GZA — Liquid Swords: A 25th Anniversary Retrospective

Decomposing an undisputed classic Rap LP that also happens to be the perfect Winter album…

Illustrated by Denys Cowan/Milestone Media. Inked by Prentis Rollins. Digital coloring by Jason Scott Jones.

When the Wu Tang Clan was formed in 1992, it was a direct result of the bad experiences both RZA (formerly Prince Rakeem) and GZA (formerly The Genius) accumulated while being signed to record label deals in 1991. While Prince Rakeem only released an EP on Tommy Boy, The Genius released a full length LP Words From The Genius which received next to no push and minimal promotion from Cold Chillin’/Warner Bros. By 1992, they both were done with their obligations to their former labels but developed an idea that yielded Wu Tang Clan’s debut 12" “Protect Ya Neck”/ “Method Man”. The next year, the Wu Tang Clan released their 1st album on Loud/RCA which kicked off their new careers as members of a group/collective.

Beginning in November 1994, the first of the RZA orchestrated Wu Tang Clan solo LP’s were released. First was Method Man’s Tical followed by Old Dirty Bastard’s Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version released in late March 1995 then came Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… in early August 1995. Each album became progressively better and was better recieved than the previous project. The Wu were on a roll and next up to the plate was GZA, who had the advantage of experience on his side plus being present for the creation of the preceding albums. He toiled meticulously on trying to take the cinematic approach Raekwon & Ghostface employed but ramping it up to another level.

Both GZA & Raekwon/Ghostface Killah contributed songs/singles to the original soundtrack of the 1994 film Fresh which served as lead singles for their upcoming projects. For Rae & Ghost that was “Heaven & Hell” and for GZA it was “I Gotcha’ Back”. GZA threw himself into writing and recording his forthcoming opus and building with RZA in his basement studio where the bulk of the first round of Wu Tang solo projects were crafted until the final product met his high standards. GZA recorded his verses over and over again and carefully constructed them over time until the rhymes and production matched the urgency and intensity of a film noir suspense/thriller or a crime film. The dark, somber, heavily detailed, layered super visual aesthetic he wanted to replicate was crucial to relay to the audience as the listener had to suspend belief as if they were watching a movie as opposed to just listening to a cassette tape or a CD. GZA was already a seasoned pro at the time he was recording Liquid Swords, having previously recorded an album where he didn’t have the leverage, creative control, nor the support from his label he did this time around.

On October 10th, 1995 GZA released the single “Liquid Swords” on an unsuspecting populace. It was the same day AZ released his debut album Doe Or Die and immediately caught on with audiences. It got steady radio play and the video entered the rotation on both MTV & BET. This was crucial as MTV did away with “Yo! MTV Raps” back in August 1995 so GZA’s “Liquid Swords” video was being played in the regular rotation right alongside Smashing Pumpkins, No Doubt, Bush, Silverchair, Goo Goo Dolls, Alanis Morrisette, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Oasis, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson’s latest clips.

Due to the haunting, eerie sounds of the single and the fact the video was played alongside the popular Rock & Alternative hits of the time, it soon gained favor with that same audience. This resulted in “Liquid Swords” cracking the Billboard Hot 100 and climbing high enough that it entered the Top 50, ultimately peaking at #48. That was certainly a surprise. It not so surprisingly went Top 5 on the Billboard Hot Rap charts, peaking at #3. “Liquid Swords” piqued the curiosity of those who dabbled in Trip Hop and Electronica, then it ultimately won over fans who enjoyed Massive Attack, The Prodigy, Portishead, and Tricky or music that followed a similar sonic aesthetic.

Illustrated by Denys Cowan/Milestone Media. Concept: GZA/Genius

The album was released on November 7th, 1995. On that same day Erick Sermon’s Double Or Nothing, and Goodie Mob’s Soul Food also dropped. Two weeks previously Onyx released their sophomore effort All We Got Iz Us. The next week The Pharcyde will drop their second album Labcabincalifornia and the following week LL Cool J will complete yet another successful comeback by dropping Mr. Smith. Other albums released during this stretch include Mic Geronimo’s The Natural, Fat Joe’s Jealous One’s Envy, and Funkmaster Flex 60 Minutes Of Funk — The Mixtape Vol. 1.

