A Conversation with RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan

Editor's note: Below is an excerpt from an article written by Adisa "the Bishop" Banjoko and his interview with the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA. US Chess members may find Banjoko's full article inside the January 2021 issue of Chess Life, which should arrive in mailboxes soon.

 

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Chess Life January 2021 Cover

 

It is no exaggeration to say that the Wu-Tang Clan, and RZA in particular, have made an outsized contribution to the growth and development of chess in Black and urban communities across the country. With lyrics and imagery replete with chess references, the Wu-Tang Clan has always been at the forefront of finding synergies between hip-hop, chess, and martial arts, where many chess practitioners once saw none. And it was always RZA leading by example. 

For me, as the founder and CEO of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation (HHCF), which dedicates itself to many of the same synergies, I found RZA’s passion for chess empowering. I recently spoke to him to hear his reflections on being a king on the chessboard, in music, and in life. 

 

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Grab some tea and listen to the sounds of clear jewels in the reflections of a king.
Photo by Mike Relm

 

Chess Life: When you are trying to improve your own chess game, how do you do it? Is it books? Are you watching people playing in the street? Are you playing with GZA [Gary Grice, his cousin and co-founder of the Wu-Tang Clan] online? Are you consulting with grandmasters or international masters? When you try to be measurably better in chess, what are you doing?

RZA: It’s multiple processes. I recall the first time that I realized that I need to improve. At first I was probably the best player in the crew. But the crew started improving. I had to do more play[ing]. But... the GZA himself, he started studying [chess] theory, studying books I wasn’t aware of. One day at his crib he was beating me so bad, and his son Kareem, who loves his big cousin Rakeem [RZA]… so he just came over when GZA went to the bathroom, he was like, “Yo, you know my dad is in the books, right?” [laughs hard].

Then I started getting a couple of books and studying theory because theory is good. It’s always good to understand what the grandmasters and people before you have already discovered. This is how science grows, how mathematics grows, this how chess grows. Then you get to a certain point... and a book is not enough information. It’s good to come across international masters or grandmasters. I was fortunate, I think, through the Hip-Hop Chess Federation to meet [IM] Josh Waitzkin.

“It’s always good to understand what the grandmasters and people before you have already discovered... this how chess grows. Then when you get to a certain point... and a book is not enough information.” -- RZA, Wu-Tang Clan

Those were fun times, man. Those first few times when we kicked it, those were amazing.

Amazing, brother. What made it special though, also, [is] that Josh gave me a bit of advice that I took and utilized. From watching me play, he told me [about] a certain opening he thought... would be the opening to define my style, because I had a bloody attacking style, but yet I’m a ninja with it. He felt that this technique would be the one, and so I studied that technique, and then I came across international master [and] six-time [Armed Forces] champion, Emory Tate. Remember Emory?

Yeah, rest in peace to the original G.

Now, I never knew that if you look at Josh Waitzkin’s games... they have 10 of his best games [in] his books, or if you ever get [his] app or whatever. In one game where he loses, but it’s still there to teach you, it’s a game against Emory Tate.

No kidding?

No kidding, yo. I didn’t know this, so when Emory came to the tournament that time-

The HHCF Mind Over Matter event [March 2009] in San Francisco?

Yeah. I played him with the technique that Josh told me to use, but I didn’t realize that this guy-

Already knew the script.

At about move 20 he’s like, “Well, there’s a bunch of bums here, but I finally met somebody who got some theory and technique.” 

What better compliment can you get than that from Emory Tate? Listen, if you don’t play chess and you don’t know who Emory Tate is, he passed away, but he died at the chess table.

Right, yeah. Emory, actually we became friends, and so look, I’m a type of person if you beat me I can accept defeat, but if I could live through defeat... Chess is game where you die on the board, you don’t die in reality. That’s what it is I think we like about it also in hip-hop. It’s a chance to test your sword, to fight for your life, but yet it stays on the 64 squares. If you can improve yourself with the person that defeated you... And so me and Emory became friends, and Emory actually introduced me to the [GM Mikhail] Tal system of chess playing.

 

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"Chess is a game where you die on the board, you don't die in reality. It stays on the 64 squares." - RZA
Photo by Gage Skidmore, Wikipedia

 

Tal is like Rakim [one of the most unique rappers of all time]. Tal is the Rakim of chess, bro. You’ll be like, “Oh, you watch this. You think that’s cool?” And he’ll just break out, and you’re like, “What?”

