Concert + Chessboxing Review: GZA at The Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto (2023.03.17)


Back in 2020, The GZA (a.k.a. The Genius) of the Wu-Tang Clan had embarked on the 25th Anniversary Tour for his classic 1995 solo album, Liquid Swords. While the tour started off well and he put on one of the sharpest performances Toronto has ever seen from him that January at The Phoenix Concert Theatre, the COVID-19 pandemic of course made its way into North America later that year, and several tour dates had to be cancelled. Now rescheduling all of those cancelled tour dates, GZA decided to run it back and give Toronto another show while he’s out on the road again, and so we find ourselves back here at The Phoenix Concert Theatre, celebrating one of the greatest releases from the Wu-Tang Clan, solo or otherwise. To some, it feels like yesterday when we were here rocking with The GZA without any knowledge of how serious the pandemic would be, which makes this “Protect Ya Neck” quote feel quite appropriate:

“Wu-Tang again??
Aww yeah, again and again!!”

On a Friday night in Toronto where fans of classic Hip-Hop had to choose between seeing Jeru The Damaja at Hard Luck Bar or The GZA at The Phoenix Concert Theatre, you couldn’t go wrong with either choice. For those who chose Wu-Tang, GZA would have a special treat in store, with a unique performance lined up that would be different from even his last Liquid Swords tour. After having seen him perform live more than a dozen times over the years, I decided to upgrade to a VIP ticket this time for a rare opportunity to see GZA in his element doing his second passion: playing chess. VIPs would get a meet-and-greet with GZA before the show, and an even higher upgrade would get you a slot to actually play chess against The Genius in a timed match.

Me vs GZA

Chess is obviously a huge part of GZA’s repertoire as an emcee, with his lyrics often filled with wordplay related to the game, and even the album art for Liquid Swords having a chess theme to it. Not to mention his highly underrated fifth solo album, 2005’s Grandmasters being entirely chess themed throughout. GZA even takes a similar approach to writing his raps as he does to playing chess, as he’s known to be a deep thinker who takes his time to write with precision, similar to how a chess player needs to think before they move. “I don’t waste ink, n**** I think / I drop megaton bombs more faster than you blink!”

A table and a chess board was set up as GZA entered the VIP lounge, and the fans gathered around to watch the matches with some Jazz music playing in the background. Playing competitive chess versus playing with fans must be different for GZA, as he’ll play down to your level and give you chances to make moves, but will still go for the win in the end. I was one of a handful of fans he methodically destroyed one by one, my particular match being a slaughter with only a few pawns surviving with my king as my time ran out. Even though he kicked all our asses, he still made sure the game was enjoyable for the fans, pointing out fatal mistakes and talking through strategies during the game. “Are you sure you want to move your knight there without any protection?” I was honestly more struck by the moment of playing against one of my heroes than the game itself.

Following the chess matches would be a meet-and-greet, as fans lined up to get autographs and take pictures with The GZA. Plenty of fans had vinyl records, CDs, cassettes and t-shirts for GZA to sign. For me, it was a humble moment shaking his hand and telling him how Liquid Swords fundamentally changed the way I listen to music when I first heard it as a teenager.

While the chessboxing and meet-and-greet was going on in the VIP lounge, the general admission fans were filling up the main area of the club, and Brampton native Raz Fresco was warming up the stage. By the time we joined the party, the house was already packed, and Raz Fresco was nearing the end of his set. Having also opened for GZA at the last show in 2020, Raz has since flooded his fans with a ton of new material, including a nine-part series of albums called Magneto Was Right, 2021’s ALKMY, and 2022’s Marvelous Right Wrist. He had the crowd moving with a bunch of his new songs being performed for the first time, although he was just wrapping up with the song “Black Is Infinity” as we were finding a good place to stand.

After a short break would be one last opener before GZA hit the stage, the Detroit-based Wu-Tang affiliate, Lazarus. I didn’t know much about Lazarus going into this show but can say he has an interesting story, growing up in a post-9/11 America with Pakistani roots, and earning his medical degree at the same time as building up his rap career. He’d introduce himself on stage by his legal name, Dr. Khan, and would proudly talk about his work with NASA to premiere an upcoming song from aboard the International Space Station. Of course he’d slay the mic with vicious battle raps as well, combining Wu-Tang’s swordsman-like approach to lyricism with Detroit’s love for hard-hitting punchlines. He’d spit some verses acapella to really show off his bars, and got the crowd hyped with songs like the Ghostface Killah-assisted “Decapitation Chamber.”

There would be another break between artists, as the band Phunky Nomads got their gear set up, and pretty soon it was time for them to bring out The GZA. Leading the band would be the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s older brother, Ramsey Jones, who would introduce himself and the band before getting behind the drums to start the show. The band would play a funky intro with the beat from Kool G Rap’s “Men At Work” before the Liquid Swords skit with the sample from the 1980 film Shogun Assassin played, and we all knew what time it was.


