Q&A: GZA On Wrestling, His Hip-Hop Beginnings, Chess Metaphors, And The Chances of a Wu-Tang Kung Fu Flick

Much has been afoot in Gary Grice's professional life lately. The Wu-Tang Clan colonel better known as GZA or Genius is working on a new astronomy/physics-inspired record called Dark Matter and a re-recording of Liquid Swords, his 1995 stone-cold classic, that will incorporate instrumentation by live bands. Get On Down is issuing a spiffy deluxe version of the original Swords that features a new all-instrumentals disc, a 20-page book, and a miniature chess set. Liquid Swords II should be coming down the pike at some point, too. On top of all this, he has shows to do, like tonight's performances of Swords backed by Latin funk group Grupo Fantasma.

Things were far more dormant when I spoke to the MC last fall for an interview that's sat on the shelf thanks to some bad luck. At the time, GZA was planning to lecture at Harvard University (he's since visited MIT, NYU, and Cornell, too), and as we join the conversation in progress, he's just discussed how his speaking engagement will look at how he puts rhymes together and structures lyrics, and how rappers confuse similes with metaphors.

In "Shadowboxin'," you talk about having a style that breaks backs like Ken Patera. I was so impressed by that lyric. You've got to be a wrestling fan, man.

Of course.

What kind of wrestling are you into?

Well, no, I was a wrestling fan until I watched the 20/20 episode20/20? Barbara Walters?—and this was with Geraldo Rivera. This was years ago, in the '80s. I was still young then. You figure in '81, I was 15. They had this episode about wrestling—"Is it real?"—and then they pointed out a whole bunch of stuff that made me realize it was fake, that it wasn't real, and people would be cutting themselves with razors inside their wristbands, and how they break a chair over your head. Everything was staged and fixed. Geraldo was interviewing a wrestler named David D. Schultz.

Yeah, wait a minute. This is John Stossel interviewing him.

Geraldo told him, "Well, I feel like it's fake. I don't think it's real," and the wrestler was like, "You think it's fake? Aah!" He says a few words and then he slaps Geraldo. Then, he slapped him again. He got sued for it. Ever since all that was revealed, I didn't like wrestling anymore. It opened my eyes. I mean, I can see it now—I probably couldn't see it then—that everything is staged and fixed and it's all drama and all that. But before then, I was a big fan of wrestling. We used to watch it on this channel called Channel 47. If you had an old-school TV, the TV would have two knobs. One of them was for the regular channels—ABC, NBC—and you would have to turn to U and go through all these other channels to find wrestling, which was on Channel 47. We would watch wrestling on there, then we would watch on Fridays until nine, so I was a big fan to mention Ken Patera, which goes back to the '70s. I was a big fan.

Who were your favorites?

I would say Bruno Sammartino. He was like the first champ that we had known about in wrestling—[this] Spanish dude Bruno Sammartino. He was the heavyweight champ.

Going back to when you were younger again, you mentioned in one interview in '76 or '77, you would attend block parties where you first learned about hip-hop. Why did you end up as a rapper? Why not a guy who was into graffiti or some other art form?

Well, I had my hands in all that. From the early days, when I first noticed hip-hop, I actually used to breakdance also. We called it breakin' before it was breakdancing. I used to do graffiti also, but I was never really, really good at graffiti. I used to use rulers and books and cardboard to do a straight line, and cups and coins to do perfect circles depending on the letter. If it was a D, I would use a cup or coin to get that round shape, and if it was an A, I would use a tape cassette. I always used devices to do my graffiti. I didn't have that steady hand. I was really, really into graffiti, but I just wasn't that good. I was DJing also, but I wasn't that good. I was never able to get the equipment I needed. One time, I told my father I wanted some equipment and he was going to get me some for Christmas, but he was only going to get me a mixer that year and maybe a turntable on my birthday—all these things at different times—so he kind of discouraged me from being a DJ, but I was highly into all those things. I messed with every one of those.

But writing was my thing since the Mother Goose days since I first started studying nursery rhymes before hip-hop existed. I was into the Last Poets. I used to listen to their albums all the time. My aunt had this album and I used to their songs. In their album, they had the words along the inside sleeve. Plus, this was ' 76, '75, maybe '74. This album had profanity on it, so I used to only really listen to some of the songs because they had curses. I don't think my aunt knew there was profanity on this album. That was one of the major things that drew me into it before it was the lyrical content. I didn't understand the underlying or hidden message until many, many years later 'til I was older, so it goes way back.

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