About seven years ago, I was speaking at San Francisco Juvenile Hall talking to teen boys about journalism and being an author as a career choice. I was promoting my first independent book release Lyrical Swords: Hip-Hop and Politics in the Mix. Despite often connecting easy with kids, this talk was crashing and burning like no other talk I’d given before. I glanced in my backpack and remembered there was a chessboard in there. I held the board up and asked, “Who here knows how to play chess?”
To my astonishment, about 75% of the room raised their hand. “OK, that’s good!” I yelled out with a smile. “But who here is the best?! Only keep your hand up if you know you are the best.” Only a few hands went down. “Alright, here is what’s going to happen,” I declared. “We are going to have a tournament. Whoever wins gets a book. Circle up, let’s do this.”
The energy in the room became electric. I saw racial and other social barriers fall right in front of me, all because of chess. The entire scene blew my mind.
I asked myself, “How did these kids know so much about chess?” An avalanche of rap lyrics from Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan and EPMD collapsed on my brain simultaneously. Hip-hop gave me the answer. As I exited the concrete hallways with flickering fluorescent lights strobing the stairwell, I said, “This is something big.” Within the next year, I founded the Hip-Hop Chess Federation, a nonprofit to teach chess and life strategies to at-risk youth. We also use martial arts philosophy to reinforce the lessons that rap and chess teach.
For some, it might easy to default to the Wu-Tang Clan’s rise as the apex of this fusion between rap and chess. But to start and end with Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers denies the full scope of the relationship between the grandmasters of chess and hip-hop.
The truth is, when Brooklyn’s own Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky in September 1972, chess was huge. Those games were aired on PBS and the network had its highest ratings ever! In November 1973, a young gang leader from the Bronx named Afrika Bambaataa founded the Universal Zulu Nation to cultivate hip-hop and promote peace throughout the city. At that same time, movies from Bruce Lee and the Shaw Brothers were taking over America. Stratagems from eastern philosophy started to spread into the streets of New York City. A perfect cultural storm was brewing.
Street chess games played on the corners, the parks and prisons would ultimately serve as the glue between these subcultures. Neither chess nor hip-hop would be the same again. Chess gave hip-hop political, social and spiritual symbolism for metaphors that no other game had given them. RZA, Will Smith, 50 Cent and others represent a growing number of chess-playing MCs who have amazing business minds for the music industry. So it’s not just good for the art; it’s good for business.
At first glance, it might seem strange that there may be any substantial connections between the world’s most intellectually revered board game and the dynamic musical art form of hip-hop. Chess, an ancient practice over 1,500 years old, often today conjures up images of rich old men on park benches. To blend that highbrow image with the effervescent rush of inventive lyrics and pulsating, rebellious beats of hip-hop can seem hard to mesh. But that’s only if you’re looking at the surface.
And yet, the stereotypical differences that seem to create a chasm between chess and hip-hop soon wilt under closer inspection. For one, with the advent of the digital age and ready-made computer instruction, today’s chess is a game for the young. The best chess players in the world are under 30. Public school teams are represented in full glory every year at national scholastic chess championships, with the most accomplished team in the last 10 years, I.S. 318, coming straight out of Brooklyn.
Even the slow, grandfatherly pace no longer holds water. The most popular form of chess is “blitz chess,” where players compete with less than five minutes to complete all their moves, lest they lose the game on time. At that speed, chess becomes a blend of sophisticated pattern recognition, intense focus and spirited improvisation. Watching two players bang out moves with precious few seconds on the clock can thrill and hypnotize just as much as Mike Relm or DJ QBert slicing up a turntable.
While chess can be coldly analytic, it’s the perpetually creative and individualized styles that separate the players at the very top. You could say world champion Magnus Carlsen plays in the style of Common. He doesn’t care to insert himself into the battle with a whole lot of ego. Instead, he slowly envelops his opponents with subtle ideas and smooth syncopations. They succumb to his skill and an assuredness that somehow always seems totally effortless.
On the other hand, Hikaru Nakamura, America’s top player, mimics N.W.A with his gangsta style. He comes straight for the jugular with vicious blow after vicious blow to eviscerate his opponents with killer movement. He’s not giving a damn what the world thinks about his overly aggressive style and brash personality. It may say something about the nature of life and competition that when the two face off, the calm and cool Carlsen almost always endures. Stylish doesn’t mean a lack of determination.
It should then come as less of a surprise that musicians have embraced the art form of chess as a means of relaxation and creative expression. The fusion of hip-hop and chess is beautiful and dynamic on many levels. There’s a mountain of still untapped potential in this artistic and intellectual union. The amount of lyrics about chess in the rap world can be cool, dark and often times very inspirational. But if MCs are really going to take the fusion to the next level, they’re going to have to raise the bar on their knowledge of the game.
For more on chess, The Immortal Game by David Shenk, Chess Bitch by Jennifer Shahade and Birth of the Chess Queen by Marilyn Yalom are all recommended. After reading about the Black Moorish conquerors of Spain taking the game to Europe, algebraic notation, we should see rappers naming champions other than Bobby Fischer. There’s still much more lyrical work and history breakdowns to be done! I look forward to hearing and seeing more from the chess and rap community as this beautiful marriage continues to progress.