Photo: Christopher Elliott (1/24/23)
Sage elder statesman of the Wu-Tang Clan, the iconic GZA is in the early stages of a huge U.S. tour, working his way west to east over the course of a couple months. Among the first engagements was the celebrated emcee’s return to the East Bay, where he lit up Yoshi’s Oakland on Sunday, January 22nd. Both early and late sets sold out in advance, and diverse, multi-generational audiences were treated to a first-class demonstration of GZA’s murderous rhyme styles and genuine craft in the cozy confines of the renowned jazz haunt.
Located in Jack London Square, Yoshi’s Oakland is traditionally a jazz club and has hosted luminaries in the genre for decades, earning a reputation as one of the premier venues of its kind. Over the years, Yoshi’s has taken to booking beyond the jazz spectrum. Recently this writer enjoyed a raucous performance from Les Claypool’s Bastard Jazz from the seated booths; now it was time to experience the Shaolin styles of GZA/Genius in the same intimate space.
After a short opening segment from Detroit-based Pakistani rapper Lazarus, the hulking DJ Symphony took over the decks and beckoned the capacity crowd to welcome GZA to the small Yoshi’s stage. Employing the omnipresent “Wu-Tang! Wu-Tang!” chant, DJ Symphony was also a hype man as he lured the Legend of the Liquid Sword from backstage to set sail. As the eerie, smoked-out instrumental to “Duel of the Iron Mic” played, the GZA ambled on stage stoically, low-key like seashells and armed with a chrome microphone in his hand. Sans pomp or circumstance, the ever-verbose lyrical wordsmith took command as master of ceremonies, and the man they call Maximillion proceeded to drop gem after gem from his famed 1995 LP Liquid Swords.
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Slowly pacing Yoshi’s cramped confines with a quiet confidence, GZA mowed through classic cut after classic cut. Deep pulls like the sinister “Cold World”, the unforgiving “Killa Hills 10304”, and the defiant “I Gotcha Back” were almost humorous in the jazz club environment. GZA’s colorful, detailed narratives were even more impressive in the stripped down setting, the rapper sometimes leaving out words or syllables for the crowd to finish for him, to varying degrees of success.
Maybe my favorite RZA-produced beat of all time, “4th Chamber” was a highlight of the set; as was the incredibly creative “Labels”, which finds the emcee crafting a vivid portrait of the rap record label landscape circa 1995. Equally impressive was the bombastic “Shadowboxin’”, a collaboration with Method Man that remains among the Wu’s finest slabs ever laid down. GZA performed both his own verses and one from the Ticallion Stallion. “Shadowboxin’” saw Yoshi’s sold-out massive shouting back lyrics louder than any other tune of the evening.
Saving the title track for last, GZA took an elongated detour through some favorites not found on Liquid Swords. “Crash Your Crew” and “Amplified Sample” from Beneath the Surface got some love, as did “Knock Knock” from Legend of the Liquid Sword. The Genius grabbed a chair and sat down to deliver the NatGeo narrative of “Animal Planet” in its gloriously descriptive entirety. Also found on Beneath the Surface, the track is a magical tale of the kingdom of the jungle and how all of the animals live together harmoniously in a world all their own.
GZA – “Liquid Swords” – 1/24/23
The dearly departed Wu-bredren Ol’ Dirty Bastard, a blood cousin to GZA, was celebrated with a run through “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”, including the elusive second verse, much to the delight of the hardcores in the house. Wu-Tang Clan’s breakthrough single “Protect Ya Neck” got a raucous ovation from just about every beating heart in the joint. GZA also ripped through his assertive verse on “Reunited”, the opening track from 1997’s double LP Wu Tang Forever.
To bring it on home, The Genius kicked an otherworldly a capella that displayed his trademark verbosity in spades. Then he predictably returned to “that song,” obviously referencing “Liquid Swords” with its spooky kung-fu flick intro, Willie Mitchell “Groovin’” sample, and addictive narcotic chorus. GZA flowed through his timeless verses and grinned at the adoring Yoshi’s crowd. Nearly three decades since its release, “Liquid Swords” still serves wisdom so deep it’s picked up on radios in tunnels. The GZA showed and proved that he’s forever a shogun—a cagey Wu-Tang veteran who’s still got the game spiced like ham.
Setlist: GZA | Yoshi’s | Oakland, CA | 1/22/23
Set: Duel of the Iron Mic, Living in the World Today, Gold, Cold World, Investigative Reports, Shadowboxin’, Labels, I Gotcha Back, Killah Hills 10304, Clan in da Front (Wu‐Tang Clan), Crash Your Crew, Shimmy Shimmy Ya (Ol’ Dirty Bastard), Protect Ya Neck (Wu‐Tang Clan), Animal Planet, Alphabets, Knock, Knock, 0% Finance, General Principles, Amplified Sample, Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F’ Wit (Wu‐Tang Clan), C.R.E.A.M. (Wu‐Tang Clan), Reunited (Wu‐Tang Clan), Liquid Swords