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The Genius Speaks: GZA On Fame, Technology, And The Wu-Tang Clan
Philadelphia welcomed The Genius GZA back to the Trocadero last Saturday evening, and what a welcome it was.
Killer Mike got the crowd ready with songs like “Ronald Regan” and “Southern Fried,” and by the time GZA took the stage, the place was electrified.
Long considered the spiritual leader of the Wu-Tang Clan and celebrated as a gifted lyricist, GZA performed his critically acclaimed album “Liquid Swords” in its entirety, at one point jumping down into the pit and performing amidst his fans. When he ended the set with “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin’ ta F’wit”, the crowd went nuts. In an exclusive interview, two.one.five had the chance to sit down with the Genius himself to chat about his music and what it’s like being one of Hip Hop’s most influential figures.
two.one.five magazine: Welcome back to Philadelphia. How do you feel about being back here?
GZA: I love Philly. But I don’t eat cheesesteaks.
two.one.five: You come through here a few times a year. Is there anything that you like to do or see around Philly?
GZA: I haven’t really done anything. I don’t eat steaks, I don’t eat meat. Maybe in ’93, I probably had one back then. I haven’t been to the zoo. Sometimes I like to go to the zoo, even though it’s cruelty to animals. But I think my most memorable trip or most meaningful trip to Philly was when I was about 7 years old, because I got to see the Liberty Bell, I was in 2nd grade, and I saw the Declaration of Independence. The Liberty Bell was the one that stood out the most to me.
two.one.five: You’ve been doing music for a while. What’s keeping you going?
GZA: The love for the art. It has to be the love for the art. That’s what keeps me going, you know? I think I’ll be writing forever, even if I’m not making music.
two.one.five: How do you feel the hip hop music scene has changed in the past 10 or 15 years?
GZA: I mean, it’s forever changing. I don’t want to say “It is what it is” because that’s so clichéd, but that’s the only time I really use that statement or that phrase, is when I’m asked about hip hop or the rap world. But it’s forever changing. I’ve watched it change. I was MCing before it was even on records; it was on the streets, so that was a long, long time ago. As far as the unification? It’s not there anymore. There’s really no unity like it was many, many years ago. You know, hip hop was started, from what I’ve learned, is it stopped gang and street violence, which is a good cause – just getting [kids] off the streets, getting them away from things they shouldn’t be involved with. You know that’s how breaking started; guys were breaking, they were uprocking. Uprocking. . .was a kind of battling without fighting, so it would really get personal but it wasn’t really touching and all that stuff. Dude would be all up in your face and he would take his hat off, so that was a way of battling without – it was aggressive in one way, but without getting really physical. These were things MCs were doing and rappers were doing, and break-dancers were doing, to express or to let out certain things or whatever they was feeling, but this was all started from music, you know. Hip hop, bringing the youth, telling the gangs to leave their colors at home, and come to the party and let’s unite. And that was this movement of hip hop that was started to stop all this street violence, and kids was getting into gangs, you know; you went from stick ball to gang banging in the Bronx, and the south Bronx. And now, they like, thirty-something years later, or however many years later. . . forty years later, it’s a regression. It’s all crazy, and the subject matter’s different. . . when you listen to most songs, especially radio, television, it’s all the same, you know; cars, jewelry, clubs and money, cars, hoes, bitches, you know, as most rappers call them. It’s a lot different. But, you know, it is music, it’s a strong music, it’s. . . the strongest music on the planet right now, as far as the traction of it and those who gravitate toward it but it’s forever changing. When I was a teenager I was in a group with Dirty and RZA. It was called the All In Together Now Crew; this was in the 80s, and ever since we started rhyming, it was always about being lyrically sharp and crafting the best rhyme and the best lyrics, no matter even if we was rhyming about the jacket, you know. It wasn’t just about it being a designer jacket; it was about the stitching, the zipper, the details, and it was always about being lyrical for us. And it’s always going to be about being lyrical.
two.one.five: Who are some of your all-time favorites? Stuff that’s never left you?
GZA: As far as Hip Hop?
two.one.five: Just music in general.
GZA: It’s a whole bunch. I mean, my favorites are the stuff I grew up on, and that’s not really hip hop. That’s when I started rhyming. But it would be like, 70s pop and soul, and R & B and Motown and those things, and stuff I listened to on the radio from growing up. The Doors. I know you’re probably shocked I say the Doors. But whatever they were playing on the radio – because at that time, you had several stations that just played songs that were popular, so it wasn’t really broken down. There wasn’t like a hip hop or R & B station. I grew up on a lot of that [radio] stuff, and I grew up on a lot of stuff my parent’s played. Even with country, I grew up on Loretta Lynn, and . . . Johnny Cash, and Kenny Rogers, and just good music, stuff that I consider to be great music. I listen to that more than hip hop. I was on the bus the other day, and I was just playing stuff from my iPad, and it was all, like, Disco, and. . . not just black music, but Peter Brown. He’s a white boy, and he made a song called “Dance with me” and “Do you wanna get funky with me”. The BeeGees, music that – I don’t know, it just brings me to a certain place and time, where I feel like I’m in that time again, and I feel young. I wouldn’t want to go back because I have so many great things now, you know, years later when you have children, so you never really wanna go back and not have what you have now, but it makes you remember those days, great memories.
two.one.five: There’s an entire generation that grew up with you and the Wu-Tang clan, in the mid 90s. The majority of the audience tonight is kids in their 30s. You guys have certainly been influential. Have you thought about that at all?
