The Game may have recently claimed the title, but GZA is currently Superman, of the Wu-Tang Clan that is. As much like his Wu brother, Ghostface Killah, did eight years ago with the release of Supreme Clientele - following a string of less than stellar solo projects in the late ‘90s that left the Clan on the brink of irrelevance - it appears to now be the crew’s lyrical godfather GZA’s turn to swoop in and help save his fam’s respected position in the game with his latest solo offering, Pro Tools.
Following the experimental stylings of the Clan’s 8 Diagrams, the more traditional “Wu sound" found on Pro Tools is a welcomed return to the raw rhythms and intricate lyrics that defined Shaolin’s finest in the early to mid-90’s.
HipHopDX spoke with the Wu’s current solo superhero from his hotel in Seattle during a recent tour stop and were blessed with some shockingly candid acknowledgements from the GZA, including that Wu-nemesis 50 Cent’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ is a classic, but 8 Diagrams was in fact the paper plate. And that current “tension" within the Clan is more than just mumblings from a couple disgruntled members.
Genius also spoke frankly on why he thinks Rick Ross should have started his career as “C.O. Ross," what the real nature of Wu-Tang’s relationship was with Tupac before his untimely death, and how young artists like Soulja Boy can fly to commercial heights while retaining their Clark Kent intellect.
HipHopDX: “If you wanna sleep when you awake, then make ya bed." Do you think the majority of the Hip Hop community in 2008 are sleepwalking?
GZA: Yeah, I think so. If you wanna sleep - not be aware to things, ignorant to things - when you awake, then make ya bed. Like, clean that up. Now you awoke, do something about it.
DX: That track, “7 Pounds," is probably my favorite on the new album primarily because it’s the most energetic production on the album, which helps keep the listeners attention, keeping them from sleeping on what you got to say. Do you think the barrier these days for a master wordsmith such as yourself to be heard is just in the production, in the beats?
GZA: Well, it’s a barrier that the individual puts up themselves. ‘Cause a lot of times people listen to the music, they don’t really listen to lyrics. And sometimes people listen to lyrics first - such as myself – and then beats. Or, a combination of both. So yeah, it’s a lot of people out there that don’t really hear the lyrics. They hear a track, they like it. They hear a beat they don’t like, then they don’t like the track.
DX: Someone in the forums of Wu-Tang Corp referred to your last release, Grandmasters with DJ Muggs [click to read], as “digital nyquil." Can you understand why a listener, especially a younger one unfamiliar with Wu, would have trouble vibin’ with “0% Finance" and its rock-guitar chord beat without any changes and 104 bars of spittin’ without a chorus?
GZA: I don’t think that anyone would have a problem listening to that song, or even understanding it. It’s just a straight up story that climbs. It goes on and on. Of course it’s long, it’s 104 bars. But how many emcees can go 104 bars without being boring or corny? I mean, the story never gets boring, at any point. So, I don’t see why they would have a problem with that. Unless they saying, “Oh, he’s losing me. I don’t know where he’s at now. It’s too much going on." I’m not that type of emcee. I don’t even write like that, so.
DX: You think your listeners need to make a commitment when they’re listening to GZA?
GZA: Oh yeah, you definitely have to do that, man. Some things you just have to…when you get albums, or you get movies, some things you know you have to [absorb] in your own zone, ya know? It’s like one of my cousins is doing a documentary on ODB. He’s been working on it for a minute. And he gave me this DVD two days ago. He wanted me to look at it. And he said, “Yo, I’m telling you, throw it on now." We was on the [tour] bus [with] everybody. And I said, “Nah, this is the type of thing that I gotta zone in. I’m gonna go in, either in my bunk or take it up to the room, and zone out." Some songs are like that. Some albums, depending on who you around, you wanna listen to by yourself, ya know?
DX: Yeah. And I can’t see how anyone, of any age, couldn’t dig a song like “Alphabets" [click to listen], but flippin’ the entire alphabet for a chorus doesn’t seem like an undertaking an emcee of this generation would attempt. Why do you think that is? Is it their youth, is it their laziness?
