The King's Gambit: GZA Is Playing Chess With Fans Ahead of His Dallas Show

Azuree Wiitala
The world is a game of chess for GZA, who has no time for your cousin's BS.
On the other end of the phone line, a teaspoon is clinking against a glass. Hip-hop icon The GZA is ready to talk about his favorite game in the world: chess.

“Everything is based on mathematics,” he says. “Chess is calculation of movements. It’s just questions and answers, really. ‘The opening’ is defined by a response. White moves first, but depending on how black answers, it defines the opening.”

The legendary Wu-Tang Clan rapper is scheduled to return to DFW for a show at Trees at 8 p.m. on Friday, June 17. Ahead of the Dallas show and other stops on his tour, fans have the opportunity to play chess with GZA before his performances, as a sort of unorthodox meet-and-greet.

Despite his longstanding association and love for the game, GZA say he has little interest in playing chess professionally. He’s never been rated and has never entered in any actual tournaments. Unsurprisingly, GZA is a big fan of the smash chess-themed Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit starring Anya Taylor-Joy.

“I actually played chess with [Scott Frank] the director and writer of the show,” GZA says. “I think it’s a great show and it opens the idea of chess to many individuals who aren’t really thinking about [it]. Since the release of [the show], the sales of chess boards have risen 400% and I just think it’s a great story.”

The game has become more than a passtime for the rapper. It's a big part of his life.

“It’s so much a part of my daily routine,” he says. “I play chess every day, I play individuals from my clan — when we do meet up. I study openings, games, everything.”

GZA is also a fervent puzzle and crossword enthusiast.

“Anything to work my brain,” he says.

His brain has certainly gone to work over the past 30 years. Of all his Wu cohorts, GZA has been singled out for his lyrical sharpness, even at one point telling scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson that the name Wu-Tang refers to a sword, representing the "sharpness" of the group’s members. Despite his reputation as a lyrical master, GZA says that he doesn’t read as many complete books as he should these days, but still maintains a voracious appetite for knowledge.

“There’s millions of books,” he says in reference to any recent book recommendations. “The Bible is an interesting book. … I once read a book about the thought process of plants. How does a plant think? Look at Venus flytraps that close on insects. I have a book called Buzz [by Thor Hansen] that’s about bees, and I could write three albums around that book.”

The inner worlds of plants and insects naturally made him reflect on his own. In 2014, a study by scientist Matt Daniels that measured the number of unique use of words used in rap, determined that GZA had the second biggest vocabulary in hip-hop, after Aesop Rock.

“No disrespect to me,” he says. “But when I saw that I supposedly had the [second biggest vocabulary in hip-hop] and I think of my vocabulary, it’s not that extensive. It made me realize that rap was in this fucked-up position. I’m not calling myself dumb or anything, but it's not really about vocabulary. It’s about the way to structure your sentences and the way you put it together. You have to put things in the simplest terms in order to understand. Sometimes some things are complex because they’re layered — my raps are layered — but it’s not about being really deep, it’s about being simple.”

He goes on to cite one of his own rhymes an example of that linguistic economy, from “I Gotcha Back” off his landmark solo album Liquid Swords: “I was always taught my do's and don'ts/For do's I did, and for don'ts, I said I won't.”

There are no "big" words in the bar — just the right ones.

“Half-short, twice strong,” he says, quoting his 1997 song “As High as Wu-Tang Get.”

“Whatever I say in 16 bars, I should be able to say in eight bars," he says. "It’s about being complex and being simple at the same time. Everything is based on mathematics. I could go on and on, I’m just talking shit right now.”

Aren’t we all just “talking shit” when gushing about our passions?

“If you’re not talking shit, what fun are you having?” GZA says, laughing. “One can’t just be a serious motherfucker all the time. You don’t like jokes or wordplay on serious political issues? Come on.”

The rapper says he keeps himself in a state of open mindedness in order to accept new information.

“There’s this misconception that I’m this science geek, but I’m just open," he says. "I’m open to how we’re connected to the world. Everything that’s of value, I want to teach in my music, even if it’s coded. I can’t be around motherfuckers who can’t educate me or uplift me. If I have a shallow cousin who only talks about pussy and sneakers, I think, ‘I’m never going to learn from this motherfucker.’ I want to know what’s causing an electron to move around a nucleus. If an electron was the size of a tennis ball, it would be nine miles away from the nucleus. That’s mind-blowing!”

When asked what’s the best way to spark that interest in today's youths, he clears his throat and the teaspoon clinks again.

“How do you get a child to eat vegetables? You disguise it!” he says. “You put the cauliflower in the mashed potatoes, you put the spinach in the brownie. You just make it sound appealing! You can’t just say ‘the Earth is the third planet from the Sun.’ No! You have to come to them like, ‘Thought produced a speck of light and it’s infinitely hot and extremely bright!’ You have to come as a narrator. Like a vegan hotdog that tastes just like meat.”

For the better part of the last decade, GZA has been working on his sixth full-length LP, titled Dark Matter, an entirely science-based concept album that has yet to be completed.

“I was offered to do a mixtape with [DJ Muggs], who I did Grandmasters with, but there wasn’t a lot of money and I don’t write as fast, so I’ve been prolonging it," GZA says. "I’ve been working with different musicians; I want it to be orchestral, I just think the concept was so strong that I couldn’t just do a mixtape.”

GZA says he'll finish the album at some point, but his concepts have changed.

“I want to do it in chronological order,” he says. “Start in space, bring it to the oceans, but I’m restructuring it and figuring out how can I bring this to the people and still be satisfied with what I’m doing."

“There’s this misconception that I’m this science geek, but I’m just open ... I’m open to how we’re connected to the world. Everything that’s of value, I want to teach in my music, even if it’s coded. I can’t be around motherfuckers who can’t educate me or uplift me." –GZA

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While in Europe in 2016, GZA told the world via Instagram that he was collaborating on new material with Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire composer Vangelis.

“I thought about doing Dark Matter with Vangelis, but it was a roadblock in a way,” GZA says. “This is a man who I spent four days with when I went to Paris. He didn’t work with a metronome, there was no tempo, he just wanted to compose, and I wasn’t used to writing like that. I can write a lot of rhymes, but I didn’t want this to be spoken word. I wanted some sort of rhythm to it. The label I owe the album to [Babygrande], they want some hip-hop.”

Vangelis died in May, and it’s not clear if any fruits of those sessions will make the final cut of Dark Matter. Since announcing the album at the beginning of the 2010s, GZA has only released two new songs in the last 14 years, neither of which are intended to make the final track listing of Dark Matter. One of them, a high-energy cover of English rock band Babe Ruth’s “The Mexican” featuring Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello on guitar, was primed for chart success, even garnering GZA an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

“It was supposed to be on the Wu-Tang album A Better Tomorrow,” he says. “I thought it would have been such a big song for the Wu. We got Tom Morello and originally wanted La India to sing on it, but somehow, they couldn’t clear it [for release]. Yet it was such a passion of mine, that I just put it out through Babygrande on my own with K.I.D. singing.”

GZA says he still performs “The Mexican” live, mostly with The Wu-Tang Clan, and still holds a soft spot for the song.

“I always love ‘The Mexican,'” he says. “It's such a strong song, it means a lot to me.”

As his other nickname “The Genius” implies, GZA is a smart man and it shows profoundly his work and in his evangelical desire for people to learn ... anything.

“I just felt it was my connection with the world,” he says of his lust for knowledge. “Once you understand and realize your connection to the world, it opens you up to many more things. Like how many days can you go without water? Not many. How many days did you go without food? More than water. Some people don't respect water until they’re drowning or dying of thirst.”