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The GZA discusses collaborations with The Black Lips and Devendra Banhart, plus the prospects for Wu-Tang

January 15, 2010 | 11:53 am

624x600mrgzaprevWith the critical and commercial success of Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint 3” and Chef Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2,” the question is no longer whether 40-something rappers can prosper, but what path they’ll take. Will they align themselves with rap’s next young guns and try to craft a futuristic sound to match their progressive inclinations, or will they continue to sharpen and refine their (liquid) swords?

The 43-year old GZA has opted to split the difference, working with indie-rock royalty -- King Khan, The Black Lips, Devendra Banhart, Of Montreal and Dan Deacon -- yet always staying true to his indelible core of mathematical and chess-obsessed wisdom, oracular vision and creative metaphors.

Of course, the legacy of the Genius has long been secured strictly off his work with the Wu-Tang Clan and his 1995 album “Liquid Swords.” While he might not have been the most pop savvy or flashiest of the crew, Gary Grice always has been the thinking man’s favorite, a technically flawless rhymer with a pedigree that stretches back to the genre’s Rec Room era. Though none of his subsequent efforts have matched the heights of "Liquid Swords," few rappers have ever been able to match his consistency or dedication to craft.

On-stage, the Brooklyn-bred MC embodies the term “master of ceremonies.” Commanding the room with effortless authority and an amplified baritone, the lanky veteran continues to hit with the blunt brute force of a late-period George Foreman. In advance of his show at the Echoplex tonight, the legendary rapper spoke to Pop and Hiss about his collaborations with the indie elite, the importance of evolution and the current status of the Wu-Tang.

How did you end up collaborating with The Black Lips and King Khan?

Originally, it came about through my manager Heathcliff [Berru]. The bands were fans of Wu-Tang and I and we decided to perform together. It worked out well; they’re good musicians and we have a mutual admiration and love. The thing is, they were already connecting with me in some way first. I’d never heard their music before, but I was feeling it and when I saw both of those groups perform live, I knew I could work with them. The vibe was there.

Much of current hip-hop -- particularly the more mainstream iteration -- is characterized by glossy shiny-sounding production. Did some of your desire to work with the Black Lips and  King Khan stem from the similarity of their lo-fi aesthetic to the beats you came up rhyming on?

That’s my problem with the stuff today -- it doesn’t sound raw and uncut. When the Black Lips sent a track over to me, I thought it sounded like a Beastie Boys track, the way the singer was singing and flowing on it. He was right in the pocket. You don’t get hip-hop that sounds that gritty anymore, you get some Auto-tune, ping-pong computer-made and Casio stuff.

And the collaboration with Devendra Banhart?

I met Devendra at Coachella. I watched him and Gang Gang Dance perform and thought they both put on really great performances. I was like ‘who is this guy,’ because he was rocking, and it turned out that he was a big fan. When I met him, he told me what an honor it was and how much he loved “Liquid Swords” and Wu-Tang. So it was a beautiful connection.

A lot of rappers have tried to chase whatever trend was hot, whether it’s Auto-tune or getting the hottest R&B hookman on a track, but you’ve carved out a different path.

I think it’s about being original and creative. You’ve got to be comfortable with yourself. There’s no set way to do anything. Sometimes you have to go outside the box, sometimes you can do things the standard way. Like you don’t have to have a beat to write a song, sometimes you can write lyrics without the music. A lot of artists think that to be current, you have to follow what’s out there and do something that’s so unlike what you normally do. It can work but it doesn’t if you chase it.

What’s the current status of your next album with the indie-rock collaborations? Also, what’s going on with the Wu-Tang? Are there plans to do another album?

I’ve got some songs done for my own album, but I’m still writing and recording. There’s been talks about doing another Wu-Tang album and going out on the road to promote it. We’ve just all got to get together and do it.

-- Jeff Weiss

Photo via GZA Myspace

GZA, tonight at the Echoplex, 1154 S. Glendale Blvd., 8:30 p.m., $16