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the wu-tang's chessmaster sits down for a chat
EDITOR'S 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, I'd 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.
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 Rap's 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 couldn't 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 they'd come up with a Wu Tang I couldn't resist," I said. So, PowerBook in hand, the firstborn son of a pusherman red eyed from LAX to JFK.
YOU DON'T 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' -- that's what Right On! and Black Beat are for. More solid homework is needed to track down the shogun's 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 Wu's 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of his sound, act like they never heard of him, to let their websites tell it (use Metacrawler and you'll find an outdated file still up). Luckily, www.TheDSC.com had a clear cut li'l 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. It's a rhyme he usually say, too, it's 'I'm a son, and I'm 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. We've all had different titles and names, we've been doing it for so long, our names and titles changed. Those were three titles at that time. It's 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 I'm 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. It's just me. It's how I am. I don't 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, I'm more in the cut, like Deck."
I reflected that he was right, as I swooped across the board and smacked his king's 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 queen's 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 wouldn't 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. I'm 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 we've done, accomplish what we've 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 I'm no Little Mary Sunshine, even if there's 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 can't 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 don't always paint what they see, they paint what they think, they just flow with the shit. That's 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 Fool's Mate, 4 Move Checkmate, he kept catchin' me until he couldn't 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. It's 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 it's 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.
"It's like a puzzle, all works are like puzzles. Thousands of pieces in a box, and you know how long it takes to put a puzzle together. Each piece, they all help each other, they all connect, they have to be put in the right place and it all makes a picture. I'll have shit on this page, it'll just be two or three lines. I'll have a beginning on this page, or something over here. We were on the road one day, on tour, a couple of years before I did my album. Somethin was on the radio and we went through a tunnel, and the radio went off. I was like, 'So deep it's picked up on radios in tunnels.' At that time you couldn't get shit in tunnels, now you can. That was like one piece of that puzzle.
"See, and I'm humble with it. It's like the nigga that bought the Marc McGuire ball, he gonna hold on to it. So I held on to it, I wasn't too eager to throw it on anything. I gotta have another piece of that puzzle to go with it. So I said, 'came through with the Wu, slid off on the DL/ low key like sea shells/ I rock these bells, now come aboard,' it's like a train. 'Come aboard, it's Medina bound,' Medina's Brooklyn, Brooklyn bound. 'It's a whole different sound/ a wide entrance, small exit like a funnel/ everything relate, so deep it's picked up on radios in tunnels.' Everything relates -- come on board, it's Medina bound. It's a wide entrance -- I'm lettin' niggas in. Everything is like pieces, just like when I say, 'My rhyme great gross weight vehicle combination.' Anybody who has a license and is familiar with it, that's a certain term, Gross Weight Vehicle Combination, for trucks. But I said, 'my rhyme great gross weight vehicle combination/ is too heavy for the Chevys that's chased out the station.' I'm talkin' 'bout Chevy, car, then I say station, what kind of station? So I say, 'Double edged was the guillotine that beheaded it/ gassed up, fuckin' with some regular unleaded shit.' He's in the station. Everything relates. but now I'm talkin' about guillotines, so I say, 'heads roll,' cause we took heads off, 'heads roll on hillsides behind ropes/ that bind in, now x marks the spot on the scope.' See, now that line right there is way deeper than muhfuckas. I'm talkin' about 'heads roll on hillsides behind ropes,' I'm takin' it back to Europe, Caucus Mountains, and Turkish soldiers who was guardin' the mountain when beasts tried to run out the cages, they took the head. Europe, 'eu' means hill side, and rope means the rope to bind in. That shit is just, you have to be dealin' with what I'm dealin' with to know what I'm talkin' about. The way it's put, only certain people will know or appreciate. Everything relates."
The earlier apprehension I felt had melted away -- animated, GZA starts walking around, still studying the chessboard like a final exam is coming -- and I'm hearing what makes him tick. That knight was still lingering in midfield, ready to gun down any intruders. I almost made a move, and he corrected me, gently, suggesting a better path, which saved me from a quick and merciless checkmate. He repositioned his rook and continued.