Exactly, it hits you. What would you say “when the earth get further and further away and planets seem smaller like balls of clay?” [a Rakim lyric from Follow the Leader] Him bringing me up to the Tal world, that helped me as well because he realized I was attacking. I was attacking with the style that Josh gave to the ninja attacking, but Tal [was] ninja aggressive. We spent some time with Emory, and then after you get a certain level... I think nowadays that I don’t really get a lot of time to be around a lot of people, a lot of playing. I go online like anybody else. I try to practice to improve myself. I try to practice blitz games, so that my brain can move faster. Because I realize that time sometimes is my biggest enemy.

Yo, yo, you speak in so much science right now. You remember of course the movie Fresh because you were on a soundtrack, right? I’ll never forget what’s his name’s character, the dad. The dad...

You got Giancarlo [Esposito], you have-

No, Fresh’s dad. Fresh’s dad.

Fresh’s dad was Sam[uel L.] Jackson, right?

Yeah, Sam Jackson. Thank you. Remember when he’s in his trailer and he’s showing a game to Fresh, and he’s like, “Yeah, that’s a game with so-and-so,” and then he shows all the top masters, he goes, “If you put them on a clock, I’ll eat they a** up.” Yo, that to me is the essence of hip-hop chess, meaning that the pressure is on. That you feel it, and that you’re going to make it happen because you have to. I love speed chess because it adds that extra pressure, man. That scene, I just used to watch that like seven times in a row sometimes. You know what I mean?

Yeah. That was one of my favorite scenes too because it made sense to understand that it’s just like a boxer could be a champion in the ring, but he could lose in the streets. Yes, with that 52 hand block! [52 Blocks is a martial arts style.]

 

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wu tang
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Photo by Mike Relm

 

So what is your favorite chess book or movie? When you’re like, “I’m in the zone.” Are you watching Fresh? Are you watching Bobby Fischer Versus the World? You know what I’m saying?

I mean, there’s a new one that just came out that-

John Leguizamo?! [Leguizamo stars and directs in Critical Thinking ~ed.]

Yeah. Oh yeah so there’s one that’s coming out with John Leguizamo, but I think out of... look, Searching for Bobby Fischer was one of my favorites. Of course Fresh, and [I] took it right to the speed game. But I like, I think it’s called Pawn Sacrifice, which was Tobey Maguire playing Bobby Fischer.

I never saw that one. I was so hyped to go see it. And then some[thing] happened. I didn’t. 

No, it’s a good watch. And so, yeah, I mean, I love when movies give us a chance to look into the minds... and even the one that really got my whole family. The Queen of Katwe  — yeah my whole family watched that and enjoyed it. So I was happy because my son, he’s just started playing, he started playing at 13. He started a little late, but that movie helped inspire him as well.

Now let me ask you this, one of the things that people talk about in terms of hip-hop as a learning tool, right? Is this idea inside sociology that, oftentimes specifically when it comes to Black people, they tend to say that, Africa was mainly an oral history kind of place, right? They didn’t have necessarily the written word, which is not even accurate.

Not true.

We’re not going to have that part of the conversation because we have knowledge of self. Anybody unclear will have to look that part up. 

What I did want to ask you, though, is that sociologists say the sign of a literate society is a strong oral history, right? So now when you look at the evolution of hip-hop. When people said in ‘73, ‘83, it’s not even music, dah, dah, dah. And now, Jay-Z got a book, Stic.man [of the rap group Dead Prez] got a book. You know what I’m saying? You see this whole movement of hip-hop. Gucci Mane, Eminem, 50 Cent, RZA, U-God, J-Prince... [they all have books].

J-Prince got a book, you know what I’m saying? I love it. Right. Even my man Mista Fab and Mac Mall got books. What made you write The Wu-Tang Manual? Do you remember when you were like, “It’s book time?” I’m curious to know. 

Okay. Check it out. I wasn’t going to write The Wu-Tang Manual. I felt that I was at an age and experience that I needed to write my experiences and write a book of wisdom. I thought that, you know what, I lived, I seen. I’m a Black man in America. I’ve been through it. I was a young millionaire. You know what I mean? I went through the criminal system and I’ve been through a lot.

