‘Liquid Swords’ turns 20 on Saturday (November 7), and it remains, to this day, a vital listen for all hip-hop fans. Its verbose creator, Gary ‘GZA’ Grice, ascended to hip-hop’s top table as a result of this stunning solo work, arguably the best of the many Wu spin-offs that followed the group’s debut ’36 Chambers’, and one which exhibits the Wu-Tang Clan’s elder statesman at his tongue-twisting best.
But what exactly makes ‘Liquid Swords’ such a modern masterpiece? Join us, won’t you, as we journey into The Rugged Lands of Shaolin to find out…
GZA’s dense narratives prove just why he is the Genius
Raekwon stated in a 1993 radio interview (which is tagged onto the end of ‘Can It All Be So Simple’ from the Wu’s iconic ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’) that “the G is just the Genius… He’s the backbone of the whole shit.” It was a to-the-point endorsement of Gary Grice’s talents that would materialise for all the world to see in ‘Liquid Swords’. Justifying GZA’s reputation as a lyrical genius, he time and again here paints incredibly dense – and yet marvellously poetic – portraits of gritty inner-city life with consummate ease.
As the hardened first-person narrator of ‘Gold’, GZA guides us through the paranoid life of a street-hustler with some rather sensational wordplay:
“I’m in the park setting up a deal over blunt fire / Bum nigga sleeping on the bench, they had him wired / Peeped my convo, the address of my condo / And how I changed a nigga name to John Doe”.
‘Cold World’’s unflinching gangland scenario, meanwhile, is another gripping listen; its observational power pricking your ears from the moment of GZA’s cold manipulation of ‘The Night Before Christmas’’s opening line:
“It was the night before New Years’, and all through the fucking projects not a handgun was silent, not even a Tec”.
And then there’s ‘Duel Of The Iron Mic’, which has since been acclaimed as one of the finest songs ever made by any member of Wu-Tang, ripping up the rule book on rhyming:
“I ain’t particular, I bang like vehicular homicides / On July 4th in Bed-Stuy”.
It’s just one of the many instances on this record of The Genius at work.
RZA’s production is as on point as Chun Li’s spinning bird kick
GZA’s cousin RZA is the leader of the Wu-Tang and the production maestro behind the likes of ‘…36 Chambers’, Raekwon’s ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…’ and ‘Gravel Pit’ – and with that in mind, you just know, without even hearing it, his exclusive production of ‘Liquid Swords’ is going to be one of its strongest points. Relying, as ever, on a quixotic mix of old soul samples (‘Duel of The Iron Mic’, for example, samples David Porter’s decidely unthreatening “I’m Afraid The Masquerade Is Over” to create a very threatening track), distorted boom-bap beats and several audio clips from Asian cinema (this time it’s exclusively from Shogun’s Assassin, an extremely-violent Japanese period drama that was nearly banned here in the UK), it succeeds in creating the desired mood: intimidating, violent, and yet eminently head-boppable.
Skits that aren’t that bad
‘Liquid Swords’, like all great hip-hop masterpieces, comes with the odd skit: it’s a tradition in the genre that gives the performers a chance to become theatrical players. The most memorable such instance here is the ‘Hell’s Wind Staff’ skit, which centres around Bobby Steele (played by RZA) confronting “business partner” Mr. Greco on the “singing bird”, Don Rodriguez, who’s in the process of ratting out them out to the NYPD. It’s a fairly ridiculous set-up – especially as GZA bursts in to shout “LIFE OF A DRUG DEALER” – but it’s still gone down as one of the most famous skits in hip-hop history.
Wu Tang members drop in and out at their convenience
Nearly all of the Clan take a turn on the mic – there’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Masta Killa and Inspectah Deck on ‘Dual Of The Iron Mic’, Ghostface Killah, Killah Priest and RZA on ‘4th Chamber’, and a very nearly scene-stealing verse from Method Man on ‘Shadowboxin’’ (“I don’t give a cotton-pickin’ FUCK“). But, even with such additional fire in the booth, GZA still burns the brightest.
The sheer completeness of it all
The bleak, New York cityscape – alright, Shaolin – is conversely portrayed in stunning clarity by the heady mix of GZA’s lyrics and RZA’s production, transporting you to the murky depths of the concrete jungle via the medium of your headphones. It’s a dark, dangerous and ultimately unsettling record – and, as such, it’s a perfect companion for the onset of the harsh winter months – but that’s a judgement that’s meant to be taken as a huge compliment. Still an essential listen 20 years later, ‘Liquid Swords’ should and no doubt will continue to be the blueprint for all aspiring hip-hop classics to aspire to for at least the next two decades.