The boy wasn’t even a teenager—just 11 years old—when he decided to dedicate his life to violence. As an adult, Muhammad was publicly known as a newsstand owner, but in private, the Iran-born Afghan followed his true calling by trapping bombs in bottles of champagne, so that when victims popped the cork, “niggas lost half they brains.” This mayhem wasn’t motivated by politics or faith, but rather the perpetually fruitful drug trade. Muhammad served a kingpin, the same man who once had another employee who surgically implanted half a kilo of cocaine into his left leg. Customs snagged the would-be smuggler, but what could the law really do? The kingpin just had the witnesses and prosecutor killed, and sent the judge intimate photos of his wife and a briefcase filled with $1.5 million. He made his threat explicit: “That’s the bribe/Take it or commit suicide.” The big-timer spread his operation out internationally, utilizing New York City, Syria, Costa Rica and Malaysia. Hell, even if the authorities could have stopped this one individual, nothing could stop the game. “The saga continues,” the kingpin warned.
The above action unfolded in “Killah Hills 10304” off 1995’s Liquid Swords, the defining album from the Staten Island-bred, N.Y.C.-based Wu-Tang Clan colonel GZA (aka Gary Grice aka Genius), which he’ll perform in its entirety at the Trocadero this Saturday.
“The reason why I did ‘Killah Hills’ is because most rap dudes that come from the street talk a lot of drug-dealing stuff,” he says. “I just wanted to convey a message because usually, when I’m listening to a lot of rap—even nowadays—a lot of rappers are talking all this street stuff [and] the level of criminal sophistication is so low ‘cause it’s just literally killers and dealers. I always say, ‘It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,’ so I wanted to do a song where I was speaking about hustling, but the level of criminal sophistication could be up here.”
On the production side, all credit for Swords’ jagged, raw palette goes to Grice’s cousin/Wu-Tang leader RZA. But while RZA already showed his skill on the Clan’s 1993 breakthrough Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, GZA was still a relatively untested commodity as a solo artist, having only the now-forgotten 1991 album Words From the Genius to his name. Thanks to a combination of talent (GZA, RZA and most of the other Wu members), timing and care, Liquid Swords worked perfectly. Grice made the most of boasts (“Cause niggas’ styles are old like Mark 5 sneakers/Lyrics are weak, like clock radio speakers”), self-evaluations (“I’m no black activist on a so-called scholar’s dick”) and well-packed crime epics like “Killah Hills,” “Gold” and “Investigative Reports.” Grice took the name of the record and its fantastic opener from the 1993 kung-fu flick Legend of the Liquid Sword, and he had his reasons. “I looked at it as bladed word play,” he says. “‘Liquid’—those are words because wisdom can be compared to water because of its flowing capability, and the tongue is the sword. It’s sharp.”
In recent years, GZA’s become more of a rap Renaissance man than a working MC. Nowadays, he’s been lecturing at big schools (MIT, Harvard), working on both a graphic novel and prose book, overseeing a long-gestating Wu-Tang Clan documentary and writing on a TV drama pilot called The Last Days of Hip-Hop. Geffen/Get On Down recently re-released a deluxe version of Liquid Swords, and Grice has no less than three new records forthcoming: the science-fixated Dark Matter, Liquid Swords 1.5—on which bands re-record the original’s music—and Liquid Swords II, the latter of which is the most precariously positioned and potential-filled of any of his projects. Still, Grice isn’t sweating it. “I have a concept that really will describe ‘liquid swords’ just based on ‘liquid’ alone. I mean, any album could be titled Liquid Swords II. It just has to be good enough to follow that,” he says. “When I put that title on something, it’s going to live up to it. I guarantee you.”
GZA performs Sat., Oct. 20, 8pm. $22-$24. With Killer Mike, Bear Hands + Blayer Pointdujour & the Rockers Galore. The Trocadero, 1003 Arch St. 215.922.6888. thetroc.com
PW's Music Issue 2014