GZA: No, it’s the laziness of not [making an effort to be] creative enough, or original. They’ll look at it and say, “The alphabets?" Even though most rap that you hear now is A-B-C [expletive] anyway. But, they would look at me like, “It’s no way I can put alphabets in the hook and make it sound fly." Artists today don’t know how to do that. They don’t know how to be really, really hardcore and commercial at the same time. They don’t know how to combine the two. Either you gotta be so thug and gully, or you have to be so soft and commercial. They don’t know how to combine the two. Just to take a topic like “Alphabets," I mean, it’s a simple topic. They would say, “Alright, alphabets, that’s the hook." But they wouldn’t really know how to put it [together], a majority of ‘em. They wouldn’t get it.
DX: While we’re on the topic of the youth, is it just my interpretation, or is the whole aim of Pro Tools to speak to the youth about what they should be leary of in contemporary Hip Hop, and more importantly what they should be leery of in the streets, like on one of the album’s gems, “Path Of Destruction"?
GZA: Well, yeah. I think every song in itself has its own message, but it’s whatever they get from it. I didn’t really set a goal to reach a certain amount of people, or to reach a certain age group. I just did an album for people to hear – young and old, white and black, anyone that has ears can listen. I did an album for myself that I felt, that I liked and enjoyed doing, and I put it out there for the people. And whatever they get from it, then they’ll get from it. And I’m pretty sure you’ll get something.
DX: Can you elaborate on why it’s titled Pro Tools, just to clarify?
GZA: It’s just a program that’s used to record. It’s nothing in depth [behind the origins of the title]. It’s no crazy story behind it. I was looking around the room in the studio one day and my eyes happened to focus on the manual or something to that effect, and I said, “Pro Tools [click to read], that’s the name of the album." And that was it. That’s how things come to me anyway – the titles and all that. Usually, a title don’t come [for] a song till after it’s done, with myself. Hooks don’t come until the rhyme is finished, if I decide to put a hook. Everything is last minute, more on the spontaneous level.
DX: Now on that track I referenced, “Path Of Destruction," you spit: “Very caught up in his own drive for dominance/And to know that he would pay in the end was common sense." Do you really think that kids today in the streets have that common sense about how the game ends, or that they’re blinded by music that seems to suggest they can emerge unharmed to become a rap star?
GZA: Yeah, most of ‘em don’t have that common sense. And the majority of ‘em are hoping [they’ll become a rapper]. I mean, when I got into Hip Hop I got into it because it was a childhood passion of mine. It was something that I enjoyed doing. I didn’t get into it to make money. I wasn’t looking at it like most kids [today] look at it. They watch videos and stuff like that and they like, “Yo, I’ma be a rapper." Just like some kids look at the NBA. They look at that as, “I wanna be a ball player and make a lot of money and get out." They don’t think about anything else. And actually, I think the odds now in this day and time it’s easier to get into the NBA than to be successful in rap. And the odds of [making it to] the NBA is crazy too. [But] the odds in Hip Hop is even greater. So, to those that was on the outside looking in “to know that he would pay in the end was common sense." Those that were wise knew, but for that individual he didn’t know.
DX: That’s why I personally think the Rick Ross story [click to read], or the Plies situation [click to read], are important and need to be highlighted, because with each successive generation in Hip Hop the new youngest fans take these rappers made up personas too literally and think they can be Tony Montana until they decide to be a rapper.
GZA: Exactly. It’s crazy.
DX: Any input on the exposes of late that have been popping up on these artists?
GZA: As far as the Rick Ross thing, I’ve read a few interviews and I heard a little bit that was going on. I don’t really be online like that, [but] I heard a couple interviews. I’m hearing he was a C.O. He’s saying he wasn’t. I hear there’s all this evidence and proof that he was a C.O., but I don’t know. But my whole thing is that I don’t think whether you gangsta or you’re just a straight up regular dude from the hood, or whatever you may be, it’s nothing wrong with being a C.O. It’s a job. It’s a decent job. And you on the inside working with inmates, so you… It’s just a job, ya know? I look at it like I wouldn’t hide the fact if I was. It wouldn’t make me less than who I am. If I am who I am, it wouldn’t make me any less. I don’t really know the situation on his story, but I mean being a C.O., if you are a C.O., it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I think my whole rap thing probably woulda been built around the C.O. [image]. I woulda been C.O. Ross. Everything woulda been jail related – good and bad. I mean, that’s just how I think. So I woulda marketed that.
