Starr Hill gets its groove

Starr Hill Music Hall has developed a great reputation for hosting jam bands. But here comes hip-hop in the form of GZA. In an online exclusive, the Hook interviews GZA.
The Wu-Tang Clan led the rest of the rap world to a new level of literary craftsmanship in the 1990's, and GZA led the rest of Wu-Tang both lyrically and figuratively. So it's quite likely that history will remember him as one of the architects of hip-hop– this is a guy who raps about chess strategies and writes five-minute narratives like "Labels," "Fame," and "Publicity," in which he slyly works in the names of all the record labels, pop culture icons, and magazines he can think of. The rest of the Clan refer to him as "The Genius," if that tells you anything; judge for yourself at Starr Hill on Monday, February 27.

The Hook: Wu-Tang's 1997 tour with Rage Against The Machine generated as much buzz as your live shows have ever seen. You're currently working on a mixtape with a huge list of guests, an album with Shavo Odadjian of System Of A Down, and then there's "Grandmasters" with DJ Muggs. Do you have a tendency toward collaborations that seem to come out of left field?
GZA: I think some people think I'm sort of out of left field, you know? I think Wu-Tang was on the left side.
The Hook: There are lots of Wu Tang members who don't appear on "Grandmasters." How did you decide who you wanted?
GZA: I always want to incorporate my clan on anything I do. But if it doesn't happen, I'm prepared. Always.
The Hook: You seem to approach your verses analytically, like a linguist. Do you consider yourself a writer rather than a rapper?
GZA: Of course. I tell someone "I write" rather than "I rap." That comes out once they figure out you're into music, but definitely, I'm a writer. It's about creating. Not many rappers can create on a writing level, because they don't show. I do a little bit of telling, but mostly I show. They do 99 percent telling. When I write, I take that which is fiction, I take that which is nonfiction, then I take that which is imagination, and then I take experiences, I take other people's experiences. Usually I like to write about other people, and not really myself.
The Hook: Why?
GZA: I don't want to talk about myself unless I'm telling a story that's important. You listen to a lot of hip-hop, and it's all braggadocio– how you dress, how much money you got, what you drive. That's what we started out with– we used to brag, but we used to brag about our abilities. On wax, we used to brag, but off wax I don't have to brag because the wax speaks for itself. You have to say "I'm real," "I'm a mack," "I'm a baller?" Wouldn't that show in your actions if it were true? You don't even have to say, "I'm intelligent," because other people will say that about you if that's true. You don't have to rhyme. You don't even have to speak. People will capture vibes about you if they're in the air, because information travels that way sometimes.
The Hook: Chess is a recurring theme in your work– do you think the specific topic is critical to your ability to build a successful allegory?
GZA: It's just what I do. It's what I live. As we speak right now, I'm looking at a chessboard with the pieces set up. You can't really throw a subject on what I rhyme about. I can use chess as a medium for anything I do.
The Hook: "Queen's Gambit" follows in the tradition of "Labels," "Fame," and "Publicity," but with football teams. What will your next topic be? Soups? Muppets? Military dictators?
GZA: It doesn't come like that. It comes naturally. "Publicity" was sparked by something someone else was writing. I'm not ashamed to admit it– that's what writers do. I can get sparked by one line– "The polar bear feasts on the blubber of seals." And I'm like, 'Wow.' Because I'm not just thinking about the arctic. I'm in the hood. I'm in the corporate world. I'm in the music business. When you're rapping about your rims, there's none of that. You want to talk about jewelry all day, but you don't even know that a diamond is a precious mineral formed from crystalline carbon, and the carbon is what gives the carbon its shine. There's a history there.
The Hook: And how do you hope history will remember ODB?
GZA: I know what his legacy is. I don't have to hope for anything, because I already know, and it's the will that makes things move. We didn't grow up on rap, because it wasn't around yet. We grew up on soul, on rock and roll. But hip-hop was already in us.
–interview by Vijith Assar