GZA Speaks: The Lost Art of Lyricism
Rap lyrics sure ain’t what they used to be
Music is forever changing. Hip-hop is not going to be what it was 15 or 20 years ago. Everything changes. There are different sounds, different dances. But at the end of the day, to me it’s all about the lyrics.
Hip-hop started with street poets with great lyrical skills, and that’s what hip-hop has always been about for me. If you hear people talking about the Golden Era of rap they’re usually talking about the early-Wu Tang Clan era. And then Nas and Biggie and so on. But for me it goes back to the 80s — 1986 to 1989.
Take somebody like Big Daddy Kane, his first record was “Raw.” When Kane came out as an artist, I’d get chills from his music because it would be so dope and so lyrical and so strong and so fresh and so new. On “Raw” he says:
“Here I am, R-A-W / A terrorist, here to bring trouble to / Phony MCs, I move on and seize / I just conquer, and stomp another rapper with ease / ‘Cause I’m at my A-pex and others are B-low…” ~Big Daddy Kane
…and he’s talking about MCing! He’s talking about his craft! Yah, Kane was a player dude. He was a sex symbol in hip-hop, he was flossy and drove the fancy cars. But he never really rhymed about it. He still lived that life but he was talking about MCing in his songs. Same thing with Rakim: He rolled with a bunch of hardcore street dudes but he never talked about running up in the club and blasting dudes. He was beyond that. He spoke about his lyrical skills. Or take an artist like Nas, he’s one of the greatest out there. He’s done his party-type music, but he’s always been lyrical with it and had good analogies and had good wordplay and good sentence structure and good visuals without talking about running the block and smoking people.
Sure, it was always about the image in rap, whether a positive or negative one. Back in the day some dudes wore costumes: Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force, they were looking like the Village People. Melle Mel. It’s all good, though. Because they all had a message: socially, politically and economically. They spoke about the injustices in the city. They spoke about poverty, and they told a great story.
Of course, you still had your corny MCs. Kurtis Blow was nothing lyrically compared to Kool Moe Dee in the late 70s. But Kurtis Blow was basically the first hip-hop artist to be signed to a major label. Sugarhill Gang was the same way. That’s the stuff I grew up on, it was always about that balance.
Bottom line is they all had messages, but nowadays it’s changed. You’ve got shorties talking gangster stuff — they put music out about that and they’re not really about that life. And then you bring that energy to you and it changes the dynamics of the industry. We don’t have songs like “Self Destruction” or “We’re All In The Same Gang” anymore. Rappers aren’t grabbing you anymore, it’s not pulling me in. What can I get from talking about my car? It’s irrelevant. It’s not about the art form anymore. I think it was Chaka Khan who said, “I would sing for nothing because this is what I love to do.” It was never about money for me. There’s a line we had in Wu-Tang for years:
“It was not a hobby but a childhood passion /
That started in the lobby and was quickly fashioned”
~Gza, from “Rushing Elephants”
I’m sure there are great lyricists out there today, but when you look at mainstream hip-hop, lyricism is gone. There are some artists out there that think they’re great storytellers, but they’re not. Nowadays there are certain things I don’t hear anymore from rappers: I haven’t heard the word “MC” in so long; I haven’t heard the word “lyrical.” A lot of rappers think they’re hardcore or say they’re from the streets and there’s that thing where they always say, “I live what I rhyme about, I rhyme about what I live.” But you don’t always have to do that. Because for me it’s not about telling the story — it’s about weaving the tale.
Since early childhood, I’ve been trying to learn all I can. Science is everything; it’s not just physics. It’s the way of understanding your environment, the world around you. When we were younger, whatever we felt was interesting enough to write about we would write about it. And science has always been that something for me. Not to the point where I wanted to study science and become a scientist and physicist or anything like that, but it’s just understanding life. That’s been a part of my lyrical history for years.
If you go back to my 2002 album, Legend of the Liquid Sword, I had a rhyme on there where I said, “My U-N-I-verse run like clockworks forever / Words pulled together, sudden change in the weather / The nature and the scale of events don’t make sense / A storm with no warnin’ you’re drawn in by immense / Gravity that’s gone mad, clouds of dust and debris / Moving at colossal speeds, they crush an MC / Since this rap region is heavily packed with stars / Internal mirror in the telescope, notices the Czar / From far away, they blink as the lightin’ strolled / Great distance of space between precise globes / That travel in a circle of order.” It’s all about tapping into life.
I think sometimes most rappers’ imaginations are sterile. I can write about anything and it will be interesting. If someone gave me a beat to a song and said the title of the song was called “Drinks On Me” and then gave it to another artist, lyrically theirs would probably be all about the same types of things and mine would be completely different. I wouldn’t talk about buying bottles up in the club; I’d talk about someone that’s putting date rape drugs in drinks. You have to use everything as a vehicle. If I’m writing about a pencil I might say something like, “So I bang him in the head, just lead / No eraser / One shot, no chaser / Who’s your replacer?” It’s all a metaphor, in a sense. When you say, “So I bang him in the head / Just lead” that could be about the pencil or the gun. In a way I’m still saying the same thing other rappers are saying, I’m just saying it differently.
When I was in Wu-Tang, and even before that, it’s always been about being lyrical — who can craft the wittiest, the most intellectual, the smartest and the cleverest rhymes. It’s always been that for us as MCs from Day One. It’s the same for me now. It’s all about the story.
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