DX: So if young fans shouldn’t follow the lead of rappers promoting fabricated criminal backgrounds, what’s so wrong with them following the lead of Soulja Boy?
GZA: I don’t think anyone should follow the lead of anything, unless it’s something really, really positive [and] uplifting. Be yourself, man. You know when kids grow up your parents, grandparents and teachers always tell you to “be somebody," but you already are somebody. You can be greater, but you are somebody already. And just to hear somebody say “be somebody" that means “don’t be you, be something else."
And I mean, whatever you like, you like, as far as music. If you like Soulja Boy [click to read], you like Soulja Boy, it’s music! So you don’t really have to follow anything. You can listen to all the gangsta [expletive] you want and still be an A student. You can not listen to gangsta [expletive] at all and be a D student. Don’t let the music influence you in a bad way, that’s all. But we don’t have to follow anything.
DX: But you know I asked to segue to why’d you take a shot at Soulja Boy [click to read] in that London performance last year?
GZA: I didn’t take a shot at him, man. People gotta realize, I never took a shot. Bloggers is twisting things around. I’m pretty sure you’ve seen the clip, right? [click to view] Did you actually think I took a shot at him?
DX: There’s like two different clips. There’s one where the audience is feeding you. And then there’s another one where I thought you said something about Soulja Boy in reference to ringtones [click to view].
GZA: Yeah, I said, “You got a hot ringtone." Someone in the crowd said, “Screw Soulja Boy." I said, “Okay, yeah Soulja Boy you got a hot ringtone. I got a son your age. I’m not knockin’ you. I’m not hatin’ on you, but I know a couple of cats that was 17 that was really, really doing something lyrically." ‘Cause some people try to say, “Well, given his age he don’t have to be all that lyrical." Or, he gets a pass. And I knew a lot of 17 year-olds [who were lyrical]. Even at my age, at 17 I was just incredibly lyrically sharp. I mean, c’mon, Nas was what 18 when he did Illmatic?
DX: Rakim was 18 when he wrote “Eric B Is President."
GZA: Right! So c’mon, don’t try to use [youth] as an excuse, man. It’s just a lot of kids out here with a lot of popcorn rap, that’s all. And be willing to take the good [feedback] with the bad. I know everything written about me isn’t always good. I go online and I gotta be able to handle it. You got people saying, “Yo, screw GZA. He washed up. He bitter. He old." You know, whatever, whatever, I take the good and the bad. It’s just an opinion.
DX: Now you know I gotta ask this too, in one of those performances from last year – that one I think with the crowd exchange – the shot at 50 Cent comes, and you’re going at 50 again on “Paper Plate" [click to listen], but my question is why now? I mean, Fif first went at Wu like 10 years ago on “How To Rob,� but he hasn’t really taken aim at any of y’all recently.
GZA: Nah, it’s not even that; it’s not like “Why now?" I’m not doing anything to try to get a rep off [this]. I built my rep already. It was just a song, man. Actually, the rhyme was written months ago. And I just happened to be in the studio one day at home and the beat was rockin’ and I decided to throw that dart on that beat and see how it sound. The engineer was like, “Yo, where did that come from? Yo, you need to use that." Several people heard it and was like, “Yo, you need to rock with that." So we rocked with it. It was no big deal. It’s not like I waited years to try to get at him or anything. He never said anything personally about me. He’s said a couple of things about Wu [over the years]. As far as the [“How To Rob"] track, I never really took that a certain way. I just thought it was a track. He didn’t mean any harm by it. I never thought he did. But, when I did [that] show and someone called him out and I added on to it, or I fed into it, I just spoke what I felt. I didn’t think he’s lyrical. He’s not, to me! [I’d] still say it. It’s no big deal. So that’s all I said. And he had a response. He replied with some joking thing about my age or whatever. He didn’t really say much. He didn’t really come at me. I mean, this dude really be gettin’ at dudes, [but] he didn’t really say much. So, I did a track, whatever.
DX: One last 50 question: Do you believe 50’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ album [click to read] is disposable like a paper plate, that it won’t last the test of time as a Hip Hop classic? ‘Cause most people believe that’s his classic, the 2003 album.
GZA: Yeah, I would say that too. I would say that is his classic. Everything else? Nah, garbage.