Yeah. So I felt it was time for me to write a book of wisdom. And I sat down with a book agent. And the agent told me that’s not the way to enter. You said you have to enter the book world coming from hip-hop. It’s best to enter with something that gives you less risk of being unsuccessful. And I took his advice. He said, maybe if we do a book, that’s more based on your music and more based on Wu-Tang like The Wu-Tang Manual. And I came with the title. First I said, no, forget you. And then I thought about it for a week or two. And was like, you know what?

I have to bring The Wu-Tang Manual to life because The Wu-Tang Manual, everybody wanted it in the movies. I said I want to bring The Wu-Tang Manual to life. And so I did it, but I will say I did it with, they call it, a condition. I did it with only one condition. “I’ll give you The Wu-Tang Manual if you promise that I will do my second book on wisdom.” And that was part of the contract and they agreed. I love The Wu-Tang Manual. [And] one of my proudest works that I offer the world is… my book, The Tao of Wu.

I mean, it’s definitely a deeper dive, right? And you get more of your personal journey out of it, but they’re both fantastic. And they’re both super foundational. And the reason I’m excited is because when I learned that part about the sociology and the oral moving into the written, it was when your book was killing, Jay-Z was killing. They’ll have that whole hip-hop drama books. The ‘hood novels, all of it’s hip-hop, you know what I’m saying? Even though it’s street related, the streets is hip-hop. So that really kind of, I love that man. And I’m grateful to you for those books. And I hope that a lot of the people that’ll be reading this interview — that they understand it. That they expand their knowledge of chess beyond the algebraic notation.

Exactly. One funny thing about the book: I was hanging out with my brother Quentin Tarantino one night. Right. And he was hanging with me, shall I say? So he was amongst the hip-hop crowd. He came, [hung] out [at] a couple of concerts and a couple of fans came backstage and they were seeing us together. And they was my fans. They was his fans. They said, “You a Wu fan?” He said, “Yeah, of course.” They said, “Yeah, but did you read The Wu-Tang Manual?” Tarantino said, “I’m in The Wu-Tang Manual. Beat that!” [laughs hard]

 

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Wu-Tang Manual
Photo by Mike Relm

 

So everybody has their stamp [as a producer]. Your stamp for me is the pulling of emotion. And so I’m always curious as to what you use. Now, I know you’ve talked about the EPS and the ASR-10 [beat machines for making rap music, lofi, and chillhop]. What processes are you taking now, what equipment are you using now that you’re finding is feeding you the highest level of your artistry?

Well now, I’m a composer now. So before I had to dig through tons of records and samples to find what I’ve been looking for, which is either E minor or A minor chord, right? If you listen to Wu, it’s always that major to minor. Listen to chords — B major minor, major minor. So it’s like happy, sad, happy, sad. A tug. Listen to Tearz, right? And you hear that, wow. It’s the E major to a B major but when it hits that C sharp minor, that’s the tear.

So, now I can talk to you talk about it in clear language. I didn’t know when I was sampling it that that was a B that I felt.

So now I have the ability to, actually I can even talk in it now. Answering your question, I sit in front of that piano first and in front of my piano, I come up with my ideas and those ideas then evolve into a hip-hop beat or evolve into some type of musical score or cue for a movie. 

All the way. That’s absolutely a fight anthem. You know what I’m saying? For real. Now, what hobbies do you have that people might not expect?

That’s a good one. A hobby that I have that people may not expect. I mean...

Well, I’ll tell you mine. Most people wouldn’t expect that I garden. I like to do plants. I’m about to start a whole bonsai tree thing. You know what I mean? Like I used to grow roses and I stopped growing roses. And so I started watching Cobra Kai, and I was watching Miyagi and I was like, that’s my OG stuff right there.

Well one of my hobbies then, I ain’t embarrassed to say, is that I love to cook yo. I love to cook, bro.

I love it. I love it. That’s great, man. No, I love cooking too, man. Like I said, I just went vegan about six months ago and I really like it, it’s really helped my body. But what was interesting is my veganism came through meditation. And so I wanted to thank you for revitalizing my meditative practice and always being consistent and that you offered good vegan food when people are around you. And so I appreciate you in that, man.

That was a great camp [Camp Tazo; hosted in February 2020 before the lockdown], brother. I’m glad you came in and you helped the kids, you know, with the chess.

That was so cool, bro.

Cool, bro. That was a great idea. And it was, they asked me to do it.

