In Advance of Saturday's LKWD Music Fest, A Look Back at GZA's 'Liquid Swords'

"The shogun sent his ninja spies to our house...
They were supposed to kill my father, but they didn't...
That was the night everything changed."

GZA’s 1995 masterpiece, Liquid Swords is considered by many to rank among the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. To put it simply, there’s something beautiful and jangly and strange about the Wu-Tang approach to the genre. GZA’s sharp lyrical martial arts distill the best of Wu-Tang into this album. And the requisite guest appearances and top-notch production via RZA make it an iconic part of musical history. 

What is it that makes a hip-hop album maintain its grip on culture and time?

There's something about Liquid Swords that transcends the sum of its parts. Of course, its imitable connection with Shogun Assassin and its tapestry of Japanese mythology make for a more complex experience than the typical book of rhymes of Wu-Tang's contemporaries. 

The whole Wu-Tang ensemble is in full force throughout the album. The group's aesthetic present around every hook, under every beat. It's a stark album, riddled only with rat-a-tat snare snaps, biting poetry from Wu writ large and the occasional callback to Shogun. The emphasis throughout remains firmly placed on the lyrics, which has always been a hallmark of solid, meaningful hip-hop. "Gold," a track that spotlights Method Man, boasts dirty verses and a catchily downtempo chorus, though the point of this music was never overtly about "hooks" or "catchiness." Listen to the haunting harmonics weaving around the top of the music in that song, all set against bare-bones beats from RZA (GZA has notably called his brother-in-arms' beats "grimey." Sums 'em up nicely.)

While we're at it, Method returns on "Shadowboxin'" and delivers on the back half of the album another dynamic serve. It's a near-perfect tune, brimming with RZA's touch (a la the scratches that bridge the gap between snare and string) and classically Wu lyrics, particularly on that final Method verse. The song that somewhat immediately follows, "Killah Hills 10304," features probably the album's slinkiest beat. ("It’s like a dense, short film," GZA later said of this one.) Word is when RZA started playing these various tracks in the early stages of writing and recording this album, GZA fell in deep.

It's the sonic and visual atmosphere — the former created by Wu-Tang's unique spin on the world, the latter crafted GZA's youth and, later in the mastering process, by a screening of Shogun — that informs the album's place in history. There's a simultaneous deliberateness and loooooseness in the writing here. GZA, on "Killah Hills":
For example, myself and Killah Priest were in the city one day with a portable ADAT recorder I just bought. We were just walking around, going to stores, buying water, juice, whatever, and just recording the random stuff, you know, just picking up sounds and shit. I think we recorded the Hells Angels riding by [us] too. RZA was in a restaurant talking to some guy, and we were banging forks on the tables, and we just recoded all those sounds too [laughs]. So we incorporated all that into the production.
As hip-hop, and music in general, began growing up alongside technology in the 1990s and 2000s, there grew a tendency to load up songs with layers of beats and effects that inevitably took away from any sense of meaning. Looking back at the classics is an important part of listening to any genre of music, but hip-hop canon is a special breed. There's something altogether minimally airtight about Liquid Swords (and, say, The Chronic, The Low End Theory, etc.). It's distinctly not minimalism, this Liquid Swords album, but it maintains a vigil in time as though it is.


Nearly two decades after dropping that album, the Genius rolls into Lakewood for the third annual LKWD Music Festival. The full lineup includes: The Coup, Fiscal Spliff Band, Djapo Djembe Orchestra + Dancers, The Floorwalkers, Cotton Jones, Nomads, Nights, Commonwealth, Fake Species and plenty more. Cleveland Flea will stage a pop-up market boasting awesome vendors, and the food and drink options will dazzle all day and night.

If you missed the last two years, then surely you already know what your Saturday plans are. 

In Advance of Saturday's LKWD Music Fest, A Look Back at GZA's 'Liquid Swords'
Art by ILTHY

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Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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