September 19th, 2008 | Interviews


Download: GZA ‘Paper Plate’


(from Pro Tools out now on Baby Grande)

Do you ever have the urge to change anything from Liquid Swords now?
All the time—I can’t think of anything offhand. Sometimes if I listen to a song or a skit or a verse, I think of a way we probably could have said it in a different way. There’s always room for improvement!
How have you changed as a writer since Liquid Swords came out?
I think I’m more lyrical than I’d ever been. The process is still the same, though—it’s tapping into new things and learning new ways of putting lyrics down. I think I’ve become lyrically stronger over the past years. I don’t use profanity at all—a good thing since all this censorship is going on. I do in everyday language but when it comes to writing, I really don’t. Maybe two albums ago on Grandmasters. I just find it stronger—ways to make stronger scenes. Take brighter, more colorful pictures. I’m working with different pastels and paints. Better canvas.
Is that what you’re doing on Pro Tools?
It’s not the masterpiece I’m planning on putting out yet. Pro Tools is a lyrical album in a braggadocious sense. ‘I’m this, I’m that…’ I got a line—‘Me to hip-hop is like Einstein to science.’ But it’s not the masterpiece I plan on putting out. The next album I plan to drop is nothing braggadocious. It’s just all energy and great vibrations—still with a hard edge! Don’t think I’m just talking plants and flowers! But I will be speaking about plants. The average rapper will hear that and say, ‘This dude is buggin’!’ They don’t understand. Sometimes I sit down—tell my son, ‘I’m gonna do a song about this,’ and he’s like, ‘I don’t know—sounds kind of boring and corny!’ And he’ll hear it and be like, ‘Wow, you pulled that off!’ So I’m not gonna be in a botanical garden running around picking flowers, but I will speak! Great things—light and color and energy and chlorophyll and plant life and soil, but in hip-hop fashion. I think the whole album will be about that—planets and black holes, comets, quasars, supernovas, those things all combined—heaven and earth combined. That’s what the next one will be like. Don’t think I can’t speak about this in a hardcore hip-hop manner because I’m good at that. It’ll be next year.
What are you going to name it?
I don’t wanna let it out yet—I had a title called G=MC2 and Mariah came out with E=MC2.
So what is Pro Tools for?
To give marathoners a cup of water. Hold them down til they get to the finish line—til they wash up and shower and get something to eat and drink.
You said you wanted 2008 to be about love and peace and a stress-free happy life—is that 50 Cent dis track going to mess that up?
It may. I don’t know yet—depends whoever responds to it. No big deal to me—it was something written months ago and recorded and I decided to put it on the album, and certain people at the label wanted to leak it and create a buzz. Trust me—I’m not trying to make a career off this dude. But I wanted to put something out and people wanted to hear it. People are tired of this dude running his mouth and talking shit and people respect that way of showing someone what being lyrical is. Getting at you in a clever way—don’t use foul language, all this gun talk, all this crazy shit.
When was the last big breakthrough you sensed in your own work?
All the time! That’s everyday. I’m inspired by all things—good, bad, right, wrong, lefts, rights. That’s why I don’t understand why a lot of rappers write about the same thing all the time, or why it’s not done in a different unique way. There’s so many things—just small things. I had a line on one of Ghost’s songs—‘Too advanced, digi stance, made the CD enhanced / I move with the speed and strength of ants.’ The ant world is very interesting! And complex at the same time—the way they work and the way they build is just incredible! I could have put more than just that one line and you’d not even know I was speaking about ants. Only because I mentioned it! That’s one thing out of a million things. I’m not saying everything needs to be ants—antennas and crawling at the picnic. ‘I’m at the picnic, I’m all over your sandwich, people brush ‘em off shoulders, they’re in the trees’—that’s the literal way. It’s not that. They have a uniqueness about them. I look at everything like that. I can look at sand, the beach, a mirror—look in a mirror and start tripping on reflections and think about other things. Not just a mirror you look into when you brush your teeth but things that mirror myself. A lot of MCs or rappers have sterile imaginations. You can pull people into your world—that’s the great thing about writing. A lot of people don’t get it—it’s simple stuff! It’s simple things. It’s just a metaphor where it seems more than one way. Everything shouldn’t be so literal. If you describe a shoot-out, it doesn’t have to be, ‘Yo, I took the gun out of my right pocket / had the bullets in my left hand / had the clip on the dashboard / took the clip and put it in the gun / it got stuck / I cocked it back / aimed it left…’ That’s not drawing me in. It has to be in a way that draws people into the world. You don’t have to be deep as an MC. I don’t use big words and I don’t use complicated words. I try to make the strongest sentence I can make. I watch interviews and listen to the stories of other entertainers—it’s all interesting. They all have ordeals they go through. And when it comes time for the artist to put that on paper or in a movie, it’s not interesting anymore. The same story. You know how many scripts I read that rappers put out about, ‘Oh, he was an MC who used to hustle, and he took drug money and flipped it and got into the music business…’? You get tired of hearing those stories. I say it over and over and I’m not hating—I may come off like that because I say it in several interviews, but every time I hear about ‘rims on my car,’ it’s the same way. ‘I got two-hundred-thousand on my neck, a million on my pinky, thirty-thousand on my wrist—I got zero on my brain! Nothing down on my thoughts—my brain is on drugs but my watch is on a million dollars!’
