Rapper GZA, a member of the famed hip hop group Wu Tang Clan, would talk about the business of hip hop with fellow founding member RZA, but often their conversations would take a turn by the end.
“We would end up talking about the weight of an atom,” GZA told an audience of festival attendees hanging on his every word in Durham’s historic Carolina Theater.
The rapper was being interviewed by Mark Anthony Neal, a Duke professor of black popular culture, during Moogfest, a music, art and technology festival, May 19-22, that filled the streets of downtown Durham. Neal is the director of Duke Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship.
During their talk, “Time Traveling Through Hip Hop,” GZA told Neal that he’d been interested in science from an early age. Ever since he saw a cousin survive an electrical shock from a wall outlet.
“They said the rubber from his shoes saved his life,” said GZA who adopted the nickname “The Genius,” competing with other members of his clique to write the “most clever and wittiest rhymes.”
“Obviously you’re reading and you’re self taught and you’re friends with [scientist] Neil DeGrasse Tyson,” Neal said, noting GZA’s use and variation of vocabulary.
“The average rapper doesn’t think about using science for an album,” said the rapper whose seminal album Liquid Swords is a fan favorite. During the talk, GZA interspersed the conversation with a few lines demonstrating his use of scientific references, and promoted a new program, the Science Genius, where science students in New York City public schools battle each other using science in their lyrics.
Neal asked what advice GZA would offer to younger rappers who struggle with the lack of lyricism. He suggested they condense their lyrics to make the message stronger.
“Too many write what they see and not what they thing. They should write half short, twice strong,” he said.
“I can rhyme about anything. Even the brush I brush my hair with — I can probably get 16 bars,” GZA said, encouraging rappers to think about sentence structure and the elements of a good story – plot, characters, action.