When the subject comes up of musicians dropping out of North Carolina concerts in response to the controversial House Bill 2, rapper GZA says he had not heard of the bill, nor the reactions it has provoked.
The Brooklyn-born, New Jersey-based hip-hop icon and founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, who will be one of the many artists performing at Moogfest (going down this weekend at its new home in Durham), says he was booked as a festival headliner months in advance. “I’m not familiar with that situation,” says GZA (real name: Gary Grice), 49, calling from his Jersey home. “But I would like to check it out to see what’s going on, just so I can know. So I have some sort of idea of what’s going on. But the show’s still going on.”
Yes, GZA will be fulfilling his duties as a star performer at the eclectic music and arts fest, named after Robert Moog, the engineer whose groundbreaking synthesizer served as a progressive tool for many an artist. It’s coming down to the Bull City after spending a decade in Asheville.
“I’ve heard about it before, and I was just asked to do it,” he says. “I mean, I don’t know much about the festival itself… Moog has been incorporated in a lot of our music. I know RZA has several of those machines. So, it did play a major role in a lot of music we were doing.”
The MC has celebrated several major milestones lately. Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the release of his 1995 solo album, “Liquid Swords,” one of the many classic mid-’90s Wu-Tang solo albums that were released post-“Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).” (It also finally went platinum late last year.) But this year also marks the 25th anniversary of the release of his 1991 solo album, “Words from the Genius.”
So, since the man has been rhyming for a quarter of the century, how does he feel he has progressed as an artist? As a matter of fact, how has hip-hop changed for him these past 25 years? “I think for myself, as an artist, the progression is a lyrical progression, and what I choose to target my lyrics at and how I construct the rhymes,” he says. “You know, I think there’s been progression as far as that, you know, and I’m fortunate enough that I was able to earn a living doing what I love to do, which just started off being a hobby for fun, when I was young.
“As far as hip-hop as a whole, I think there’s been a progression as far as the doors that are being open for ours today. I mean, hip-hop is connected to so many things. I mean, artists are getting all kinds of deals, sponsorships, television shows, clothing deals. I think it has progressed in many ways on that level – in a great way. The music is forever changing. I don’t think there’s been much progression lyrically, though.”
Considering he’s still one of the sharpest, most verbally potent MCs in the game – and still part of a Staten Island brotherhood that’s filled with hip-hop word warriors – you can always count on GZA to spit full-fledged, lyrical stories with his rhymes.
“I think it came naturally for us,” he says. “Because, as MCs, we started off as storytellers, from day one. I can definitely speak for myself and most MCs that I know who’ve been MCing for years, it’s a natural thing. That’s how it started off for us: telling stories or taking a subject and bringing everything you could bring out of it, out of whatever subject or narrative you may use and trapping that into a story. So, it’s been like that from day one.”
GZA will perform Friday and Saturday nights, playing late-night shows over at Motorco. If you can’t stay up that late, you can also see him speak at the Carolina Theatre at 4:30 p.m. Friday for “Time Traveling with Hip Hop,” where he and Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal will discuss the role of hip-hop in challenging our ideas about science fiction. So, whether he’ll be on stage spitting rhymes or respectfully schooling people, expect GZA’s words to flow like liquid and, of course, penetrate you like a sword.
What: An annual music, art and technology festival
When: May 19-22
Where: Various venues across Durham
Cost: $249-$499 for festival pass; $69-$129 for single-day pass