"This guy had a tattoo on his face. A big fuckin' W. That W is probably the most known and the most famous brand in hip-hop."
If ever there was a testament to the strength of the Wu-Tang dynasty, it's the skit that prefaces "Paper Plate", in which GZA recalls meeting a fan with a tattoo of the Wu-Tang's iconic W emblem on his face. "It's unheard of, right?" GZA wonders. "This guy had a tattoo on his face. I mean, on his face. A big fuckin' W. And then he had all this other shit carved in. He had a whole bunch of stuff on his face, but the W was the biggest. It was like, 'wow, damn.' It's like that. Wu has it like that. You know, Wu-Tang is just that special brand. That W is probably the most known and the most famous brand in hip-hop."
(swiped from Pitchfork Media)
If you have nothing invested in lyrical hip-hop in general or the Wu-Tang Clan specifically, you probably aren't going to find much to like about Pro Tools, the new album from the Wu's own GZA. Over a bevy of spare beats from the likes of RZA and a handful of talented, primarily under-the-radar producers, GZA spits tightly wound narratives amid the usual Wu family abstraction, generally unconcerned with things like tunefulness or hooks.
However, if you are into lyrical hip-hop of the Wu-Tang strain, GZA's Pro Tools is probably the best thing you've come across since, well, 8 Diagrams. And it's exactly how GZA, long considered one of the sharpest (if not the sharpest) lyricist in the Clan, likes it.
"I'm an MC," GZA reminds us. "It has always been about lyrics. I mean, even if you go back to when I first started, or if you want to take it to the mid-early 80s, when it was myself, Dirty [Ol' Dirty Bastard] and RZA in a group, it was all about being lyrical.
"It's just like when you read a book, you look for great writing. When you read an article or interview, you look for a great story. When you watch a movie, you look for a great movie-- you know, a great beginning, an ending, subplots, ups, downs. I mean, you know, you wanna be entertained. You want to learn from it as well."
Pro Tools apparently began its life as a very different project than the one sitting on a shelf down at your local record shop. "Originally it was supposed to be a compilation album and I was gathering songs for the last few years," GZA explains. "I was in and out of L.A., different cities and getting different artists. You know, in-house family. I was doin' a lot of songs, puttin' them on songs, just to fill it. And over the years some songs was getting used for other people's projects 'cause it was sitting for a while. Then some songs got missing and discs were lost, and I just regrouped. I scrapped everything.
"I started saying to myself, you know, I don't really want to do a compilation with 35 different people. The less I can have on, the better for me, 'cause that's how I like it. I don't really like putting on other artists. I mean, if I could be on an album by myself, I'd rather. I love to have my brothers with me. If they can come, that's even greater. But I always have to prepare myself in case they're not able to make it and do it. So I regrouped and I did new songs."
Ultimately, Pro Tools features relatively few guest spots. However, one of those spots is one of the record's most memorable moments: as the opening track begins, Wu-Tang spiritual leader RZA repeats GZA's name over and over. It's a powerful statement of Wu-Tang unity, and a declaration that this album is deeply rooted in the Wu-Tang aesthetic.
Still, one can't help but be reminded of last winter's 8 Diagrams tour, which saw the Wu-Tang Clan touring without the RZA and completely ignoring their then-new LP. The release of the wonderfully strange album and the resulting turmoil within the Wu-Tang has left plenty wondering just what the state of the Wu-Tang Clan is in 2008.
GZA seems as uncertain as anyone. "I can't really call it, man. It's definitely not the same. It's not what it used to be, as far as the vibe. These brothers need to still get amongst each other and get out some things. You know, you can become wounded, and then your wound heals, but the scar is still there. And that's pretty much what it is. There's still a few scars. That's obvious. And, you know, they showin', but we just have to work it out. It's better for us, man. I mean, the brand is so strong that we need to really pull it together and really pop it off. We really need to put all differences to the side and focus on what we do have in common, because that's how it started off.
"That may be one of the problems. I mean, that's a problem with people in the world, anyway, in general. We can find 1,000 things that make us different, but we can't find one thing that makes us the same. You know, some brothers voiced their opinion. I mean, it's still love. It's just the vibe is funny. The vibe is real funny lately. I do plan on doin' another album with RZA. I mean, the most incredible album that's ever been done. I plan on doin' that."