What do you like to hear from other artists?
Tupac said things in interesting ways—he had a line, ‘I’m not a sucka / but don’t push me / revenge is like the sweetest joy next to getting pussy.’ It’s not deep—but wow. Biggie was an MC who’d draw you into his world. Whatever he talked about, he had cadence and delivery. And he was flossy and material, but he wasn’t the average thing out there. He wasn’t political and he wasn’t deep, but songs like ‘Kick In The Door’ and ‘Ten Crack Commandments’—you know you’re good when you do the ‘Ten Crack Commandments’ and you get eight other songs like ‘The Ten Laws Of This.’ And Rakim which I’ve quoted for years—he had a line, ‘Measures of metaphor definitions of more than one / Take it both ways, I’ll be here when you’re done.’ He had the song ‘Microphone Fiend’ where he used twelve words to describe his diction without even using the word ‘diction.’ It’s written so well! ‘After 12, I’m worse than a gremlin / Feed me hip-hop and I start trembling.’ And Kane—I could go on and on when it comes to lyrics! These dudes were lyricists! G Rap—even Roads to the Riches, he spoke about John Gotti and people didn’t even know at the time. And ten years later, Gotti’s in all the rhymes. Chuck D, Melle Mel—even Lil Wayne throws a twist on some of his stuff.
And he’s consistently selling the most.
Each one has his time. What it is about him is he does something different. This is how I like to write—I don’t go in the studio like each song needs three sixteen-bar verses with hooks in between. I’ve done a lot of songs with no hooks because they didn’t have them from the get go! Or songs where I repeated a verse—‘Amplified Sample.’ Yeah, I repeated—so what? Dirty did, too, on ‘Shimmy Shimmy.’ There are no set rules. It’s about being yourself, being unique, being creative, not biting. I heard Jay Z: ‘I got apartments you could put your home in.’ That’s strong! That’s crushing all that other shit. He’s unique in his own way, too—one out of a thousand. He may have taken lyrics from other songs because he pays homage. I’ve done the same thing. I’ve taken stuff from Kane or Ra and switched it around—I’m just explaining in a way how it’s done. He had a line on another song—‘True story, my closet is like two stories.’ Plain and simple—strong and powerful. Just what I said on ‘As High’: ‘Yo, too many songs, weak rhymes that’s mad long / Make it brief, son / half short and twice strong.’
How did you discover these kinds of things for yourself?
It was several things. I started rhyming a long time ago. I also got knowledge of self at a young age. I studied mathematics and knew the lessons word for word. The cadence of the wordplay and delivering speeches in a certain way. To deliver something in a cogent manner where it’s believable. And I used to know a lot of Mother Goose rhymes when I was a kid. Old King Cole, Little Miss Muffett—I flipped them. ‘Old King Cole was a merry old soul and a merry old soul was he / he thought he was nice but I put him on ice cuz he couldn’t pull girls like me!’ I had a rhyme—‘Fred and Wilma home alone / Fred looked at Wilma and popped a bone / Threw her on the couch / They started to screw…’ And by the time of hip-hop, I was already well-versed in delivery, flow, switching things around—it was always about writing the best lyrics. Writing in a way no one has written it—in a way that’s never been done. It’s always been like that for me. There was even a time—I mentioned it in many interviews—where RZA came to me like, ‘Don’t take two fucking weeks with a song—don’t give me that! Don’t strain your brain. They don’t need it.’ But I can’t let myself. I did it one time and I feel bad about it. I wrote one time so simple and got paid a lot—the most I was ever paid for a single verse—almost $30,000! I forget the name of the song but I did it for this guy in Japan. A quick 16—so simple and kind of far from what GZA usually does. I was saying, ‘No one’s gonna hear this—it’s in Japan!’ And two or three years ago I found it selling on vinyl for $100. And the guy who owns Bathing Ape is the one I did the song for. I don’t like to cheat myself—or I’m not saying I cheated him, but I took it for granted. And in reality it wasn’t. It’s been like that ever since my first group with Dirty and RZA. I’d spend hours writing routines. I used to write beats for Ol’ Dirty—he was a human beatbox and I was just an MC, but I used to write his beats! If it sounded a certain way, I’d write that on paper. And he’d come over and stand in front of me and I’d read it off to him—I’d stand in front of him like I was a conductor and move my hands, and when he started doing it on stage, he’d move his hands like I moved my hands! I wrote beats for him—hip-hop is in me like that. In my blood like that. I can mix lights from room to room like turntables. I used to do it with the eyes on the stove. If your stove has a delay—that two seconds before the flame—I’d time it in and turn the other one off, and then the other one off—I was mkxing! I’d spend twenty minutes doing it at the stove! Sounds crazy—who plays with a stove like that? I was 11 or 12. I never was a DJ—Dirty and RZA had DJ skills and I never did. But that was my way. I used to play beats—like a lot of MCs can’t play a beat and rhyme at the same time, and it took me two or three years to master. I once had an MC in my class in junior high in Jamaica, Queens, and he was from the Bronx where it started so he was a little more advanced. This was the late ‘70s—he used to be able to play a breakbeat with his hands and rhyme at the same time and I was fascinated. It was always about being great. Especially when it came to rhyming. I was always the best wherever I was at. No one on the block was nicer than us. We used to travel through Bed-Stuy looking for the best-known MC to battle. I’d battle dudes on their block who had fifty other dudes with them.
