In the mid-1970s, Gary Grice and his cousin Robert — ages 11 and 8, respectively — traveled for hours by ferry, train, and bus from Staten Island to the Bronx. They set out to glimpse an emerging art known for swirling graffiti, aggressive, hypnotic "break" dance moves, and spoken-word poetry shouted over beats from old LPs. "There were MC's everywhere," Grice told a packed RISD Auditorium last week. "At that time, we knew we had found our calling."
These days, Gary and Robert — known widely as GZA and RZA, founding members of Wu-Tang Clan — have had their names etched in the pantheon of hip-hop greats. And as part of perhaps the first generation of rappers to endure mid-life crises (GZA is 46), they've set out in search of the new. RZA is an actor and director whose first feature, The Man with the Iron Fists, was released by Universal Studios last month. GZA, meanwhile, has taken to touring colleges including Harvard and MIT to deliver lectures like the one in Providence, grandly titled, "Dark Matter: A Presentation On the Discovery of Hip-Hop, Physics, and the Universe."
The event was hosted by RISD's STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) Club and from the beginning, GZA made it clear that he represents the "A." Despite his stage name "Genius," he cedes expertise about quarks and pulsars to the absent members of his crew: MIT physics and history of science professor David Kaiser and astrophysicist and Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson, both of whom he's been consulting of late.
But GZA, himself, is an unapologetic nerd. "I've always been fascinated by astronomy and physics," he says. Trading swagger for curiosity, he muses about the diameter of the universe and the trillions of atoms on a fingertip. And at times during his sprawling remarks, he rings off awestruck questions, rapid-fire. "How do you get paper from trees?" "How do you get glass from sand?" "How does light produce so many different colors?" "How does this microphone work?"
Technically, his appearance is packaged around the announcement that, starting in the new year, GZA will partner with a Columbia University professor in a pilot program using hip-hop to teach science in selected New York City public schools. It's about finding another approach to building self-esteem, GZA says. "I mean, I never saw a scientist who was depressed."
But GZA never strays far from his roots. He peppers his remarks with brash, raspy verses from his own catalogue, including a song comparing a woman to a car called "0% Finance" from a 2008 solo album. ("In her tank she loved to stash my tool/I kept her full, super-unleaded fuel.") And when he begins taking questions from the crowd, the lecture veers toward a State of Hip-Hop address. "Most rappers, nowadays, they respect objects before they respect beings," he says. At another point, he calls profanity a "filler" used in excess by lesser lyricists.
Ever the impresario, he uses the rapt audience to build a bit of hype for his album, Dark Matter, due in early 2013. It's a concept album offering nothing less than a "cosmic journey through the universe," he explains
He drops a few verses from a song called "Big Bang" that — by rhyming "unfurling" and "swirling," "vibrate" and gyrate" — makes the void of outer space sound vaguely sweaty and sexual. When it ends, the room explodes with applause and shouts of "Wu-Tang! Wu-Tang!" After the auditorium empties, a pack of students swirls around the rapper, with glowing smartphones raised to snap pictures. The man has gravitational pull.