With a few RZA beats on Pro Tools and the prospect of a shared album between the two, it seems clear that if there are now two camps within the Wu, GZA has hardly split from RZA's. "Oh, yeah. I can't write him out. I can't write him out like that. RZA's one of the best producers that ever existed. I mean, I'm not sayin' I agree with this music that was on [8 Diagrams]. There were some songs I didn't like. I mean, hey, it's like that sometimes. I'm not gonna like everything. But then you gotta look at the time that was allocated. It wasn't really a lot of time that was allocated to do this album. Sometimes you have to sit down... we weren't around each other for a while. We just decided to do an album, to come into the studio. RZA had these beats, and some dudes weren't feelin' a lot of it.
"You know, I'd rather stick to the formula, get the vibe of probably some of the beats that we used in the past, that sort of element. It's just that you can go anywhere with this music. You just have to feel it, you have to bring the best out of it. And I don't think we brought the best out of him, because I don't think the time was there. For instance, once I get out with him, then I'm able to sit down with RZA for three weeks, and I think we can really pull something off. It just requires time, but I'm not gonna write him out. Just hearing his songs like [Pro Tools track] 'Life Is a Movie', you know, just the production on that, that way we did that together goes to show you our chemistry is another level, myself and RZA. So I'm not gonna write him out. I may not like a lot of the songs that he was presentin', but hey, that's cool. I'll find something that I like."
If Pro Tools is any indication, GZA feels like speaking his mind a lot lately. One target of his ever-sharp lyrical swordplay this time out is 50 Cent, whose artistic integrity GZA has publicly questioned in the past. 50 serves as the subject of much ire on the track "Paper Plate", though GZA's wrath isn't just reserved for one particular commercial rapper. "So far as what's above the surface, what we hearin' and what we seein', it's just like [sighs]. It's the same story. It's never been like that for me. There's so much to get inspired from, good and bad. Every day there's so much in the world to just be hearin' rhymes about the same shit all the time. Ridiculous. So, you know, that's why I keep it along that line, staying focused and being grounded, keeping it Wu. Keeping it GZA."
At this point, the Wu-Tang Clan's legacy has certainly been cemented, with a storied 15-year history and a handful of undeniably classic records under their belt. GZA alludes to his own experience in "Paper Plate", reminding the 50 Cents of the world, "I'm 10 years your senior, but I flow like I'm 21." As GZA notes, "I'm about 10, 11 years older than you, 12 years older, but I rhyme like I'm 10 years younger 'cause of my energy, vibe, and freshness. I'm not sayin' that I'm like a youngster and I'm immature and I'm an amateur. It's just that I have that kick of a 21-year-old. That energy, that vibe, that spark. It's not like I'm on the mic rhyming like [affects exaggerated Kurtis Blow-like cadence] 'you know I talk to the rhythm in the rock and roll.' But I come from that era, you understand? I don't deliver in that fashion. I did that, I rhymed like that, you know, in the 70s when that's what MCin' was. So that's my point. I'm up here, 10 years your senior. I've been doin' this when you was in Pampers probably. Before you was born, actually. But I'm still rhymin' like I'm fresh off the block. And I'm evolving. I'm only getting better."
GZA goes on to explain the rest of the "Paper Plate" lyric, "'I'm 10 years your senior, but I flow like I'm 21 / Straight from Medina, with the mass of many suns": "I set it straight for Medina because, you know, you have to make it all rhyme. So Medina's Brooklyn, we call that Brooklyn. And I say a supernova, 'cause a supernova, most of them has the mass of many suns, or the sun that's, you know, shinin' light within our solar system."
Somehow I doubt that much though went into "I Get Money".
There's an awful lot of knowledge dropped all over Pro Tools. In typical GZA fashion, the album's verses are densely layered with wordplay and narrative alike. The craftsmanship that goes into a typical GZA song is obvious, as usual. "I put a lot into it when I'm writing, normally," GZA says of his writing process. "That's how it is, man. It's about creative writing for me. When I sit down and write a verse, I sit down-- I'm not really one to write a rhyme in 30 minutes. Every now and then, maybe. There was maybe one round that I was able to pull off in about 45 minutes, and that was for the 'Pencil' song."
