Kings Gambit: On the 65th Square with Wu-Tang's GZA
What would happen if you took one of the world's greatest rappers and put him in the studio with one of the greatest producers? Then lets say you left a chessboard in the studio with them?
The end result: "Muggs Vs. GZA Grandmasters". It's a new groundbreaking CD that blends Hip-Hop and chess principles.
Of all of the chess players in Hip-Hop, none seem to be as passionate as GZA from the Wu-Tang Clan. The Wu-Tang Clan is responsible for a majority of chess philosophy in Hip-Hop today. World renown producer DJ Muggs from Cypress Hill also carries a passion for the 64 squares of eternal combat. Their latest release “Muggs Vs. GZA: Grandmasters” is in stores now and is in my opinion a musical masterpiece.
GZA is arguably one of the rap world's most intelligent and artistic MC’s ever. His demeanor like flow is calm, clever and consistent. In this interview we talk about the making of the “Grandmasters” LP, how he came to love chess and of course - his ridiculous rhyme style. Big props to Miranda Jane, Chace, Muggs and the entire Angeles Records fam for helping to make this happen.
Adisa Banjoko: I have been fascinated with the relationship between Hip Hop and chess for years. So, obviously when I heard about the creation of “Grandmasters” I was excited. Tell me how this album was made.
GZA: I had gotten a few tracks from Muggs. We had talked before about doing an album. We worked on a few “Soul Assassins’ project. He came to NY about a year ago and he played for me. I took them home. Then I came out to LA to record them. I recorded the album in about eight days. I only had three written when I went out there. Because I take a lot of notes, but not everything was in song form. I worked every day.
AB: Did you have the chess idea before you recorded? Or did the chess concept come later?
GZA: I said to myself about two years ago “Chess is so crazy, I could do a whole album on chess”. But I did not wanna do it in an obvious way. Every song would not be “King, Queen” – that’s a simple way of doing things.
In a lot of things that I rhyme about I mention war, and other concepts that are related to chess. So, I thought about it. When we recorded the album we played chess in the studio everyday. When I arrived, there was a chessboard in the studio. I did not know if they had it there because they knew I loved it, or did they play. I was playing chess with the engineer, the assistant engineer and with Muggs. I also played with the studio manager.
When the album was done, Muggs had the idea of calling it “Grandmasters”. I thought the idea was great because I consider Muggs a Grandmaster producer and I consider myself a Grandmaster MC. We still did not have hooks for the songs though. All the chess stuff came last. That’s usually how I work.
AB: Do you remember when chess moved from just something you like to actually becoming a personal passion?
GZA: It was something I learned when I was a kid. It was 1975. I was about nine years old I think. My cousin taught me. The pieces were glass, like a lavender-pink, and a yellowish gold. Almost like neon. He taught me. It was the only game I played that night. I never forgot the names of the pieces or how they moved.
I didn’t play anymore until 1992. I never played again until 92. I started playing then and that’s when the passion came. I started playing with Masta Killa, Jeru the Damaja, Afu- Ra, RZA. It was funny because my whole childhood with RZA, chess was never a part of that. I don’t know when he learned. But we were always around one another – all our lives. We played cards, dice, monopoly, checkers – we grew up together. But us playing chess together did not happen until Wu-Tang.
A lot of those times back in the day those guys were beating up on me on the chessboards. I started learning from them, but then I didn’t pick up a book until 2002! I forget what the first one was called, I think it was called “Beginning Chess”. When I picked it up, I said to myself “I been playin’ chess from 92 to 02 and I now realize I don’t know sh*t about chess”. Isn’t that f***ed up?
AB: That happened to me. I got the Chessmaster 10th Edition video game and I never knew anything about the general principles and all that stuff. All that “Knights before bishops” I never knew that.
GZA: Amazing isn’t it? I didn’t know anything about a tempo, or losing time. I was able to take what I got from that and win a couple games.
AB: One of the things that impressed me with this album was your ability to take stories and wrap them around chess concepts. Like, “Exploitation of Mistakes”.
GZA: That came later to. The album was done. Muggs had the title of the album. But other than All In together Now, and Those That’s Bout it, I wanted the rest to be about chess. So, I wrote down all of these chess terms, and I picked the terms, matched them to the songs and gave the list to Muggs to match song titles to. Out of the twelve songs we matched about ten of them the same way.
“Exploitation of Mistakes” is a song about an unsolved murder. It’s about how criminals get caught-errors and mistakes. I thought “General Principles” was a good single for the album because I was talking about all the elements of Hip Hop [DJ’ing, MC’s Graff and B-boy’ing]. There’s a song about some women called “Queens Gambit”. So, they matched up well.
AB: Where would you put your rating at? I actually suck at chess. I’m horrible. On average, I think about 800. If I’m on fire, I’d be about 1100.
GZA: You can’t be 800. I mean, Yahoo! Chess starts you at 1200. I’d say I’m about 1600 to 2000. On Yahoo! I usually stay in the 1300’s. Sometimes I go down to the 1200’s because I lose a lot on time. I might be cookin’ or go downstairs a make a bowl of cereal. I might be on the phone (laughs). It’s not a good thing to be doing [being so distracted when playing]. But it’s about one outta fifty that get me. I usually meet my match when I get to the 1600’s.
AB: You are regarded by many to be one of the greatest, and the most under-appreciated lyricists in Hip-Hop. You are one of the few rappers who need their fans to grow, so that your work is fully appreciated. You are one of the few artists since Rakim and Public Enemy really where I had to grow to fully understand some of your lyrics. This happened on the Soul Assassins Vol. 2 track where you said “C file 8th rank/ ship sank”. Now, I was into chess, but I never understood the algebraic notation until this year. So, it wasn’t until this year that line touched me.
GZA: Thank you I hear that now an then. I appreciate that. That’s how it should be. Certain things Rakim said, I didn’t catch till like five years later. The song “Musical Masacre”, Rakim is speaking in one verse about the Wizard of Oz. I knew that rhyme word for word. But a few years ago I was listening to it and I heard it “courage heart, brains- you need rhymes”. He didn’t mention Dorthy. He didn’t mention Toto.
I always make sure one line connects to the other. Rakim said once “I’ll wire a rhyme in graffiti and, each show you see me in”…I actually wrote one of my best rhymes in graffiti. When I heard that I was like “That, is a microphone fiend”.
AB: I knew he was talking about the Wizard of Oz from the “Over the Rainbow” line, but all that part, I did not know until know. Can we play on Yahoo! Chess One day?
GZA: Sure. I wish I would have gotten into chess younger. If I had, I’d be a Grand Master right now - no doubt!