“There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come.” Wu-Tang frontman GZA evoked Victor Hugo as he talked about the roots of hip-hop and his career as an emcee to a packed Sibley Hall classroom on Saturday. The event, hosted by the Minority Organization of Architecture, Art & Planning, rounded off a weekend of art exhibits and lectures focused on the black community.
After a few quick cuts off his 1995 breakout album Liquid Swords, GZA stepped towards the podium to raucous applause. The lecture centered on the interactions between hip hop and the built environment, a relationship evident in the music of the Wu-Tang clan.
In GZA’s view, hip-hop has been shaped not only by an awareness of the conflict in the 60s and 70s, but also of certain ongoing controversies within the black community. From the “concrete jungle,” “planned abandonment” and burning buildings of the South Bronx emerged an entirely new genre of music, one based on self-expression and enlightenment.
By describing how children and adults using musical tunes to learn the alphabet and other facts, GZA demonstrated that music, particularly hip-hop, has great potential for teaching and communicating with people. He recounted his progression from learning a book of nursery rhymes “backwards and forwards,” to crafting his own rhymes, and eventually to travelling with RZA around New York City.
Without missing a beat, GZA was able to detail his stories by reciting his own verses from memory. When GZA was about nine years old, he took a trip to the Bronx with RZA and recited his first verse from “Auto Bio” to tell the story: “I pulled up on the block, got out the truck, it was the first of pit stops / The era of the spinnin’ tops, the birth of hip hop / That was somethin’, I had identified with / So I, made it my point to exploit this fly gift then / Myself and RZA, made trips to the B.X. ...”
In many ways the urban environment of New York City shaped the way in which GZA honed his lyrical skill and refined the art of hip-hop. He recollected taking long trips by bus, train or ferry to every borough (besides Queens) to battle the most talented emcees. Most listeners may be familiar with hearing the city’s grittiness through GZA’s lyrics, but few may not be aware of the collaboration made possible through the city's transit system.
Likewise, the Wu-Tang clan was the first to take hip-hop music worldwide, in accordance with RZA’s “vision” for the group’s progression. From the streets, to the clubs, through radio and TV, Wu-Tang brought hip-hop to global prominence and became a “household name.” GZA was effusive about the incredible support the group has received from the international scene, “knocking down doors and crossing borders” — a testament to the cross-cultural appeal of hip-hop music and the rapid spread of hip-hop through mass media.
An audience member asked GZA to comment on the lack of freshness in today’s music. GZA responded that hip-hop should be “for all,” and decried rappers and musicians with “sterile imaginations” limiting themselves to tired themes as “one-dimensional”. These limitations prevent their music from being universal.
The elder statesman of hip-hop expressed his desire to advance his craft. His upcoming album Dark Matter explores the cosmos, infinity and science. He has left open the possibility of including fan-submitted verses on the record, a nod to the collaborative connections the internet is able to provide. On the subject of profanity, he called it “filler which is not needed”, and hinted at the possibility of an album without a Parental Advisory sticker.
GZA need look no further than Cornell for advice about the science behind Dark Matter. Lecturing within a stone’s throw of the Physical Sciences Building, where Cornell scientists work on the boundaries of physical knowledge, GZA referred to his move to the lecture hall as “humbling and challenging.” He said, “it has taken some adjustment, but I enjoy it.”
GZA’s anecdotes about life as an emcee were met with much amusement and applause. He confirmed that “Bill Murray is such a cool dude ... He can out-drink me though.” GZA, if you’re reading, please feature Bill Murray on your next album. That would be amazing.
Drawing inspiration from great books, “putting the universe in my sentence,” and crafting carefully written rhymes over the course of weeks or months away from the confines of the studio is what distinguishes GZA from other emcees. Saving the best for the last, as always, he concluded his lecture with a profoundly and eloquently “We are all impacted by space, but we shouldn’t be shackled by the four walls that enclose us. Think big and dream big. Thank you for listening.”