A packed auditorium erupted in applause on Thursday evening as the Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA delivered some original rhymes and reflected on his life and career in an event hosted by the Harvard Black Men’s Forum in the Science Center.
Although GZA, born Gary Grice, has spent much of his adult life in front of sold-out venues, the rapper expressed nervousness as he began his monologue.
“This is the first time for me. I should be learning from you all,” GZA said. “I’m actually shaking right now, crazy,” he added with a laugh.
As he took the stage, a lecture hall full of fans greeted him with shouts of the trademark Wu-Tang phrase, “Peace.”
The artist, also known as The Genius, began by taking the audience through his childhood in “Shaolin”—Wu-Tang lingo for Staten Island—where his first encounters with wordplay came from a book of nursery rhymes. By his teenage years, GZA and future group-mates RZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard were trekking across the boroughs of New York City in search of the best rap battles they could find.
“Everything we did revolved around hip hop,” he said. “I would ask around, ‘Who’s the best?’ and I would go look for them.”
“[It was] just like the flicks,” he added. “One dude would roll up, another dude rolls up, and there’s 40 people waiting outside the building.”
GZA went on to recount the humbling experience of going back to work after his first record deal in the late 1980s didn’t pan out. He had a job as a bicycle messenger just six months before his career took off with the release of Wu-Tang’s first single, “Protect Ya Neck,” in 1992.
He interspersed his discussion of his musical influences and creative process with a cappella verses and witty rhymes.
“To write a story is to create a world of your own,” he said. “I think every being in the universe is connected somehow ... and when I write a song, it’s a lot like building a puzzle.”
During the event, GZA responded to an audience question about his opinion on mainstream hip-hop today.
“I hear songs like [50 Cent’s] ‘Window Shopper,’” he said, quoting lyrics from the 2005 song and suggesting that the lyrics did not meet his own standards.
“Do you think that equates with some of the lyrics that I was kicking?’” he said.
The event attracted fans from beyond the Harvard community.
“I definitely expected him to talk more about music and the group,” said Andrew Lacombe, a sophomore at Dean College who made the trip from Franklin, Mass. “But him talking about life was a lot better.”
GZA closed his lecture with some advice for those that had turned out.
“Live a life full of humility, gratitude, intellectual curiosity, and never stop learning.”