GZA Speaks: The Lost Art of Lyricism

By GZA - Source:

Music is forever changing. Hip-hop is not going to be what it was 15 or 20 years ago. Everything changes. There are different sounds, different dances. But at the end of the day, to me it’s all about the lyrics.

Hip-hop started with street poets with great lyrical skills, and that’s what hip-hop has always been about for me. If you hear people talking about the Golden Era of rap they’re usually talking about the early-Wu Tang Clan era. And then Nas and Biggie and so on. But for me it goes back to the 80s — 1986 to 1989.

Take somebody like Big Daddy Kane, his first record was “Raw.” When Kane came out as an artist, I’d get chills from his music because it would be so dope and so lyrical and so strong and so fresh and so new. On “Raw” he says:

“Here I am, R-A-W / A terrorist, here to bring trouble to / Phony MCs, I move on and seize / I just conquer, and stomp another rapper with ease / ‘Cause I’m at my A-pex and others are B-low…” ~Big Daddy Kane

…and he’s talking about MCing! He’s talking about his craft! Yah, Kane was a player dude. He was a sex symbol in hip-hop, he was flossy and drove the fancy cars. But he never really rhymed about it. He still lived that life but he was talking about MCing in his songs. Same thing with Rakim: He rolled with a bunch of hardcore street dudes but he never talked about running up in the club and blasting dudes. He was beyond that. He spoke about his lyrical skills. Or take an artist like Nas, he’s one of the greatest out there. He’s done his party-type music, but he’s always been lyrical with it and had good analogies and had good wordplay and good sentence structure and good visuals without talking about running the block and smoking people.

Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and Nas: three undisputed lyrical legends of the rap game, staying smooth in their 40s

Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and Nas: three undisputed lyrical legends of the rap game, staying smooth in their 40s

Sure, it was always about the image in rap, whether a positive or negative one. Back in the day some dudes wore costumes: Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force, they were looking like the Village People. Melle Mel. It’s all good, though. Because they all had a message: socially, politically and economically. They spoke about the injustices in the city. They spoke about poverty, and they told a great story.

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