"Wu is the sound when a sword swings," at which he makes a "whoosh" sound. "But it's so fly, it's like, people who might not wanna swallow you will be like, 'that sounds fly.' Tang is what you hear when it hits an object or another sword. The tongue is a sword, when in motion it produces wind," which leads him to make the swishing hands sounds we all loved so much in kung fu movies, " ... just like when I speak. Everything is connected. If you look at the flicks, that's all they was doin' just like hip hop, we run around battlin' each other. Now it's ridiculous, because ... well, have you ever seen the flicks where a muhfucka don't wanna admit to defeat, he gotta end up gettin' killed? He got that bullshit in him, he got those devils in him, that hate or that envy, or whatever his own evil shit is. He don't wanna admit to the truth, and he ends up getting killed. That's how MCin' is now, that's why I don't even wanna rhyme with niggas. You relate it to kung fu, everybody runnin' around with they shit. Remember, the nicest niggas, they hold they shit. Like Bruce Lee, he'd always be in the cut. He may have been a little cocky with it, but I'm not cocky. Swordsman would recognize a swordsman. When you recognize someone you think is lyrically great, and they like your shit, you see the same. It ain't all about flippin and kickin, 'cause we flip lyrics and kick ass. That's what it is. Those battles were respectful, Busy Bee and Kool Moe Dee, you know? Those battles could be played on radio to this day. They wasn't profane, they didn't have so much crazy shit like some battles are today. Nowadays, it's more open it's more thrown directly at us. The way it's done now is corny. That was a whole different time. That shit came from muhfuckas hearts. Nowadays it's like 'he really threw somethin' at him.'"
I lament the cosigner mentality that has given employment to not just wack MCs but wack fools all over, and decide not to get started. Instead, I ask about the latest album Beneath the Surface, and he responds, "I'm making my shit for myself, first. I don't wanna make it sound fucked up, but I do it for myself. I've done it for others, and I fucked up. I was makin some shit that blew up in my face when I was on Cold Chillin. They said 'we need a radio song,' so I went and came up with this R&B shit, and that shit just fffft, when I had a whole album of hip hop shit for that era. They put out this shit, the last shit I did, put that out first. I tried to make that for people. People that's supportin' yo shit, they gonna roll with you regardless, because they feel what you feel. You just gotta write from inside.
"My new shit is ... man, it's like, 'too advanced digi-stance made the CD enhance/ I move with the speed and strength of ants/ identical in form with the bees they swarm/ hold up the cold current appear warm/ my first verbal brawl/ started on some yes yes y'all/ to the beat y'all/ break your windshield the jeep stalls/ it's the traffic/ dump shit from ecclesiastic/ cash here hold it now vine cut off the plastic/ You see the logo? A monument in hip hop/ carved out in a giant landscape of broken rocks/ Where the herd and herb spots/ the juke box and malt shops/ uncut live, I drop 85 with one shot/ spotlight hits the metal mic majority stare/ heard the Wu snare, while my iris cut down the glare/ I walk along the great length define/ too long to measure only my Clan'a/ make me rhyme like D. Banner/ under pressure.' Niggas ain't sayin' no shit like that. A lotta MCs think they lyrical, but if you technically break shit down, line for line, we crushin' niggas shit. Something will happen, everybody will be like that certain event. Like Oklahoma bombing, world trade, 'I get free like OJ." You ain't never heard none of that shit from me. My shit is more pure. You can see it on different levels.
"I got all the levels. You got niggas who got flows -- 'cause flowin is important -- and a lotta shit you rock 'cause of the flow. I can flow. You got niggas who got flows but ain't sayin' shit. They flow holds 'em. It's pretty, but 'they carry a shiny sword that ain't too sharp.' They foolin' a lotta people. 'I don't like it if it don't gleam gleam?' All that glitters ain't gold. If you want shit to gleam ... but it's all good, though. That's just a jewel."
I sat back, examining him. This is what I was sent to get, penetrate the dark secrets, and I still thought I could win. Watching a way for my queen to bumrush his king, I was awestruck when that rook slid past and stood ready to blow my scene apart. I whispered a curse and nodded in admiration.
He was changing the rules, moonwalking past your expectations, like with the "Publicity" single, which have inspired a less interesting questioners, he said, than myself.
"I was in this other interview," he remembered, "and she asked me, 'what's your song about?' I said, 'it's hip hop' -- I'm not being funny, I'm being blunt. She was like, 'I know it's hip hop, but what are you talkin' about?" I'm speakin' about so many different things. Most of my shit is able to flow free in any directions. You have to hear it, I was like, 'didn't you hear the song?' It's a free style, flowing free. The majority of my shit is just a whole bunch of shit, but still a clear picture. You can come off deep without trying to be deep. That's why I said, 'too many songs, weak rhymes is mad long/ make it brief, half short, twice strong.' That little simple shit will crush half niggas whole songs. They couldn't understand that. "What do you want people to get?" You can't ask me that. One time a producer asked me, 'what kinda beats do you like?"' That's like asking me how does energy look? I can't tell you that. Anytime you try to explain, they still don't get it."
I got it. He pinned my king to the left side with a rook and held me in place with a pawn. To quote Brother J, "checkmate sucka, not a move, game over." I understood that he outsmarted us all, and sleepin' on him was a sure way to make sure the last thing you hear is the clang of the flying guillotine.