This is a first a series of articles I'll be writing this week about one of my all-time favorite MCs, The Genius a.k.a The GZA. He'll be performing live at First Avenue (w/Killer Mike) on 9.2o.12 performing "Liquid Swords" Live! RSVP NOW! He's also working on a new set of albums dedicated to different scientific theories, starting with "Dark Matter"...the legend of the Genius continues...
By the time 1991 arrived I had been MCing for 11 years. In that time I picked up select lessons from various MCs who inspired me that I was able to morph into something of my own; Kool G Rap, Kool Keith, & KRS One (innovative patterns), Mele Mel & Rakim (Visual Imagery), Crash Crew & Fearless Four (punchlines & conceptual songs), Kool Moe Dee & Kool G Rap (Metaphors), etc… Although I learned those techniques through those various MCs and many others, I never tried to be like them. In most all cases, despite all of their talent and specific strengths, I saw some sort of drawback and/or flaw in their approach. The Genius was the first MC I can recall, in a post-Old School era that I felt was largely in possession of every key MC ingredient to be commercially, as well as artistically successful.
Don’t get me wrong his debut album “Words From The Genius” is by no means flawless. I really only listen to about 7 of the 15 tracks regularly and that was the case even when it originally dropped. Though, truth be told, 7 solid tracks out of 15 is an unfortunately pretty good average by most Rap album standards.
Regardless, his talent was clearly recognizable and his potential was highly foreseeable. His voice was excellent. His delivery was crisp, even when he sped up the flow for effect the words were distinctly articulated. His writing was rigid and enlightening. Even his approach was unique. I was fascinated at the way he pronounced many of his words differently, which gave him this extra touch of elegance. The AD campaign for his album in The Source Magazine referenced his Freestyle Battle skills. Essentially, The Genius was an all-around perfect MC.
Luckily, I didn’t apply the same treatment to him as I did his cousin… I first heard the RZA with his Prince Rakeem release on Tommy Boy titled “Ooh, I Love You Rakeem”, the same year as “Words From The Genius”, I admit when I saw the “Ooh, I Love Your Rakeem” Music Video I got so angry I almost got up and punched my TV…ha*. I was just frustrated that myself and other people I knew weren’t getting record deals and that type of Rap was continually popping up and seemed to be taking over. Of course, I didn’t understand the business at the time and all too often the only way these MCs could even get a record deal was to make at least one song like that. The Genius dabbled in this as well… “Come Do Me” was the first single and video from the album. I can’t remember if I saw the video before I brought the album. If I did then you can pretty much guarantee that I hated it. That mattered little though, because when I saw the album cover, with him writing, what I presume are rhymes, in the many volumes of his “Words From A Genius” books, I was instantly intrigued. Flipping the tape over revealed song titles like “True Fresh MC”, “Feel The Pain”, “Who’s Your Rhymin’ Hero”, “Those Were The Days” and the title track, which were more than enough to peak my interest to make the purchase.
I was living in Atlanta, GA when this album dropped and I brought the tape at the Greenbriar Mall. I went to my car and popped it in and sat in the parking lot and listened to through at least all of Side A. Unsurprisingly, but foolishly they chose to start the album off with “Come Do Me”. I think I actually let the song ride all the way through because I had discovered that the inside credits contained the albums lyrics, so while there was crooning and New Jack Swinging in the background, I was preparing myself from the lyricism that was soon to come.
The album’s production comes from three names who would each later become more well known; “Come Do Me” is produced by Jesse West. Three tracks are credited to Patrick Harvey (who is better know as the LG Experience). The remainder of the album production is provided courtesy of the extremely talented and under-appreciated hands of Easy Moe Bee. Easy Moe Bee is also the producer behind half of the aforementioned Prince Rakeem single. Although the production found on these projects is not clearly indicative of the Wu-Tang sound, you can hear some traces in songs like “Genius Is Slammin”, “Drama”, “Words From A Genius”, and “Stop The Nonsense”, some of those songs or samples were revisited by RZA later in his career.
Right away one of the most noticeable things about this album is the sequencing. If you simply move “Come Do Me” from the first song to the last song on the album you have a conceptual sequencing at work. Tracks #2-#8 are the battle rhyme tracks (“7” in a row…coincidence?? Perhaps not…). Tracks #9-#12 are the Street Tales/Conscious tracks that cover poverty, stray bullets, crime, and mostly drugs, in one context or another. Tracks #13-#15 are girl related stories, a.k.a my least favorite part of the album.
For me, most all of the finest moments of the album are in that #2-#8 string of songs. Within there are many lyrical treasures. On “True Fresh MC” he expounds on his conscious side and takes a slight jab at some forms of organized religion, “I work real hard to achieve my goal/From building and bringing out my true inner soul/Which was once on a downfall and then uplifted/So why live foul when you’re talented and gifted/I’ve changed, rearranged my total direction/Searchin’ for happiness, seeking for perfection/Living the true life, a real story/To make you realize the truth, not scream Glory/Glory, hallelujah, not here to fool ya/ But replenish your souls as I school ya.” He also sneaks in a hidden meaning that previously slid by me that was later reinterpreted a few different ways by members of the Wu-Tang Clan and affiliates (IE Gravediggaz), “Purified Education Always Correcting Errors”…an acronym for P.E.A.C.E.
