RZA Uses Customized Sound Stabs to Make Unique Soundscape; Slow Dragging Composition Gives GZA Room to Breathe
|By Amir Said (Sa'id)|
As far as my favorite hip hop/rap songs go, "Liquid Swords," by The GZA and The RZA, remains steadfastly in my top five. It is truly a genius piece of work.
The song starts with a clip from a martial arts film—a non-music intro that clocks in at about 1 minute and 20 seconds. The movie clip dissolves into the atmosphere of a down-home juke joint, complete with a slow, intoxicating soul rhythm and party-goers talking out loud to the music. Next we hear RZA as a teacher, reminding us,"Sometimes we gotta flash 'em back, cuz niggas don't know where this shit started." And then, the kick and the first sound-stab drops, right when RZA and GZA—in the natural unison of family—both begin with the chorus: "When the M.Cs.s came, to live out they name..." Incredible.
From my first listen to the last, what impresses me the most about "Liquid Swords" (from a beatmaker's point of view) is the way in which RZA plays the truncated sound stabs that he's sampled. First, these sound-stabs, which are some sort of multi-layered guitar strum, are untraceable. There is no one who could ever accurately identify the source music RZA used to sample them from, which means that RZA guaranteed himself an one-of-kind, original, bonafide custom sound. Second, RZA plays the sound-stabs like he's strumming them right off the guitar of a Stax records session guitarist. Third, the bass-sound stab that RZA layers with the guitar sound-stab is pitched at a level just low enough to boost the punch of the guitar licks. The result is a sonic impression that makes the track sound ever so sinister and menacing...like a big ass sign that reads: "Hip hop/rap frauds enter at your own peril!"
***EDITOR'S NOTE (1/23/10) Recently, it was brought to my attention that the sampled sound-stabs that the RZA "played" were actually NOT sound stabs at all, but instead, a 3-second measure of the sounds played in chromatic succession. I closely listened to the original alleged sound source and "Liquid Swords," and there is no doubt in my that the sounds on 'Liquid Swords" came from this record. Thus, although RZA did indeed program the sample, it is likely that the sample itself was not cut into individual sound stabs and replayed. Side note: As is the case with a number of beats, sometimes what you thought was individual stabs actually turn out be the arrangement within the original sample. Either way though, "Liquid Swords" is dope. Good job, RZA and GZA.
Finally, there's the drums. If you've ever studied RZA's beatwork then you know that RZA usually tucks his drum sounds in the mix, and he never overstates their volume. In the case of "Liquid Swords," that's exactly what's going on. But I should point out that even though the kick is indeed tucked, the kick pattern that RZA uses is a syncopated assemblage that sets up the snare, then "hugs" it wherever it lands in the measure.
As for the rhyme...The GZA never disappoints. On "Liquid Swords" GZA's lyrical confidence shines, and his lines merge with rather than cut through the soul and the smokiness of the composition. In fact, GZA adds a sort of drawl and sustain to each word in every bar, closing each measure with a rhythm that snaps in line with the turnover of every snare hit.
Indeed, for a lesson in "out of the box" hip hop/rap music, be sure to study "Liquid Swords."
The GZA - "Liquid Swords"
The GZA - "Liquid Swords" (Official music video)