Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA, aka The Genius, was seated in a Brooklyn barbershop last month when a passing teen saw him through the window, backed up, walked in and said, “Are you GZA? Oh, ‘Liquid Swords’ is so awesome!”
“A different generation of children now know ‘Liquid Swords,’” marveled the Wu-Tang co-founder, who performs his 21-year old solo album —universally acknowledged as a hip-hop masterpiece — Oct. 30-31 at City Winery. “They weren’t even born when I dropped it, and for some of them, it’s their favorite album.”
GZA When: 8 p.m. Oct. 30 Where: City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph Tickets: Sold out Info: www.citywinery.com/chicago When: 8 p.m. Oct. 31 Where: City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph Tickets: $35-$48 (all ages) Info: www.citywinery.com/chicago
“‘Liquid Swords’ is still one of the most influential albums from the Wu-Tang catalog today,” Billboard stated Nov. 7 last year, on the platinum-certified record’s 20th anniversary. “From the dialogue samples of [classic samurai film] ‘Shogun Assassin’ to GZA making his mark as a lyrical force, ‘Liquid Swords’ has become a large part of pop culture.” The veteran music-biz trade publication hailed RZA’s “grimy and stark production” and The Genius’s vivid, harrowing narrative: “Cold and calculating with a crunchy flow, GZA took you through the dark depths of Shaolin [Staten Island, in group parlance] on ‘Liquid Swords.’”
Significantly, Billboard continued, “[w]hile 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.”
“Liquid Swords” was GZA’s second solo project since forming Wu-Tang Clan (originally known as All In Together Now Crew) in early-’90s Staten Island, N.Y., along with his rhyme-spitting cousins RZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. “Dirty was always wild and crazy,” GZA noted of ODB, Wu-Tang’s beloved comedian who passed away in 2004, “but he had the most intellectual raps as a teenager.”
Scintillating wordplay, GZA stressed, has been the Wu’s raison d’être since inception. “For us, it was always about writing the most intellectual, wittiest rap,” he said. “Always. Always.” And a thesaurus never needed to figure into the process, GZA’s favorite dictum being, “Work maximum damage in minimum time.”
“I don’t [need to] use four- and five-syllable words,” he pronounced, “when one- and two-syllable words still tell a strong story. Half short, twice strong.”
Economy of language is a through line for GZA. Released in July, his new cosmologically-themed track “The Spark” condenses the history of our universe, from pre- to post-Big Bang and beyond, into four compact yet detailed (“picosecond,” anyone?) verses plus chorus. Part of a special music project by NASA, saluting the space agency’s Juno Project mission to Jupiter, it serves as a preview of GZA’s hotly anticipated, years-in-the-making seventh solo album, “Dark Matter.” (“It’s definitely being released this year,” GZA promised, “and it may be the second of December.”)
Science, astrophysics in particular, now serves as The Genius’s main muse.
“Just the aspect of everything being connected — [for example], we’re all made of stardust — is a beautiful thing. There’s so much to pull from,” GZA enthused, while decrying a narrow-focused sameness in many of today’s hip-hop lyrics as the product of “sterile imagination.”
“GZA has always been an undercover science geek,” said Christopher Emdin, an associate professor of science education at Columbia University. “It is beautiful to witness him slowly reveal his true identity.”
Teacher and rapper collaborate on Emdin’s New York-based scholastic initiative, Science Genius. Its website describes the program’s focus as “utilizing the power of hip-hop music and culture to introduce youth to the wonder and beauty of science.” Plus, GZA has lectured about this inspired, potent admixture at MIT and at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, among other august scientific institutions, and has appeared as an interview guest on Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s radio show, “Star Talk.”
“As a science educator, I am always fascinated by people who can relay complex subject matter to the public and make it simple and relatable,” observed Emdin, who is also associate director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Columbia Teachers College. “GZA is one of those people.”
Moira McCormick is a local freelance writer.