Yeah. How did Camp Tazo come together? Tell the people who don’t know about it, what it was. ‘Cause it was amazing.

Well, Camp Tazo, Tazo Tea, does these camps, I think they’re going to do them one every year and they choose different people to come and be the host of the camp. And they reached out to me, basically, because some of the team at Tazo, they read The Tao of Wu and so the beautiful thing, that’s why I said The Tao of Wu was one of my favorite things that I’ve done because of what it does for people. 

But anyway, they read The Tao of Wu. They was like, “Yo, we want to share this. Would you come to our camp and be the host and share this with a group of people?” And I was like, you know what? That’s something that I feel like I’m meant to do, it don’t take economics for me to do that. It’s like certain things you do because that’s what you’re supposed to do. And that’s how I felt. While they talking about the book, it comes from the book. I got to [do it].

It was so good. And we were just vibing. And then you was downstairs on the turntables with the people.

Would you agree to this? And I think, would you agree that meditation is better than medication?

Listen, I will not only wholly agree with that, I can tell you that since I went to Camp Tazo and rededicated myself to meditation, I have never been more at peace with myself. I have never carried as much joy, like genuine joy.

You look five years younger, bro.

Hey, you did it. That’s you player. That’s you!

Reverse that... on them like bombs.

"I go online like anybody else. I practice blitz games, so that my brain can move faster. Because I realize that sometimes time is my biggest enemy." -- RZA, Wu-Tang Clan

I’m telling you when I left. ‘Cause I remember — see here’s what you don’t know. When, when I got the invitation, I was in London. Okay. And I was with my lady, and I had just seen Simon [Purkis] from Purling London. We’d been hanging out over at their offices, looking at chess boards and all of that. My birthday had just passed and I asked myself, okay, who is the 50-year-old Adisa? Does he still do jiu-jitsu? Maybe he doesn’t. Does he still eat meat? Maybe he doesn’t. Does he meditate? Does he pray? Is he Muslim? I really was like, who are you bro? Among all that stuff, as I said, no matter what happens in your life right now say yes and worry about the details later.

I loved everybody that I met there, but that meditation really changed me. I think that the problem with sharing the value of meditation is that an individual doesn’t understand it until they experience it. I can tell you what meditation is bringing me, and how it centers me and how it makes me have a better conversation with my friends or my parents or just within myself. But when you experience it, you know. So when I was with you, I got into meditation. I was doing like 10 minutes. I’m doing two hours now.

There’s a lesson — I put it in a sentence. It says the body is a vehicle for the mind. So that means if it’s a vehicle for the mind, it doesn’t mean just when you’re walking, because it’s still being a vehicle. But even when you sit still, it’s a vehicle because you sit still, then you can launch like a rocket.

One of my sayings is when people ask me about the benefits of yoga and meditation, I say, until you can sit with authority and conviction, you will never move with authority or conviction. You won’t do it because you to have that stillness, you have to be whole and present. And so one thing, here’s what I want to ask you. 

So one of the first times I interviewed GM Maurice Ashley — shout out to Maurice, thank you for everything you’ve given the chess game — he suggested that he thought Will Smith would be an ideal opponent for you. And he gave me the impression that he thought Will might be able to holler at you, now to get you bro. Now I spoke several times with one of Manny Pacquiao’s chess coaches. And he was like, what’s up with Kung Fu [RZA] versus boxing [Manny]? I was like, “Yo, I’m all down!” First question is, have you ever come across Will Smith? And what do you know about his potential chess skill? 

Yeah. I never came across him on no chess board. I ran into him, I’m in Hollywood. So I run into him all the time. We never got off on one of the 64 squares, but that’s the challenge I would take. If he wants to do that, let’s do that. 

Maurice played me before. Maurice is so imposing because he’s a grandmaster. He said I had a good game, but I blundered it because I was looking at the player and not the board. So, if he thinks... Look, and that was some years ago, if he thought Will could take me from those days, maybe you would have been right.

But I don’t know about now!

Right now you got to, you got to deal with what happens today.

Back then I was only breaking wood. All right. Now, [I’m] breaking bricks.

You’re punching into stone. Now also I remember a while back, I think you challenged Jay-Z on video.

I remember that. Yeah.

He was kind of, I don’t even think he spoke. I don’t think he heard, you know what I’m saying? So here’s my idea. You ready for this idea?

