Wu-Tang Genius GZA Throws It Back
Serving as the head of Wu-Tang’s metaphorical Voltron has earned him a legacy unparalleled among New York rapper-producers.
Colossal hits spawned by The Genius throughout the 1990s still stand as titans of historical importance across spectra of relevance. That’s to define his significance most meagerly.
His production aesthetic was the type-setting sound and fury of hip-hop during a time when the genre came to embody popular music on a newly predominant level. He worked to parlay burgeoning cultural capital into a broad entrepreneurial strategy when the few artists had made such a move.
He redefined the value of sampling, and did more for bootleg kung-fu movies than anyone since Bruce Lee.
Based on Saturday’s performance, GZA isn’t anxious to sever ties with that part of his life. He’s not only looking back by rereleasing 1995’s "Liquid Swords" with a supporting promotional tour.
Saturday’s set list was heavy with time-tested material, much of which straight up from the 36 Chambers. While his performance provoked ruckus-bringing displays of audience appreciation from start to finish, these were the joints that set the hundreds-strong crowd at the El Rey off with a bang.
Members of the Wu have in many ways proven capable of gazing backwards. As noted by the RZA in “The Wu-Tang Manual,” Raekwon displayed a brand of mastery in his descriptions of the taxing, yet ultimately informative experience of his upbringing with an earnestness akin to Russian literature.
The rest of the Clan has otherwise shown an affinity and ability for employing the past tense — GZA drops 28 in total on the autologically titled “Auto Bio.”
The implicit danger here is that GZA will be fail to grow beyond that past. Should he be damned to a life of treading the same, albeit outstanding, territory, that might be interpreted as a disservice to the promise of his many timeless innovations. That is to say, fans would be disappointed to see GZA lumped into the has-been bin like some less-treasured releases by Wu affiliates.
That he’s revisiting "Liquid Swords" could be one step towards that end, a sign that his creative musical strategy is directed towards milking a rich back catalog.
His live performance discouraged such a reading. Having Wavves’ Nathan Williams on-stage, adding a handful of guitar notes came across as something of a happy afterthought — his trappy duo “Sweet Valley” is on the road with GZA — but it was an obvious nod towards providing razor-sharp novelty.
More importantly, The Genius kept the crowd glued to every verse. He did ODB's songs and 100 people followed along. He said “Wu,” and everyone in the room yelled, “Tang.”
Hiding behind accomplishments is better left to Vanilla Ice. GZA ostensibly takes the time he has spent reflecting on the evolution of historical events and puts this understanding to use. That he acts as a player in a chess game is undoubtedly the only analogy apt.
His academic lectures have drawn a wealth of popular acclaim. These inevitably have featured tales from his times in the ciphers of Brooklyn and Shaolin. Recalling the origins of his career on Saturday, he described working to create music with cousins (later to be dubbed The RZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard) as “a hobby” and nothing else. Family can be understood as personalized tie to history. On Saturday, the GZA attempted to honor that connection, stating that he cared for his family as defined in any number of terms.
Families appear to return the sentiment. One surprise at the El Rey was the number of attendees under ten years of age. While they didn’t take up much space in the expansive club, they were nonetheless a presence, catching perhaps their first whiff of marijuana smoke under the watchful eyes of aware and contented parents.
GZA’s next original album, to follow a pressing of "Liquid Swords" recorded with a live backing band, is set to be titled "Dark Matter." His inspiration on this go-round is science, specifically astrophysics brought to his attention by Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
On Saturday evening around 11:30 p.m., The Genius asked: “How many of you want another Wu-Tang?” What came back at him was the roar of a phalanx.
He vouched that a new proper Clan release would be out “in the next year.”
An officially sanctioned promise of such an effort is yet to be released. By the way his audience has been sustained, now sown generations deep, it will fall on the ears of some captivated crowd.
To listen to a recording of GZA's live version of "Liquid Swords" with Nathan Williams on guitar, click here.
For more information on GZA's current tour dates, click here.