DX: You know there are critics who believe 8 Diagrams [click to read] was disposable like a paper plate. What is your impression of that album with 9 months of hindsight to view through?
GZA: Compared to Wu-Tang Forever [and Enter The] 36 Chambers, yeah I agree.
DX: You’re still able to stand outside of yourself as a fan and make that admission?
GZA: Of course, ‘cause I know what I do as an individual, [and] I’ve only increased lyrically. I’m greater than I’ve ever been on the mic, even at my age, I’m getting better and better. It’s amazing. And when I listen to my music sometimes I go in a zone [and] I listen to myself as a fan. I don’t listen to it as GZA. I listen to it as a lyrical person just listening to another emcee. And then I judge it. And if I don’t like something, I don’t like it, ya know? 8 Diagrams wasn’t all that. I agree, it wasn’t all that. I wasn’t really feeling that. There were a few songs on it I liked, but I wasn’t like, “Yeah, we bangin’ ‘em."
DX: With the less than stellar critical and commercial response to the album, and all the reported group turmoil during the construction of the record, will there ever be another Wu-Tang group album?
GZA: I don’t know, man. I can’t say. That’s hard to say. It’s a lot going on right now. There’s a lot of tension in the group, a lot of stuff in the air, so I can’t really say. The one thing I must say though, when we on stage you’d never know that is tension. I mean, you’ll have brothers that may not even speak to each other, [but] when they get on stage you would never know that because they be communicating with each other.
DX: Now Raekwon, he ended up being obviously the most vocal critic from within the crew of the more experimental sound on 8 Diagrams. I was just curious if you played Rae the RZA-produced “Life Is A Movie" from Pro Tools to make him eat his words about RZA’s beatmaking abilities? [Laughs].
GZA: [Laughs]. I don’t even know if Rae [click to read] heard Pro Tools yet. I don’t know if he’s heard that song. But I never wrote RZA [click to read] out. Never, and I still don’t. I still think he’s an incredible producer. You just have to bring the best out of each other. Sometimes you sharpen knives with knives or other sharp objects. RZA got it, [and] I know how to bring it out because I take time when I work, when I write. I take time, so if I hear a track and I know it has potential, I’m gonna bring something out of it.
DX: So Rae’s proposed RZA-less Wu-Tang album, it ain’t happening?
GZA: Um…probably not. I don’t know, [but] probably not. It all depends.
DX: While we’re talking about the group, I just gotta ask you about the recent reports regarding the album outlines Tupac had written in 1995 [click to read], shortly before he got out of prison, where he planned collabos with Meth and Rae and production from RZA. What was the relationship between Wu and ‘Pac like before he passed?
GZA: I think I seen ‘Pac one time. I met him once. I didn’t really know him like that, but he had ran into RZA, and maybe a few other Clan members on different occasions. But as far as what I heard him speak about on tape or interviews, he had love for Wu. Wu was like one, if not the only [crew from the east coast], that he didn’t even call out when he was talking about everybody else.
DX: Yeah, just y’all and Duck Down I think were the only two.
DX: Any doubts that ‘Pac was a real Wu fan, or just a skilled strategist who knew about the issues between Wu and Biggie and planned to capitalize on that friction?
GZA: Nah, hell no. I’d cancel that [thought] out. He was a true fan, man. I believe that in my heart. You can tell the way the guy spoke. Dude spoke what he felt and what he meant, and he spoke from his heart. And if he didn’t like [expletive], he would tell you he didn’t like it. So Tupac to me wasn’t the kind of person who gonna act like he love Wu and he’s gonna ride the bandwagon because Wu was saying this about [Notorious B.I.G.]. Nah, he was a straight up dude.
DX: Even with all those east vs. west issues, I know there are a lot of heads that would love for Hip Hop to be more like it was in that mid-‘90’s Big and ‘Pac era. Even Meth had a quote recently where he was saying that [click to read]. Is that love of Hip Hop from that time evident on your current tour where you’re just performing the Liquid Swords album?
GZA: Yeah, and the audience is still 16, 17, 18, 20’s. I ran a survey last night: “How many people in here are over 30?" May have been about 20 [hands went up]. I said, “How many people in here are over 25?" May have been about another 30. And then I said, “How many people in here are under 25?" And then [almost] all the hands went up.