A Cool Thing You Probably Missed: GZA on ‘Dark Matter’

A bit over a month ago, I attended a GZA show in Boston and thought to myself “Gosh, I wish I could take a class with this guy. I mean, he’s a f*cking GENIUS.”  Yesterday, RISD’s STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art Math) initiative made this dream come true by bringing The Genius (born Gary Grice) himself to the RISD Auditorium. The talk that transpired was ostensibly a discussion of GZA’s career and Dark Matter, his upcoming science-inspired album that has been years or, according to the rapper, decades in the making. Yet after GZA’s talk I emerged not with a newfound interest in physics, but rather a greater appreciation for curiosity, artistry and how the two, for artists of GZA’s stock, are ultimately one in the same.

Following a cursory introduction, GZA quietly took the stage, lacking his typical dark colors and half-smoked blunt. Instead, he opted for a simple half-zip sweater, looking more like a nondescript 40-something than a rap legend. Initially he seemed a bit nervous, even claiming that “[lecturing] is different than being on stage.” When his unmistakable voice began to tell the story of his early career, however, nobody doubted that The Genius had arrived. Speaking in an oddly entrancing rhythmic manner, he chronicled early trips to the South Bronx with cousin RZA, his first record deal and his time with All in Together Now crew, a precursor to the Clan. And though this half of the lecture seemed like readings of rap trivia, GZA was already subtly communicating—through his passionate anecdotes on Hip Hop (capital H’s)—his later point that lyricism can often communicate concepts more effectively than mere speech.

Once he arrived at Wu Tang’s debut, GZA switched gears to speak about science in broad terms. When he started throwing out facts about the universe’s size and scope, some of the more science-savvy in the crowd left their seats unimpressed—their loss. GZA presented this trivia not to impress the audience with knowledge, but to illustrate how he would ultimately channel his curiosity about the world into his art. One of the most memorable remarks of the night was the simple statement: “Don’t rap about the car, rap about what the car is.” For GZA, lyricism, much like poetry, is a vessel of absolute subjectivity, a universe of personal experience in a few verses. Moreover music, as a collection of innumerable sounds, is almost like its own universe. In this way, GZA presented the art, or science, of hip hop in a personal and highly compelling way.

While scientific motifs have appeared in much of GZA’s work, the rapper’s curiosity has come to a head with the Dark Matter album—an entire LP inspired by physics, sound, and the universe backed by conversations with public intellectual Neil deGrasse Tyson and numerous visits to physics departments at MIT and other universities. In association with the album, GZA and Columbia Professor Christopher Emdin are planning to launch an initiative to use rap lyricism as a science learning module in 10 New York Public Schools. The rapper believes that incorporating parts of the science curriculum into clever lyrics would be highly beneficial to at-risk students in the five boroughs. While this may seem to some as quixotic or just sorely mistaken, GZA’s lecture may have confirmed its effectiveness. A few hours after the show, I remember his rapped verse on the Big Bang vividly—coincidence or not?

Still, his commentary on artistry in general stuck with me the most. Anybody can look up scientific theories on the web, but nowhere in the hip hop universe (save, maybe, Ice T’s Art of Rap) have I found such concise and articulate thoughts about artistry. In another memorable bit, GZA asserted that “chains and whips” should be subjects of history, and hip hop, freed from ignorant materialism, can be a creative outlet as legitimate and personal as any other. Such was GZA’s gift to the small audience, and such was the cool thing you probably missed. The talk was videotaped, so if and when that becomes publicly available we’ll be sure to share it so that you all can experience GZA’s words for yourselves.

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