“People are smoking blunts, smoking dust. People have weapons out, long sharp knives, big scissors that you cut bushes with. It was just crazy.”
When S.H. Fernando Jr., better known as “Skiz,” entered Sterling Sound Studios in Manhattan in 1995, he arrived not just as a journalist. Granted, his credentials as a writer were strong: Skiz was already a regular contributor to The Source and Vibe, while his first book “The New Beats: Exploring the Music, Culture & Attitudes of Hip-Hop,” published in 1994, helped solidify his reputation as a forward-thinking voice in contemporary rap.
But on that day, he was also a fan getting a chance to hang out with one of his favorite artists. And while sitting in on the chaotic mastering sessions for GZA’s Liquid Swords, he would become part of one of hip-hop’s all time greatest albums—not as himself, but as the mysterious “Mr. Greico” on “Killah Hills 10304.” In this exclusive interview, Skiz talks with Get On Down about the making of Liquid Swords, his role on the album, and why you should never cross RZA in a drug deal, real or fake.
What was the anticipation like for GZA’s album before it was released?
I was covering it for Rolling Stone, so that should tell you a little bit about the level of interest. After 36 Chambers, it was Meth’s album, then ODB, then Raekwon. Each successive album pushed the ante even higher. Meth’s album came out it was huge. Then ODB’s album comes out and it’s even bigger. Then Rae’s album comes out and it’s…that’s when the wave was just building. There was a lot of anticipation on GZA’s album, especially because he is one of the most respected lyricists in the Clan and he had been in the industry before so people were already checking for him. His verses were totally scientific. He knows how to really tell a story and get down into the nitty gritty. And not just crime stories like Raekwon. GZA is the oldest member so he has a lot more perspective and maturity.
I just remember the vibe on the streets was huge. Anyone and everyone was watching to see what the next album was. GZA being the fourth solo release that came out, it was almost at the crest of the wave of popularity. I think it did pretty well. I don’t think it had any hits like Method Man’s album. But definitely the heads appreciated it and it was a whole other beast. The fact that GZA is still touring off that album twenty years later tells you something about it.
How were you able to get in the studio with GZA and RZA?
I was writing at the time for The Source and Vibe and Rolling Stone. I reviewed Liquid Swords for Rolling Stone. There was no real need to interview Genius for it because I was just doing an album review but I just used the Rolling Stone name to get in there and hang out with them for a few days, because I was a big Wu-Tang fan. So basically I went to the studio with him and hung out with him and with RZA. Masta Killah, Killah Priest and a couple other guys who I didn’t know were also there. I just happened to be in the mastering session for the album, at a place called Sterling Sound in Manhattan.
Wu-Tang were doing all the skits at the mastering session. And what they ended up doing was all the little vocal snippets come from a movie called Shogun Assassin. So basically they ended up watching the whole movie at the mastering studio and they were grabbing bits of vocals from it, and mind you at the time it cost basically like $350 an hour to rent that place. So they were watching a movie that they had already seen like a million times, they were watching it again in the mastering session and paying those fees.
How did you happen to get on the skit for “Killah Hills 10304”?
We are all in there watching this movie pulling out vocal snippets. For that one song, they wanted to do a skit. They needed someone who didn’t sound like them and I just happened to be in the studio. I had been on another skit that Prince Paul did for the Gravediggaz album called “Diary of a Madman,” and RZA was part of that group too. I first met RZA through Prince Paul and he remembered me from the Gravediggaz session. He asked me, ‘We need someone to play this Spanish drug dealer—how about you?’ I said OK, what do you want me to say? And basically he said we’re going to act it out and just go with the flow.
So basically they are acting out this drug deal and all these people are mentioned. In the skit it’s a drug deal gone bad. He asks me, “Do you know Don Rodriguez from the Bronx? Your man Don is down at the precinct singing like a fucking soprano!” and when he said that he grabbed me by the throat and was screaming it at me! And I was like “Do you believe him?” [choked voice]. We were all just ad-libbing. It was a little scary at the time because I was surrounded by all these guys—Killah Priest, Masta Killa—and I didn’t know them too well. Masta Killa had a reputation for beating people up at the time, especially journalists. There was a friend of mine who had written an article on Wu Tang in Rap Pages and Masta Killa didn’t like the drawing that went along with it. So the next time he saw him, he kind of punched him out. I’m in the middle of all these guys and RZA’s grabbing me by the throat!
Was the original skit longer?
No, that was pretty much it. He wanted Spanish, but I don’t know what my accent was [laughs]. I picked the name—I thought let me be Greek. So ok, your name is “Greico” [laughs].
The way Liquid Swords is put together, it seems like RZA would have constructed this whole backstory for Mr. Greico and Don Rodriguez and Bobby Steels, but it seems like it was the total opposite…
That’s the way they work. RZA’s whole style is just chaotic and he was at the center of it. A lot of accidents would happen on the fly and they just ran with it. I think it’s a cool way of working because when you’re open to everything, cool things will happen. Especially in the studio, RZA was a master of harnessing that chaos and the accidents and all the things that weren’t supposed to happen, and he made it work and fit into an album. To me that some of the magic of what happens in the studio. If you go in with a plan, it doesn’t always end up that way. But if you go in with an open mind, cool things can happen.
What was the atmosphere like in the studio during the mastering sessions?
Like I said, it was very chaotic. Half the people you don’t know who they are. You know the main people, but then who are all these other people? People are smoking blunts, smoking dust. People have weapons out, long sharp knives, big scissors that you cut bushes with. It was just crazy. But it was totally interesting. Being a fly on the wall in a situation like that is amazing because now you realize some twenty years later these were all classic albums being made and I was right there. I wish I had a video camera, I could have gotten some really cool stuff, but I’ll always remember that time. I mean, RZA grabbing me by the throat…
As you saw the album being put together, did you know it was going to have the impact that it did?
I knew it was classic stuff. I myself being a fan and hearing the album during mastering, I was like ‘Woah, this is over the top.’ No one has used all these rock samples on a hip hop album before, unless you count RUN-DMC and Aerosmith, but this is in a whole different way. This is a really dark, aggressive album and I knew it was going to be huge.
How did you react the first time you heard your skit on the finished album?
I was tickled to death. I knew at the time, right then and there, I was a little piece of history there. I knew this album was going to be a serious banger and I knew that I’d have this cool little story to tell people about it years later.
How did your friends and colleagues react when they heard you on there?
I don’t tell a lot of people about it. I told a couple people but it’s not something that I went around telling people. It meant more something to me because i’m a huge Wu-Tang fan and to be able to say I’m on one of those albums…it’s just a cool thing being a fan and a journalist and a musician myself.
What’s it like now when you see the Clan?
I saw Genius perform recently. Every time I see him perform, the first thing he says is “Mr. Greico!” I’m always like, “Yo Justice, where’s my royalty check? It’s been a long time!” All of those guys still remember me from that. I saw them a month ago in Williamsburg and that was the first thing Masta Killa said to me–”Mr. Greico!”
In 1994, Skiz founded Word Sound Recordings. The label would go on to release over 60 albums, including Prince Paul’s solo debut LP “Psychoanalysis” and music by Skiz’s alter-ego Spectre. Since then, Skiz has tackled various projects—including directing a documentary on the new music scene in Rio De Janiero called “Made in Brasil,” and writing a cookbook of traditional Sri Lankan recipes—while continuing to release new music. He lives in Baltimore.
Find out more at wordsound.com
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Special Thanks to Martin Caballero