“The Genius Is Slammin” is probably the best combination of lethal battle rhymes and creative production. Easy Moe Bee’s sampled reworking of The Meters, with a seamless blend of Booker T and The MGs, is pretty fantastic. The verbal highlight takes place in the second verse as The Genius exhibits some additional expert wordplay through the use of clever multi-syllables and breaking down words into bits, “And it’s critical, A crying shame/How MCs’s challenge me and die in vein/But should’ve came with your whole Rap CommUNITY, Now where’s your UNITY/What I see right now is you and I (U-N-I)/And you’re to weak to stop me from doing my/Damage…”
“Word From A Genius” is one of the highlights of his verbal graphic depictions, with gems such as the following:
-“Dancers on the stage like Alvin Ailey/while I’m deep into the roots like Alex Haley”
-“Lyrics that break the laws of gravity/So sweet to biters it gives them cavities/And cant’ be healed with the strongest toothpaste/So keep biting to see how the truth taste!"”**
He also taunts the competition with, “You couldn’t even bust a grape with spike boots on!” and suggests that the biting MCs hear his lyrics and, “…react like an infant responds to Simulac”.
“Who’s Your Rhymin’ Hero” is the least strongest moment in the seven song collection. It’s also the only one not produced by Easy Moe Bee and the only song on the album besides “Superfreak” that doesn’t have the lyrics included. It’s not a bad track by any means. It’s just not as potent as the others. The most redeeming quality of the song might be his emphasis on style and word pronunciation. It’s probably the single best example of his distinguished usage that I mentioned earlier.
“Feel The Pain” focuses primarily on his swift style, which is accented by the slow moving track, that is hard-hitting, but also melodic. The second verse touches on the origins of the All In Together crew, that would evolve into Wu-Tang, “I rock on and on past the break of dawn/Ask Rakeem, Unique Ason, or even Melquan”. Rakeem is of course The RZA. Unique Ason is Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Melquan was the then manager for The Genius and Rakeem. He was also the manager for Divine Force and Sir Ibu, as well as president of Yamak-ka Records. Also, possibly as a forthcoming, The Genius even breaks his name down in the rhyme as, “The Gigga, The Gigga, The Genius…” which could be the roots of the name The GZA.
Although Side A might be the best display of his MC skills, Side B contains the best evidence of where he would take his writing with Wu-Tang and particularly on “Liquid Swords”. Before we get directly into that Side B begins with “Those Were The Days”. The Genius reminisces on the early days of developing his rhyme skills. In the first verse he outlines his Junior High Years when, “For a 8th Grader my style was kinda fly.” He utilizes imaginative means of manipulating standard school supplies into Hip Hop tools, “Letting off many styles of Hip Hop/Holding the mic that I made in wood shop/Forget gold, my key chain was a cable/Two math textbooks were turntables/For a mixer? Something much cooler/A penny being cross-faded on a ruler/Measuring dope beats that were flexed/From hands that played a drum roll on a desk…” I don’t know if those are real memories, but whether it was his inventiveness in school or in rhyme writing, I’m equally impressed. I would like to see his wood shop made microphone though…
“Life A Drug Dealer” is a concept he revisited on “Liquid Swords”. Lyrically, they two tracks are pretty much the same. The difference is that the “Liquid Swords” version is more grimy and gritty. Both “Stop The Nonsense” and “Living Foul” continue the discussion on the effects of drugs in the community. “Drama” also takes a similar approach, but conceptually is the best of the four tracks. In the first verse, The Genius engages in a conversation with a young neighborhood kid who’s intelligent, but still contemplating a life of crime in order to escape his environment. The second verse deals with the issue of homelessness. It’s sensitive to the predicament but also challenging at the same time.
The last three tracks focus on one of The Genius finest qualities, storytelling, but don’t really maximize the opportunity and focuses on tales of drinking, sex, and girl chasing.
“Words From The Genius” is an album that was relatively overlooked when it released. The obvious reasons being that most hardcore Rap fans didn’t bother because their first peek at the album was the R&B Smooth “Come Do Me”. Yet, “Come Do Me” was not a big enough success on its own to translate into album sales of any notable amount. Plus, one has to consider that Cold Chillin’ was not really great at making stars. They had amazing A&R skills, but the only real success stories, from a commercial standpoint are Big Daddy Kane and Biz Markie. In an interview with me, as well as famously in “Protect The Neck”, The Genius shared his challenges in being signed to Cold Chillin’, but also expressed appreciation for the opportunities that experience did provide.
Although not a commercial success and not even as solid of an underground album as it could have been due to label pressure, when you step back and look at “Words From The Genius” it’s clear that The Genius was in possession of a mass amount of raw talent as an artist. At the same time, from a purely MC angle, The Genius had undeniably refined the skills that he had been honing since the late 70s while he waited approximately 12 years to release a debut album. Unfortunately, the industry didn’t take note. After “Words From The Genius” the only sensible option was to go underground, build with his Clan and take matters in their own hands…
Written By Kevin Beacham
*My “anger” at Prince Rakeem led to me ignoring his 12” and missing out on the great B-side track “5 Deadly Venoms”. It’s probably a safe guess that had he done a full album with Tommy Boy it would have had more raw joints and would have been a great precursor to the Wu-Tang sound, probably even more so than “Words From The Genius”. Oh yeah, The Genius also told me the he got the initial lyrical idea for “Come Do Me” from the RZA also, so I can blame him for that too…ha. But, I got major love for the RZA! Just saying… :)