There is a reason why the Wu-Tang Clan is revered as one of the most intellectually engaging collectives in Hip-Hop.
While, the Native Tongue possessed a very academic, social justice-leaning and Afrocentric complexion, smart and witty in how they emcee’d and introduced jazz to the culture, the squad from Staten Island used the lessons — the math of the day — to build in ways that no other contingency in rap music had ever done. They were rap gods that understood that their voice created the universe that they lived in.
Who did that before them?
One way that they built on the foundation of Hip-Hop, one laid down by pioneers like Treacherous Three, Cold Crush, and other crews from the 70s, was by establishing language that resonated with people from the hood. Through the intellectualization of Kung Fu flicks, comic books, and park-centered chess games, the emcees that appeared on the 1993 release Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers taught dudes that hung on the corners strategies to rise above the constraints of poverty using the variables of the martial arts, fantasy fiction, and chess as the background.
And no one did it better than the GZA.
The GZA sat down exclusively with The Source to talk about his career, who he keeps up with in the Wu-Tang Clan, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and how chess is at the center of so much of his life.
The Source: So your fans have loved you for over three decades of work. If you’re pointing to the Grandmasters (your collaborative work with DJ Muggs) or Liquid Swords, which, of course, was made into a chess box, some of your best work, why does chess have such a theme or influence in your work?
GZA: It is a theme and influence because it’s a game that I love so much. I’ve learned so many things from playing chess. I play all the time. There’s some sort of similarity with chess playing and writing lyrics and emceeing. There are certain styles that have developed while growing and learning how to rap and improving your skills— just like there is in chess.
Since chess is something I do all the time, I just felt that it should be incorporated.
When did you start playing chess?
I learned how to play many, many years ago.
I should say, I learned the game many, many years ago, but I’ve never played until I was around nine years old. And then I was reintroduced to the game by Masta Killa. That’s when I actually started playing back in 1992. That was like, around the time of “Protect Ya Neck.” So that’s when I actually started playing.
And I would play with him, Jeru the Damaja and all the brothers that were in his neighborhood. It was also something that only wasn’t a part of my life, but it was in the lives of the people around me. It was something we did on a regular: playing chess in the park and at the same time being on the pull-up bars.
How long would you say you were playing by then?
I was playing for a while. When I started playing then, I was playing for at least ten years or maybe eight years. But then I bought a book. Then when I bought the book, I realized that I had been playing for eight years and don’t know a thing about chess.
It has just been something very important in my life.
Around 93, after we recorded the Wu album, I would play with Killa all the time. We would play chess all day, and at that time, because I really had just started playing, he would beat up on me a lot. He would really win the majority of the games, doing all kinds of crazy stuff.
One time, he was playing at my house, and when he had left and the board was still positioned in checkmate — you know when the game was over. So I took out some construction paper and I started sketching the board and pieces. And then I was thinking to myself, ‘What if the bishop (because it is pointy at the top) was a hoodie?’ I started thinking about it like a theme … an urban neighborhood.
‘What if this person had a flying guillotine in his hand on the chain? What about the knight?’
I thought that being an amazing cover for “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” single, but then it just ended up being the ‘Liquid Swords’ cover at the end of the day. Chess is just a very big part of my life which is why I incorporate it into my music.
There are certain lyrics that we have where we refer to chess:
“Remedy for stress is three bags of sess
A day at my rest playing chess, yes
My thoughts be sneaky like a crook from Brooklyn
When you ain’t looking, I take the queen with the rook then”
[Ed. Note: he quotes RZA from the first verse of “Mr. Sandman” from Method Man’s Tical album]
Then I have a line in another song that says:
“I stay on the sixty-four squares while controlling the center
Trading space for material, the time zone I enter
It’s calculated by movement, from pushed pieces
Advances in development, once the pawn reaches
The 8th ranked, now heavily armed with a tank
My opponent’s base is threatened, soldiers cut with shanks
Moved all my small pieces, emcees are driven back
Unable to avoid capture from the attack
Such movement is naturally quite unsound
Men is badly placed upon dangerous grounds
Loosening their position, before they were strongly posted
Before the double rooks had approached it”
[Ed. Note: this is the 3rd verse rapped by GZA on Wu-Tang Clan’s song, “Weak Spots,” from 8 Diagrams]
Can you use the pieces of the chessboard as a metaphor for the hood?
