It turns out drafting a setlist is actually a piece of cake for the Wu-Tang Clan. Surprising given that the mammoth hip-hop group has released six albums, and also its members have surpassed the collective’s standalone LPs in terms of mind-warping, influential rap albums. Where do you even begin?
You have obligations to nod the deceased Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s legacy on stage. Method Man was a veritable MTV star with his three non-Wu albums during the ‘90s. Ghostface Killah has four classic albums under his belt among his 13 solo releases; Raekwon wrote “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” Maybe best of all, 49-year-old philosopher GZA (born Gary Grice) is in Austin on the 20th anniversary of “Liquid Swords.”
“Someone always wants to hear something that wasn’t played for the night,” GZA says on the phone from a shoot in Salt Lake City. “It’s not really hard: You just have to pick an order and that’s it.”
You always want to jumpstart the gathered masses with an uptempo favorite, and so GZA says fans at this weekend’s Fun Fun Fun Fest can expect to first hear a circa-’93 staple like “Brind da Ruckus” or “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F Wit.” But for GZA, cranking out the standards alongside his Wu brethren late Saturday will be the easy part.
Friday night at the Parish, as part of the free Nites shows offered to Fun Fun Fun Fest attendees, GZA will perform “Liquid Swords” all the way, front to back. It’s a set he’s done incessantly as a legacy act across festivals, but this one will be fitting because midnight, Nov. 7, will mark the seminal record’s 20th anniversary. GZA says it’ll be business as usual, though he’s not quite sure what to expect.
“I’ve been doing it so much for a while now that I get used to it,” GZA says of performing his perennially hailed ’95 album. “It’s always a different moment until you walk on stage,”
Could part of that uncertainty be tied to how young, ever-gentrifying, white, affluent Wu loyalists who fit the band’s worldview into their pseudo punk rock aesthetic, view the Wu here in Austin? In rock music’s canon, the band is forever cool. But an increasingly small percentage of people at a Wu-Tang show in Austin actually listened to Wu-Tang in the early ‘90s. In 2011 at the Austin Music Hall, a Wu-Tang concert was peppered with incoherent audience chants for “Wu-Tang” but little apparent knowledge of the music itself. It’s demographics, really.
Moreover the band infamously tours as a banner and — like the Harlem Globetrotters — fans are there to support the shield, not the name on the back of the jersey.
“Fans, they get younger,” GZA says. “Sometimes I see 16-, 17-year-old kids.”
GZA certainly doesn’t see this cynically, however. He says the youngest fans can be among the most engaged. And, he adds, Austin as a live musical capital full of unique spaces is one that always stands out.
“Austin is a great city. It’s a great place, been there numerous times solo and with Wu-Tang,” GZA says. “We have a following there, young and older; always a good feeling to come out to Austin and rock.”
It’s not just one-offs for GZA. Before rap titans like Kanye West and Jay Z helped make South by Southwest a must-stop for rap music at-large, GZA was headlining 6 p.m.-slot day shows in East Austin, following indie rockers on free bills. In 2009 he performed in the sunlight, at a makeshift stage backed up by Atlanta garage rockers the Black Lips.
That’s why, as he puts it, GZA feels “the vibe” when engagements route him through the Capital City.
“You have to challenge yourself by doing other things with other groups and other people and making it work,” he says recalling that Lips show. “If it was a track I didn’t like I wouldn’t have been on that song.”
The challenge has taken him to a string of recent speaking engagements that dissect lyricism and music. This run began when GZA was asked to speak at Harvard (“At first I was saying to myself, ‘damn what am I going there to talk about?’”) and has included radio conversations with professional thinkers like Neil deGrasse Tyson.
GZA says his “Science of Hip-Hop” talks have unfolded naturally from his musician’s process: “Every time I do an album I think of the concept to attach to that album, so that album can be like an epic poem.” He found that outlining this process doubled as a sort of class on the genre, and especially because he has a burgeoning interest in physics. He liked that.
“You can teach while you entertain,” GZA says “It makes the service even greater.”
And while you’ll love the Wu-Tang happy hour or Friday night’s classic album reconstruction, GZA is going to keep tinkering in the garage. In fact he says he’s working on an album called “Dark Matter,” inspired by science and his speaking engagements, set for a 2016 release. His chief partner for this venture? Greek composer Vangelis, who scored “Bladerunner” and “Chariots of Fire.”
“It just came together naturally,” GZA says of the Vangelis project. “Worked in Paris. We spoke several days. We’re gonna see.”