The year is 2022 and Yours Truly just drove by a sign that reads “Wu-Tang is Forever.”
You’ll believe it when GZA performs at City Winery in D.C. on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“I’ve mostly been doing ‘Liquid Swords’ with the band, a couple of songs off the other projects, then some Wu stuff,” GZA told WTOP. “That’s how we’re going to rock it.”
Born in 1966, Gary Grice (the future GZA) grew up rhyming as a kid in Brooklyn.
“My mother used to have these encyclopedias,” GZA said. “I’d read these nursery rhymes … so I had a knack for it by the time I was introduced to hip-hop. … It’s like Run-D.M.C. ‘Peter Piper’: ‘King Midas, I was told, everything he touched, turned to gold.’ … By the time dudes started going on the mic, I started formulating my own rhymes. I knew that was my calling.”
He often hung out with his cousins Robert Diggs (RZA) and Russell Jones (ODB).
“RZA followed me emceeing … you look up to older relatives, I’m like 3 1/2 years older than him and Dirty,” GZA said. “As teenagers, RZA had a rhyme: ‘As my mind flashed back to an eerie mood when I was just a sperm in a Fallopian tube.’ He was 14! … There’s another part: ‘When I’m in the womb, I’m a foreign object, like a stranger walking through the projects.'”
He initially signed a solo record deal with Cold Chillin’ Records to release “Words from the Genius” (1991), which was his debut album under his first moniker, The Genius.
“That didn’t work out, although it is greatly appreciated,” GZA said. “It was the first deal I ever got. Somebody had faith and trust in me to give me a deal, so I’m still greatly appreciative.”
After a short-lived three-man group called Force of the Imperial Master, the trio of GZA, RZA and ODB expanded to form The Wu-Tang Clan, bringing in Method Man, Ghostface Killa, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa for a nine-member rap supergroup.
“It was RZA’s idea,” GZA said. “There’s a dispute with other Clan members about who started using the slang ‘Wu-Tang’ first. I’ve heard several members go back and forth, but it was RZA’s idea to form this group.”
Their debut album was an instant classic with “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” (1993), featuring hits such as “Protect Ya Neck” and “C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me)” with a piano sample of The Charmels’ song “As Long As I’ve Got You” (1967).
“Most of that stuff was recorded in Staten Island in a place RZA was living in,” GZA said. “What I remember from ’36 Chambers,’ the vibe was really good, the energy was great, there was so much love with us brothers. … A lot of late nights in the studio, there was a 24-hour Burger King or McDonald’s, we’d get a lot of fish sandwiches, fries, 40 ounces and a lot of weed.”
Their next album, “Wu-Tang Forever” (1994), earned a Grammy nod for Best Rap Album.
“We were a little more evolved,” GZA said. “I think as men we were definitely evolving into mature men. You get older, you get a little wiser. I don’t think a lot of things changed as far as what each member’s style was and how they delivered … the fire was still there, the chemistry was still there. It was a lot of fun.”
GZA broke off to do a second solo album, this time the successful “Liquid Swords” (1995), which featured a chilling title track with dialogue from the martial arts flick “Shogun Assassin” (1980), as well as the hit single “Shadowboxin’” featuring Wu-cohort Method Man.
“It was a great feeling,” GZA said. “It was me striking back after my prior situation before Wu-Tang, where I didn’t get the support I needed from that label. … It felt good to go back in and do a solo album that got the support, that got the help, that got all of the promotion that it needed. That put me in a different space.”
After the solo success, GZA reunited with Wu-Tang for their third album, “The W” (2000), featuring catchy hits such as “Gravel Pit” and “Protect Your Neck (The Jump Off).”
“From what I remember working on that album, it was just a great time in L.A.,” GZA said. “We spent a lot of time in this house on Mulholland Drive; there was a lot of chess playing, a lot of weed smoking during the day, a lot of writing rhymes … playing cards, Spades, Black Jack, whatever. Then the studio at night until the wee hours of the morning.”
Every step along the way, he and RZA carried a love for martial-arts movies.
“It started with Bruce Lee, then as we got a little older you had others come out — Jackie Chan, Jet Li,” GZA said. “[Lee] used to beat up everyone, but he was the protector of the innocent. … As teenagers we used to go to 42nd Street, Times Square, where we’d watch three movies for $4. We’d be in there for six hours cutting school. Can you imagine watching six hours of kung-fu?”
Eventually, GZA & RZA would star in Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes” (2003).
“It only took a day for us to shoot that, several hours, maybe five, six, seven hours,” GZA said. “The lines were simple; a lot of times we were improvising. Jim is such a cool dude and Bill Murray — it was a fun time hanging out with him, kicking it.”
GZA and RZA also appeared on Comedy Central’s “Chappelle’s Show” in two sketches — “Wu Tang Financial” and “Racial Draft,” in which Wu-Tang was drafted in the final pick.
“That was so much fun,” GZA said. “Dave is a funny dude without even trying … He’s not trying to make you laugh, even though he makes you laugh. His mind, the way he sees things, speaks on them and puts them into jokes and won’t laugh about it and won’t deliver it like it’s supposed to be funny, but it’ll be funny as hell. … I wish I could do more stuff like that.”
While RZA would go on to score Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” movies, GZA did some voice acting in Netflix’s animated “Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts.” You’ll also see him in Hulu’s “Wu-Tang: An American Saga” and 13 episodes of Red Bull TV’s “Liquid Science.”
“It was 13 episodes of me just going around to universities and schools, meeting with scientists and engineers,” GZA said. “We had robotic bees and hurricane simulators!”
In 2012, he joined Columbia University and the website Rap Genius to launch the pilot program Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S. (Bringing Attention to Transforming, Teaching and Learning Science) to teach New York City high schoolers science through rap.
“Science is a way of knowing and understanding yourself and your surroundings,” GZA said. “It started when I was young; certain things just piqued my interest. How can you make glass out of sand? How is wood not a conductor of electricity … but you’re more likely to be struck by lightning standing under a tree?”
Yeah, how is that?
“A tree is full of water, but a baseball bat is not.”
It’s this deep thought that continues to spark generations of fans that fly the flag “Wu-Tang is Forever,” a title similar to their duet with rapper Logic, of Rockville, Maryland, in 2018.
Why does The Wu-Tang Clan have such a legacy to this day?
“It’s something that was different; it was mystique,” GZA said. “Incorporating kung-fu or karate, which is a form of self-defense but has certain principles of practicing, learning. … We were all different emcees that had our own styles, different flows. … It was a combination of everything that people loved and still love to this day. People raise their children on Wu-Tang.”
Is the Wu-Tang Clan the greatest rap group of all time?
“I don’t want to be biased, so I can’t even answer that,” GZA said. “That’s a matter of opinion, but I will say we’ve got maybe the strongest following of any group in hip-hop. … Even Chuck D said it — ‘Man, y’all’s following is unbelievable.'”