GZA@MIT - Hip Hop as Civic Media
At the Center for Civic Media, I make art, software and social processes which empower people to become more creative, more effective, and more informed. My recent projects include the Festival of Learning, research on gender representation in the news, and tablet tech for social checkups.
I'm an intentional polymath and range widely across the arts, tech, charities, ideas, and education. Before MIT, I worked in UK startups SwiftKey, Dressipi, and Texperts, developing technologies used by millions of people worldwide. I also helped start the Ministry of Stories, a creative writing center in East London. I was a Davies-Jackson Scholar at the University of Cambridge from 2006-2008.
GZA@MIT - Hip Hop as Civic Media
Gary Grice, better known as “GZA” or “The Genius”, is rapidly becoming a fixture around Cambridge’s institutions of higher learning. In December, GZA visited Harvard and MIT, meeting with a wide variety of professors and graduate students. We at Center for Civic Media were honored to host the Wu Tang Clan co-founder for a tour of our lab and a visit to the Media Lab. He’s now returning to MIT to offer a guest lecture, “Hip-Hop as Civic Media.” Ethan and I worked together to write this post.
Our master of ceremonies is Ian Condry, professor at MIT Comparative Media Studies and scholar of Japanese hip-hop. His book “Hip Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization” is one of the definitive works in the field, and Condry welcomes GZA with a quick overview of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and the Center for Civic Media, before giving us some background on GZA’s work and its significance.
Ian’s interest in hip hop stems from civic roots. He’s interested in the ways in which hip hop is a music of place, of neighborhood and city, but also a global medium, crossing race, language and national boundaries. He sees GZA’s work crossing these boundaries as well. Condry offers a brief summary of GZA’s achievement as a founder - and spiritual leader - of the Wu Tang Clan, his solo work, his appearance in Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes”, appearing with Bill Murray. GZA’s work, Condry argues, is about the politics of voice - not about SuperPACs or elections, but about how to speak and be heard.
GZA takes the stage in grey slacks and a black polo shirt, looking roughly as professorial as Condry does. He reads his notes from an iPad, apologizing that he’s been working on his talk from last night into the morning.
“When I was trekking across Brooklyn, looking for MC battles - and there were plenty of them - I never dreamed I’d be at this podium.” This is a different venue for GZA - no one is drunk, high or yelling out requests for their favorite songs - “in the room, it’s quiet enough to hear my phone vibrate.” It’s intimidating, he tells us, not unlike what it would feel to give an acceptance speech.
GZA decides to address hip hop as a proliferation of global culture. When the field emerged, people asked whether it was a passing fad, like disco or punk. When Barbara Walters asked GZA, “Is hip hop here to stay?”, she was implicitly writing the eulogy for an 8-year old movement.
Because hip hop was a movement, and because it was a form of self expression, it has had tremendous staying power. “Hip hop became the voice of rebellion of the youth, like rock and roll back in the sixties,” he explains. It was a tool for youth - whatever their race - to explain their frustrations and speak back to authority.
As a movement, it was rapidly appropriated. “The way we walk, talk, act and dress - I’m not sure any movement has been appropriated as thoroughly as we have been.” But we know that music is a participatory space, a space open to all participants.
“We all vibrate, whether beings or objects.” Sound pervades our lives - we’re taught the alphabet in music. Babies learn sound before they learn to appreciate color or shape. “If music is so intoxicating, imagine how intoxicating it is for those who make it?”
Whether it’s the drum we march to, or the trumpet that brings about the end of days, we expect music to accompany creation’s beginning and end. To some musicians, every sounds becomes a musical note. “A melody in every thought, harmony and feeling.”
This means the MC’s mission is not just to sell music - it’s a personal mission, a mission to deliver a personal vision, not just the message to the masses.