The beats on Pro Tools are laid back and largely unfettered, a far cry from the busy nature of most modern hip-hop production-- and even RZA's labyrinthine work on 8 Diagrams. Does GZA, who manages to cram what sounds like hundreds of bars into practically every song, seek out this sort of sound intentionally? "That's a good question," he says. "I mean, I don't look for a certain sound. I just have to hear it. When I hear it, I have to know that that's it. But normally I like open beats, and I do look for beats that allow room for me to be heard. I don't like a lot of stuff cluttered. I don't like a lot of this ping-pong, ping-pong pinball.
"I mean, I'm from the era where, you know, I was even sayin' on "Mic Trippin'" [from 1999's Beneath the Surface], "I'm a break beat fanatic / Crates deep in attics / 45s marked up, looped with static." So I'm from the era where I rhymed on break beats. Drums, strictly drums, and breaks in the middle of songs. These breaks came from rap records, pop records, disco records, R&B records. Hip-hop is all of that. But these were breaks that the DJs used to scratch. That's what I'm used to rhyming off because I come from that era. I mean, I can rhyme off R&B music. I can rhyme off anything if I'm feelin' it, but normally I like an open beat, so you can hear somethin' real simple, somethin' that's not overpowering. I'm not that kind of MC, you know.
"There may be a lot of others that need a whole bunch of music to put on their lyrics because they're not as strong. That's why a lot of people say, 'Oh, you know, the beat is hot, though.' The beat can be hot, and if the lyrics is whack, I might not even notice how hot the beat is. You're like, 'this dude is real corny, man." You know, you had MCs in the past-- especially from the golden era-- that was incredibly sharp lyrically and had the most bullshit beats. But you didn't even notice that, like, 'Damn, I didn't know how weak that beat was, he was just tearin' it up so bad.'"
Beats and rhymes rarely connect quite as brilliantly on GZA's classic 1995 LP Liquid Swords. After a triumphant set at the 2007 Pitchfork Music Festival, GZA is taking Liquid Swords out on the road this summer and fall for a series of shows that feature him performing the album in its entirety. GZA doesn't see much of a conflict with the timing of promoting a new album while doing a tour highlighting an old one. "This was in the makings already," he notes. " If anything, this is a segue to launch this album 'cause, you know, I'm gonna be doing several songs off the albums. Promoters are paying for Liquid Swords, so first thing's first. What makes it great is that Pro Tools is out, so they like, 'I can get Liquid Swords, then I get a whole bunch of other stuff that's in this catalog, and then I get some of Pro Tools.' You're gettin' a whole lot."
08-26 Seattle, WA - Neumos (performing Liquid Swords)
08-27 Vancouver, British Columbia - Richard's on Richards (performing Liquid Swords)
08-29 Salt Lake City, UT - Palladium (performing Liquid Swords)
08-30 Denver, CO - Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom (performing Liquid Swords)
09-01 Dallas, TX - Palladium Loft (performing Liquid Swords)
09-02 Houston, TX - Warehouse Live (performing Liquid Swords)
09-03 Austin, TX - Emo's (performing Liquid Swords)
09-04 Minneapolis, MN - Cabooze (performing Liquid Swords)
09-05 Grinnell, IA - Grinnell College (performing Liquid Swords)
09-06 Madison, WI - SoCo Music Experience (performing Liquid Swords)
09-07 Chicago, IL - House of Blues (performing Liquid Swords)
09-09 Oberlin, OH - Dionysus Club (Oberlin College) (performing Liquid Swords)
09-10 Baltimore, MD - Rams Head Live (performing Liquid Swords)
09-11 Philadelphia, PA - Trocadero (performing Liquid Swords)
09-12 New York, NY - Irving Plaza (performing Liquid Swords)
09-13 Boston, MA - Harper's Ferry (performing Liquid Swords)
09-17 Tempe, AZ - Clubhouse (performing Liquid Swords)
09-18 Flagstaff, AZ - Congress (performing Liquid Swords)
09-19 San Diego, CA - Street Scene (performing Liquid Swords)
10-24 Halifax, Nova Scotia - Halifax Pop Explosion
11-10 Brussels, Belgium - AB Club
11-12 Glasgow, Scotland - ABC
11-13 London, England - Electric Ballroom
11-14 Bristol, England - Academy
11-15 Nancy, France - L'Autre Canal
11-17 Paris, France - Elysée Montmartre
11-18 Marseilles, France - Espace Julien