Go for it.

I want to organize a Hip-Hop Chess competition for charity in Monaco. I want to do this 007 style. You know what I’m saying? Aston Martins, popping up out the ride — you know what I’m saying? Kung Fu versus boxing. I think that could be hot, bro. 

I’m in, you know what I mean? I’m in there for the culture. I’m definitely looking to chop a couple of heads off. 

 

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GZA plays GM Maurice Ashley, while RZA kibitzes.
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GZA and RZA faced off as part of the Make Your Move Challenge, sponsored by Hennessy. After winning the game, GZA challenged GM Maurice Ashley. RZA stayed on to kibitz.

 

[pgn][Event "Make Your Move presented by Hennessy"] [Site "?"] [Date "2020.10.10"] [Round "?"] [White "GZA"] [Black "RZA"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "D30"] [Annotator "GM Maurice Ashley"] [PlyCount "135"] {This game was played at the time control of G/10+2 between two longtime rivals who rarely use a clock. The winner would take on this annotator, so there was added pressure. Some of the mistakes in the game can definitely be tied to the stress of the moment.} 1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Be7 5. a3 c6 6. Nbd2 Na6 7. e3 Nc7 8. Be2 h6 9. Bxf6 Bxf6 10. Nb3 Be7 11. O-O O-O 12. Ne5 Bf6 13. Ng4 b6 14. c5 Bb7 15. Qc2 Be7 16. Bd3 f5 17. Ne5 Qe8 18. Be2 { This last move is intended to stop the queen from taking up an aggressive post at h5 as GZA has felt the attacking fury of his main rival countless times.} Bf6 19. Nf3 {More conservative play by White, looking for the opportunity to strike later on.} Qg6 20. Rac1 Nb5 21. Bxb5 cxb5 22. Qd3 {Capturing on b6 and penetrating on c7 with the queen (22. cxb6, 23. Qc7) would have led to immediate gains.} bxc5 23. Nxc5 Bc8 24. b4 {White has a picture-perfect setup, but consistently avoids grabbing the material presented to him. There was no issue whatsoever with 24. Qxb5.} a6 25. Nd2 e5 26. Ndb3 $2 {More positional play when concrete action was called for. The straightforward 26. dxe5 Bxe5 27. Qxd5+ would have been crunchy.} e4 $1 {Now Black is back in the game.} 27. Qe2 h5 28. Rfe1 Be7 29. f3 exf3 $6 {More incisive would have been 29. ... f4! 30. fxe4 f3!} 30. Qxf3 Qg4 $4 31. Qxd5+ Kh7 32. h3 {With the clock ticking down White misses grabbing the free rook in the corner. We commentators (GM Robert Hess and NM James Canty were alongside me) were bouncing out our chairs!} Qg6 33. Qf3 $2 {Missing the rook again! After the game, GZA was upset at himself.} Ra7 34. Nd3 Bb7 35. Qf2 Bh4 36. Qf1 Bxg2 $2 {With the clock ticking fast, Black makes an ill-considered move. Taking the Exchange was perfectly fine though White has more than enough compensation as the knights will park themselves on c5 and e5.} 37. Qxg2 Qxg2+ 38. Kxg2 Bxe1 39. Rxe1 Re7 40. Nf4 Ree8 41. d5 Rf6 42. Nxh5 Rg6+ 43. Kf3 Re4 44. Nf4 Rg5 45. Nd4 Re8 46. d6 Rc8 47. d7 Rd8 48. Nde6 Rxd7 49. Nxg5+ Kh6 50. Nge6 Rd6 51. Rg1 Kh7 52. Rxg7+ Kh6 53. Rg5 Rd2 54. Rxf5 Rb2 55. Nc5 Rc2 56. Ke4 Rc4+ 57. Ke5 Rxf4 58. Rxf4 Kg5 59. h4+ Kg6 60. Kd4 Kg7 61. e4 Kg6 62. e5 a5 63. bxa5 b4 64. axb4 Kg7 65. Rf6 Kg8 66. a6 Kg7 67. Ne6+ Kg8 68. a7 {Black flags at the exact moment when a stalemate chance existed with 68. ... Kh7 69. a8=Q?? It was great to see two legends of the rap game play chess for a charitable cause, and we hope to see more matchups like these in the future.} 1-0 [/pgn]

 

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