RZA is done playing games. After spending the last hour contributing to a panel discussion about the academic and practical virtues of chess, the time has come to move his first pawn of the day and finally start kicking ass, Shaolin style.
Sitting at the center of a long, grey folding table, RZA taps the top of the small blue clock to his left, freezing time on his side of the chessboard. Now the seconds in this 10-minute round tick down for his first opponent, freckle-faced, square jawed Jiu Jitsu fighter Ralek Gracie–a grandson of Helio Gracie. He looks up at RZA, smirks and makes his counter move. With the first round of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation's eight man Chess King's Invitational tournament officially underway, the stuffy room in the back of the Anaheim Business Expo takes on a zen-like rhythm.
Grunts and whispered shit talking weave between the sharp clicks and clacks of the game clocks as tracks from the HHCF's chess-inspired hip hop mixtape Street Games Vol. 1 bump at low volume in the background. Players on the single table are squared off to do battle in what could be the most random chess-related event to ever happen in Orange County. And probably the most important as far as hip-hop heads are concerned.
On Sunday, the Wu Tang Clan's founding member defended his title in the annual timed chess tournament. RZA (a.k.a. Bobby Digital) won the first HHCF heavyweight title belt in 2007. Having ruffled the feathers of some very sensitive Wu Tang fans last week by failing to acknowledge RZA's love and dedication of the game (how many of you really knew he was an HHCF chess champion, though?), the least we could do was cruise in and check it out.
HHCF, a non-profit based in San Francisco's Mission District, partnered with another (slightly more physical) tournament for Jiu Jitsu, the KO Finisher, along with the LA Chess Club and crowdfunding site crowdtilt.com to bring the event to the Anaheim Business Expo this year. When we arrived, the KO Finisher tournament was still in full effect in the main hall of the venue, which seemed like a weird thing to encounter in the same building as a chess tournament. Throngs of buff dudes with gis, taped fingers and cauliflower ear congregated around sweaty, blue mats partaking in an entirely different sort of chess match as opponents tucked, rolled and wrestled their way to victory/defeat.
With the sweaty odor of battle funneling it's way into the backroom chess hall, HHCF founder Adisa "The Bishop" Banjoko began an opening afternoon panel discussion about the link between chess, hip-hop, martial arts and education. RZA sauntered in moments before with a grey and black trucker hat and dark-rimmed specs, towing a minor entourage that included his brother Terrance Hamlin, a rapper also known as The 9th Prince–basically a swole version of RZA in a tight red t-shirt. The family resemblance is obvious and the two even sport similar large frame glasses.
Also on the panel are Emilio Rivera (better known as "Alvarez" from Sons of Anarchy) and Rakaa Iriscience of revered L.A. rap outfit Dilated Peoples. Other speakers included Andrew McGregor, the founder of a club called LA Chessboxing who was rocking an adult one-piece pajama suit made to look like a chessboard and a homemade crown atop his head, Sergio Flores, the assistant superintendent for the Partnership of L.A. Schools, and Santee High School principal Dr. Martin Gomez.
Though most were lured to the event by the promise of a board game throwdown, the early panel discussion quickly reminded us that the HHCF was more about promoting their desire to get chess implemented in schools, especially in the inner city.
"In my opinion, you play chess, do martial arts or write lyrics, you gotta think ahead, you gotta have a format in your head and a formulation of thoughts. And if most of the kids where I grew up would think one or two moves ahead, they would avoid teenage pregnancy, crime…" he trails off into a story about holding up liquor stores as a youngster in Brooklyn, long before the days of Wu. Basically, chess and the arts, RZA says, are two major keys in transforming our public education system into something better than a failing institution like LAUSD that only graduates 50 percent of its kids. No argument there.
Rakaa Iriscience, who like RZA is a student of various fighting styles (though not quite as good at chess), believes that the principles of the game and mastery of the fistic arts go hand in hand as well. "I applied it in rap or in Jiu Jitsu like I'm gonna go for your ankle, but I really wanna break your arm. So if you guard your ankle, in three or four moves your arm is snapped." Ouch.
As if things didn't seem surreal enough, listening to hip-hop legends talk about Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, we couldn't help but notice something even more crazy…suddenly John Frusciante–yes, the all-around badass musician formerly of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, was standing in the corner taking it all in.
You may remember that in recent months Frusciante collaborated as a producer with RZA on some new music and the recently produced Black Knights album, Medieval Chamber which featured Crisis and Rugged Monk (who is one of the players in the tournament as well). He says he just decided to show up to support his friends. Of course we took the first opportunity during a cigarette break to ask him some questions about what he was up to musically. Not surprisingly, he told us that his ability to go 100% solo and forge an unlikely career in hip-hop has allowed him to make some interesting and artistic moves of his own.
"Nobody tells me what to do and I don't tell anybody else what to do and we can coexist," Frusciante says. "That never happens in a rock band, you're always worried what other people think and with this I don't have to worry about that, it's just friends communicating through the music and it's all just friendly communication. And I can put any aspect of any style of music in hip-hop."
So anyway, back to chess…
It was evident early on the RZA would be slaughtering dudes in this tournament all day long. Showing masterful restraint, he picked off most of his opponents one by one, grunting here and there as a took a rook or a queen or some other member of the royal family from the player across from him. However, timed chess definitely isn't child's play.
"Off the clock I'm alright," he says, during a break in the action. "On the clock is hard. It's a different world."
RZA won six of his seven rounds and ended up in first place yet again, with Andrew McGregor and Shafiq Husayn of Sa-Ra, second and third place respectively. Both gave RZA a decent run for his money at several points in the tourney. But as he held up his well-defended HHCF belt (yes, there was an actual belt involved), RZA reminded us all once again that whether it's hip-hop or chess, Wu Tang Clan ain't nothin' to fuck with.