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How GZA Went Eclectic on "Liquid Swords"

Five strange samples on a hip-hop classic

Thursday, June 14, 2012 - 10:50 AM

In 1995, rapper GZA released “Liquid Swords,” a dark, hard-hitting collection of songs now considered a hip-hop masterpiece. The album's stature is as much a function of GZA’s lyrical prowess as it is of the atmospheric beats of producer RZA, GZA’s cousin and Wu-Tang Clan cohort.

However, for tonight’s Northside Festival show at Music Hall of Williamsburg celebrating the seminal album, GZA will ditch the DJ. Instead, Austin, Texas Latin funk ensemble Grupo Fantasma will provide the musical backing for GZA’s twisting rhymes. In doing so, the band won't just have to keep up with GZA  – they’ll also have to impersonate the myriad samples that make up RZA’s beats. These samples include some surprising names and sounds you might not associate with hip-hop OR Latin funk. Here are my top five: 

#5 – David Porter – I’m Afraid the Masquerade is Over | Sampled on “Duel of the Iron Mic”

The final song in Act I of Porter’s 1971 funk opera “Victim of the Joke," this track isn’t that surprising of a choice -- at first. After all, LL Cool J and the Notorious B.I.G rapped over samples from it. But look at the album’s cover. Plant it in your mind. Porter in a clown suit, sitting on a bass drum, laughing his ass off. Now imagine that cover popping up in RZA’s record crate in his Staten Island basement studio. Imagine the producer pulling the record out, acknowledging Porter’s smiling clown with a determined nod, and placing the record on his turntable. Then imagine him using that record to make one of the most aggressive, confrontational tracks in the Wu-Tang canon. Surprising, no? The masquerade may have been over for Porter, but GZA’s duel was just beginning.

 

#4 – Willie Mitchell – Groovin | Sampled on “Liquid Swords”

Some “Liquid Swords” fans may have wondered about the synthesizer that produced the title track’s signature staccato pulse. Turns out the pulse isn’t a synth, nor is it “Liquid Swords’” signature to claim. In fact, Memphis soul legend Willie Mitchell is the originator of the sound, a combination of an organ and plucked guitar that sounds just as menacing on the original as it does on RZA’s beat. The surprising part? Those eight bars are the only menacing section on Mitchell’s song. The rest is perfectly breezy, relaxed instrumental funk – more attuned to swimming pools and swigging beers than sword fighting.

 

#3 – The Charmels – As Long as I’ve Got You | Sampled on “I Gotcha Back”

With its steady, groovy beat, funky horns and warm bass, this gem from little-known Stax girl-group The Charmels is prime sample fodder. Wu-Tang fans will instantly recognize the song’s opening as the spine of “C.R.E.A.M.” from the group’s debut album. It’s surprising that RZA would return to a record that he relied so heavily on for one of the group’s most popular tracks, but in this case he simply took short samples of horns and guitar hits instead of a whole section of the song.

 

#2 - New Edition – Lost in Love | Sampled on “Hell’s Wind Staff / Killah Hills 10304”

There’s a slight bending of the rules with this choice, since technically RZA didn’t sample this track from New Edition’s self-titled album. Instead, a GZA relative by the name of Life can be heard doing a very…let’s call it “soulful” rendition of “Lost in Love” in the background of the skit that opens this track. The use of the song is surprising simply because it is vastly newer than any other song used in Liquid Swords’ beats, most of which dip back to the early 1970s and late '60s (“Lost in Love” was released in 1984).

 

#1 – Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention – Plastic People | Sampled on “Cold World”

Sound-wise, there’s not a whole lot of explanation needed as to why this is a surprising choice to sample. “Cold World” is among Liquid Swords’ deepest, most emotionally-involved cuts. It’s the only one with a hook that is sung instead of shouted. “Plastic People,” on the other hand is…well…Zappa. That RZA was able to turn three seconds of Zappa (approximately 1:13-1:16 on the YouTube link provided) into four minutes of GZA is itself a noteworthy accomplishment.

Then there’s the matter of location. GZA name-drops the Brooklyn neighborhoods Brownsville and Red Hook on "Cold World," and alludes to retreating to his “spot on Lexington” (I assume he means the one in Brooklyn). On the other hand, “Plastic People” lives on the opposite coast. Zappa references Laurel Canyon, Sunset Boulevard, and Crescent Heights – all well-known locales in Los Angeles. 

-- When he isn't interning at Soundcheck (and even when he is), Alexander Abnos watches a lot of soccer. He tweets about that and music at @anabnos, while his other work can be found at anabnos.com 

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