I do this to provide context for those who weren’t privileged enough to be of record buying age at the time. Also, I do it to let you all know about what the landscape looked like at the time GZA’s album first hit the market so you can better understand its reception. Given the recent wave of online “Rap writers” who feel it’s a good idea to try to downplay the classic Rap releases of the 90’s they’re actually simultaneously revealing how little they know about the period. In order to bridge that gap, I write pieces like these. Now back to the subject at hand…

The psychology of the audience/listener directly relates to the art they consume at the time they ingest it. In November, the days suddenly got darker way sooner following Daylight Savings Time (which switched back on October 29th, 1995) as the Fall season slowly transitioned into Winter. On November 18th, 1995, Liquid Swords entered the Top R&B Albums Billboard chart at #35 as “Liquid Swords” was #43 on the Hot R&B Singles chart but #4 on Hot Rap Singles.

The concept of the album cover was first devised by GZA back in 1992. It came to him while he was getting back into playing chess, in order to sharpen his sword, he often traveled to East New York to play fellow Wu-Tang Clansman Masta Killa and his neighbors Jeru Tha Damaja and Afu-Ra. While engaged in a heated series of over 30 chess matches with Masta Killa and smoking copious amounts of weed, GZA had a vision of the chessboard coming to life as they played and exchanged pieces. Years later, he wanted to have this image drawn for the cover art of a single but instead opted to use the concept to become the cover of the entire album. Good call. Also, Wu Tang DJ and graphic artist Allah Mathematics who created the Wu Tang Clan logo also crafted GZA’s ‘G” logo as well. Give that man his flowers…

The next week, Liquid Swords jumped all the way up to 2nd on Hot R&B Albums, only behind Tha Dogg Pound’s Dogg Food, while climbing into the Top 10 of the Billboard 200, reaching #9. On November 28th, 1995, as “Liquid Swords” was spending its 7th week on the Rap charts, GZA released the Inspectah Deck guested single “Cold World”, which entered the Hot Rap Singles chart at #14 on December 23rd, 1995 while “Liquid Swords” was sitting at #21 in its tenth week on those same charts. Not really surprising if you consider the fact “Cold World” opens incorporating the classic Clement Clarke Moore poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” — more commonly known as “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas”.

The ominous sounding single would steadily ascend the Rap charts and crack the Top 10 (peaking at #8), enter the R&B charts (peaking at #57) and surprisingly even sneak its way onto the Billboard Hot 100 before stalling at #97. The single’s life was no doubt extended by a brilliant remix featuring D’Angelo at the top of 1996 which gained serious legs on the mixtape circuit, mixshows and college radio. RZA’s uncanny ability to not only make incredible sonic backdrops for the Wu Tang Clansmen to make masterpieces with, but to use every tool at his disposal to create concise, cinematic bodies of work was on full display with Liquid Swords.

This was evidenced by the fact the album was already done, sequenced and in the process of its final mixing and mastering before it was to be turned in when RZA got the brainstorm to add dialogue from the iconic film Shogun Assassin throughout to tie the album together, namely on “I Gotcha Back”, “Cold World”, “Duel Of The Iron Mic”, and “4th Chamber”. RZA also incorporated dialogue from Shaolin vs. Lama on “Shadowboxin’” and the classic The Dragon, The Hero AKA Dragon On Fire for “Duel Of The Iron Mic”. RZA’s solo Wu album track record to date began with Method Man’s Tical, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, and Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… before the completion of Liquid Swords. RZA was raising the bar with each subsequent release, which is quite the accomplishment considering each of these albums are classics.

