Q&A with RZA: Hip-Hop Pioneer, Wu-Tang Clan Founder and Chess Player

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

The World Chess Hall of Fame’s latest exhibit, “Living Like Kings,” a show exploring the fusion of chess and hip-hop opened last week, and here in town to promote it was RZA, the hip-hop pioneer who was a founding member of Wu-Tang Clan. We caught up with him at a panel last week organized by the World Chess Hall of Fame, Susan Barrett and the Demetrious Johnson Foundation. RZA, Hip-Hop Chess Federation founder Adisa Banjoko and local photographer Adrian O. Walker spoke candidly to hundreds of area high school students about image, staying sharp and the importance of knowing where a move you make today could leave you on the board a couple moves later in the game (yep, that’s a metaphor).

An avid chess player himself, RZA lends his voice to WCHOF’s exhibition’s installation, but he also had a few minutes to lend to ALIVE to talk straight-up about chess, hip-hop and how the two are interlinked.

"Living Like Kings" at the World Chess Hall of Fame, through April 26.

“Living Like Kings” is at the World Chess Hall of Fame through April 26. Photo by Victoria Lafferty

ALIVE: When’s the moment you really connected with chess?

RZA: Two moments. I connected first around the age of 11 because there was a girl who played chess who taught me how to play chess.

ALIVE: Trying to get the ladies?

RZA: Oh, yeah. Then later on, around 19. I used to hang out in New York near the World Trade Center, and they had a lot of old chess players out there playing. I was a messenger, and during our lunch breaks, we would go there, and I just fell in love with it.

ALIVE: So how does chess influence your music-making now?

RZA: We always have chess boards in our studio. It’s our pastime, and, for me, it’s my form of meditation. I play chess and find it meditating—like if I got problems, I play a game of chess. You know what I mean? And it just helps me. It’s therapeutic.

ALIVE: How does it appear in your music?

RZA: Let’s take the Evans Gambit [chess strategic opening move], you know? You play on the left side of the board, and you’re going to try to sacrifice a pawn to that bishop, to the black bishop. Even ideas like that, we find lyrical ways to express those. I got a lyric, it says [raps]: “Sometimes I sit and calculate life problems, on 64 squares that’s locked up in eight columns. The rook, bishop, knight, queen — all on a mission to protect the king.”

ALIVE: So it weaves in. Earlier, you made a really cool point about how hip-hop started as a way to replace violence on the streets, with rap battles replacing physical violence—but now it seems like it’s kind of turned into an expression of that violence.

RZA: Yeah, the expression of that violence is only because it’s now visual. So now if I make a song that’s like, “I run through and blow through the building,” and then in the video you see blowing a building up—now the imagery becomes the violence. But the idea was actually to put the violence into an artistic frame.

It’s not that they wanted to continue crucifying, but it’s the [hip-hop] artist’s expression of his inner vision. But when you see it—because a picture can say a thousand words—that’s what becomes violent of it, you know what I mean? Young hip-hoppers, they learn hip-hop from watching TV—they don’t learn it how we learned it. So now they only have the image of hip-hop that was visually given to them.

I’m a high school drop-out and a guy who was stuck on the negative side of life, so my expression speaks on that. But other kids, who don’t have the same conditions that we had, they take those conditions and they emulate them. Like the Wolf is always saying, “We saw Superfly and then were like, I want to be like Superfly.” Or a movie like “Scarface.” We saw Scarface and my whole neighborhood became Scarface, you know what I mean? I don’t know if it’s intentional or not intentional, but it’s real.

ALIVE: So, how can hip-hop be used to strengthen communities now? You said during the panel that there was a challenge in terms of identity and image for the hip-hop community and how others in the world perceive it—and it’s not altogether positively.

RZA: Well, I’ve been striving to help out, you know. All my crew, we’re godfathers, we’re doing an album now that’s called “A Better Tomorrow,” and the object is to instill and inspire a better tomorrow, for hip-hop, for America. Even as you’re looking at America, and you’re saying there’s the racial relationship, but we keep forgetting that to be an American is already rare. If you take Americans and compare us to the rest of the world, we’re totally outnumbered, it’s almost 10 to 1, maybe 20 to 1. Alright then, so being us is rare, so now, for us to fight…what happens when the world comes against us? So we need to stop fighting, and I’m trying to instill and inspire a better tomorrow.

ALIVE: So you’re a busy man; you’re recording a new album and flying out tomorrow to keep at it—what made you decide to come to St. Louis to do this panel?

RZA: Well, I know St. Louis was going through a lot of struggles. I watch the media. And we had planned to come in August and help spread the hip-hop [message], but I made a point to not get off my schedule because I thought I could help the world through inspiration.

ALIVE: What’s your greatest hope for the city?

RZA: Like I said, a better tomorrow, you know what I mean?

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