GZA, NDT, and How to Craft Good Science Rap
As a Mad Art Lab contributor and its sole musician (self-proclaimed, anyway — there are a few musical Labbers who are still in the closet), I have heard a lot of science music. A good deal of it makes me insanely happy, as the artist finds a way to communicate complicated ideas through poetic language and witty connections. But another good deal of it is pretty bad. I’ve talked about this at length in past posts, but for a brief overview: it seems that the complex principles and big words inherent to science make finding the poetry within it a high bar to meet.
In December, Neil deGrasse Tyson brought Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA (pronounced “Jizza,” FYI) onto his StarTalk podcast to talk about the way he interweaves astronomy principles into his rhymes. Though he dropped out of school in 10th grade, the nearly 50-year-old GZA recently began to foster a love of cosmology and quantum theory, and started collaborating with experts and applying his considerable talents to making music on the topic (he’s currently working on a science-infused album called Dark Matter).
When NDT talks to him about it, it’s clear that GZA knows exactly what makes bad science music bad and what to do to make it artistic and moving. A few of my favorite lines, abridged for focus:
NDT: You got my whole astrophysics vocabulary oozing out of your rap lyrics. How does that happen? I love it, I just want to understand it.
GZA: Just an interest in science and planets and the universe.
NDT: Well, plenty of people are interested in it, but it just doesn’t infiltrate.
GZA: Well, you know, I’m an artist first…I always thought as an MC, growing up, it’s always been about being lyrical for us…It was always about being lyrical and writing the tightest lyric and the sharpest lyric and being witty. Also incorporating things around us, anything we can incorporate to music.
NDT: Were your earliest songs that way?
GZA: Some of our lyrics, we went there. One time RZA had this rhyme, it was about conception, being born. It was a line about, “When my mind flashed back to an eerie move, when I was just a sperm cell in a fallopian tube.” He was about 13 then.
NDT: So, in Brooklyn, if you start taking an interest in the universe–and there are other rhymers, rappers–you had to be a little weird for doing that. Isn’t that right? It can’t have been normal.
GZA: It comes off as not being normal to most. It depends on how you deliver it. If I’m delivering it in a way where I’m like, “Earth is the third planet. And the sun shines light…”
NDT: That doesn’t play.
GZA: But if it’s in a way where you’re saying, “My universe runs like clockwork forever, my words will pull together, sudden change in the weather, the nature and the scale of events don’t make sense, a storm with no warning and you’re drawn in by immense gravity has gone mad, clouds of dust and debris, moving at colossal speeds, they crush an MC.” So you speak about the universe and planets, but you still incorporate the element of MCing.
They go on to talk about how astrophysics vocabulary is uniquely suited to lyricism. Watch the interview below (I set it to start at the relevant spot, but the whole 35-minute podcast is worth watching):