RZA, GZA, HHCF on The New York Times!
Dylan Loeb McClain interviews RZA & GZA on HHCF. Read it here.
Photo by AeLeah MacDonald
Where Hip-Hop, Martial Arts and Chess Meet
By DYLAN LOEB McCLAIN
Hip-hop, martial arts, chess. An odd trio? Not at all, according to RZA, a founder of the rap group Wu-Tang Clan.
“Hip-hop is a battle game,” he said. “Chess is a battle. Martial arts is a battle.”
The three disciplines came together on Oct. 13 in the Galleria at the San Francisco Design Center, where the Hip-Hop Chess Federation held the Kings Invitational tournament. The federation, founded by the writer and lecturer Adisa Banjoko and Leo Libiran, a visual artist, seeks to use “music, chess and martial arts to promote unity, strategy and nonviolence,” according to its Web site.
The tournament’s competitors included six hip-hop stars — RZA; GZA, another founder of the Wu-Tang Clan; Monk of the Black Knights, a Wu-Tang affiliate; Casual, of the group Hieroglyphics; Sunspot Jonz, from Living Legends Crew; and Paris. Rounding out the field were Ralek Gracie, a martial arts fighter, and Amir Sulaiman, a poet who has appeared on the HBO program “Def Poetry Jam.”
Although he did not play in the tournament — it would hardly have been fair — Josh Waitzkin, the former chess prodigy whose life was the basis of the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” took part in a panel discussion about hip-hop, chess and martial arts. Waitzkin, an international master, took up martial arts nine years ago, and by 2004, he had won two world titles in tai chi chuan. He wrote about his experiences in “The Art of Learning” (Free Press, 2007).
The tournament also featured two scholastic chess tournaments — a 16-player invitational that offered $10,000 in scholarships, and an open. The video game publisher Ubisoft, which makes Chessmaster and other programs, provided most of the money for the scholarships and to sponsor the event. Chesspark, an Internet chess-playing site, was another sponsor.
The Wu-Tang Clan’s connection to martial arts goes back to its beginnings in 1992. RZA and GZA, who are cousins and who grew up together on Staten Island, learned to play chess when they were young, but did not play often.
“Me and RZA would have been playing when we was kids if we had had a board,” GZA said.
In recent years, they have incorporated chess into their music.
The titles of most tracks on GZA’s 2005 album, “Grandmasters,” recorded with DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill, could be lifted from a chess primer: “Opening,” “Destruction of a Guard,” “Exploitation of Mistakes,” “General Principles,” “Advance Pawns,” “Queen’s Gambit,” “Unstoppable Threats,” “Unprotected Pieces” and “Smothered Mate.” The video for “General Principles” begins with a chess game and takes place on a board with giant pieces. At the end of “Queen’s Gambit,” GZA raps:
I be liking chess
Cuz chess is crazy, right there, that’s the ultimate
It’s like a great hobby right there, playing chess
The board, the pieces, the squares, the movement
You know, war, capturing, thinking, strategy
Planning, music, it’s hip-hop, and sports
It’s life, it’s reality
GZA, the acknowledged master lyricist of Wu-Tang, said there were similarities between writing and chess. “Writing is sort of like chess for me,” he said. “You have to think carefully before you move, thinking, planning. In chess, you have to bring all the pieces into the game. It is about development. In writing, you have to develop the story.”
RZA said chess was important to his creative process. “We keep a chess board in the studio,” he said. “When I play chess, I am working. I have 100 ideas running through my mind. When I am on the chess board, I focus on nothing else.”
Other rappers, whose work tends to be autobiographical, have acknowledged their interest in chess. On “This Life Forever,” Jay-Z raps:
Poppa raised me to chess moves
And though you’re gone I’m not bitter you left me prepared
We got divided by the years, but I got it from here
Don’t sweat that, sounds bump from Marcy to Lefrak
To that pocket in DC where my man caught his death at
Over my years I’ve seen Rooks get tooken by the Knight
Lose they Crown by tryna defend a Queen
Checkmate, in 4 moves the Bobby Fischer of rap
RZA and GZA said they played in the Kings Invitational and became involved in the Hip-Hop Chess Federation because they believe chess can have a positive influence on young people.
“You are like a sponge when you are young,” GZA said. “Kids are not being stimulated. Chess is a game of stimulation.”
It is hard to know how good RZA and GZA are at chess, but in the opening sequence of the “General Principles” video, GZA, playing Black in the diagram, wins after 1 Re1 de/N, forking the White king and queen.
RZA won the Kings Invitational with a perfect record of 4-0. (GZA was 3-1, his one loss coming in his match with RZA.) In the last round, RZA beat Monk, who was winning but who overlooked a back-rank mate.
Maybe that will end up being the title of a song on a future album.