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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Top Ten Chess Lyrics in Hip-Hop

Chess blog for latest chess news and chess trivia (c) Alexandra Kosteniuk, 2013

Hello everyone, 

Hip-hop and chess have been connected for a long time. In fact, of all the music on Earth, no other form of genre has celebrated chess as much as rap. This seems ironic, considering the mental picture one usually gets of the music being played during a chess match is something by Beethoven or Vivaldi.

We found this very nice article by the president of Hip-Hop Chess Federation, Adisa Bankoko on "Top-10 Chess Lyrics in Hop-Hop".

One of the things that makes rap music unique is that many times, the goal of the artist is to leave the listener smarter than they were before they started listening. So you come in knowing nothing about the drug game but Biggie Smalls handed you “Ten Crack Commandments”. Maybe you knew nothing of Black Power and Public Enemy gave you “Rightstarter (Message to A Black Man)”. You never saw the impact of gang violence, but now you heard the words of “Ghetto Vet” by Ice Cube. Hip-hop’s intimate sharing of the secrets of both life and death gives it a yin-yang feeling

This intent of the rapper to educate the listener is unique to rap music. Neither rock, jazz, nor blues have this as a core element of their existence. That’s why when a song from those genres does happen to educate, it’s a highly celebrated moment. It is one of the things that makes rap so dangerous, beautiful, and rightly feared by many in the mainstream. In all the phases Hip-Hop has gone through — pro-Black, gangsta, etc. — chess has been a constant. It’s one of the many things in rap that are hidden in plain sight

NOTE: Before we get started, “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” is not in the list. Not because it’s not dope (I love the song), but because the game of chess is not actually mentioned. I have always interpreted the point of that song to be that they bring the war to you lyrically, like a chess game. It’s an intro to all the lyrical chess masterpieces the Wu brought after. Now, let’s take a look:

10: Public Enemy, Rebel Without A Pause

No matter what the name, we’re all the same/ Pieces in one big chess game

This song is arguably one of the most outstanding pieces of lyricism from any artist. This is one of the earliest rap lyrics that use chess as a metaphor to describe the state of Black America. The idea that even our leaders were being played felt so real. Chuck Ds’ lyrical use of the game of chess was like taking a cold knife to the heart

9: X-Clan, “A Day of Outrage, Operation Snatchback”

Thought we weren’t coming, but it seems you made an error/ Wrench in the mill, systematic order has arrived/ Cornered by the Order/ Checkmate, sucka — not a move, game’s over!

As much of a melting pot as hip-hop culture is today, it was not always that way. The late 80’s and early 90’s were riddled with a lot of racial violence. One such incident involved a young kid named Yusef Hawkins, who was murdered by an white mob in NY. His death led to a march for justice that ended in a clash between the NYPD and marchers. It was dubbed “A Day of Outrage,” and X-Clan (who were heavily involved in the event itself) made a song that was both a call to rebel against the police and to keep the memory of Yusef Hawkins alive in the minds of Black America. Similar to Public Enemy, chess is used as a metaphor. However, this time, it’s used to symbolize victory for Black people. This was what rap music was like before post-racial America (whatever that means)

8: Vinnie Paz, No Spiritual Surrender

I can ascend without any physical death, I can repent without any physical breath/ To me, it’s not a discussion — it’s invisible chess

Vinnie Paz is easily one of the most underrated rappers in the history of the game. Despite (or perhaps because of) his penchant for lyrical ultra-violence, he has a visual style that is unmatched. He has several lines about chess in his music, but this one struck me because it spoke to a chess on a deeper level. Researching esoteric spirituality, I once read an amazing essay about chess gnostics from Moorish Spain. This line reminds me of that state of mind. Paz hints that the game is bigger than the pieces themselves, and is really a symbol of the soul’s journey. Beyond race, beyond politics, beyond all existence, this line is about complete transcendance

7: Conejo, “Pawns in A Chess Game”

Pawns in a chess game, is what they say we are, ‘cause we go around the city busting gats outta cars/ At others like us, or we could see your race/ Tear drops on my face for my boys in the grave

If you don’t know about the West Coast underground scene, you probably don’t know Conejo. He does some of that trill Latino street rap. I came across this song bumping around YouTube, and I was hooked from the second I heard the horns play. It echos Chuck’s sentiment from “Rebel Without A Pause,” but Conejo has slightly different take. He’s proud to be a soldier off the block and, if you don’t understand why, he doesn’t care

6: 50 Cent, Piggy Bank

This is chess not checkers, these are warning shots/ After your next move, I’ll give you what I got

50 Cent went hard in the paint on this one. It goes without saying that Nas is one of the all-time greats. But on this track 50 really showed he had some skill. He had a fun hook and some “I gives a damn” lyrics for Nas, Fat Joe, Jadakiss and others. It’s noteworthy that he ended the tune with a slick chess reference. This highlights once again how much the dynamics of a good chess game align with the skills needed to survive on the street

5: T.I. Why You Wanna

This nigga playing mind games, man/ I think the time came that you mind changed, you understand/Life is like a chess move, you need to make yo next move/ Yo best move!

