DJ Muggs vs. GZA: A Battle Between Masters

Feature by Dave Kerr | 01 Jan 2006

The premise is comforting: two hip hop legends united by a mutual disdain for the direction that their art form is headed, and a clear intention to restore a little bit of balance at a time when the formulaic trappings of materialistic braggadocio have blown the genre into a tragic parody of itself.

Grandmasters is the first full length LP featuring the patented scratch-work of DJ Muggs and the lyrical waxing of Wu Tang Clan's GZA/Genius, a collaboration that makes absolute sense on paper but one that was nonetheless conceived accidentally when GZA heard some beats originally intended for an ill-fated collaboration Muggs had planned with the Clan's Inspectah Deck.

With GZA in position, Muggs changes gears by peddling less of the rock-sampling formula that has come to serve his production for Cypress Hill in recent years and body-swerves the more experimental territory of his 2003 solo Dust in favour of dark, Latino-flavoured b-boy breaks. The real distinction between Grandmasters and any previous outings by the respective players, however, is a shared obsession with chess and a prerequisite desire to flip the bird to the current industry standard.

Video: General Principles

"This record right here, it's just a real raw alternative record, it's in the true spirit of hip hop," says Muggs. "The thing that got me into the culture was the spirit, it's about being original, going against the grain, against being commercial, it's urban punk rock homie, it's a big fuck you to everybody" he spits, clearly unimpressed by the impact that the steamrollering scenesterism of the big league American music press has had on his beloved genre.

Speaking of the countless references to Chess on the album, he explains "Grandmaster is the highest level you can reach as a chess player and it's the same with hip hop. If you look at Grandmaster Flash and Grandmaster Melle Mel for example, it's synonymous." GZA continues: "If you take a song like General Principles where I say 'From graffiti in New York on the walls and trains' I'm talking about the general principles, the basic elements of hiphop. I would say that I could apply those songs to chess terminology almost perfectly"

Grandmasters may speak metaphorically for a battle on the sixty-four squares of eternal combat, but with a plethora of acclaim for past ventures and grassroots clamped within high-calibre collectives -- the similes don't stop there as far as Muggs is concerned. He takes it to the next level.

"I consider this a record like The Wall, I consider it to be like The White Album, I consider myself an artist like Tom Waits," he suggests, before pondering, "I think we could've brought this record out ten years ago or we could bring it out ten years from now and it would still feel ripe, it's a timeless record."

While Muggs wraps a typically dark production aesthetic around Grandmasters, GZA continues to grow lyrically, with rhymes so tight they're certifiably die-cast and vacuum packed. Queens Gambit sees some flex of his wordplay skills in a fashion typical to the style observed on classics like Animal Planet, where he discreetly uses every NFL team name as an adverb and litters them around the song as such. As far as GZA is concerned, thought-provocation and story telling is paramount in hip hop. He identifies his role with no ego.

"Writing is about being able to create that trauma, that mystery, making people think. Make it detailed and graphic but don't go giving them the step by step. I give them a puzzle to put together, but not in such a way that you have to buy my slang book just to understand what I'm saying."

Video: GZA - Liquid Swords

Self assured but never complacent, this is as driven as anything GZA's approached in his time, from his humble beginnings on Words From the Genius through to the untouchable Liquid Swords and 2003's 70s funk flavoured release. Indeed, he looks back through the decades to draw his influences and sighs despondently at what hip-hop in 2005 has to offer.

"There's nothing in hip-hop right now that I'm really all that fascinated by. It's forever changing, although I would say that there's a lot of recycled garbage out there, it's homogenised, pasteurised, it's not what it was. There's a lot less lyrical guys out there that are rapping, not enough story-telling. They say when you're reading a book it should be a page-turner, that's how writing in hip hop should be, but it's not, it's all about 'my car, my house, my chain, my girl'. I like a nice visual picture, a creative story, I want to draw you into my world with whatever I'm saying whether fiction or non-fiction - and I make it believable". And it's a feat GZA masterfully achieves with tracks like Exploitation of Mistakes, where he depicts a murder scene as vividly as any Ellroy-esque crime fiction.

Back in the real world, the Grandmasters tour looks set to appear on our shores in Spring as the duo hit the road early in this new year. Ah yes, the road -- Muggs has fond recollections: "So many things happen on tour, bro. You'll be on the road, chillin' after the club and end up going back to somebody's place with motherfuckers eating cockroaches for a hundred dollars, it's bizarre on the road, but we just roll with it."

Haute cuisine aside, the penchant for prolificacy in both artists is as unflinching as ever. Muggs will lend his production to forthcoming releases from protégés Mitchy Slick and Self Scientific - both hailing from his Angeles Records stable - as well as putting out a Greatest Hits package from Cypress Hill, due on the same day as Grandmasters.

Meanwhile, GZA looks forward to a busy year with this tour; another solo album; Wu album and tour (oh yes, it's coming); ghost-writing for other artists; a script-writing venture and hopefully finding time in the midst of all this to record a collaboration with an unlikely new associate.

"When me and Shavo (Odadjian of System of a Down) get together, my goodness, the combination's going to be incredible, I think that's going to be monumental" he nods, looking forward to partnering up with a fellow innovator as opposed to a gold-toting multi-million selling rap monolith (I think he might be looking at you, Fiddy).

"What gets me is that rappers and RnB artists these days are more fascinated with the machine than they are with the mind that made the machine," he reasons. "There's so much music that's built on material, I see artists on TV wearing chains and bragging, you ever heard Liberace talk about his diamonds? You ever hear Bill Gates brag about bling?"

Grandmasters is released on 16 Jan via Nocturne.