The king would be the one that’s calling the shots, making the rules, and giving out all of the power to those that are part of his army. The king would be that captain who’s running the team. That one in the neighborhood who many look up to for advice or respect that would be the king.
Bishops and knights? You know, their point value is almost the same value depending on their position and where they are on the board. So, they’re really relatively the same. Those would be those that are under the rooks.
The rooks would be more like lieutenants on onboard because of their mobility. They have a little more mobility than knights and bishops. Bishops are long term because they travel on diagonals, they can go from one end to the other. Knights are close up. So knights are probably those that would probably be stabbing you and hitting you with swords. Bishops are probably the ones that are shooting from down the block.
Who’s the queen?
The queen would be that one female that will either be the woman that you’re dealing with. The king’s female companion. But if you want to look at it on a block level, a block in the hood, that would be that only female down with the crew.
How did you connect with Hennessy for this project?
There was a call made out to management, asking if I would be willing to participate in this event. So I stepped on board, especially knowing that RZA would be part of it. And the fact that Maurice Ashley, who is actually a friend of ours, made it even more attractive.
Do you know Maurice Ashley?
I met him many years ago. I think over a decade ago. I was impressed to be able to play chess with the first Black international Grandmaster. So that was a great thing. So that’s why I took this on. And also the charity behind it. They will be donating money to Black, Latino, and Asian small businesses. I just felt it was a good cause, and that is always dope.
How do you think the average Hip-Hop enthusiast should connect to business ownership and chess as a metaphor?
Chess is a tactical and strategic game. It is about planning steps ahead. Playing chess improves the focus and attention of an individual. To deal positively with the stress that comes with being an entrepreneur, a business person has to think on their feet.
And this is something that can be applied to Hip-Hop also.
A lot of us have to learn how to deal with things. When we’re dealing with stress in the music industry, in particular, we have to learn to think three or four steps ahead. I mean it is a known fact that a lot of us are not really business savvy or we don’t really follow up on things when we get caught behind, whether it be taxes or whatever.
Whether it is just following up on important things or we are missing out because we are not investing in things or are just not saving … we have to be tactical and strategic in doing so. Chess helps build those skills.
I think many different principles can be applied when mastering the art of this game. You can also learn from those who have done great things with their proceeds from the music industry. When you look at those that are multimillionaires and now billionaires that Hip-Hop has created, many of them play chess and have seen that this is a great model to look at and learn from.
What’s your favorite song to have performed on?
I don’t know if I can do that. It’s kind of hard. But you know, a few years ago (2015), I did a remake of “The Mexican” with Tom Morello and K.I.D. It was sampled from this break in it that was really popular in the 70s.
[Ed. Note: Babe Ruth’s “The Mexican” has a classic boom-bap in it with an ill guitar undercurrent. The song was written in 1972]
A group called Babe Ruth from the 70s originally wrote the song “The Mexican” and there was a breakbeat in it that I just had been wanting to do that song over for years. When I had the opportunity to do it over, I had a lot of fun doing that. I don’t know if I would say it is my favorite but is most certainly one of my favorites because it’s such a different song from what I normally do.
What was your favorite experience with the Ol’ Dirty Bastard?
My most memorable experience with Ol’ Dirty Bastard? I have known him since we were children. Back then we had a group (He, RZA, and I). Outside of the Wu, we formed a group as teenagers. I’m just a few years older than they were. When I was 15 and they were 12 going into their teens and back then we entered a lot of rap battles together. We had a lot of content. We wrote a lot of routines. We walked and traveled all over the city and battled. And so it would be hard for me to cut out of all of those years and times the most favorable moments — because there were so many of them.
