.GZA’s Genius Comes to Oakland

The pioneering member of the legendary Wu-Tang Clan comes to Yoshi’s to rock mics and move rooks 

Among the list of legendary solo album releases by the Wu-Tang Clan, some could say that GZA’s Liquid Swords is the most slept on. Method Man’s platinum selling debut album, Tical, received generally favorable reviews, and he was able to capitalize on his perception as one of the more visible members of the group to stardom.

Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers didn’t perform well commercially, but it was nominated for Best Rap Album at the 1996 Grammys. Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… is widely considered the best solo project by a Wu-Tang member, and is arguably one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all-time. 

The journey to get to Liquid Swords—GZA’s second album—might be the most underappreciated journey from the Wu-Tang legacy. 

While the story of the Wu-Tang Clan is closely associated with Staten Island, the often forgotten working class borough of New York City, GZA represents Brooklyn. 

“I had both parents. I was raised around a lot of music. Things were good to me. I never went a day without eating,” GZA reflected on his childhood. 

He developed an interest in rap around the ages of 10 or 11, and it was the message of knowledge of self, as well as the breakdancing that initially struck his interest. However, it was a combination of reading nursery rhymes in books provided by his mother, and listening to records by The Last Poets that motivated him to begin rhyming.

“I didn’t realize the messages that were being conveyed until I was a lot older. I was just listening to the rhythm, and any time there was profanity,” GZA said when speaking about the influence The Last Poets had on his interest in rap.

Throughout a career that spans over 30 years, GZA has developed a reputation as a supreme lyricist, often weaving in a diverse range of complex topics on science and philosophy within 16 bars. Given his passion for science, some might be surprised to hear that GZA dropped out of high school in 10th grade in 1982.

“I was a good student up until about ninth grade. When I got into high school, I started cutting a lot. I hung out and smoked blunts. I was interested in learning, just not what they were teaching,” he recalled.

Shortly after dropping out of high school, he formed a rap group with his cousins, Robert Diggs and Russell Jones, who would later be known as RZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. 

They performed under the name FOI: Force of the Imperial Master, and later All in Together. While they never released a formal project, they did record a few demo songs, and for RZA and GZA, they’d lay the foundation for their eventual solo deals prior to the formation of the Wu-Tang Clan in 1992. 

“From ’84 to ’90, we were trying to get deals so bad. We were making demos and battling MCs. Every week, we kept hearing a new song, whether it was LL Cool J or whoever,” GZA said when speaking about his All in Together days 

After All in Together fizzled out, GZA signed to Cold Chillin’ Records and released his debut album, Words from the Genius, under the name The Genius in 1991. During the recording of the album, he worked as a city employee for the transit department, clearing trains. 

Unlike most of the early Wu-Tang group and solo records, where RZA served as the primary producer, this album was entirely produced by Easy Mo Bee, who would later go on to produce for Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac. The album did not sell well due to lack of production, and the sonic direction of the album reflected the boom bap rap records that were prevalent during the time. 

With the lackluster response to his debut album, GZA asked and was released from his contract with Cold Chillin’. Interestingly, during this same time period, RZA was experiencing similar challenges with debut solo project Ooh I Love You Rakeem, also heavily produced by Easy Mo Bee. It wasn’t until after these solo projects, and the formation of the Wu-Tang Clan in 1992, that RZA began to focus entirely on production, and to guide the sound for his fellow Wu members. 

After joining Wu-Tang Clan, the nine member group achieved critical acclaim with their legendary hit, “C.R.E.A.M.,”  and their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). GZA would have a scene stealing verse on the debut single for the album, “Protect Ya Neck,” and had his own solo track with “Clan In Da Front.”

With the success of Enter the Wu-Tang, and solo efforts from Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Raekwon, GZA would capitalize on the group’s rising success to present his lyrical mastery to the world on his next solo project—Liquid Swords.  

Released in 1994, Liquid Swords would establish GZA’s reputation as a rapper with one of the most expansive vocabularies. With scenes from the martial arts film Shogun Assassin serving as a cinematic background, GZA provides a master class through the use of extended metaphors and storytelling. This album also gave fans the chance to see GZA’s vision as a music video director, and he created all four music videos for the project. 

Since the album’s release nearly 30 years ago, Liquid Swords still maintains a dedicated following from hip-hop enthusiasts. True to his reputation as a genius and someone in constant pursuit of knowledge, GZA’s artistic reach continues to extend outside of recording music. 

Loyal GZA fans may know about his love for the game of chess; however, over the last few years, he has provided fans with the unique opportunity to play him in a game of chess as he stops in different cities while touring.

“I play chess every day, I play individuals from my clan—when we do meet up. I study openings, games, everything,” GZA shared in an interview with the Dallas Observer regarding his love of chess. 

In addition to chess, he has worked with New York City schools to help students learn science through the art of rapping. NASA also recruited him to participate in a project telling the story of the universe’s creation. In this project, he served as a creative collaborator and partner with scientist Dr. Scott Bolton, creator of the Juno space mission. In 2016, he released the song, “The Spark,” as part of the collaborative efforts, giving his take on the Big Bang Theory in just under three minutes. 

More recently, GZA has returned to the director’s chair. He is currently directing a documentary for a major network with Moxie Pictures & Supermarché on chess, mental health and incarceration. 

“The whole thing is that we’re thinking about mental illness, and the lack of attention it gets, and the lack of support. We’re trying to get more people engaged,” GZA shared when discussing the documentary. 

Looking back over a career that spans over 30 years in the music industry, touching hip-hop fans across the globe, GZA expressed nothing but humble appreciation. 

“Honestly, it’s an amazing feeling. I think it’s just mind boggling to me sometimes because I mean, I look at the power of the Wu Tang Clan. The following is like no other, it’s just incredible,” he observed. 

Said GZA, “Liquid Swords came out in ’95. And for people half my age to come out and see me perform, it’s a blessing.”

GZA performs two shows at Yoshi’s on Jan. 22.  The 6:30pm show is already sold out, but there are still seats available for the 8:45pm performance. 

East Bay Express E-edition East Bay Express E-edition