Gary ‘GZA’ Grice developed an interest in Hip Hop by attending block parties as a child in the early 1970s. He formed a three-man group with his cousins, Robert Diggs and Russell Jones, who would later be known as RZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, respectively. The group, FOI: Force of the Imperial Master, saw the three rapping and DJing, switching off names and performing local shows; since they lived in different boroughs, GZA and Ol’ Dirty would travel from Brooklyn out to Staten Island to meet up with their cousin RZA, after which the three would travel across New York City and challenge other MCs to battles. After some years of this, GZA was signed to Cold Chillin’ Records as a solo artist under the name The Genius. He put together an album called Words from the Genius, produced mostly by Easy Mo Bee, but after it failed to sell—and his rocky experience on tour—Grice became fed up and asked for release from the label.
After joining the Wu-Tang Clan, a group of nine which included himself, RZA and ODB, GZA boasted some high-profile appearances on the group’s debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), including a solo track, “Clan in da Front.” This, combined with appearances on other Clan albums such as Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… brought him much recognition and respect (more than he achieved solo as “The Genius”). These guest appearances were followed up in 1995 with GZA’s sophomore solo effort on Geffen Records, Liquid Swords, produced entirely by RZA; the album was met with critical and commercial acclaim, and is still considered one of the best albums to come out of the Wu-Tang camp; in 1998, the album was selected as one of The Source Magazine’s 100 Best Rap Albums of all time.
At this time he also began his career as a Director of music videos, mentored by his then-personal manager Geoffrey L. Garfield who had a background in video production. With Garfield as writer and producer, GZA directed three music videos for his own CD for the songs “Liquid Swords”, “Cold World” and “Shadow Boxin’/4th Chamber”, the latter being chosen by The Source magazine as one of the Top 5 Videos of the Year. GZA and Garfield also produced videos for Shabazz the Disciple, Ghostface Killah and Case. The pair operated GZA Entertainment which had subsidiaries for music publishing, video production, merchandising, and album art. GZA’s company commissioned renowned comic book artist from Milestone Media Denys Cowan to design the legendary Liquid Swords cover art of Wu-Tang members fighting their enemies on a chess board suspended in outer space.
After appearing on the Wu-Tang Clan’s second album, Wu-Tang Forever, GZA released Beneath the Surface in 1999. Grice put in appearances on The W, Iron Flag and some of his group members’ solo projects, but did not release another of his own until 2002 with Legend of the Liquid Sword. The album was received well by critics, but did not achieve commercial success, failing to go Gold as his previous release had. GZA spent 2004 touring, both solo and with the Clan, and made an appearance with RZA in Jim Jarmusch’s film Coffee and Cigarettes, opposite Bill Murray.
In 2005, GZA and DJ Muggs (the DJ / producer of Cypress Hill) released the LP Grandmasters. Muggs provided all the production for the album, which saw GZA using chess as a metaphor for the rap game. The album received positive reviews and modest commercial success. He then partook in the recording of groupmate Raekwon‘s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II, originally stating that he was heavily featured along with Inspectah Deck, though he was later unsure about the status of his presence on the project.
In 2007, GZA teamed up with the Wu-Tang Clan to record the group album 8 Diagrams, and in the ensuing controversy, defended both Raekwon and Ghostface Killah’s rights to speak their mind, and RZA’s production job on the album. In the summer of 2008, he released the album Pro Tools which featured production from Black Milk and past collaborators Jay “Waxxx” Garfield, RZA, Mathematics and True Master. A very controversial song on the album was entitled “Paper Plates” a smooth flowing response aimed at rival rapper 50 Cent. After the release GZA toured various parts of Europe on a “Liquid Swords Tour” where he performed songs from Liquid Swords as well as Pro Tools. He later toured parts of the USA. GZA also stated his wish to record another full album with RZA.
In 2009, GZA made appearances on two more Wu-Tang Clan albums. The first being on a song entitled “Stomp da Roach” on the album Dopium, by fellow clan member U-God, the other being appearances on the tracks “We Will Rob You”, “Rockstars” and “House of Flying Daggers”, on Raekwon’s album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II. The Genius continued to tour during the year, appearing on the “Rock The Bells” lineup and also performing at the NXNE music festival in Canada. RZA confirmed that he will be producing Liquid Swords II: The Return of the Shadowboxer. GZA also made an appearance in a video for Devendra Banhart’s song titled “Baby”. GZA confirmed that Killah Priest will perform a solo song on Liquid Swords II, similar to “B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth)”, to act as the closer to the album just like the original. He has also begun work on a concept album called Dark Matter, which is based on a journey through time and space. He will also be appearing on the upcoming collaboration album between producers Pete Rock & DJ Premier V.S. album appearing on Premier’s track.
In a recent lecture, GZA also hinted at the possibility of an album “without a Parental Advisory sticker”, after denouncing profanity in Hip Hop as “filler which is not needed”. GZA is currently working to improve science education in New York City through a partnership with Teachers College, Columbia University Professor Christopher Emdin and website Rap Genius. This initiative motivates young people to learn science through creating raps and engaging in a rap competition.