Let’s talk about Shogun Assassin for a minute. The film, released in 1980, was really an edit of the first two episodes in the Japanese Lone Wolf and Cub series cut into one film for British and American audiences. It’s total grindhouse stuff, full of blood and scenes of violence that run the gamut from creative to goofy to gratuitous — sometimes all at once.
It’s also the movie from which all the interstitial samples of dialogue were pulled for inclusion on GZA’s Liquid Swords. This detail is more than hip-hop trivia. It tells us a few things. For one, it predicts RZA’s soundtrack work with Quentin Tarantino — you can see Shogun Assassin‘s influence on Kill Bill, hell there’s even a scene where it’s playing on television — but more importantly it tells us a little about what sets Liquid Swords apart from other classic Wu-Tang solo records. It came within a year of Method Man’s Tical (released Novembe 1994) and Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (August 1995). In fact, it came out just a few months after Raekwon’s classic, but Liquid Swords is a different beast altogether, both the least flashy and most wise of these records.
After Enter the 36 Chambers came out, there seemed to be a plan for Wu-Tang Clan. As individual artists, they got the chance to break out on their own, but on top of that they wanted to keep a foothold in hip-hop as a collective, and as a brand. Wu Wear would launch later in 1995, but look at who leads off the Wu-Tang solo album onslaught. Method Man, girded by the popularity of a song named after him on Enter the 36 Chambers, put out Tical. He was the most marketable star in the group, the most familiar face and voice in Wu-Tang at the time, and the album didn’t disappoint. Aside from RZA’s work with Gravediggaz, the next big move was to put out Raekwon’s album, now notable for a change in RZA’s production from his trademark grime (at its grimiest on Tical) to bigger, brighter, more cinematic sounds to match Raekwon’s epic drug raps. So they’ve got marketability and versatility covered, and the two smoothest rapping voices in the Clan leading the solo album charge.
Despite its undeniable Wu-Tang aethetic, Liquid Swords bares little resemblance to those other records. It’s chilly in comparison to Cuban Linx, more expansive than Tical, and more soft spoken than either. Not because GZA sounds tame on his album, not by a long shot, but more because GZA had different goals. He had neither the dangerous edge of Method Man nor the hard-earned don persona of Raekwon. What he had was something much harder to define, much more patient, but just as lasting.
Which is where those Shogun Assassin quotes come in. The opening voice-over, spoken by the son of the title character, tells of the night everything changed. It’s both a genesis story for the boy and the start of a tale of revenge for the father (since his wife, the boy’s mother, was ruthlessly killed). On the album, you hear the scream of the mother, and then the boy’s hauntingly quiet voice. “That was the night everything changed,” he says, and the song proper comes in there. GZA starts the record here to perhaps draw an analog to hip-hop culture. GZA is taking up the mantle of the real MCs that came before him on Liquid Swords. Like so many rap albums, this one has no tolerance for fake rappers or wack MCs, but GZA raps like he’s looking through them. Their rhymes, he tells us on are weak “like alarm clock radio speakers,” as in, they’re weak enough you (and GZA) pretty much ignore them. They’re worse than something to hate, they’re something everyday, something you barely ever think about except to hit the snooze button, to quiet it.
So the feeling of everything changing in that first quote, of the boy becoming part of a tradition of men, that’s where GZA posits himself in hip-hop history. Not as a boy, necessarily, but as the student of the game eager to show what he’s learned, eager to continue the fight against fakeness in hip-hop. But GZA isn’t a rapper blinded by frustration or amped up by beef. Instead, GZA comes across as an old soul, one with a clear vision of where he’s going and total control over how he gets there. His disses are pure dismissal. “I don’t waste ink,” he assures us and when he claims “when I swing my swords they all choppable” it doesn’t sound like a threat, it sounds like a fact.
Here’s the thing: GZA’s not wrong. He is a master here. Liquid Swords is one of the most commanding lyrical performances in rap history, and yet it’s hard to know exactly why. It’s endlessly quotable — all the quotes above come from the same song — but there isn’t a single “oh shit!” punchline on the record. It’s got a perfect sense of metaphor, but the metaphors rarely deal in the ultra-violent or salacious. When GZA does dig into crime narrative, like on the brilliant “Cold World,” there is no romanticism but instead a surgical attention detail (“jackets took after bullets rip through coats”) that is neither romanticized or vilified. GZA lays the scene bare and let’s us draw our own murky conclusions. So it’s an album that doesn’t appeal to lowest common denominator sex and violence, and digs into realism without couching it in too-easy sentiments or lessons. And while GZA has an undeniable flow and knack for language, he is just as capable of riding on a wave of curses when he really wants to brush off a foe.
