The song: “Shadowboxin'”
The producer: The RZA
The science: It’s one of the most timeless and fun-to-discuss, never-to-be-resolved hip-hop debates out there: “Which Wu-tang solo album is the best?” People will argue all day about it, and based on the many, many conversations I’ve had about it, Only Built for Cuban Linx… gets the most nods. But my choice is GZA’s Liquid Swords, not just for GZA’s rhyming (which is top notch), but for RZA’s production.
Of course, RZA was killing it back then, and basically anything that said “Produced by the RZA” was going to have a banging beat. But the consistency of GZA’s album, the steady feel of the whole thing, really showed RZA’s skill. It wasn’t just an album full of good beats, it was an album with a real texture to it all the way through–dreary, eerie, a bit glum, a bit surly, a bit moody.
Composition-wise, RZA wasn’t just catching great loops (the “Cruisin’” loop for “Liquid Swords,” the “I’m Afraid the Masquerade Is Over” loop for “Duel of the Iron Mic”), he was doing some slick chopping as well. The perfect example: Slicing riffs out of Ann Peebles’ “Troubles, Heartaches, and Sadness”:
And turning them into the beat for “Shadowboxin’”
As most hip-hop heads already know, RZA was a pioneer of the whole sped-up soul sample technique that Kanye later bludgeoned to death. “Shadowboxin’” is a great demonstration of how great the sampling method could be in his hands.
The Ann Peebles song is s-l-o-w. This wasn’t a case of “flip it on 45 so I can dance to it,” it was a case of “flip it on 45 so I can rap to it.” But then came the issue of the loop: The record doesn’t really have a clean one of the basic groove. So RZA chopped out two different pieces, put them together, and created the loop. As a bonus, the little vocal clip that came at the end of the loops sounded like a child saying “oh, man,” as though impressed with the verses of GZA and guest Method Man (who contributes by far some of the best rhymes of his career). If you listen to the beat back-to-back with the original song, it’s easy to hear the pieces RZA took, but to have the creativity to take those pieces out in the first place is what made RZA RZA back then.