Like the Dismasters?
Them too—I tore them apart! Lord Mike Ski and Raven T—Lord, he passed away, That was sad. I ran through those dudes. I wish I could find the tape. We got rid of everything. The Mighty Mic Masters—to this day, they’d probably deny it, but Captain G Whiz was one of the strongest MCs in Bed-Stuy as far as it was known, and I went looking for him. He had a strong deep voice and I went to battle with him. That’s how we used to get down. The only person I didn’t run into was Big Daddy Kane. We were just missing each other. I’d leave the block and he’d just come on—he was running through the same people. I sat and talked to Kane: ‘What about such-and-such?’ ‘I ran through him.’ ‘I ran through him too!’
How have you passed these kinds of things on to your son?
We always talk music. Hip-hop is in him too since day one. He’s gifted but more laid-back—not like eight rhymes a day like when I was 16. It took him a while because he had to get older to realize where I was coming from. Maybe at 11 or 12, he’s like, ‘Yo, Liquid Swords, yo—you killing it!’ Great moment! Now he knows stuff I don’t—he’ll pull out a Syl Johnson song, like, ‘You know who that is?’ He loves great music. You know what’s amazing? How many kids don’t know who Michael Jackson is—we grew up on Mike! Mike is eight years older than me. I grew up on him! My kid didn’t but he knows who he is—he has a little history of what was there before. Gladys Knight, the Temptations, Motown, the Philly sound, the pop stuff I grew up on—‘Bye-bye, Miss American Pie…’ Those are the songs I listen to! I don’t really listen to hip-hop—these MCs nowadays are just foolish. They hear me like, ‘He don’t even listen to hip-hop—how’s he supposed to be an MC?’ I’m not getting anything and I’m a lyrical person, so I’m not really feeling it. So every now and then I go on the lite FM—it makes me feel better because I don’t wanna hear loud nonsense and a bunch of bullshit! So I gotta hear Pat Benatar or Neil Sedaka or Captain and Tennille and KC and the Sunshine Band—I’d rather hear that than the R&B out nowadays. I stick to those channels because I reminisce. I get peace of mind—close my eyes and go back like I’m eight or nine again.
What lyrics from back then still stay with you?
I could name a lot. The O’Jays ‘I Love Music.’ He really speaks—‘I love music / any kind of music / just as long as it’s groovin’ / it makes me laugh / makes me smile.’ He says music is the healing force of the world—understood by every man, boy and girl. Simple lyrics. Gladys Knight, ‘Midnight Train To Georgia.’ The lyrics in that—neither one wants to be the first to say goodbye. That’s a really really good love song. Another thing I forgot to mention. In the early days before hip-hop when it was nursery rhymes, I used to listen to the Last Poets—my aunt had the album and I had to ask, ‘Can I go play music?’ The only reason I used to listen was because it had profanity in it. That was unheard of—hearing all that cursing in a song! I didn’t understand it til years later, but they were saying a lot of interesting things in their songs. Songs about ‘niggers are scared of revolution.’ So many songs—that’s why I like them to this day! Howard Melvin and the Blue Notes—‘Wake up, everybody in bed / no more backward thinking, time for thinking ahead…’ It’s a message! That’s crazy, too—a lot of these songs that were message song are also dance songs. You don’t get that nowadays. Usually a message song you have to sit down and think about it—but I love music that’s a dance song! Marvin Gaye—‘Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying / brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying…’ These slow songs people used to groove off—even Marvin Gaye! My sisters played that every day. I love the music I grew up on. I grew up in the ‘70s and I’m familiar with a lot of ‘60s stuff because my parents played it. It’ll always be part of my life. Call me old school or whatever. Even stuff in the ‘90s I wasn’t feeling—it’s like fresh air to hear it now! Jungle Brothers—‘I’ll House You’—I was never big on that. But now I’m like, ‘Yo, remember this?’
What song are you best at singing?
I don’t think I’ve ever done karaoke. I love to sing but I don’t have that voice, but I can blend in well if the music is up loud enough—I don’t sound bad! That’s the thing about harmony and peace—there’s so much lack of harmony in hip-hop that nothing’s really resonating. But I may not be able to sing well, and you may not, and we may have a thousand people who can’t sing—but when we all sing together, it sounds great. Isn’t that something? Everyone can sing the national anthem in school and it sounds great. That’s the importance of harmony. I’m not that great a singer—but I can blend with music and sound alright.

—Chris Ziegler