GZA talks about his travels around the world, speaking to artists who’ve not just created music, but workshops, programs and other ways the music can touch people’s lives. He tells us about a Dutch friend, a huge Wu Tang fan. They met regularly to talk about lyrics, the politics of hip hop, and to play chess. He recently spoke to this friend’s students, who are learning how to produce and distribute hip hop. “It’s great to see the development of this individual, who grew as we grew.”
He quotes Victor Hugo - “Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.” Wu Tang, he explains, is pre-YouTube. They grew through flyers, posters, snipes, street teams, as well as from shows, touring, albums and MTV. Wu Tang was accepted internationally within about a year - it seemed a long time to the group as they participated.
“We never toured in Africa, but people tell me they see the Wu Tang logo all over the world. Our logo is arguably the most recognizable icons ever.” He tells us about a fan who had a WuTang tattoo on his face. “That’s a statement - that you would wear it as a badge of honor for the rest of your life.”
GZA thanks the DJs on radio who were supportive not just to WuTang, but to his and RZA’s solo careers, like Kid Capri. The skit on the first Wu album of a kid requesting a Wu song is not staged - that’s real, a represents the history of the band’s relationship with radio.
He takes credit for introducing America - and the non-Asian world - to the world of Kung Fu movies, both watched on Channel 5, and in Times Square, navigating the prostitutes and junkies to catch a double feature. “When we were young, we were drawn to the action and fighting” As they grew older, they were drawn to the themes of loyalty, family, oppression, discipline and practice. He related to the themes of few against many, a theme that characterized the early career of the Wu as they navigated the world of record deals.
“In Kung Fu, there’s a saying; ‘You must sharpen your sword every day.’ As an MC, you should sharpen your sword every day.” This, he argues, is true for professors as well.
Wu Tang won through weight as well as through skill. With nine members, each with solo careers, each month there was something new to document the Wu. This remains true today, he argues, though not to the same extent.
Once the group toured overseas, GZA was amazed that non-English speaking audiences would recite each lyric. It gave them a sense for the reach of hip hop globally. And it’s worth remembering that the band has been around for a long, long time - “If you’re nineteen years old, you weren’t even born when we released the first single,”Protect Ya Neck”.
GZA reflects on the “golden era” of hip hop - Tupac, Biggie Smalls, A Tribe Called Quest. “I’m not bemoaning the spread of hip hop, but it came with a price.” Now that the medium is global, and now that the digital revolution has changed how music is bought and sold, it’s yet more amazing that the band is touring, releasing music and remaining relevant.
Ian Condry starts a round of questioning asking about the early history of the Wu: the ferry to Staten Island, the rap battles, the ciphers. GZA asks how early Ian wants to start, explaining that his career in hip hop began when he was 10 years old. DJs in Staten Island played parties in rec rooms - “fifty cents with a flyer, a dollar without”. GZA tells us he used to breakdance, and briefly tried graffiti. “I was never really good at it. I used rulers and cups to try to get straight lines.”
He didn’t become a DJ in part, he tells us, because his father was old fashioned: he offered him a mixer for Christmas, and maybe one turntable for his birthday. “It didn’t work for me.” But the music had an impossible pull. When he was ten and RZA was eight or nine, they’d travel from Staten Island to the South Bronx - “bus, boat, train, bus again”. The experience with the rappers in the Bronx led GZA to understand how he’d need to step up his game. “There were about ten MCs in Staten Island. When we went up to the Bronx, there were so many MCs and they were so good.” (for more, see the Guardian’s extended “history of R&B and hip-hop”)
The Bronx was years ahead of Staten Island. “I asked a friend from the Bronx how to do a breakdancing move, and he was like, ‘I don’t break anymore’. And that was 1979.”
GZA tells us about early groups he was involved with, one with RZA and Old Dirty Bastard, one with other friends. They roamed around looking for rap battles, sharpening their stills, before making a demo in 1984. Hip hop, at this point, was exploding. “We’d listen to DJ Red Alert or Chuck Chillout, and there were three new songs every week.” GZA and his colleagues knew it was time to participate in the scene, making albums and contributing to the space. The result was the seminal 36 Chambers.