GZA: I think about it all the time. It’s not anything that I haven’t noticed. I’ve been doing shows where there are 15 year olds in the crowd, when I’m performing an album that’s 17 years old. One thing that I’m gonna say about Wu-Tang, is that some people call us the Rolling Stones, or the Beatles of hip hop. I know sometimes Run DMC get that title, you know, and Public Enemy get a lot of respect, but other than Run DMC I don’t really know too many other groups that make it to that Rolling Stones or Beatles of Hip Hop title. What’s interesting is that we not only have those your age who grew up, or a little older, that grew up listening to Wu-Tang but we have their children, and I run into kids sometimes. I met a dude, in Disneyland, and he was like, “hey GZA, What’s up?” he must have been like 15; this was like seven years ago. He told me, “my mom raised me on Wu-Tang “. I still see him to this day. We still communicate. He’s from San Diego, and when I came to his town, the first time I saw him in his town, I was doing an in-store signing. He waited the whole night, and walked up to me and showed me the picture I had taken with him in Disneyland. He was like, “You remember this?” I was like, “Oh yeah, what’s up” He said “I wanna come to your show tonight but I’m not 21 yet!” So now he’s about 23, 24, but for him to tell me his mother raised him on Wu-Tang, that his mother listened to Wu-Tang, and now he’s hanging out with me and we’re cool and all that. . . we not only have those [parents], we have their kids also, and that’s an interesting thing. It’s not something that you really get a lot in hip hop. I think it’s pretty cool.
two.one.five: Do you feel that technology now has enabled you to connect with your fans in a different way?
GZA: OF course. . .the thing about the internet, and just the internet and all, is a way to self promote without having a street teem. See, years ago we had a street team, guys that were running around. . .stenciling, mostly places you can’t really put flyers up. So it’s a different way of doing things. We used to ride around in vans, and the vans would be wrapped. The thing with the internet is that it’s a way of getting yourself out. It’s cool that it’s like that; we can use the internet, we can use online services, and Facebook – Facebook is so big.
two.one.five: Are you on twitter? Do you tweet?
GZA: I’m on twitter but I don’t really tweet. I have a team, because I have a manager, and I may have one or two other people that may tweet for me, but they ask me can they tweet, but personally. . .I’m not a fan [of Twitter]. I don’t understand it. I don’t know who’s tweeting who, who sent what, where this is coming from, who’s following, but it’s a way of getting information out, people following you, but I’m not all about trying to boost up the followers. I think the internet is a great tool. It helps a lot of artists because you can get something out, and the next day it could just go viral overnight. It could be huge. You could be bouncing a ping pong ball on your fucking nose. You know, 30 years ago it wouldn’t have meant anything to anyone, but nowadays it’s like “Ooh, this guy is balancing a ping pong ball on his nose!”
two.one.five: So, your music is gradually reaching a younger audience. Do you think your music is timeless at this point?
GZA: I think my music is timeless when I see 14 year olds singing along to an album that’s 17 years old. That’s the only way I can explain it. It’s timeless in that sense. And it’s a blessing also. And on the internet, I see so many things that’s positive and so many that’s negative. It all depends on how you use it and what you use it for. It’s a powerful tool. It can make us or break us, just like stardom or fame. You know, when you look at most artists, most of them are sad endings. Think of Michael Jackson. Sad ending. Greatest entertaining in the world, in my opinion, in many people’s opinion. I mean, I grew up on this dude. Aside from Wu-Tang, you wanna talk about other artists, you probably got 3 or 4 generations of followers. Like little kids right now 4 years old probably know who Michael Jackson is. But, sad ending. Whitney Houston, sad ending. Kurt Cobain. It goes on and on and on. The fame can make you or it can break you. One thing about it is that Mike always loved music, he loved to sing, that was his passion, that was his thing, but the outcome of it… it’s what we love to do, but sometimes it destroys us. So it all depends.
two.one.five: How do you deal with it? Does it still surprise you that people are so interested in your life as a celebrity, as someone in the spotlight?
GZA: It does. It feels good, but it does surprise me sometimes. You got to take the pros with the cons. I don’t mind speaking to people and all that, but I don’t want to be annoyed. And I don’t want to be harassed to a degree. And sometimes you have to allow artists some space. One day I was in Los Angeles and I was coming out of this restaurant and the [paparazzi] was across the street just waiting to see anyone. And when I came out he ran over, “GZA!” I’m with my family. [He was from] TMZ. The majority of people on there don’t even know who I am, but this dude did, because he was a young black kid. He was familiar with hip hop, but if they had taken it back to the office they probably wouldn’t know. Harvey Levin would be like,” Who’s GZA?” or whatever. I don’t care. But sometimes it’s a barrier that you cross that you have to know. When I’ve seen entertainers and other people, even as an entertainer [myself], I’m never one to ask for an autograph, or photo, because I’m just not like that. I’m one that would come up to you and greet you or respect you. It’s a certain level of distance and space that you just have to know how to balance it. That’s all it is. Because of who you are, you have to know what to say. I run into dudes sometimes that’s like. . . “Oh, I’m working on this, do you have a number?” And I’m like, “Dude. Out of fucking line.” Even if it’s an artist that I run into, an MC, I respect them on a certain level. Usually I’ll give them my number or email. . I would never just say, “Let me get your number,” because I don’t know how they’re going to react! You have to show respect and you have to give people space. It’s just, something you have to know.
Written by Jenna Tripke with photos and additional reporting by Caroline Edgeton.