View more photos in Timothy Norris' “GZA @ Echoplex” slideshow.
In high school Spanish, freshman year, there was a skater named Steve who knew all of the words to Liquid Swords. I sat next to him – more like diagonally behind him – at an angle that afforded me a prime sight-line to the small BIC explosions he'd set off inside of his huge JNCO pockets (filling them with gas, flicking the flint). This also made me the most logical target for his recitations of GZA's classic album.
Speaking out of the corner of his mouth, slouching deep so that his blond ponytail seemed to perch on the chair's headrest, Steve would start at the very beginning – the actual intro track – and attempt to make his way through the entire record before the lunch bell sounded. And occasionally, he made it. No one knew how to mythologize The Wu-Tang Clan like middle class white kids. No one except maybe Wu-Tang itself.
The Staten Island group knew how to sell itself from the beginning – packaged its members up like the Justice League with a twist. Each rapper was a character, occupied a certain corner of the organization, but that organization wasn't out to rescue kittens from trees or stop an aspiring supervillain (a young MF DOOM?) from exploding the sun.
They were the villains, but only sorta. More like, of a villainous society but wise beyond all other street scholars, their hustle and knowledge tempered as it was by the teachings of ancient Japan – ciphered, as it was, through cheesy but amazing kung fu flicks. Like so many other rap collectives that offered an identity to latch on to, The Wu was embraced heartily by black audiences and doubly so (this may be apocryphal) by whites.
Of course, that was 15 years ago, and “classics” have since been dubbed, that pandemic outbreak of “W” symbols afflicting ninth grade Trapper Keepers has all but subsided, and WTC might as well be a publically traded stock. It's in this context that GZA, a.k.a. The Genius, a.k.a. 43-year-old Gary Grice, arrives in one of the hippest, most gentrification-embroiled, lively and arts-inspired neighborhoods in the country – Echo Park – ready to perform 1995's Liquid Swords from beginning to end.
Of course, some things never change. Even at 10:45 p.m., 15 minutes before GZA was set to take the stage, the line outside the Echoplex snaked out onto Glendale and under the Sunset overpass. Security had been tripled, it seemed, with each attendee getting frisked twice. My wife was how's-your-fathered; my pens were stolen from me. I thought we had the Juggalos to scapegoat now. I guess I was wrong.
Luckily — sorta — the headliner wouldn't take the stage until nearly 12:30 a.m. (Again, as they say, “the more things change…”) DJ Dark Alley spun nearly every gangsta hit and barbecue jam that the '90s produced, but the Wu tracks were taken as an affront, and his attempts to hype the crowd were booed down with vigor. The crowd was restless. Their throats were sore. Their arms were tired of holding up the two-handed flying “W.”
And then it happened. That creepy little boy's voice rang out from the turntable – “My father would come home. He would forget about the killings. He wasn't scared of the shogun… Maybe that was the problem.” – and the time was forgotten. Not just the lateness of the hour, but the last decade plus. Suddenly, high school Steve was there next to me, arms flailing while he screeched every word of the sampled Shogun Assassin film dialogue, except it wasn't Steve at all – it was a 30-something white woman in boutique wear, skinny with her mad face on. It's a wonder she made it through security.
Like the crowd's, GZA's performance was pitch-perfect. He started slow, methodical, as the album does, and picked up steam as the audience's fervor spurred the night forward. A small backing posse — four or five — picked up overdubs here and there, helping GZA to keep his breath while whipping the fans into a froth. The first of 50 “Wu!” chants was initiated somewhere between “Duel Of The Iron Mics” and “Cold World,” and when it was time for “4th Chamber,” the crew expanded to include that song's guests, who aficionados will know, are Clan godhead RZA and longtime affiliate Killah Priest.
This, of course, put the whole thing over. Mics were circulating onstage like joints were in the crowd. The onstage crew outgrew the stage. RZA rapped furiously every time he was up, maxing out levels the soundman had to keep adjusting. Killah Priest came across like a deep-voiced junior Ghostface, gruff and confident. GZA stayed cool, cucumber-like, delivering endless streams of words pregnant with metaphor and complicated meter. The show eventually became a hybrid of house party and open mic, never losing steam even as it dipped into a woozy tribute to Ol' Dirty Bastard (after an all-in cover of “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”).
Several times, “Alright, we outta here after this one,” was uttered, but the actual goodbyes never seemed to come. There was always another classic from 36 Chambers to run through, or an obscure latter-day track that sounded great nonetheless. And though GZA, like skater Steve on most days, didn't actually make it through Liquid Swords' entirety, we all happily dubbed ourselves members of the Wu — the original Wu, because this was 1995 after all — and drove, bussed or walked home reciting the lost songs, keeping an eye out for any evil shogun that needed slaying on the way.