Ian asks GZA when the lyricism became a central focus for his work. GZA explains that this originated with a desire to compete with the rappers in the Bronx with the tightest lyrics and “the sharpest darts”. In the late eighties and early nineties, it was about the lyrics. “Somewhere along the line, it changed, and it’s become about ‘ABC rap’”.
Picking up on this diss of the current industry, Ian asks why certain scenes are more prominent than others, why conscious rap is less visible than some of the more commercial rap. GZA explains that the technology has changed - it’s now about the Internet, not about support from major labels. Older techniques, like street teams - some of them supported by record companies - have virtually disappeared. The move to the internet is, in some ways, a return to an older form of promotion, taking responsibility for promoting your own career. “When you don’t want to hear the crap that’s on mainstream radio, you go to satellite radio” and to the internet, to hear some different songs.
Does college radio play a role, asks Ian? GZA responds quoting his own lyrics, from General Principles:
I stick to college radios, mix shows
Historic university, to freestyle sick flows
Might give a lecture about your rap texture
M.C. B-Boy, DJ, slash director
As the applause dies down, he asks Ian, “Does that answer your question?”
Following the theme of hip hop as civic media, Ian asks about the connection to activism and change. GZA focuses on the idea of positivity as an alternative to party rap. He suggests that we can end up pushing too far with crews like Public Enemy, and “revolutionary rap”, but suggests that we need more music with a message.
Asked about his interest in MIT, GZA explains, “I like it here.” He’s enjoying the ability to mix with students and professors, and to challenge himself to think in new directions.
Fox Harrell introduces his work at the ICE lab on interactive arts. He starts with a question about the WuTang Playstation game, prompting GZA to mention, “I never played the game. I don’t even know what weapon I had.” Fox follows up with a question about balancing “keeping it real”, talking about the struggle in black communities, and imagination, lyrics about swordplay and comic books.
GZA suggests that imagination is uncontrolled thought, but notes that “thought is self-directed control and imagination.” You have a choice for where you direct your imagination and creativity. It’s not uplifting to brag about yourself and your ego - a song like “The Message” is an example of imagination, self-directed and controlled. (GZA offers some of the first lyrics from the song, in cadence: “ Broken glass everywhere, people pissing on the stairs it’s like they just don’t care...”)
“We all have fantasies - it’s about how you incorporate it into your music.”
Ethan asked two questions: “You talked about two golden ages of hip hop: the early age of the message and grandmaster flash, and the early rise of Wu Tang. I’m sensing in some of your answers that you’re missing that relevance and politics from contemporary hip hop. Do you see that politics in your travels around the world? Are American fans now listening to hip hop from other parts of the world?”
GZA explains, “I don’t think Americans listen to hip hop from other parts of the world.” He thinks that the rest of the world is listening to what America is doing. Some of that is the political, underground music. Often, international artists are imitating American commercial music. Nevertheless there’s always an underground that tries to connect to the politics and the roots of hip hop. Ethan pushes further and asks whether hip hop is inherently American, and whether the world’s eyes will always be on the US for what’s new in hip hop. GZA argues that it’s about where you are, as an artist. “I’m here in America, but I don’t watch TV or the music that’s out there. When I do turn the TV on, it just makes me realize how great I am.”
Sonny Sidhu asks GZA whether he’s speaking in his own voice, or in the voice of a character. GZA explains, that he uses a combination of voices.He writes a collection of sentences and pieces them together to match the theme he’s working on. Sonny notes that nine MCs in the Wu means nine points of view - he asks whether those perspectives were a source of strength, or whether the strength came from coming together. GZA explains, “We’re family. For most of the Wu Tang, we’ve got 25-30 years of history.” That makes it possible for nine individuals with nine personalities to come together and create.
