GZA Wu-Tang forever.
COURTESY OF LIFE OR DEATH PR

IT'S THE eternal barstool argument question: "What's the best album ever released under the Wu-Tang Clan umbrella?"

There are plenty of options.

Sentimentalists would no doubt go to bat for the group's landmark debut, 1993's Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), which signaled hiphop's East Coast renaissance in the '90s. Those who want bang for their buck might battle for 1997's best-selling double-album Wu-Tang Forever.

And then there are the solo records: Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... for the crime-scene fetishists. Ghostface Killah's twin peaks, Ironman and Supreme Clientele, for rap's tech-geeks. Maybe Method Man's Tical or ODB's Return to the 36 Chambers, if you weigh charisma over pure flow.

There's no empirical proof that GZA's 1995 classic Liquid Swords is better than all of the above, though plenty believe it's the greatest Wu-related record ever made. But it would be hard to argue that any record more staunchly and succinctly captures Wu-Tang's aesthetic: soul samples reworked into murky, hard-knock beats; complex, clever rhymes centered around crime and philosophy; interspersed martial-arts film clips; and an unrelentingly dark tone. Liquid Swords is a tightly wound masterpiece.

GZA, who spoke to the Mercury just before a Wu-Tang show in Denver, has been doing full Liquid Swords shows—like the one he'll do this weekend in Portland—for years. He has dialed in a favorite track ("Duel of the Iron Mic"), and these days, at age 48, he's able to look back and identify the seeds of the album's success.

"This was a time when I was just... coming back off a deal that wasn't so great for me," he says. "It was kinda like a down point before going into Wu-Tang. It was like I didn't really have a deal yet. So it was just a thirst and a hunger. A fresh start. A new beginning."

At Portland's Project Pabst festival, GZA will be backed by a full band that will bring a "different type of energy" to an album some old hiphop heads have heard thousands of times, he says.

"I usually have the verse parts calm and cool, and on the hook I just rock 'em out," GZA says, laughing. "All the hooks, just rock 'em out, and back to the verse, it's back to the Liquid Swords feel again. It's an interesting contrast."

It's worth noting that GZA's bona fide classic turns 20 years old next year. He's made four albums since and is working on the fifth, the long-awaited physics-themed concept record Dark Matter. ("It's stronger than anything I've ever done, lyrically," he says.) He's prepping for the release of Wu-Tang's sixth album, A Better Tomorrow, due later this year. He works to improve science education in New York and speaks at prestigious universities.

And he's human. So while GZA understands the love for Liquid Swords, sometimes he'd like for the rest of the world to move on, at least for a while.

"I never looked at it how others looked at the art. Everyone has their own understanding of it or what it's done for them or how it moved or motivated or inspired them. There are many stories about this album and its connection to people," he says. "But Liquid Swords is done already. All I can do is perform it. Performing it live is a great thing, but I'm working on other music and I can't wait to get some of the other stuff done and perform that."