Classic Never Seen GZA Interview!!!! checkmate - the wu-tangs chessmaster sits down for a chat

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News Stories - GZA

I would like to personally thank Hannibal Tabu, for the link and permission to put this on my site.

This is from 1999. He was flown to New York to sit down and play chess with the GZA for a feature in Rap Pages (I dont remember what issue off the top of my head, but it was rainy the whole weekend in New York so Im guessing I was there in the spring and the piece ran some time in the summer). It was intended to publicize the Beneath the Surface album, which came out in June of that year, according to Wikipedia.

The link to interview is: here

For convenience and with authors permission... interview text has been copied here:

features archive: gza/the genius
the wu-tangs chessmaster sits down for a chat

EDITORS NOTE: The writer assigned to this story, Hannibal Tabu, generally follows the rules of journalism to a fault, never referring to himself in the first person. However, to get a clearer understanding of the personality of the Genius, the best way to do it is play chess, a very personal game. Here is the result.

WORDLESSLY, HE SLID THE ROOK between two of mine, carefully guarded by a protected pawn. That was the moment he outsmarted me. Until then, Id been playing an admirable game, keeping even on losses, even penetrating the deepest parts of his territory. With one, carefully planned move, my fortress was a house of cards, defeat a matter of time. With one move, the tall, dark man known as the Genius changed everything.

Read on...
Changing the rules was the way he played the game. The 1995 release of Liquid Swords, a musical masterpiece that established him as one of the most intricate lyricists of Raps Silver Age, checkmated many fakers of the funk. The world, already filled with a fascination for all things Wu Tang, decided that this man was, as Method had suggested on the Enter the wu-tang LP, the brains behind the outfit. All them weed smokin, gun clappin Wu-Tangers couldnt be doing enough research to keep them in Illuminati references and mystical understandings. Only the Genius, with the Killah Priest, sitting in back, reading and playing chess, could be responsible for even the watered down literature used by "Lou Diamonds" to the high tech panderings of "Bobby Digital."

Right? Well, I certainly had that opinion -- after being sick of gun talk, his album was a breath of fresh air. "I knew theyd come up with a Wu Tang I couldnt resist," I said. So, PowerBook in hand, the firstborn son of a pusherman red eyed from LAX to JFK.

YOU DONT CARE ABOUT MY TRIP, the place I stayed, or whatever. We can all get on a plane and look around. Likewise, who cares what he was wearin -- thats what Right On! and Black Beat are for. More solid homework is needed to track down the shoguns decapitator.

After weeks of boning up on the tracks of Liquid Swords, from the cleverness of "Labels" to the haunting "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth," the Wus reclusive chessman was still dipped in secret sauce. Geffen, MCA, and Universal, the conduits of his sound, act like they never heard of him, to let their websites tell it (use Metacrawler and youll find an outdated file still up). Luckily, had a clear cut lil Wu area, and I checked their bio. Eldest of three cousins, including RZA and Ol Dirty. That explained something, kind of a holy trinity. "Gary Grice" is his real name, it says, better keep that quiet. A picture of his ill-fated first album on Cold Chillin, also best left alone. Hm.

The inside cover of Swords drew me though -- chess. How better to find a way into his mind that find out his moves on the board? Weeks of getting stomped by the freeware chess program on my Pilot followed, and I was as ready as I was gonna be.

The Genius sharpens his sword in a Manhattan studio nestled into a dingy block that looks, for all intents and purposes, like every other dingy Manhattan block. Inside, a fully zhiggy layout for audio and video exists, with scruffy looking techs laboring away at making entertainment for the masses. I arrived Saturday at 4 pm.

From all reports, at that moment the GZA was pushing his Jeep through traffic in New Jersey. I watched the tail end of The Five Heartbeats and was most of the way through Jack of Spades by the time he showed up at 7, but hey. He pulled out a drawstring bag filled with finely crafted chess pieces, a fold-up cloth board, and we engaged each other in honorable combat.

The GZA, as he is also known, is as humble as the opening move that set his pawn in the center of the board. "I never wanted that name," he offered, nodding his head to the sound of his new single, "Publicity," in the background. "That came from RZA and Old Dirty years ago. It was like the Scientist, the Genius, and the Specialist. Sounds like some kind of crazy cartoon, right?"