Unlike last time where GZA had DJ Symphony backing him with a more traditional Hip-Hop approach, The Phunky Nomads added new life to the beats with their live instrumentation, as they played “Duel Of The Iron Mic” and GZA came out to rap all three verses on the song. The transitions between songs were fluid as the band moved seamlessly into “Gold” followed by “Living In The World Today,” with GZA masterfully timing his raps to leave spaces for the crowd to shout out lyrics. They may have started playing the Liquid Swords album slightly out of order, but the next few songs would be perfectly in sequence, going from tracks 5-8 on the album. GZA’s innovative lyricism on “Labels” shined as the live instrumentation gave the beat an extra kick with every line he rapped. “4th Chamber” and “Shadowboxing” stood out as obvious fan favourites, the crowd finishing GZA’s lines for him and helping him cover Method Man’s verses.

GZA would throw us a curve ball, tossing in a Wu-Tang classic “Clan In Da Front” between Liquid Swords tracks, but would continue on with the album by performing the graphic street tale “Killah Hills 10304.” Having now performed 8 of the 13 tracks from the album, GZA decided to move on through the years and take us to other parts of his discography, giving an energetic performance of 1999’s “Crash Your Crew.” Ramsey’s drumming especially stood out on this track, as GZA incorporated the drum pattern into his flow and rocked his verse twice to different tempos, then brought the energy up with that hype ODB hook. Next he’d move on to 2002’s Legend Of The Liquid Sword album, taking a seat at the front of the stage to perform the more relaxed “Animal Planet,” followed by the title track off the album.

The Phunky Nomads would continue to share the spotlight equally with GZA, as he’d step off the stage and make room for the band’s DJ PhearNone to pull out a violin and perform a solo. Sharp fans could catch the subtle references within the violin solo, as it eventually turned into the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Reunited,” the band timing the beat-drop perfectly to when GZA returned and kicked off his opening verse. Adding the live violin to this song made it that much more epic, as the band was able to remix the beat and give it a more militant sound. The keyboard would be the next instrument to shine, as they played that classic riff from Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” and GZA gave an inspired tribute to his late cousin, performing both verses of the song and doing a great imitation of ODB’s cadences.

Living up to their name, The Phunky Nomads would next get into a funk groove, performing a cover of 1973’s “For The Love Of Money” by The O’Jays. With both money and Wu-Tang now on the mind, GZA would then perform the best song he had to fit the theme they were heading towards, “C.R.E.A.M.,” the crowd immediately recognizing and joining in for that classic hook. It started off as a typical performance by GZA as he got the crowd to help him cover both Raekwon’s and Inspectah Deck’s verses, but then he’d flip the script by adding a third verse, performing his own Grandmasters cut “Destruction Of A Guard” word for word over the “C.R.E.A.M.” beat. He’d stay in that Wu-Tang chamber, next getting the crowd to help him cover Inspectah Deck’s verse on “Triumph” before performing his own verse, plus a cover of ODB’s verse from “Shame On A N****” over the “Triumph” beat.

GZA would take a bit of a break to talk to the fans and sign autographs, as plenty of fans in the crowd were holding up vinyl records and CDs for him to sign. He’d shout out all the fans who recently came out and saw the Clan perform on The N.Y. State Of Mind Tour with Nas last summer and reminded us that they’re running it back with a second tour later this year, performing at bigger venues.

Getting back to a final few songs before ending the show, GZA would next perform the title track off of Liquid Swords, with the live guitars adding a ton of extra energy to the song and the fans knowing every word to rap along to. With the energy levels high, they’d continue on into a cover of “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta F Wit,” with GZA doing a cover of both RZA and Inspectah Deck’s verses with a lot of crowd participation. GZA would then thank the crowd once again and say peace, putting the mic down to sign more autographs as PhearNone closed out the show with a freestyle rap over his own violin solo – making the extremely difficult and skillful task look easy. The crowd definitely appreciated the talent on stage as well as the extra love they got from GZA.

PhearNone & GZA

Overall, this was another epic GZA performance that effectively celebrated the classic music released by both himself and the Wu-Tang Clan. While his 2020 performance had a deeper setlist with DJ Symphony backing him, this 2023 performance was still incredible to see, as The Phunky Nomads brought a different energy to these classic beats. The band had great synergy with The GZA, and the live instrumentation added new life to the songs, which still resonate with the fans all these years later. GZA comes off as a humble emcee who’s still thankful for all his fans, as he takes that extra time to sign autographs even for those who didn’t pay for the meet-and-greet, and makes sure the fans are enjoying the time with him. While the fans may be getting too old to jump around and mosh like they used to, the passion for the music can still be felt, as we were just as much a part of the performance with the way GZA had us shouting out lyrics with him.

GZA will return to Toronto with the Wu-Tang Clan and Nas on The N.Y. State Of Mind Tour October 1st at Scotiabank Arena. Get your tickets here!

Special thank you to F7 Entertainment and Nightshift Entertainment for putting this show together!

Check out this playlist of Wu-Tang concert videos from all the times I’ve seen them over the years.

Check out the SYpherSights Youtube channel for more concert videos.

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