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Originally published Friday, August 22, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Rapper GZA riffs on the thinking man's rap masterpiece

Rapper GZA talks about his classic album "Liquid Swords," which he'll perform in its entirety Tuesday in Seattle.

Seattle Times staff reporter

On the Internet

GZA: Head to youtube.com to watch and listen to GZA's classic work (search "GZA Liquid Swords").

Nightclub preview

GZA of Wu-Tang Clan

Performing "Liquid Swords," with Scribes, GMK and DJ Swervewon, door at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Neumo's, 925 E. Pike St., Seattle; $20 (all-ages, bar with ID; 800-992-TIXX or www.ticketswest.com).

Talking on the phone and simultaneously watching the Beijing Olympics, 42-year-old rapper and Wu-Tang Clan co-founder GZA spoke to The Seattle Times for an hour last week about his 1995 masterpiece "Liquid Swords."

GZA (pronounced "jizza," aka "The Genius," nee Gary Grice) will rap the album in its entirety Tuesday at Neumo's, something he's done since 2007 when online-music magazine Pitchforkmedia.com commissioned a performance for its Chicago music festival.

"It has great songs, it's not an ignorant album, it doesn't sound dated," said GZA. "If you listen to it and compare it to what's out now, it's timeless."

Though it's called a solo album, "Liquid Swords" is really only GZA's by half.

For the instrumental part, GZA's cousin RZA (Robert Diggs Jr.) made treasure from trash: off-sounding synthesizers, samples from '70s soul records, analog tape loops and dramatic snippets from dubbed kung-fu movies. Melodies were warped and broken. The whole thing sounds as nontraditional now as it did in 1995.

For his part, GZA married maximum wit (in entendres and metaphors) with minimum syllables, stomping through pithy crime tales and generally getting a lot done in tight spaces. As he put it on the track "Duel of the Iron Mic," his style is like "bloodbaths in elevator shafts."

"I think artists should really write more," he said. "People say Wu-Tang makes you think too much. What's wrong with thinking?"

You have to think pretty hard to get through "Killah Hills 10304," a twisting story that connects American judges to international supervillains, a heist in a Burlington Coat Factory to dope-packed yachts off "Dead Man's Island, 200 miles south from Thailand." GZA said some "Killah Hills" details came from real life (like the mule who undergoes surgery, hides cocaine in his leg, and gets spotted by his "pirate limp"), and some he made up (the Champagne bomb: Pop the cork, lose your head).

"A lot of dudes write these street tales and they're so gory, 'cause they think gory is visual ... they're so literal, and so street level. You know, like crack spots and whatever," GZA said. "I wanted to write something and take it to a level where nobody's done it."

When GZA does chronicle street danger (like on "Cold World," set in Brooklyn neighborhoods Red Hook and Brownsville), it's in imagistic details like scars on throats and bullets through coats. Courtesy of RZA, a winter wind whips through, literally, and the sound of the air mixed with GZA's verbal photography is like watching an art-school documentary.

"It was done in RZA's house, in his basement in Staten Island. I remember being there, and some of the beats were running for like two days nonstop. 'Cold World' was one of them," said GZA.

"Cold World" sounds sad like very little hip-hop does or ever did — as does the rest of "Liquid Swords." Things occasionally get energetic, and then the vibe is menacing (check the brutal distortion and sly guitar on "4th Chamber"). There is no happiness, no ray of sunshine. But that's the mood, and mood carries "Liquid Swords."

"Lyrically, it's not my best work. Not at all." Oh, GZA — don't be so hard on yourself.

"But the chemistry? Production? Overall, I mean, c'mon! RZA's atmospheric production? Yes. It's my best album."

Andrew Matson: 206-464-2153 or amatson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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