GZA and the Liquid Swords Revival

GZA rocks the crowd at the Fillmore in New York City, September 12, 2008

The juggernaut known as capitalism becomes a steamroller when combined with the corporate entertainment history. All forms of artistic expression that break the barrier between the unknown and the popular are quickly co-opted by the industry, packaged, marketed, and force-fed to the willing masses.

Hip Hop hasn’t escaped this truism. Born in the South Bronx, the DJ and rapper formed two of the four parts of the hip hop culture rising at the time (the other two being breakdancing and graffiti). Similar to punk and to rock’n’roll in the 1950s, hip hop was rebellion in musical form. From the deconstruction of the popular music of the day in which singing was overdubbed and manipulated, and instruments were numerous and played with by sound producers, hip hop stripped it bare by having a DJ with a turntable and an MC with a mic.

The golden age of hip hop was in the late 1980s with acts like Run DMC, Eric B. and Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, and EPMD. The rhymes and production grew increasingly sophisticated as the time progressed while the themes revolved around MC battles, parties, and black nationalism. The arrival of gangsta rap say the focus shift to the West Coast as hip hop was embraced by the larger white audience. The subject matter grew grittier as it shifted towards violence and gang culture.

The pendulum swung back in 1993 with the seminal release of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) by the Wu-Tang Clan. Seen as a response to the domination of the West Coast and gangsta rap, the Wu-Tang release saw New York reclaim its title as hip hop’s ground zero through the progression of the genre found on the album. The tone was darker, more streetwise, often more vulgar, yet the rhymes were tighter and the production darker and more advanced thanks to the skills of the Wu-Tang’s RZA. New York was back in the pilot’s seat.

Liquid Swords
Liquid Swords (1995)

The domination of New York was secured with the release in 1995 of Liquid Swords by GZA and produced by the RZA. The beats pounded harder, the music was darker, and the rhymes couldn’t have been tighter. The GZA’s material floated around drug deals gone sour, mafioso lifestyles, and of course their Ku-Fung muse. What separates GZA from the later MCs in regards to his subject matter is that he keeps a detachment from the subject while still being the subject. He doesn’t flaunt the wealth as has become staple these days, nor does he engage in the crude, as would West Coast MCs. His product was tight, and matched up hit for hit, beat for beat with the RZA’s production to produce the perfect hip hop album. Liquid Swords serves as a bookend for the Golden Age of Hip Hop as only months later the corporate vampires began to promote bling culture, thus fusing together hip hop with crass materialism throughout co-option and ending any real rebelliousness in the genre itself. Liquid Swords served as the high water mark for hip hop.

It’s little wonder then that Liquid Swords has seen a resurgence in popularity. Disgusted with the dumbed-down hip hop lite feted by the masses, hip hop purists have reoriented themselves to the GZA, undoubtedly the Wu-Tang’s purist. The GZA staged a revival of Liquid Swords this past Friday at the Fillmore in New York City. Much how rockers grew annoying with the hair metal explosion of the 1980s and turned the clock back to the punk of the UK and the West Coast, hip hop purists are rejecting the corporatist drivel being pumped out at them today. Whether they’ll be successful in rerouting the course of hip hop remains to be seen.

While we ponder that, let’s have a listen to the GZA’s “4th Chamber” from Liquid Swords put to a clip of a film by Jean Luc-Godard. Hip hop purism meets film purism……

As a demonstration of his lyrical prowess, take a look at only the first few lines of “Hell’s Wind staff/Killah Hills 10304”:

Restaurants on a stake-out
So order the food to take out
Chaos, outside a spark steakhouse
Maintain the power, I feel the deal’s gone sour
Nigga Mr. Wedding, late a fuckin half hour
And his man who bought land from Tony Starks
While he was contractin bricklayin jobs in city parks
he’s a loan shark, bitches raise a grand to a finger
In a garment that’s stretched, got it sewn like Singer
Cause all that talk blasphemy this kid after me
for the heist, in a Burlington Coat Factory

In only several lines, he manages to reference the John Gotti-led hit on Gambino Family boss Paul Castellano, the construction levy in Manhattan put out by Sammy Gravano, and the Genovese Family’s tight grip over the Garment District. So many key references in only a few phrases delivered like quick jabs on target every time. Let’s hope that the GZA’s revival of Liquid Swords pays dividends for the genre as a whole.

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