The GZA Gave a Lecture at NYU and We Went
Wu-Tang has branched out into a mainstream audience of suburban white kids who know nothing more of the band beyond the Wu decals adorning their gigantic pick-up trucks. A lot of these kids have only heard "Cream" and that one Ol' Dirty Bastard Song about Brooklyn. However, you also have rap fans who have been die hard Wu-Tang ehtusiasts from the beginning, those who know every verse from Liquid Swords and are actually interested in hearing a rap titan from the outfit speak about one of the greatest rap or hip hop albums to ever be released. Those are the fans who say, “my mother raised me on Wu-Tang, or my older sister, or my uncle.” It came as a pleasant surprise to learn that the GZA has been doing seminars at MIT, Harvard, and other fancy places all over the country. When he swung around to NYU, Wu-Tang lover and skateboarder, Billy Rohan took me on a man date to hear him speak.
Liquid Swords bumped out of the room's speakers while a bunch of scholars and rap fans waited for the GZA to take the podium. He began by mentioning how happy he is to be giving the lecture in New York City, reminiscing on the good old days when he and the RZA would take the bus, to a boat, to a train, to a bus deep into the South Bronx to hang out and get a break from Staten Island where they lived. It was in the Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop (according to him) that he found his calling.
At an early age, the GZA was playing around with words, and practiced writing rhymes by flipping around lines in Mother Goose. He remarked, “If Hip-Hop is Kung Foo, then Wu-Tang is Bruce Lee.” The GZA and the clan were sharpening their swords every day. The tongue is the sword, when in motion it produces wind. Liquids Swords served as his strike back after going through a whole lot of bullshit on previous record labels. He had RZA at his side, sitting on top of a gold mine of beats, even after losing 200 of them in a flood, he still came with the heat. Wu-Tang was on the rise and got together in Shaolin to lay down the tracks. The concept was based on a Kung Fu movie called Legends of the Liquid Swords. The movie had people flying through the air with swords and a whole bunch of other crazy scenes, way before America was exposed to all that Crouching Tiger stuff. He thought of the cover after finishing a game of chess with the Master Killah, with the board still in the checkmate position, the GZA had some free time on his hands and began sketching out the pieces on construction paper as real men.
As the discussion moved forward, the moderator, Jon Caramanica asked if it is true that he has always been the most sober member of the clan. GZA laughed and responded, “The most sober? I have been drunk several times on stage. That’s the cloth we were cut from. When we were growing up, RZA, and Dirty, and I were all about being lyrical. It was all about putting the time and the effort into everything we were writing. To this day it’s still like that and maybe that’s where that comes through.” The GZA is real scientific. He has always been fascinated by the fact that we are all stardust, composed of the same thing that everything else is composed of. The GZA then moved on to talk about his relationship to chess. “I love chess, it’s a great game. It’s all about strategies, planning ahead. It’s a beautiful game. Everyone should learn chess. Parents should teach their children how to play chess because it sharpens your sword and makes you think independently. I’ve heard certain grand masters say that they don’t make any decisions in life without thinking about chess. I love the game, but I didn’t want to keep doing photo shoots in front of chessboards. Publications always wanted to place me behind the board, like I’m some sort of grand master with special skills. I’m just an average player. I play better than others, but others play better than me. However, if more rappers played chess, we would have greater lyrics.”
As the lecture opened up to questions, a crowd member asked the GZA about being raised as a Christian. The GZA responded, “It is what it is.” He has picked up pieces of spirituality from other things because it makes more sense to him, concluding that, “God is pure consciousness. I don’t think I would have to die to go to heaven or hell. I’m just not going for that, so I stepped away from that. However, the more you learn about other things, the easier it is to get along with someone that is from a different religion or background.”
Another crowd member asked what his advice for up-and-coming rappers is. “A lot of kids want to be rappers and athletes, they are not thinking about school. Half the rappers don’t care about schooling and teaching kids because now it’s all about dumbing down in hip hop. If you’re in school, it’s not cool. If you’re on the streets, you're bringing the heat. I don’t really have any advice right now, other than stay in school and keep your job, and make music from your heart.”
Billy asked the last question of the event with "is it true that the Wu-Tang Clan is like the black Beatles?" The GZA responded “I’ve probably heard that about 50 times. A lot of people have compared us to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and I take it as a great compliment. But, I mean a lot of people also say Run DMC is like the black Beatles.” Billy then asked if there is any similarity between what Odd Future is doing and the Wu-Tang’s style back in the day. GZA responded that his son put him on to them and he watched them perform in Manhattan. They have a lot of energy, but the only similarity he sees is them having a lot of members in the group and doing their own thing.
Liquid Swords is being reissued this year as a box set that comes with a chessboard, so cop that and maybe you can catch the GZA in Washington Square Park for a quick game.