A lot of people might be shocked that I posted something in here with T.I., especially because this is such a pop hit. But the truth is, Tip was playing chess in the video for “What You Know,” and most people ignored it. So he dropped another chess reference on “Why You Wanna”, and people still miss it. On the radio version, it never makes the cut. But those with the album hear the connection between wisdom on the street and the 64 squares. T.I. stay winning, and it is no accident.

4: Apathy, Checkmate

Psychotic, I slice optics of cyclops/ In water with warlocks, through Indian corn stalks/Chessboard blocks become blood-red/ Blood clots block brains and lock with thoughts of pawns in shock/ I shot, crossbows and toss flows across moats/ To pierce the archer’s armor, armed with arrows/ Pole points from elbows, with joints joined with marrow/ To maim, the tip of the arrows lit with flame/ Checkmate — the death of your king ends the game

This song is a masterpiece from front to back. Apathy’s only flaws are that he says the knight moves 4 spaces and they only move 3, and he calls the queen a “whore.” We can chalk this sexism up to the rapper being only 16 when he wrote this, and hope that he has by now learned better

Apathy could easily sit next to Vinnie Paz in The Book of Slept On MC’s (remind me write that one day). Almost nowhere is that more evident than in the song “Checkmate.” I could easily have chosen the entire song for this list (and almost did!)

It starts with him accepting the pressure of the game in what Garry Kasparov calls “the black and white jungle.” From the imagery of the moats and archers to the intent to attack enemies to the marrow, its a wonderful journey through the immortal game

3: RZA’s verse on Method Man’s Mr. Sandman

A damn I rest, playing chess, yes/ My thoughts be sneaky like a crook from Brooklyn/ When you ain’t looking, I take the queen, with the rook then/ I get vexed, laying phat trax on Ampex

This rap is emblematic of the Wu. Like much of their work, it appears simple, but it’s deeply laced with knowledge. I like how RZA spits here. It’s really intelligent, but at the same time his energy on the track is frantic. On a more personal note, I also like it because in a game I played with him one time in San Francisco he smashed me with his rooks mid game and I was mad at myself for forgetting this lyric. Also, when he won the HHCF Championship belt, he did it with a back rank mate using his rook. The moral is, if you’re going to sit down at a chess board with RZA, listen to his songs first!

2: Jay-Z, This Life Forever

Niggas tryna subtract my life, my mathematics is precise/ I carry the nine, so fucking with me just aint the answer/ I can’t lose — when I was young i was like Fresh, Poppa raised me to chess moves/ And though you’re gone, I’m not bitter, you left me prepared/ We got divided by the years, but I got it from here / Don’t sweat that, sounds bump from Marcy to Lefrak/ To that pocket in DC where my man caught his death at/ Over my years i’ve seen rooks get tooken by the knight/ Lose they crown by tryna defend a queen/ Checkmate, in 4 moves/ The Bobby Fischer of rap/ Where we all move

When Jay-Z first came out, I was not the biggest fan. I knew he had skill. I remember when The Jaz first came out and he was repping The Originators. I always felt Jay was an acquired taste. Maybe its because I’m from the Westside. Maybe its because I loved Pac and I was not mature enough to let go of my feelings over his death. But I was not into Jay-Z. Then I read Decoded and ended the book a fan. Not just of the artist, but the man. He was much deeper than I gave him credit for and his insights on rap and life were much more than I expected.

I always liked this song, but it took me a long time to see its many layers. First, Hov moves from math to chess (since so many studies show how much they are connected). He then goes on to mention the cult classic movie Fresh and how it reminded him of his relationship to his father. He mentions how he’s not bitter because his dad left him prepared. Immediately, he explains how he’s seen chess mirror life. He closes by naming himself “The Bobby Fischer of Rap,” signifying that he is the greatest to ever get down on the mic

1: GZA verse on Wu-Tang Clan’s Weak Spot

I stay on the 64 squares, while patrolling the center/ Trading space from material, the time zone, I enter / It’s calculated by movement, from pushed pieces / Advancements and development, once the pawn reaches/ To 8th ranked, now heavily armed with a tank/My opponent’s base is threatened, soldiers cut with shanks / Moved all my small pieces, MC’s are driven back / Unable to avoid capture from the attack Such movement, is naturally quite unsound / Men is badly placed upon dangerous grounds/ Loosening their position, before they were strongly posted / Before the double rooks had approached it / They must of been quick to ignore the principles /Rock a V and an effective God is invincible / A strategic plan, just the way I envisioned it/ Many fallen soldiers in complete imprisonment

Some may see this list and say that the Wu-Tang Clan seem to have an unfair amount of shine. That may be. But it is only because the Wu were always deadly serious about understanding chess, military strategy, and survival tactics and embedding those emotions and logistical conclusions in rap form. The Wu-Tang Clan did not invent the fusion of music, chess and martial arts — but they did perfect it.

While many really hated on 8 Diagrams, I thought it was pretty dope. Here is one of the jewels that show and prove my point. RZA drops a cold beat rooted in a sample from way back, and GZA hits an entire verse from the first pawn move to the end of the game. He opens by letting people know that he is focused on the center but sees the entire board. Then he speaks about developing his attack, grinding down of a position and ending it, and using visualization to lead him to victory

Adisa Banjoko aka The Bishop of Hip-Hop is the Founder of the non-profit Hip-Hop Chess Federation 501©3. He is also host of the Bishop Chronicles podcast. Email him at

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