But there was one time …
Dirt was so serious and real. Once, we were in Hawaii, outdoors of a venue. And this may be in 1997 or 1998, but there was some sort of scaffold somewhere near the stage. It is outdoors … we were just hanging out because the weather was nice … and you know when you are into working out, especially doing calisthenics, any chance you get to do a pull-up or push up … you can’t resist taking advantage of it. That’s just how it is once you start to do something habitually.
So we were under this scaffold and started doing pull-ups … It was Masta Killa and myself and some other people…and we started doing pull-ups and Dirty walks up to us and looks me up and down and says, “Y’all about to f**king fight?”
[Ed. Note: Oftentimes in the hood men do pull-ups on anything around like traffic light posts, smaller scaffolds, etc.]
That was a funny moment because it was so raw and was so real. That was Dirty.
You talk about Masta Killa a lot, are you guys the closest? I always wonder like who within The Clan links up the most?
Depends on how you define the term closest … I connect more with Masta Killa. I see him more than I see others. I mean, that’s just our connection. You know, some of us don’t even live in the same state. And then those that live in the same state, probably live in different boroughs. Also, you know, some of the guys are still in Staten Island. I moved from there many years ago.
I’m close with everyone, but I probably do see Killa more than others. I speak to RZA more than I speak to others. Some of them I don’t ever really speak to.
I am really close with Ghost. But we don’t do the phone thing. Every now and then I speak the Rae on the phone, I don’t ever really talk to U-God. I see U-God at a show or on the road. Sometimes we communicate through our management, but that’s on him and not me. Cappa I see on the road. Every now and then I’ll reach out to him. But I do happen to speak to Killah and RZA the most.
So, you were the first one that gets signed? What was that experience like to be on for the very first time?
Oh, that was such a great feeling. Because, you know, this was a hobby. Also, a childhood passion, which was something we did every day. When I was introduced to Hip-Hop, it was just such a great feeling to become part of it. To be able to write lyrics and battle and mess around with graffiti a little bit, a little breakdancing … It was a great movement that was going on in the early stages. All we wanted to do is make a demo at first. We grew up listening to those cassette tapes of The Treacherous Three, Cold Crush brothers, or Grandmaster Flash, all those that came before us. We used to listen to some of those dudes on the tapes and at one point because we were so young, we just wanted to make our own demos and outtakes.
And then after that, when it became a little more popular, dude started making records and more and more cats started coming out. Then when we started coming out making records, we wanted to get a deal. We wanted to get signed so that we could be heard on the radio. We would send tapes and demos. We would link up with people that claimed that said they could help us. It seemed like such a long time … it wasn’t easy, trying to get on.
I remember a time it was like 1983 or 1984 when I first went into the studio with Dirty to make a demo tape. And we had this guy that was managing. He was trying to get us on and get our music out.
I remember every weekend, whether it was Chuck Chillout or Red Alert, I think WBLS was Kiss 98.7, there was a new song that was out. Whether it was “Rock the Bells” by LL or you might have T La Rock. Every week, it was something new coming up and we were still trying to get deals with demo tapes. It just seemed like a struggle.
And then years later you got Rakim, Slick Rick and you got Big Daddy Kane, KRS1 … and we were still trying to get on … but I’m still enjoying and loving everything I am hearing. It was inspiring me even more. But sometimes it was becoming discouraging because you were not there yet.
So you know, when I linked up with Melquan, who was one of our first original managers, he took me in the studio and I did about 13 demos. I did a lot of songs. And he took it to Cold Chillin’ Records and Fly Tye, Tyrone Williams, wanted to sign me.
At the time, Cold Chillin’ was distributed to Warner Brothers. It was the greatest feeling. It was like “Ah, I made it. I got a deal now. I am on and it is on now.”
