A founding member of the legendary hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan, GZA — also known as the Genius and famous for his laid-back drawl; his complex, multi-layered lyrics rife with metaphor and literary illusions; and his now seminal 1995 hip-hop album Liquid Swords, which features samples from classic Samurai films — dropped us a line this week to chat about his creative process, kung fu films and his absolutely favorite past-time: chess.
The Sun: What do you expect from Cornell? In terms of the student body, are you excited?
GZA: Yeah, I’m looking forward to the show.
Sun: What do you think of Girl Talk?
GZA: I don’t really know much about him. I just started learning. He’s the DJ, correct?
GZA: I just heard about him. But I heard he has a big following. It’s gonna be really big, so I’m excited about that — about the stage, you know?
Sun: It’s a huge stage. It’s pretty sick.
GZA: I’m hyped about that.
Sun: I wanted to ask you about the creative process working with RZA. Does he do most of the production or is it pretty collaborative? I know he did a little less on the most recent album, but you could correct me on that.
GZA: He only did one song off the last album. One or two. Yah, we collaborate together. Of course, on Liquid Swords, you know. Normally, he would just give me a beat. That’s how it works. I’ll pick a certain number of tracks, and write to them. And sometimes I’ll write right there on the spot. And sometimes I’ll take it home with me and just sit with it for a while. And I’ll come back with an idea. That’s really how we work. Every now and then, he’ll have input. ’Cause he’s an MC, also. And he’s a smart and intelligent person. Every now and then he gives a lot of input, as far as lyrically. Like if I should take a word out or add a word, or say it like this or say it like that. He’s pretty good.
Sun: How did you get into Samurai culture and what draws you to it?
GZA:Well, we grew up watching kung fu flicks. We were big fans in the late ’70s, early ’80s, into the late ’80s. We were also big Bruce Lee fans before we started watching [the] kung fu flicks that we look at now. Bruce Lee was like an action hero, you know? So, we loved those types of flicks and movies. But, as far as the samurai thing — we were mastering Liquid Swords. It was finished and mixed. When we were mastering, RZA sent the assistant out to the record store to buy “Shogun Assassin.” He just said, “Go out and get me the ‘Shogun Assassins.’” That came at the last minute. That whole thing and the theme from the album came on the day that we were mastering. I dunno where he got it, but we just came to it.
Sun: That’s crazy because it’s so integral to that album. When I’m thinking of Liquid Swords, I’m thinking of that intro, you know?
GZA: Right. I mean, it was perfect for the album. It was a beautiful thing. It was very unique. And at that time, I hadn’t even seen that movie either.
Sun:: What’s your favorite kung fu movie?
GZA: I don’t really know if I have a favorite. I’m not really familiar with a lot of flicks like RZA. I mean, RZA watches a lot of movies. We grew up, we started watching them together, but … Five Deadly Venoms would be up there, it would be one of my favorites. It’s a classic. It’s a well written story. That would be one of them.
Sun: So, if you’re not watching movies all the time, what else are you into? Do you listen to music all the time or what else are you up to?
GZA: Chess. I like chess.
Sun: How often do you play?
GZA: As much as I can. Sometimes I play every day.
Sun: That’s cool. My dad was a big chess player, actually.
GZA: Oh. Chess is a great thing.
Sun: You know what? I was just watching Searching for Bobby Fischer today!
GZA: Oh, I love that movie!
Sun: It’s amazing! Hey, so, you should stop by the Cornell Chess Club when you’re up here.
GZA: Oh, yeah?
Sun: Yeah. I’m sure you could take some of ’em.
GZA: [Laughs] Yeah, I might do that if I have time.
Sun: That’d be great. So, who do you play with?
GZA: With who I can. I play online a lot.
Sun: Have you entered in any tournaments?
GZA: No, never, and I’ve never been officially rated either. I’ve actually have been to one tournament: The Hip Hop Chess Federation. RZA won that.
Sun: Oh, yeah?
GZA: Yeah, it was a whole bunch of celebrities, there were celebrities playing in matches, and then myself, RZA, you know, some mixed-martial artists …
Sun: Are you into martial arts as well?
GZA: Naw, no I don’t train. I can understand the principles, the philosophies behind it … and the certain things that apply to it. But, naw, I don’t work out.
Sun: I was going to ask: Does chess in any way influence your music, or maybe it just helps in the way you think about things?
GZA: Most decisions that I make in life, I think of chess.
Sun: I don’t know if this is going to be political or a touchy subject, but could you point to a favorite rap or song by another member of Wu-Tang that’s your favorite or that really stands out?
GZA: “I bomb atomically. / Socrates’ philosophies and hypothesis / Can’t define how I be droppin’ these mockeries. / Lyrically perform armed robbery. / Flee with the lottery / Possibly they spotted me. / Battle-scarred shogun / Explosion when my pen hits. / Tremendous, ultra-violet shine blind forensics.” That one will stand out.
Sun: [Practically speechless] Yeah.
GZA: That’s from “Triumph,” Inspectah Deck.
Sun: That’s awesome!
GZA: It’s hard to even follow that rhyme, I didn’t even wanna get on that track.
Sun: That’s sick. Wow. Well, that’s all I have to ask.
GZA: Thanks, man. I’ll see you soon.