfolded. We didn’t even have a theme until it came down to the day of mastering and then one of the last days we were mastering it, Rza asked someone in the studio to go out and get the Shogun’s Assassin. It wasn’t like we came in with that plan from the onset. Imagine what the album might’ve been like without that, would it have been as good, what could’ve replaced it? I’m not sure, that’s just the way it unfolded.

I’ve read interviews where you’ve talked about being a big reader. Who are some of your favorite writers?

I don’t really know too many writers off hand by name. I’m not a super reader like that, not an avid reader. I like a lot of information and mathematics and science, I don’t necessarily read the numbers, but I’m interested in the mathematics of things, the chemistry of something, y’know the chess and science of it. I haven’t been reading much lately, just the same books when I’m traveling. I use a few books a lot for spiritual entertainment and parables. I like stories.

A lot of 5 percent mysticism is embedded in not only the Wu-Tang’s lyrics but guys like Kane, Rakim, and more recently, guys like Jay Electronica. What is it about the 5 percent philosophy that attracted you, and why do you think some of the greatest MC’s are 5 percenters?

It’s the balance that attracts me to it. It’s almost like getting an advanced degree. It’s a science to observe it, to define, it’s like having knowledge, you understand life better.  The more knowledge you have, the more you understand life. That was the whole science behind when Ghost would be talking about ‘Why is the sky blue, Why is water wet.’ There’s things that we’ve been for a lot time, all that applied knowledge is great. MC’s are drawn to it because it’s a tool. Rakim, Kane, KRS-One, all of them used mathematics and lyrically they were incredible. That’s because they studied, they learn, they’re intrigued by knowledge and math and science and it shows in their lyrical ability.  Others are intrigued by cars and of course it shows in their lyrics. One is like this, one is like that, and it attracts a different type, it attracts those willing to learn.

Chess has also been a massive part of your lyrics and aesthetic. What is it about the game that’s sustained your fascination for so long?

Chess is life in itself. It’s about planning, if you look at chess, it’s about question and answers. Your opponent moves first and it raises a question. You have to answer, sometimes you have the answer and sometimes you don’t.

What was it like working with Muggs on the Grandmasters album and do you think you’ll work with him again?

I have plans to collaborate with him again. It was a great experience. I’ve worked with him on several other projects and its always been a good vibe. He has great beats, he’s a good brother to work with and he has a nice studio. We spent two weeks working on Grandmasters. We may have knocked it out in seven nights of work total.   We recorded it really really fast. It was his idea to call it Grandmasters. When you work with a producer like that, everything doesn’t have to come from the MC.

You also worked with Black Milk on Pro Tools. How did that come about?

Dreddy Krueger A&R’d that project and hooked me up with him. I don’t think I met Black Milk, but I liked his work a lot.

What’s the current status of your next album with the indie-rock collaborations? Also, what’s going on with the Wu-Tang? Are there plans to do another album?

I’ve got some songs done for my own album, but I’m still writing and recording. There’s been talks about doing another Wu-Tang album and going out on the road to promote it. I think everything is finely settled down right about now from the 8 Diagrams drama.We’ve just all got to get together and do it.

MP3: GZA + Black Lips – “Drop I Hold”
MP3: GZA  + Salvador Santana + Dan Deacon – “Unity”

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