May 31, 2012
GZA Discusses Inspiration For New "Dark Matter" Album
On an early May afternoon in the offices of Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, a model of Saturn caught the eye of a 45-year-old high-school dropout, and a lyric was born.
"I thought, this is probably the longest spinning record in the world," said GZA, the hip-hop artist and founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, referring to the ring system surrounding the planet. About a week later, the words crystallized and he offered them over a vegetarian lunch on the Upper West Side.
"God put the needle on the disc of Saturn / The record he played revealed blueprints and patterns," he rapped in his signature rhythmic baritone, offering a taste from his forthcoming album, "Dark Matter," an exploration of the cosmos filtered through the mind of a rapper known among his peers as "the Genius."
Informed by meetings with top physicists and cosmologists at MIT and Cornell University, "Dark Matter" is intended to be the first in a series of albums that GZA—born Gary Grice in Brooklyn in 1966—will put out in the next few years, several of which are designed to get a wide audience hooked on science.
"Dark Matter" is scheduled for a fall release. Another album will focus on the life aquatic, a subject he's fleshing out with visits to the labs of marine biologists and researchers, as well as meetings with the likes of Philippe Cousteau.
"After 'Dark Matter,' he said, "we'll be back on earth, but in the ocean."
In between will come "Liquid Swords 1.5," for which GZA will re-record the lyrics to his beloved 1995 album "Liquid Swords," backed by live bands.
Composer and producer Marco Vitali, a Juilliard-trained violinist, is helping to score "Dark Matter." He recalled a recent meeting in which GZA explained the images that the music should convey.
"We talked about frenetic energy, outer space, molecules crashing into each other, organized chaos," Mr. Vitali said. "The grandeur of the fact that the universe was born in a millionth of a second, in this explosion that created billions of stars, these overpowering ideas that are bigger than we can conceive. How do we make the record feel like that?"
In other words, how does one score the majesty of the entire universe?
"We don't have the answers yet," conceded Mr. Vitali. One thing he does know is that the score will utilize "the power of an entire orchestra," likely one from a smaller European country, to keep costs down.
For GZA, a major challenge is convincing skeptics for whom hip-hop and an academic subject like physics seem incompatible.
"It's gonna sound so boring to most people," the rapper said. "There have been times when I've been told, 'Oh, you're doing an album about physics? I hope it's not boring.' They don't get the idea. Because rappers are so one-dimensional, so narrow-minded, it comes off corny."
Still, he believes that "Dark Matter" will tap into the innate curiosity of listeners—even those with no outward interest in science.
"I don't think people have ever really been in touch with science," he said. "They're drawn to it, but they don't know why they're drawn to it. For example, you may be blown away by the structure of something, like a soccer ball or a geodesic dome, with its hexagonal shapes. Or how you can take a strand of hair and can get someone's whole drug history. They're different forms of science, but it's still science."
He plans to package "Dark Matter" with a short illustrated book that may also include the album's lyrics and a glossary, "like an epic textbook," he said.
Penny Chisholm, a professor of environmental science at MIT, said she'd welcome the chance to use a GZA album as a teaching tool. She met with him last December when he came to visit her lab, where she researches the ocean phytoplankton Prochlorococcus, the most abundant photosynthetic cell on the planet.
"He'd been doing his homework on the oceans," Ms. Chisholm said. "I was struck by his appreciation of the complexity of ecology and physics, and his views on life. I think he's now on a new mission, and he could play an important role in getting various messages out through his art form—about the earth, and science. That's why I've become a fan."
It's that kind of academic inspiration that a young Gary Grice could have used growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s. He was always smart: Before he was the GZA, he could recite nursery rhymes backward and forward.
"He was the Genius, and we called him genius because we knew that he was a genius," said Raekwon, another founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, the legendary Staten Island hip-hop crew formed in the early '90s.
But as he came of age, the city's blossoming hip-hop scene exerted its own gravitational pull, drawing him away from the classroom. He cut class most days, staying home to write lyrics or hang out with friends and make demos.
"I thought I knew more than what they were teaching in school," he said. "When you look back on it now, it's foolish to be cutting because we had so much more opportunity than now. When I look back at high school, or even junior high, we had all the things that kids don't have now: woodshop, ceramics, metal class, electric class, graphic arts, graphic design."
Instead he poured his efforts into music. A first album, "Words From the Genius," failed to make a splash in 1991. Two years later, he and eight friends—including two cousins, who would become the RZA and Ol' Dirty Bastard—released "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)," a critical entry in the hip-hop canon. His solo follow-up, "Liquid Swords," went gold, winning acclaim for its sophisticated lyrics.
Despite have left school in the 10th grade, GZA nurtured his affection for science as he developed his skills as a lyricist.
"There were certain things that grabbed my interest, such as photosynthesis, such as us living off plants and plants living off us," he said. "You look at everything in that light—so if I'm looking at ice cubes, I might start thinking about absolute zero, or Fahrenheit and Celsius. There's so much that can make me think about science."
In 1995, when he released "Liquid Swords," GZA solidified his stature as the Wu-Tang Clan's most recognizable lyricist with lines like "I be the body dropper, the heartbeat stopper / child educator plus head amputator." Nearly two decades later, "Dark Matter," with its rejection of the braggadocio and violence often found in hip-hop and its embrace of poetry and natural imagery, could finally enable this father of two to seize that mantle of "child educator."
"There's no parental advisory, no profanity, no nudity," he said. "The only thing that's going to be stripped bare is the planets."
A version of this article appeared May 31, 2012, on page A19 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Rapper Finds His Muse in the Stars.