With a laugh, he leaned back and maneuvered a knight, a move I was certain to have to deal with later. "RZA was the Scientist, Dirty was the Specialist, at the time he did the beat box. We used to call him the human beat box specialist. Dirty was the Specialist and the Professor. Its a rhyme he usually say, too, its Im a son, and Im the rap professor/ the beat analyzer, the woman caresser ... I was like, I wanted to be the Professor. I just liked the way it sounded. They was like, naw, you the Genius, whatever. It just stuck. Weve all had different titles and names, weve been doing it for so long, our names and titles changed. Those were three titles at that time. Its not like I titled myself that, it would be some type of egotistical thing. We all are endowed with that special mental gift. That Genius is in everyone. Some of us bring our things out on a large scale, some of us on a minimal. I feel Im lyrically creative. A lot of people like my work, especially my Clan, they give me praises. I still only let off a small percentage of that Genius. Its just me. Its how I am. I dont like to spread myself. We have similar styles, some of us, have styles that need to be seen like that. Some of us are more laid back, Im more in the cut, like Deck."

I reflected that he was right, as I swooped across the board and smacked his kings bishop with one of mine, cutting off one method of safety for my ultimate goal. He was forced to smack it with a rook and nodded appreciatively. I actually thought I might win.

Six moves later, I was down one knight and scrambling to set up a defensive screen of pawns on my left side, barely able to get my king to execute a queens castle. His method of play was patient but aggressive, feints and retreats of a fluid nature. Likewise, he seemed a bit apprehensive to speak -- not nervousness, but because he was looking across the table at a skinny brother holding a tape recorder and thinking, "who is this guy?" It was gonna be a tough game and a tough interview.

I try to throw him off base with a question: "Do you really, as many rumors allege, do all the research with Killah Priest and then spread it to the rest of the clan like Jesus holding a basket of fish?" He seamlessly slid a pawn forward and replied, "I wouldnt say that, we all share equal roles in this. I just like to rhyme, man, this is what we do, we been doin it for years. Im looked at and respected as a great lyricist amongst my brothers, they all give me that praise. I see that as brains, on that level. The years, the longevity, the time we been doin it. I greatly respect that and honor that. It took us all to do the things weve done, accomplish what weve accomplished. Rza was like the head, as far as the business side of it."

That exchange staggered him a bit -- he lost a crucially placed pawn and it looked like I had a halfway decent path to trap his king. It may not be the nicest thing to do -- distract someone with an involved question to try to beat them at chess -- but Im no Little Mary Sunshine, even if theres something about her. I kept pushing pawns, as my father taught me to do when jockeying for position, and asked about why he does fewer cameos than his Clanmates and how long it takes him to come up with his material.

"A second to a year. To two years. The majority of the time it takes a while. Thoughts come quick, but to put the project together takes a while. I put a lot of time and effort in to it. Sometimes I just cant write quick like that. I can, but I choose not to, cause I wanna make everything right. Some people come in the studio, write a song in 30 minutes. You can listen to it and tell it was written in 30 minutes. I choose to take my time. Some of it is what I see, some of it is what I hear, a lot of it is what I think. A lot of artists say, we rhyme about what we see, what we go through. I rhyme about what I think sometimes. I make up shit, like being an artist painting a picture. When artists paint pictures, they dont always paint what they see, they paint what they think, they just flow with the shit. Thats why I say, visual niggas paint portraits, or a line in Reunited where I say, I splash the paint on the wall, form the mural/ took a look, saw the manifestation if it was plural."

He commented loosely about listening to one beat, non stop, for two to three days before even completing one verse, while he slid his queen into a threatening position on my right flank. I took this time to ask him how chess came into his life.

"I learned how to play chess when I was kinda young, like 9 years old. I never really played, I just learned how the pieces move. I kept that with me for years. As I got older, I started playing with Masta Killah, I was really learnin from him. He was catchin me with the Fools Mate, 4 Move Checkmate, he kept catchin me until he couldnt catch me with them anymore. I became sharper, started playin with other brothers -- Jeru, brothers from his clique. I just built my skills up. Now we play all the time. Its a strategic game that requires a lot of thinking, great concentration level. I like to play with noise and all that in the background, where RZA, he likes to play when its quiet. I like to hear the noise."

At that moment, the tape popped its terminus, and he slowly rose to change tapes, only taking his studious eyes off the board when his body carried him away from it. While looking through his bag, filled with tapes bearing the hasty markings of most creative people, he continued speaking.

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