It was such a great feeling. When you get so many doors closed in your face and you have so many people turn you down, and they don’t think you’re good enough or that this is not popular.
Although you have had people in your corner, I’ve tried to help push you and get you that deal for it not to work out and then for you to get to it two years later … it is an amazing feeling. It’s a step forward.
So, it was like a chess move? There it goes again. How is chess related in a real way to your life and your family?
As far as my children’s upbringing, I taught them how to play chess, when they were around
six and nine, or maybe a little older.
They learn at those early ages, I would try to get them to play and understand how important it was to learn how to play. Tried to get them to see how it can help them with their thinking skills in many different ways as far as being creative, learning, and evaluating certain circumstances and even in problem-solving. They didn’t understand that at the time. But I taught them how to play and I used to try to get them to play with each other. And they didn’t really care for playing. I would tell them that whoever wins, I would give them $10. Then they would say “OK!”
And then they realize, “Hey, it doesn’t matter who wins. Let’s just play the game and split it. We both can take $5!” That was their way of thinking about the game. “We could just split it evenly, $5 and $5.”
Until about five years ago, my son came to me and said “Chess is the ultimate. It is Everything.” He just said it is everything.
And he was like, “Why didn’t you…” I said, “Hey I tried to tell you years ago.”
He said, “Nah, man. I didn’t know. This is it.”
That’s how it usually comes back.
One of the things my son realized also is that it is a good look.
If he was seven or eight and he was sitting down playing chess, people were like “ooh.”
It is also impressive to see a young child playing or sitting at the board. To me, it is the best of all board games. Checkers does not compare. Monopoly is definitely not in its league. Although some may differ. I’ve had arguments with different individuals about chess and checkers.
You don’t like Monopoly?
I grew up playing Monopoly. I mean, I like the game. I think it is more fun now to play with real money. I mean, everyone puts up a certain amount of money that will be given out during the game and we just play like that. You play the way you play the game, but actually using your money. So you know, you are careful about what you would buy and what properties to buy and not to land in jail.
I just think it is a blessing to be able to do something you love to do.
You always loved doing when you were younger, and to be able to make a career out of it is an amazing thing. And also, to get paid to do it.
I was working for the Transit Authority. I worked for the city when I got my deal. And I quit my job too soon because everything didn’t go right after I got my deal. Things went downhill. I had a lack of support and didn’t sell any records. That had to go back out and look for work, a nine to five to support myself.
So you know, things weren’t all that good at the time. But then I had a re-boost of energy when the Wu-Tang Clan dropped when RZA put the group together. And then everything fell into place and things were good and blessings began to pour out.
It is a great thing to be able to still be out there like that. When you look at artists nowadays, when you think of what they think of art and those that came before them, they don’t really know much of where they are, where they stand and where they at. And to be able to, 27 years later, to be able to still headline festivals with 50,000 to 70,000 people and to be able to perform at Glastonbury where you’re on the same stage … you are playing two acts before BB King and Bono. That’s just such a blessing. We are blessed to have such a great following and such a diverse audience.
Then to still have those that are young, who weren’t even born when you first dropped the music, but still love and respect you … it validates you. That some way or somewhere they caught on. So this is a great thing. We’re blessed.
The GZA, RZA, Maurice Ashley, and more are a part of Hennessy Presents: Make Your Move, a celebrity chess tournament that will push these Hip-Hop legends’ mentality.
Maurice Ashley is the first Black chess grandmaster, and face of this year’s Hennessy Wild Rabbit campaign. He will host the experience, challenging stars to streaming matches that will benefit Hennessy’s Unfinished Business, a new initiative supporting minority small business owners.
The tournament will follow a “blitz game” format with all the trash talk, culminating in a final match where the remaining player faces off against the legend, Maurice Ashley. This cultural experience will be streamed via Chess.com’s Twitch channel, reaching the largest chess community on the world’s #1 gaming site on October 10th at 4 pm.