Both November and December 1995 were rather cold and January 1996 opened up with a huge blizzard all up and down the Eastern Seaboard. This provided the perfect storm (pun unintended) for Liquid Swords to gain traction with music fans organically. As the weather got progressively colder more & more people began to gravitate to Liquid Swords, it seemed. This isn’t based on sales number provided by Soundscan via a Google search, this was my personal experience from that same time period. I remember this album being the unofficial soundtrack to the entire 1995/96 holiday season, further evidenced by the fact it was the 10th best selling album on the R&B charts over the Christmas holiday season. I knew quite a few people that received it as a gift or bought it with Christmas money between December 25th, 1995 and January 2nd, 1996.

Illustrated by Denys Cowan/Milestone Media

I traveled to Morgan State University in Baltimore (MD) during that same blizzard just to spend a close to a week snowed in at my new home, O’Connell Hall. That dorm housed athletes, freshmen and thugs (seriously) from New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania (mainly Philadelphia & Pittsburgh), Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, D.C. and all over California.

One thing they all had in common (even when they beefed over Tupac and Biggie) was they all played GZA’s Liquid Swords throughout those cold ass months. Liquid Swords became the official soundtrack of Winter 1995/96 and has become one of the greatest Winter albums ever made due to the early commitment RZA and GZA made to constructing such a dense, haunting project. On January 17th, 1996, the RIAA awarded GZA with a plaque denoting his album topped sales in excess of 500,000 units to go Gold.

In March 1996, I remember GZA’s split video for “Shadowboxin’”/”4th Chamber” becoming the Hip Hop Pick on BET’s Rap City when it switched to the font that looked like a typewriter. It made perfect sense that longtime collaborators RZA and GZA were able to collaborate on such a cinematic project seeing as how they were both accomplished directors themselves. Their eyes for detail and hyperawareness of the importance of visuals was apparent in the graphic design and packaging of the albuma collaboration between GZA and comic book artist Denys Cowanand the fact GZA directed all of the videos for Liquid Swords. Seems more than fitting seing as how he was the architect of the lyrics he should’ve been the man behind the visuals supporting them.

I have rarely seen an artist execute an album to this level until Kanye West had control of not only his creative process, production and visuals in the early to mid 00’s. Most recently, I was reminded of Liquid Swords by KA’s self produced 2012 magnum opus Grief Pedigree where he also directed videos for each song. In subsequent years, the artist having this level of creative control over the finished product, the visuals, and the rollout of the promotional campaigns is almost standard practice. Back in 1995, it was a rare occurrence.

A testament to the timelessness of “Liquid Swords” is the fact that it finally went Platinum almost 19 years after it initially went Gold. I once saw GZA perform this album in its entirety with a live band 9 years ago at Paradise Rock Club in Allston, MA and it just solidified exactly how concise of a project it was. No matter how many years removed we are from its initial release, it still sounds as raw and gritty as it did when the cassette, vinyl or CD was first removed from the shrinkwrapped plastic and inserted into either the box, Walkman or CD player or placed on the turntable for the first time ever.

Even to this very day whenever I hear “Duel Of The Iron Mic”, “Killah Hills 10304” or “Swordsman” I’m instantly transported back to those frigid nights playing this cassette in my Walkman. I remember those excursions in cars with Liquid Swords playing in the CD player plus all of those days & nights playing Super Nintendo, PlayStation & Sega Saturn in dorm rooms all over Morgan State University with “B.I.B.L.E (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”) blaring out of speakers. The textbook definition of a classic album is one that stands the test of time and ages as well as as Angela Bassett.

When I write, my hope is that the words I agonize over will resonate with readers 25 years from now and hopefully even beyond that the same way GZA’s did on Liquid Swords which even warrants me writing about it a full generation later. Otherwise, what exactly is the point/allure of creating art that’s ultimately disposable? I’ll wait…

Better late than never. Pre-order my upcoming book “Instead We Became Evil: A True Story Of Survival & Perserverance” by Sleiman x Dart Adams on Kingston Imperial/Penguin Random House due April 5th, 2022.

Host of Dart Against Humanity/Boston Legends. CCO @ Producers I Know/journalist @ Okayplayer/DJBooth/Complex/NPR/Mass Appeal/IV Boston/HipHopWired/KillerBoomBox