With GZA’s Liquid Swords turning 20 this year – BeatDust caught up with legendary comic book artist and television producer Denys Cowan to reflect on his work on one of the most quintessential cover arts in hip hop history.
Chess is not only a game of intellect but also a metaphor for the importance of incorporating strategic thinking as a necessary process for making the right moves in life. It is a game that can not be won or lost on the random roll of a dice, or the whim of the wind – it takes minutes to learn – but a lifetime to master. Like chess, The Genius’s 1995 release Liquid Swords is rife with both quick wit and critical thought and whether its with sixteen bars or sixteen pieces – GZA bodies the competition.
Building upon the foundation laid down with 36 Chambers, the Liquid Swords LP is a claustrophobic journey into the dark and dirty world of New York hip hop. Littered with samples from the movie Shogun Assassin – RZA’s shaded beats in addition to GZA’s vivid wordplay give the release a grandiose cinematic feel that critics and fans are still captivated by nearly 20 years after its release. As sharp as the music was on the ears – Liquid Swords also contained the swift visuals of Denys Cowan – whose acute and on point pen work has become as iconic as the music itself.
The origins of the Liquid Swords cover art dates back to 1992 – three years before the albums release. In interview with the Bishop Chronicles podcast, GZA stated “I was actually playing Masta Killa in a game of chess..I was smoking weed, and you know how you smoke weed, you start really getting all these thoughts and you start analyzing shit, and I started drawing the pieces how they were on the board like in that position…then I just started imagining how, ‘What if this knight had a guillotine in his hand? What if this person had this sword swinging?’ And I just thought of this whole war scene on the chessboard.” Initially proposed for the cover art for ‘Da Mystery of Chessboxing’ single from Wu Tang’s 36 Chambers, GZA thought the artistic concept would be undervalued – instead keeping it for his own solo release and reached out to Milestone Media Founder/Creative Director and chief artist Denys Cowan to take his brainchild to the next level.
Recounting on how he got involved with the project, Cowan tells BeatDust “if i remember correctly, the art director for the the label that GZA was on [Geffen/MCA] may have suggested me to them – at least he took credit for it!. After the initial contact, GZA and the art director came to my studio to discuss the concept.” Through sparring minds with GZA, Cowan was able to put pen to pad and slowly bring to life the ideas GZA smoked up in his hazy chess catalepsy some 3 years earlier. “GZA had several ideas about what he wanted for the cover art, he was very involved and very open to other ideas too” explains Cowan. “He wanted a chess game with the queen, he wanted to have the bladed weapons on the cover, he also wanted to make sure we could see the WU logo, he wanted the jeweled crown, everything on the cover means something – [there are just so] many symbols”.
If as ‘Chessboxin’ made famous – “the game of chess is like a swordfight, you must think first before you move” – then Cowan proves that his pen is mightier than the sword. His work deftly flirts across genres, with elements of urban, mysticism and manga art captured in painstaking detail throughout the Liquid Swords artworks.“I worked up a bunch of drawings” explained Cowan. “Pen and ink sketches on the layout bond and illustration board, I’m sure I did some of them while he was at the studio. What surprised me was that The GZA liked a lot of the concept art and wanted to use it as raw and sketchy as it was. Most were done directly in pen and never intended to be seen by anyone! That’s the art you see for the interior cd/book – the fight on the chessboard and the kids in the oversized shirts, all that”.
Much like the music, Cowan’s front cover artwork has a distinct cinematic quality – soaked in a violent, dark, film noir style. Encapsulating the themes and tones of classic comic book art – Cowan’s finished work was completed by established artists, with Denys noting “the cover was inked comic-book style by Prentis Rollins and Jason Scott Jones did the cover color”. The Liquid Swords artworks also contains a technique unique to or at the very least innovated by comics – with the Genius and Wu Tang logos integrated and displayed throughout the action. The GZA’s divergence of the traditional Wu Tang Clan logo was rendered by Wu Tang producer and live DJ Allah Mathematics – who is also an accomplished graphic artist.
Twenty years after its initial release, BeatDust was keen to ask Denys how he feels in regards to the album [and his artworks] legacy. “It was an amazing experience” reflects Cowan. “The GZA is relentlessly creative and I love the album. I’m very proud to have contributed to Liquid Swords and to be a small part of the Wu family”. Whether to be played on continuous rotation or to be dusted up like a fine wine, visually and sonically – Liquid Swords is a timeless masterpiece that deserves its place on any hip hoppers shelf.
Peace to Denys Cowan for helping out with this piece. Keep in touch with Denys on his Twitter & Facebook page. Also, do your eyes a favor and check out his other stunning artworks at his personal website.
To celebrate Liquid Swords two decades of audio awesome sauce, BeatDust’s resident producer Coffin Joe reimagined GZA’s classic ‘Shadowboxin’ track featuring Method Man: