“When I was little, my father was famous. He was the greatest Samurai in the empire, and he was the Shogun’s decapitator.”
That sample, taken from Robert Houston’s 1980 classic Shogun Assassin, opens the GZA’s Liquid Swords. And while I’m hesitant to declare it the greatest hip-hop record of all time—truth be told, I don’t listen to much hip-hop anymore—I can say it’s my favorite rap album. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard it, and it was the record which drew me into the world of the Wu Tang Clan. At one point, I listened to Liquid Swords on repeat for a straight month. It’s unquestionably a masterpiece.
The razor-sharp, spooky production showcases the RZA at the height of his powers, the contributions from fellow Wu Tang members Raekwon, Ghostface Killah and Inspectah Deck sparkle, and the unlike some of the other Wu Tang solo efforts—notably Raekwon’s Only Built for Cuban Linx—Liquid Swords never gets bogged down in pointless skits. “Gold,” which opens with the GZA waiting to smoke some competitors in a drug gang turf war, is icy-cool, and perfectly illustrates the fact that when it comes to crafting compelling narratives, he’s virtually untouchable.
So when I saw he was going be performing Liquid Swords live in its entirety at LA Live, I got tickets immediately, even though in my experience, hip-hop doesn’t generally translate live. Back in the day, I was a music editor in Seattle, I saw tons of national and local hip-hop acts, and I was left disappointed more often than not. When I saw the Wu Tang Clan in 1996, I remember being stunned by how disorganized the set was, and I actually don’t remember them completing a single song. That show felt more like a free-for-all pep rally than a concert. Mos Def and Ice Cube were also let downs, but there were enough spectacular performances—Snoop Dog, Public Enemy—that I’d generally head out to shows, even when my beat switched more to the rock and roll which defined the Emerald City scene at the time.
That said? The GZA was just OK live, which I have to admit, was a bummer after spending so many years worshiping Liquid Swords. The stage was almost entirely bare, and while the sample-laden record would likely lend itself to a killer video montage, there wasn’t anything projected behind him. What I can say, is that the sound was on point, and the GZA’s voice hadn’t aged a day in the two decades since the record dropped. But ultimately, I found the experience of hearing these songs live to be a lot less immersive than listening to them on headphones, while say, riding my bicycle at night.
The coolest thing about the whole evening was talking to all the other fans there, and discussing exactly how awesome the record is, and comparing when and where we’d first listened to it. While there were plenty of old dudes—like me—at the show, there were also a surprising number of younger fans who’d heard Liquid Swords relatively recently. So while the live rendering left something to be desired, the idea that this amazing album is still being picked up and heard for the first time makes me profoundly happy.
Have a listen, and tell me if you don’t think it still sounds fresh.