The Wu-Tang MC taps Austin’s Cumbia Overlords to Bring a Classic Album Back to Life
GZA stood on the edge of the stage, facing a small sea of Yankee-capped heads before him at the Music Hall of Williamsburg last Thursday. “It was back in 1995, I was in RZA’s basement,” he began in his trademark Staten twang. “We were drinking 40s, smoking blunts… playing chess, of course.”
At the mention of chess, a surge of applause came from the audience. They raised their hands in the air, and made a Wu-Tang “W” by connecting their thumbs and pointing out with their forefingers. The tangy scent of burning blunt wraps lingered in the air.
GZA continued his story, “RZA said, ‘I got a new joint for you to check out.’ He went over and pressed play, and I started hearing the beat…”
From behind him came the steady chunk-a-chunk from the classic GZA song “Liquid Swords.” Except, there was no DJ in sight, and no layer of record hiss coating the driving guitar lick. Instead the decades-old beat was being recreated by ten musicians behind GZA, the guitar chops augmented by massive stabs coming from a three-man horn section.
Over the rest of the night, GZA played almost all the way through his 1995 cult album of the same name, Liquid Swords, giving the golden age hip-hop record a treatment often reserved for canonical rock albums. He burned through favorites like “Shadowboxing” and “Cold World,” as well as a few hits from elsewhere in the Wu-Tang multiverse, including Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and the Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” Throughout, the band bringing the beats the life wasn’t who you might have expected: Grupo Fantasma, the Latin funk orchestra from Austin known for a psychedelic and soulful take on cumbia.
The pairing of New York rap god with Texas cumbieros came about earlier this year at SXSW. “I had given a couple of sub-standard shows at SXSW and knew that I owed the fans something special. So I chose to perform with a live band,” says GZA. The manager from his label, Babygrande, asked a friend from Nat Geo Records if they had any ideas about who to hire. Grupo Fantasma was recommended for the job right away.
After a quick rehearsal, GZA and Grupo were playing together to a crowd of industry insiders at the Austin festival. A booking for the project at Bonnaroo soon followed then Philly, and finally New York for Brooklyn’s Northside Festival. And according to both parties, there’s more in the oven.
“From the minute I walked into rehearsal at SXSW, it was obvious that we were going to get along personally and creatively. The guys are all so laid back, like me, and we have a great time on stage,” says GZA. “And it’s clear that the guys are hip-hop fans. They know the music and the grooves really well.”
Indeed, while the group has steeped themselves in Latin sounds, founding member Adrian Quesada grew up a hip-hop fanatic in the ‘80s. He was living in Laredo, Texas along the Mexican border, many miles from the hip-hop epicenters of New York and Los Angeles. But he tuned into Yo! MTV Raps religiously and nourished himself on a musical diet of NWA, Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest. Later on, he started playing guitar and veered off into the worlds of rock and, eventually, funk — but hip-hop stayed engraved in his aesthetic sensibilities.
Although not quite as old-school as the Wu-Tang Clan, Grupo Fantasma are music scene veterans in their own right. The band was formed in 2000 by a group of Austin funk musicians interested in bringing back the Afro-Latin orchestral sound to a live setting, and have become a local powerhouse ever since. Along the way, they picked up a Grammy for “Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album” for their 2010 Nat Geo record El Existencial. They also spun off a second band with the same members, called Brownout, as an outlet for releasing straight-ahead funk cuts. And it’s not their first whirl acting as a backing band – Fantasma spent some time playing for Prince in Las Vegas a few years back.
Quesada says that even though they don’t do hip-hop, his band’s Latin funk pedigree makes them well-suited for performing Liquid Swords. “Early Wu-Tang stuff is all funk and soul samples. And for us, because we have a funk band and a Latin band, we hear funk and Latin as the same thing,” says Quesada. “We hear the underlying Afro-Latin sounds in the funk, and we hear the underlying funkiness in Latin music.”
However, recreating Liquid Swords wasn’t exactly easy. The original beats from the 1995 album were expertly composed by RZA, who put layered soul samples from different sources to create a grimy, almost sinister, urban soundscape. The result was a fitting backdrop for GZA’s labyrinthine flow and digressions into samurai philosophy. But they were never designed with the musician in mind, assembled without regard to keys or tonal centers.
“It’s amazing and beautiful to have those samples together, but if you have a live band playing it, it just sounds like you are all out of tune,” says Quesada. “If you try to recreate exactly as it is, some of this stuff doesn’t work live.”
Instead of playing the tracks note for note, they put together their own versions based on the originals, fleshing out certain sections and adding searing horn arrangements on top. Quesada, says that his intention was to play everything in straight boom-bap style, but GZA actually requested the band to inject some Latin flavors. They added a cumbia breakdown to the end of “Stringplay,” off GZA’s 1999 album Beneath The Surface. Although GZA admits he’s not super familiar with Latin music, he says he’s a big fan and got the idea of adding some Latin sounds from hearing Nile Rogers and Chic perform a salsafied version of “We Are Family” once upon a time.
While putting a live band behind a hip-hop artist is nothing new, the GZA x Grupo Fantasma collaboration takes it to another level by pairing a hip-hop icon with a real, standalone band, rather than a bunch of studio musicians for hire. “To be honest, I will say I’ve been disappointed by a lot of hip-hop shows,” says Quesada. “I’ve been let down often by a lack of attention to detail. I think GZA is putting some serious thought and energy into his show. By adding a live band, there’s an element of danger, excitement, and improvisation.”
GZA concurs, “There’s nothing like seeing and hearing a band perform live.”
No firm plans have been made, but both GZA and Grupo Fantasma say they hope to continue to play together, and maybe even get into the studio. GZA has been promising a Liquid Swords sequel for a while, but he let slide that there’s another project coming before that one.
“Liquid Swords 2 is definitely coming, I’ve already started writing it. But before then I’m going to drop Liquid Swords 1.5, which is a version of the original with live music and some new lyrics,” said GZA.
GZA didn’t confirm that the live element would come from Grupo, but it sure seems like a distinct possibility. As for Grupo, it seems like the GZA collaboration has started their wheels turning as well.
“We’ve been talking about mixing cumbia with Wu-Tang and put out an EP called Cu-Tang,” said Quesada. “Damn, I shouldn’t have told you that, hopefully nobody will steal that idea now.”