This summer marked the 22th anniversary of the Wu-Tang Forever album dropping; pushing the nine-member Hip Hop collective out into the musical mainstream. Up until that point, the group were celebrated cult figures among the hardcore heads; relatively underground figures picking up steam with each Wu member’s solo release.
I was fortunate enough to have been hipped to the Wu-Tang Clan by a kid in my physical science early into my junior year. He’d been singing Chef Raekwon’s “Ice Cream” and when I saw the video on BET later that week I’d lost my mind. I went back and did my research and saw that I had some catching up to do.
By the end of that semester, I’d bought everything from Enter the 36 Chambers on up to Liquid Swords, and soon my friends and I were trading Wu-Tang lines all day during baseball practice. Back then I listened to so much Wu back that a girl I was hanging out with requested that we listen to anything but Wu-Tang when I picked her up for what would be our last date.
Everyone had their favorite Wu-Tang member and favorite solo album. While I noticed that most people I knew gravitated towards the ever gregarious Method Man, I found myself most stimulated by the GZA’s verses–throwing his cassette in my tape deck more than any other.
Liquid Swords is a dark, fierce and beautiful album that encapsulates an experience that music fans don’t get today with new releases. For one, the album cover has some of the illest artwork ever produced for a Hip Hop album–especially of that time period.
Secondly, that album was the third of an unprecedented production run by the Clan’s leader, the RZA. I’ve often jokingly referred to as the Duke Ellington of hip-hop because of his impeccable placement of snares and film samples, in addition to his ability to lead a “big band” (the last we’ve probably seen of the big rap groups unlike what we once saw in the ’80s)–his work sounded more like cinema scores than Hip Hop beats. In 1995 alone, he’d produced Ol Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Liquid Swords before his production duties on Ghostface’s Ironman album.
Many would argue that Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was the best solo project, and I wouldn’t fight them on it, but Liquid Swords at the time resonated on a deeper level for me. GZA’s low key style and lyrics were more accessible and digestible, and as an aspiring poet, felt more visual and less abstract than Chef’s penwork. There are so many standout cuts on this album, “Duel of the Iron Mic”, “I Gotcha Back”, “Swordsman”, “Investigative Reports”, and “4th Chamber” are all pretty nasty, but if I were introducing someone to Wu-Tang Clan for the first time, “Shadowboxin’” would be the song I played for them. Incidentally, this song satisfies fans of both the Method Man and the GZA (as well as beat fiends who like to geek out on the production work of the RZA).
Method Man’s “F*** that” seems to signal that the album is going to take a turn for the sinister (and it does–partially due to the way it interrupts the eerily combative sounding 4th Chamber), on a track that sounds like it was recorded at 3 in the morning. RZA sped up high pitched sample of Ann Peebles’ “Trouble, Heartaches, and Sadness” and timely scratches fill a densely layered and murky track.
Method Man (now known for his acting chops just as much for his legendary freestyle skills) had made a name for himself for his own album, Tical (which according to Wu folklore sounds completely different from the original version that died in the infamous basement flood in RZA’s studio) and he stood out alone on “M-E-T-H-O-D man”. Historically, however; he seems to save his best heat for guest appearances (I’ll refer you to “The What”, “Rawhide”, “Box in Hand”, “Ice Cream”, and “Wu-Gambinos” for other great examples of said heat) and this feature lays waste to anything and everything in its path.
[Verse 1: Method Man/Johnny Blaze]
I breaks it down to the bone gristle
Ill speaking scud missile heat seeking
Johnny Blazing, nightmares like Wes Craven
N***** gunning, my third eye seen it coming before it happen
You know about them f****** Staten kids, they smashing
Everything huh in any shape form or fashion
Now everybody talking bout they blasting, hmmm
Is you busting steel or is you flashing? Hmmm
Talking out your asshole
You should have learnt about the flow and peasy afro
Ticallion stallion, chinky-eye and snot-nosed
From my naps to the bunion on my big toe
I keeps it moving, know just what the f*** I’m doing
Rap insomniac, fiend to catch a n**** snoozing
Slip the cardiac arrest me, exorcist Hip Hop possess me
Crunch a n**** like a Nestle, you know my STEEZ
Burning to the third degree, sneaky a** alley cat top pedigree
The head toucher, industry party bum rusher
You don’t like it? D*** up in you, f*** ya!
Allow me to demonstrate
That’s right, you corny-a**
The skill of Shaolin, rap motherf***ers
The special technique, better go back and check
Of shadowboxing, your f****** stacks
Shadowboxing, cause your naps ain’t nappy enough
And your beats ain’t rugged enough, b****
[Verse 2: GZA]
I slayed MCs back in the rec room era
My style broke m************ backs like Ken Patera
Most rap n***** came loud but unheard
Once I pulled out, round ’em off to the nearest third
Check these non-visual n*****, with tapes and a portrait
Flood the seminar trying to orbit this corporate
Industry, but what them n***** can’t see
Must break through like the Wu, unexpectedly
Protect Ya Neck, my sword still remain imperial
Before I blast the mic, RZA scratch off the serial
We reign all year round from June to June
While n***** bite immediately if not soon
Set the lynching and form the execution date
As this two thousand beyond slang suffocate
Amplify sample through vacuum tubes compressions
Cause RZA to charge n***** twenty Gs a session
[Verse 3: Method Man]
When my mind start to clicking and the strategy
Is mastered the plot thickens
This be that Wu s***
I don’t give a cotton-pickin’ F***
About a brother tryna size a n**** up, I hold my own
Hard-hat protect your dome
Look at Mama baby boy acting like he grown
No time for sleep, I gets deep as a baritone
Killa bee, that be holding down his honeycomb, lounging son
Wu brother number one, protect your neck
Flying guillotines here they come, bloody bastards
Hard times and killer tactics, spitting words plus
Semi-automatic slurs, peep the graphic
Novel from the genie bottle, hit the clutch
Shift the gear now, full throttle, time to bungee
To the next episode, I keeps it grungy
Hand on my nut sack and spitting lunghies
At a wack n**** dat, don’t understand the fact
When it come to RZA tracks I don’t know how to act
Real rap from the Stat, Killa Hill Projects
How to be exact, break it down
All in together now
Things are getting good looking better now
…And some other s***
His verses on this track almost sound like spoken word, as he takes his time laying things out in a matter of fact fashion. While his first line ( I breaks it down to the bone gristle) sets the tone for the song, calling out fake tough guys and corny emcees; his final verse bookends (and overshadows some of GZA’s most sharp and clinical lyrics) one of the nastiest songs ever put together. Method Man even plays the prognosticator, saying “All in together now, things are getting good looking better now.”–a line alluding to not only his life and career but the whole Wu-Tang family–as they went on to take the Hip Hop world by storm. A sample of the Shaolin vs Lama punctuates Meth’s vocals before some expert scratching serves as a coda as the beat rides out until the end of the song.
There is a lot to chew on with this track. As 19 year-olds, my friend Rick and I would drive around Dallas late at night, stoned and full of questions, playing the song repeatedly; in complete awe at what we were hearing. I’ve listened to this song hundreds of times since I first heard it in ‘95, and I still manage to pick up something new with each listen. Not only does this make “Shadowboxin'” a classic, but the most perfect Hip Hop song ever written.