Ian asks GZA to reflect on the progression of his solo work. GZA explains that Liquid Swords was, perhaps, more “an ego thing”. It was a personal statement: “This is who I am on the mic and this is what I’ll do if you step to me.” The move to Grandmasters emphasized the theme of chess, titling songs with chess terms. With the forthcoming “Dark Matter, Dark Energy” album, the goal is to speak about things that other MCs don’t consider, to bring the conversation to another level. Dark matter “is that energy you don’t see, but you know is there.”
Jennifer from Harvard’s Kennedy School asks why hip hop hasn’t taken on misogyny and homophobia in a serious way. GZA says that it’s the choice of the individual artist, and tells him to ask the individual artist. Jennifer responds, “So I’ll ask you.” GZA explains that, while he’s not speaking out about disrespecting women, he’s choosing to speak about other things, not speaking out specifically on misogyny. As Jennifer suggests we need to push hip hop on this subject, GZA explains that it’s about MCs understanding that they need to change themselves - they need to change how they think and talk about women, because it’s those attitudes that come into the music. Ian suggests that we, as fans, can push music that’s positive and respectful to women. GZA notes that a song like Tupac’s “Dear Momma” isn’t explicitly addressing misogyny, but a strong song like that changes the dialog about women and respect.
Eugene Wu introduces himself and gets a Wu sign from GZA. He asks how the core family - RZA, GZA and Dirty - have navigated fame and business together. GZA recollects the time he spent with Dirty when they both lived in Brooklyn. “We challenged MCs in the streets, we stayed in each other’s houses, especially in the summer.” Eugene asks the secret to keeping the group together. GZA responds, “Family, discipline, respect... money. These days, money is what keeps some groups together. But Wu Tang is family.”
A questioner asks whether GZA’s battle raps and his imaginative raps on things like Investigative Reports come from the same place. He references luminol, a substance that illuminates invisible evidence on a scene as evidence that inspiration can come from anywhere. “‘Picture blood baths, elevator shafts’ - I put elevator shafts in there because I know some people who’ve been crushed in elevator shafts. We used to play in shafts, riding up and down on elevators.” This sparks a discussion about the nature of freestyle. GZA distinguishes between “rhyming off the head” and coming to a battle with your best swords.
A question from Professor Sandy Alexandre asks how GZA separates the wheat from the chaff as he listens to what’s going on in contemporary culture. He responds, “The chaff is consumed by fiery furnace. Burn it up... then you deal with the strong. How do you deal with bad company? You separate yourself from that.”
Ian asks about a track from Grandmaster, Queen’s Gambit. GZA explains that “it’s a song about a female... but it’s also about all the NFL teams.” A song like that requires some research - he had to look up all the team names and figure out how to work them into verse:
She dated jolly green GIANTS, that, flew on JETS
An A-list actress, who was never walked off sets
She loved stuffed animals, especially BEARS
Was a role model, like a CARDINAL to our peers
A PATRIOTIC tomboy, like Mary Ellen from The Waltons
A former lifeguard, who had the skills of a DOLPHIN
When I met her, she was in drama school and wore BENGALS
Drove a BRONCO, and she was far from star spangled
Had basic skills, and worked part time in mills
Raised buffalo's, cause she was behind them BILLS
A questioner raises the term “knucklehead rap”, used by DJ Spooky, who appears to be setting himself up as an elder statesman in the field. Do up and coming rappers need guidance? GZA references KRS-One as someone who’s been giving lectures for twenty years. Musically, since Criminal Minded, KRS-One has focused on elevating people through his music. GZA namechecks Chuck D as another elder statesman. And he agrees that he’s involved with the process as well, talking with kids, students and MCs, trying to guide them away from knucklehead and misogynous rap. He tells us he sometimes gives MCs assignments: “Tell this story, but set it in the 15th century. And they guy’s like ‘Wait, I can’t talk about my car, I can’t talk about my Rolex?’”
