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Chess obsession, a writer’s joy in discussing his craft, songs born of word games—in the hip-hop Voltron that is the Wu-Tang Clan, GZA is the brain for good reason.
GZA, a.k.a. the Genius (or Gary Grice, if you insist), hones his work as intently as any professional paid to create worlds with words. And this week, he brings his giant intellect to Orange County, possibly for the first time. He’s not really sure himself.
GZA rose to national prominence in 1993 with the Wu-Tang Clan’s first album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), a certified classic melding kung-fu-movie sounds, streetwise stories and gritty beats. Two years later, GZA released his second solo record, Liquid Swords, likely the best release in the group’s discography other than the Wu-Tang debut—which is saying a lot, considering their core nine members have released nearly 40 albums, collectively.
Hip-hop, says GZA, was in him and his Clan before the music was committed to tape. “We’re born with rhythm. The pulse and the heartbeat in rhythm. One is the kick, and one’s the snare. I was mic trippin’ since rock skippin’ off the local brooks,” he says. “This wasn’t my goal as a young child. But hip-hop was already in us. It’s not all about money all the time. It’s really about the love of it first.”
In 2005, GZA teamed with Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs on Grandmasters, a title referring to one of GZA’s passions and recurring themes: chess.
“Time, force and space—that’s what chess is about,” GZA says. “Your space is the amount of squares you control. Your force is your army. Time is the moves you make. It’s great when you can write about it in a way where only the avid chess player would understand it. I think that’s the beauty of writing.” As GZA shares to a beat over the phone, “‘I stay on the 64 squares while controlling the center. I trade space for material. The time zone I enter is calculated by movement of pushed pieces.’”
Despite his place in music history as a Wu-Tanger, GZA isn’t blind to the excesses and failings of so much commercial rap. The silliness in celebrating entourages, hedonism and consumerism isn’t lost on him.
“A lot of MCs’ rhymes are about them rolling up on places with people and whips, cars,” says GZA. “‘I came in accompanied by heavy rains and wind’—that’s who I’m rolling with. They’re rolling with cars and bottles.”
GZA’s no stranger to the streets that inspire or the culture surrounding much of hip-hop. But the true challenge of writing, he says, is to capture the subtleties and complexities of that world.
“It doesn’t have to be thugged-out and gangster,” says GZA. “It limits and keeps most artists and writers one-dimensional. Finding ways to take something soft and make it hard, or to take something hard and make it soft . . . You know when you can hear a song that is commercial but still so hard? It’s not even talking about shooting or killing, but something about it. . . . Something is still getting murdered.”
GZA puts his pen where his mouth is on “Exploitation of Mistakes” from Grandmasters, in which he delivers crime stories in a voice much closer to a veteran crime reporter than veteran gangsta rapper. “There are still those inner-city tales, but they are told in a different fashion, and they’re delivered in a different way,” he says.
With a novelist’s passion for storytelling and a solid knowledge of rap’s failures of excess in mind, GZA has a challenge for all MCs: It’s time to get Elizabethan, motherfuckers.
“I’d ask MCs to write a song with the setting as the 1500s or the 1600s,” says GZA. “They’d be stuck. ‘I can’t talk about cars or clubs? I can’t talk about being around the pool at a mansion? I’m stuck. What happened to my rims?’” he mimes. “Then they’d start trying to figure out what they could write. ‘Can I have rims on a carriage?’ They wouldn’t be able to pull that off, not if everything they write about is their jewelry and their cars.”
This is the same way GZA challenges himself.
“Can you draw people in now? You have to think about that as an artist,” he says. “‘What can I attract without all of this?’ Can you pull this without your Mercedes-Benz? Can you pull them in without that watch?”
Genius/GZA at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.detroitbar.com. Fri., 9 p.m. $20. 21+.