The Genius knew what he liked. He just hadn’t found it yet.
It was circa 1990 and the future Wu-Tang Clan member didn’t have a record deal, but he had a key connection. His manager at the time, Melquan Smith, introduced him to rising producer Easy Mo Bee (then going as EZ-Mo-Bee), who had produced “Another Victory” and “Calling Mr. Welfare” on Big Daddy Kane’s gold 1989 LP, It’s A Big Daddy Thing.
“When I went to his house,” GZA/Genius says today, “the first beat he played was the track I did called ‘Life Of A Drug Dealer,’ which ended up on my first album, Words From The Genius.”
Built off a sample of Bobby Rush’s 1971 song “Mary Jane,” the song’s soulful sonics struck a chord. GZA/Genius had found what he was looking for.
“When he played that song, I was like, ‘Whoa. I'm feeling that,’” GZA/Genius says. “Around that time, the hard stuff to me was the soulful stuff. [Big Daddy] Kane was using a lot of stuff that had soul. So was Rakim. East Coast brothers, we’re more on the soulful side and the West Coast probably was a little more on the funk. I listened to funk music, don’t get me wrong, but I've never really dug it for hip-hop with myself. I liked ‘Funky Drummer,’ hardcore stuff.”
GZA/Genius quickly secured about a dozen beats from Easy Mo Bee and started writing rhymes as he rode the train around New York City. A deal with Cold Chillin’/Reprise/Warner Bros. Records soon followed, as did his debut LP, 1991’s Words From The Genius.
The LP didn’t make a dent commercially, and GZA/Genius was quickly dropped from the imprint. Of course, the Wu-Tang Clan’s rise began in late 1992. The group released its landmark LP, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the following year. Its success enabled GZA/Genius to get a second solo recording contract, this time with industry powerhouse Geffen Records, which had released hit albums from Donna Summer, John Lennon & Yoko Ono, and Guns N’ Roses, among many others.
GZA, Ghostface Killah, Power and RZA during GZA and Wu-Tang Clan 2002 Video Shoot at Etoile in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Djamilla Rosa Cochran/WireImage)
American rap artist GZA of the rap group Wu-Tang Clan poses for a April 1997 portrait in New York City, New York. (Photo by Bob Berg/Getty Images)
Now GZA/Genius was in control.
RZA produced GZA/Genius’ second LP, 1995’s Liquid Swords, save for “B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth),” which was helmed by 4th Disciple. With the momentum Wu-Tang Clan afforded him, GZA/Genius was able to execute his creative vision in other ways.
“When I signed to Geffen, we just had so much leeway,” says GZA/Genius, who was signed to the company by A&R Wendy Goldstein. “Wendy was letting us do what we wanted to do, pick out singles for the album. It was great working with her because anything I wanted to do, I was allowed to do. We knew exactly what we wanted. It was myself and RZA coming in there with me as a producer. It was his vision and my vision.”
With the latitude Goldstein provided him, GZA/Genius bought a Hi8 camera and directed the videos for his songs “I Gotcha Back,” “Shadowboxin’,” “Liquid Swords,” and “4th Chamber.”
“I directed every video I’ve ever done,” GZA/Genius says. “I didn't do a whole bunch, but I directed all my videos. It all started with Wendy giving me the key and saying, ‘Here. Do what you want.’ The concepts were much bigger than the budgets. I was writing these elaborate treatments and concepts and we just had to chop it down a little, but they were all based on my ideas.”
From there, GZA/Genius launched his own video company and directed a number of high-profile videos, including “It’s Yourz” from Wu-Tang Clan and “Third World” from Muggs for the Soul Assassins’ Muggs Presents…The Soul Assassins Chapter 1 LP in 1997. The following year, he helmed “Cross My Heart” from Killah Priest.
“I always had a vision of what I wanted to do and how I thought something should look,” GZA/Genius says. “That's why I started directing. I didn't go really hard on it, but that was all due to Wendy giving me the permission to do what I want to do.”
When GZA/Genius was working on his next LP, 1999’s Beneath The Surface, he enlisted the help of his then-manager, Angela Yee. The future co-host of The Breakfast Club had been an intern for the Wu-Tang Clan. GZA/Genius appreciated her resourcefulness and her ability to connect the vast Wu-Tang Clan family with help, whether it be a tutor for their children or helping someone get a doctor or nurse.
With his love for visual art, GZA/Genius imagined the Beneath The Surface interludes having a different feel than the typical skits on a rap LP.
“I wanted those skits to feel like you were watching a movie at home on television, and those skits were just commercials in between the flick or whatever you were watching, but it was my album that you were actually listening to,” he says. “The idea was to do them in a way where I could get sponsorship. We wanted to actually make real commercials, so we did the PSA with children and guns because we actually wanted to do commercials and get some sort of funding and sponsoring from the skits. I think it was timeless and it was unprecedented at the time because no one was really doing that. I think people are still not doing it yet. A lot of albums have skits on them, but not done in a commercial fashion.”
As he developed the skits, GZA/Genius sat with Yee to discuss them. “She would say, ‘This sounds like a PSA.’ I said, ‘This sounds like children and guns. This sounds like a cell phone commercial.’”
Yee took their ideas, wrote the commercials, arranged for the music to be sent in. GZA/Genius then picked the music.
Now more than 20 years and several albums later, GZA/Genius has come full circle. He knows what he’s looking for regarding his next LP. He just hasn’t found it yet, leading to a decade-plus wait for his forthcoming Dark Matter LP.
“I’ve been writing and constructing stuff,” he says. “This is the longest I’ve ever taken to complete and do an album. There’s been times that I’ve taken breaks before, sometimes a year, sometimes two. But musically, I really wasn’t satisfied and hopefully I am when I do decide to put it out.”
* HEADER CREDIT: GZA of Wu Tang Clan performs on stage at Gods of Rap tour at SSE Arena Wembley on May 10, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Burak Cingi/Redferns)