Ian suggests that the misogyny of hip hop comes, in part, out of prison culture and reflects how many African American men find themselves in prison, and part of a dialog about sex as a reflection of domination and power. He suggests we consider the politics of popular culture more broadly. GZA notes that prison is now part of the upbringing of youth, growing up in single-parent homes. That upbringing has an effect... but so does the environment MCs find themselves in. “Some dudes talk like that, and people like that music. It will be like that until we decide to change it.”
Jie Qi asks about the difference between rap lyrics and poetry. Is the difference about writing these lyrics and saying them to a crowd? GZA explains that he practices all the time, back to the days he practiced in front of a mirror. The energy of the lyrics is there, he tells her, any time he’s reciting the verse, crowd or no crowd. “The good feeling is still there. But when I’m reciting it, I’m putting even more into it.” She asks whether MCs ever write each other’s lyrics - GZA explains that it happens all the time, not just as ghostwriting, but in terms of taking lyrics from RZA or Dirty, working from their verses and ideas. “This idea, if you’re not writing your own rhymes, you’re not a true MC.” Influences come from everywhere, from something you might say. “It’s not biting, it’s homage.”
Dave Kong introduces himself as a synthetic biologist, prompting amazement from GZA. He wonders what at MIT has sparked his imagination, and wonders when MIT might find its way into his work. GZA references a visit to a lab to look at plankton and other ocean organisms. “The stuff I’m writing now, I’m writing with all of you in mind.”
Jennifer from the Media Lab asks GZA about collaboration, given the incredible success of the Wu Tang collaboration. GZA sees it as a simple question: “There’s nine guys in the studio, the four best go on the track.” It’s not about voting, and it’s not about pushing for your voice - it’s about being honest with your collaborators and bringing out the best verses. As an individual, he explains, “You have so much space to yourself... but you have so much ground to cover.... When you’re in the studio, you lose your clan, but you gain the room to explore.”
Anna, who introduces herself as a physical chemist, asks about GZA’s dislike of freestyling. GZA admits that he’s not the best freestyler, and offers respect to Supernatural as one of the rare few who can do justice to the medium. He offers a contrast between one of his crafted verses and a joking attempt at rapping off the head.
Nori, a Japanese student from the Sloan Business School, talks about his enjoyment of Wu Tang, despite not fully understanding the lyrics. He wonders what it feels like for GZA to perform in front of an audience that doesn’t fully understand the lyrics. GZA responds, “They don’t know the lingo, but they know the single.” Usually a few people in Europe or Japan understand the lyrics well. And then sometimes sometimes during performance, he notices that people are mouthing the words like a dubbed Kung-Fu movie-- saying something completely different from the lyrics.
Another attendee asked, “what makes a good performer?” Strong voice, a good sound system, a clear mike, a lot of energy, very little talking in-between songs, and limited interference from the stage crew. When people remark that his live performances sound like the record, what matters is his strong voice and energetic delivery.
Sam, an engineering and computer science undergraduate, asked if GZA thought younger generations respect what the older generation has put out. GZA thought they don’t. Hip hop is often associated with the young, and older people often don’t respect it. People often think that you need to be a young person to make hip hop records, or to listen to it. But no one questions why Mick Jagger is still making music.
Max asked GZA what about chess fascinates him and how it relates to rap. GZA learned to play chess around the age of nine, though didn’t return to it until the Wu Tang days. He talks about it as a force for planning for the future - Max admits that he doesn’t know what he’s doing after graduation. “It’s an amazing game, it’s so puzzling. It’s a puzzle that’s never fully solved.” He played for ten years, then starting reading the literature, and realized that he had only scratched the surface of the game. He references a recent session with Masta Killer, when the two played roughly 70 games in 20 hours. He and RZA play as well. GZA urges us all to learn how to play and challenges us to play him online.
As the event closed, Ian offered GZA a grey MIT sweatshirt - he responds, “It’s not hood, son!” then graciously poses in it.