A few months ago, Moreno Valley rapper The Faze dropped Liquid Swords (A Cover Album) and the Wu-Nation was livid. For some, rhyming over production from The Genius’ beloved masterpiece was a capital offense. “Off with his head!” one fan wrote in a long trail of disgruntled comments on HipHopDX.
I couldn’t knock the uproar. GZA’s Swords was my Jimi Hendrix. RZA’s soundscapes were weed clouds of Shogun druglords and Shaolin shooters. Out of nowhere, this young blood comes along and tries to cross a sacred line.
“One of the homies was playing some beats and I was freestyling,” Faze explains. He admits that he didn’t know what album it was, but when his friend told him it was Liquid Swords instrumentals, “I’m like damn, that’d be dope if I made this a project.”
Faze had heard Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Forever and other Wu projects. “I love old-school beats,” he says, noting that his 2013 EP The Suicide Note features throwback, mostly sample-based production. He now seems to regret a HipHopDX interview in which he implied he wasn't a fan of Wu-Tang or GZA's solo classic. “I wasn’t shitting on [Liquid Swords]; I just never heard the album.” For him, growing up on the West Coast, The GZA just wasn’t poppin’.
At age 7, Faze knew he wanted to be a rapper. Dropping out of school, “I was just confident in what I was doing and didn’t really like what they was teaching me,” he says. A relative worked for Death Row Records and he remembers “going to my family’s house and seeing the Death Row symbol” and “seeing what people can accomplish as black men coming from the inner city.”
Moreno Valley, a small city east of Riverside nicknamed Murder Valley, “gets a bad rep for all the murders that go on out here,” says Faze. “It’s a small city similar to Compton, but it’s not as bad.” On the 2010 single “Moreno Valley City Limits,” Faze describes his childhood with visuals that unfold precisely, even as they emotionally erupt: “I was losing friends since I was in the seventh grade.”
By 17, Faze was selling his music hand to hand. It eventually reached NBA basketball player Baron Davis, who played it for producer/A&R veteran Tony DeNiro and Stevie J, a former Bad Boy hitmaker who produced tracks for Notorious B.I.G. After hearing Faze’s demo, they set up a meeting and asked Faze if he’d move to L.A. “I stayed with Stevie J for a year and he kind of developed me into what I am now.”
Like his favorite rappers, Biggie and Eminem, Faze is a conceptual artist. “The Intruder,” off his debut EP, The Suicide Note, could’ve been a counterpart to Common’s “Stolen Moments” from One Day It’ll All Make Sense. Coming home late night, Faze finds the lights on with the front door open. He raps, “I popped the trunk/Then I grabbed the pump/Cocked it back/Now I’m about to pop a bullet at a chump.” His crib actually getting robbed spawned the song. “I was hot,” he recalls. “I just thought, damn, what would’ve happened if I was actually in the crib? ’Cause I was hearing whispers from the street and I’m like, ‘Somebody who broke into my house could’ve been my homeboy.’”
Clicking “play” on Liquid Swords (A Cover Album), I couldn't help wondering if this was the beginning of wack rappers smearing shitty rhymes over hip-hop classics. But Faze’s honesty suspended my disbelief. The first cut, “4th Ave & Slauson,” over the instrumental from GZA’s “Investigative Report,” is a true tale about Faze and his Armenian friend getting pulled over. “Right when we got on Slauson my boy was like, ‘Yo, I think the cops is following us.’ I’m like, ‘Naw, we good. We in a 2017 Bimmer. We Gucci.’” Five cop cars trailed them with a low, swooping helicopter. Blocking off the busy four-lane street, 10 cops pointed guns at them, instructing Faze and his boy to put their hands outside the windows. His friend was the first to get out of the car. “They had him on the ground so I’m like, ‘When they see me they prolly gonna pop my black ass.’” Supposedly somebody driving a similar car had killed someone while Faze and his homie were at In-N-Out.
“Marketing 101,” over the beat from “Swordsman,” schools famous people on branding. “Yo these guys is missing out on so much money. Let me clown ’em,” Faze explains. His verses, like Eminem’s celebrity jokes, hit mercilessly. “The plan that I had for O.J. Simpson to sell/Would’ve had him selling black gloves out of Bloomingdales,” he spits. It’s like his punch lines are hitting a speed bag. “I make a killing off of Ray Rice selling wife-beaters.”
“Were you an Uber driver?” I ask him, referring to a cut of the same name. “Naw naw,” he says, laughing. “That’s a made-up story. I had a homeboy and he was doing Uber and he’d come home and tell me the stories of everybody [he drove].” Over “4th Chamber,” Faze picks up a man going to court for child support, a white girl with a guitar, a cat with “a jar of kush.” It’s a spiraling wormhole of what “goes down as an Uber [driver] and the type of people that you come across, ’cause you gon’ come across all different types of souls.”
Through his unique perspective, The Faze recontextualizes RZA’s production, staying true to the way hip-hop was invented. When asked if Wu-Tang has heard his album, he responds cagily, “I was told that they got it.”
Some may argue that discovering Swords (going on its 22nd anniversary) is the same as a producer finding the Holy Grail of break beats. Faze undoubtedly has lyrics, which is what makes his homage to this timeless record worth discussing.
“It’s all love,” he says. “Long live Liquid Swords.”