So you’ve got an endless line of classics — from the deadly banger “Duel of the Iron Mics” to the spare, lyrical “4th Chamber” to the violent yet heartbreaking “I Gotcha Back” — that, not a one of them, rely on gimmick or false bravado or overpowering braggadocio. Liquid Swords is a patient, confident record, and instead of pandering to the listener challenges them to keep up with what GZA is doing. He’s not sermonizing so much as leading by example, and he’s not showing off what he knows so much as he’s making you realize what you don’t — about what hip-hop can do, about where it came from for him, about where he came from and what he wants to do with it.
He and RZA must have known what they had on their hands because, while every member of Wu-Tang is on here, this is absolutely set up as GZA’s world. The two biggest stars at the time, excluding RZA as master producer, were the two guys that had just put out records: Method Man and Raekwon. And while both turn out classic verses here, Method Man plays uncredited hype man on “Gold” and Raekwon doesn’t pop up until “Investigative Reports,” ten tracks into the album. Those guys had their moment in the sun, and they get out of the way for GZA to have his on Liquid Swords, and GZA ends up sounding every bit the senior member of the Clan he is.
His rhymes are wise because they don’t insist on their intelligence, while partner RZA’s beats are dark and haunting because they don’t demand attention, they creep up on you. This is a much more expansive, hole-filled version of the grime you heard on Tical. That album was tense and bunched up with energy and power, but Liquid Swords knows its own steez, and is more about atmosphere and dread laced with faint hope. You’ve got the faint high squeals on “Gold,” the organ and cut-up voices on “Shadowboxin’,” the horror-flick synths on “4th Chamber” and so on. It’s an album of lean beats with a lot of spare keys laid over the top. More than on any other record, RZA uses negative space here to do most of the work, and while his beats are detailed and intricate, their effect is subtle, employing the kind of skill that would lead to great film score work later. He, like GZA, takes his time here and rewards the listener by forgetting them, but creating a world of convincing shape and size, of arresting atmosphere and clever detail.
And here, again, is where Shogun Assassin comes in. RZA and GZA need only audio samples from that film, sounds to establish that atmosphere. It’s a film built on and known for its gaudy violence, and yet GZA needs none of that to get his point across. Liquid Swords doesn’t deal is geisers of blood, it deals in quieter blows. This includes the artwork here, the cover that looks like a comic book panel. The scene is violent — in the background, someone’s head is caught in a bear trap — but not believably so.
It’s the most effective and interesting example of the Wu-Tang aesthetic and mythology that twists gangster culture into something different. Rather than deal in the streets, Wu-Tang build its music and look on Samurai films. It not only makes the group unique, but it raises questions about the codes of the streets. Liquid Swords highlights different types of violence and conflict (including in the music industry on “Labels”) but can’t quite make sense of it, can’t find the code in it. So what we get is a comic book scene of gristly heroism that contrasts with the perplexing violence of the songs. GZA sounds deep in thought all over Liquid Swords, his ideas carefully considered, and that he can come to no conclusion (despite the spiritual catharsis of closer “B.I.B.L.E>”) may be what makes the albums indictment of street violence so condemning. There is no code in the violence, but there is a code in GZA’s reaction.
And so the new edition of the record, the Chess Box edition released by Get On Down, both gives us another chance to dig into GZA’s master stroke and a new context in which to do so, a more complete version of GZA’s artistic vision. The extra instrumental disc is strikingly great, even surprisingly, as RZA’s beats on their own sound like a haunting soundtrack to an unmade movie. You get insights from GZA himself on an extended interview in the liner notes, but the most curious inclusion is the chess set here. It’s a self-described “working” chess set, and you’ve got the boards on the inside of the packaging and chess pieces to play. It does indeed work, though the board is a little small. But it is, in its way, both a product and a symbol. Because, yes you can play it, but it also shows us something about GZA (himself a chess player). It shows the thoughtfulness and patience of his best record, that every part of it, every move, has an effect. Even if you can’t quite see the effect as it’s happening.
Liquid Swords is an album of small moves, but its effect — the culmination of all those small moves — is huge. It’s not until the end that you realize how far ahead of the game GZA was in 1995. And, even now, Liquid Swords is a classic we’re still catching up to. When we finally do, we might realize that when it came out, November 1995, that was the time when everything changed.
Liquid Swords – The Chess Box is out now.