We Played Chess Against Masta Killa

And obviously, he whipped the pants off us.

Basim Usmani

A game of chess is like a sword fight. You must think first before you move. Wu-Tang Clan member Masta Killa came over to my house to play some chess and proceeded to absolutely pin my King for three hours.

He played white, and his opening style was very much like his flow, which changes like a chameleon. He opens up his Queen's Pawn as his first move (D2-D4). Playing white, it's the safest opening he could have made in the game, tipping the odds of winning the game gently in his direction (which according to Wikipedia is 38% in white's favor, 29% in black's). The replies to early moves in Chess are generally symmetrical; you move your Queen's Pawn, I'll move my Queen's Pawn right in front of it. The Masta, or the high chief, Jamel Arief, as he refers to himself in "Triumph," makes some unorthodox choices.

For his second move, Masta develops his knight and moves it from G1 to F3. Those early first turns are about developing your army, and moving your pawns into the center of the board, and Masta achieves this by developing his Knight. While black's Pawns are making their way to the board's center, Masta's white Knight deftly leapfrogs around his lone pawn.

Within 20 minutes he will have taken both Bishops, both Knights, both Castles, and slaughtered most of the "developed" Pawns. His back row, besides being castled, will be mostly at rest, untouched. The genocide happened at the hands of his maniacal Knight from G1, his fearless Queen and a modest Pawn. A gaggle of the surviving black Pawns, and their soon to be deposed monarchy have been chased from their side of the board. Masta's Queen and Knight stand on the row where black's should have been, on the corner squares where white's castles would have stood. In short: Masta Killa chopped my motherfucking head off with the Wu-Tang sword.

In "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'," Masta says he "plays like a friend and stabs you like a dagger." Legend has it, MK was a non-rapper who was attending night school classes while the rest of the Clan was recording classic cuts like "Protect ya Neck," whose appearance on "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'" was incidental. But don't take that as a sign of weakness—Masta Killa moves in mysterious ways. After deposing the black king in his chess match, he boasts that the GZA is actually his student at the game.

He recited the words of the abbot, the Wu Tang Clan's leader, the RZA:

Remedy for stress
is three bags of sess
a day of my rest
playing chess, yes

His moves on and off the board seem non-linear while retaining a natural air. His reign is a product of his own intuition. He claims he never planned to become an MC but as a fan had remained "highly absorbent" of what was going on around him. While he's been absorbing, the Clan itself has been exuding its influence to areas all around it.

Lately, the RZA has been tweeting images of the Boombot Rex, the Wu's forthcoming signature Bluetooth (henceforth to be known as the Wu-Tooth, because obviously). Not only does it reach high volumes while maintaining bass-clarity, but it comes loaded with the new Wu-Tang album, A Better Tomorrow. The album might drop in physical form December 2, but you can cop a WuTooth speaker and get early access to the songs two weeks earlier.

NOISEY: What were the early days like when you were all recording Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)?
Masta Killa:
That particular album was the birth of me when it came to being an artist. You knew it was something special. Me and GZA played chess on the regular, and one particular night he was going to the studio. I had to go to night school. One day, he came back with a tape of what they had done in the studio, and tape was "Protect Ya Neck." When I heard it, all I couldn't stop thinking like, "I'm never going back to night school, and whatever I gotta do, I gotta get my start now." We must have been early 20s.

I think your earliest appearance on a Wu release was on "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'"?
That was the verse I ever wrote. We used to freestyle, but when someone said, "I want to get you on the record," I knew I had to write it. So I went to the crib and started writing to get something that can bang with these brothers.

What can I get that can bang on a beat, what am I going to say? What am I going to say to be accepted on this all-star team?

Homicides illegal and death is a penalty / What justifies the homicide, when he dies? / In his own iniquity it's the / Master of the Mantis Rapture coming at you / We have an APB on an MC Killer / Looks like the work of a Master / Evidence indicates that's its stature / Merciless like a terrorist hard to capture / The flow, changes like a chameleon / Plays like a friend and stabs you like a dagger

What were some of your inspirations?
There's so many great MCs, man. KRS One, Nas, Jay Z, Black Thought, Big Daddy Kane. When Big Daddy Kane says something there's so much meaning there.

"I work like a slave to become a master." Shit. You know what I'm saying?

I'm a fan of hip-hop first before I was an artist, and when you're a fan of the work, and you're a listener, you may take a page from this person, or a page from this person. Knowledge is infinite. I try to stay absorbent to the universe.

You're going to try to bring forth something the world can appreciate.

Rakim said, "These thoughts make me deeper than down." How can you be "deeper than down?"

There's so much more for me to give. I'm excited. The new album's name is A Better Tomorrow because we should always look forward to a better tomorrow. My worst day could be somebody's best day, so I'm always looking for a better tomorrow.

What's a recent album that's impressed you?
I like that last Jay Z album.I love albums like that where I can just put the album on and let it run. That's the direction, I think.

I have a question for you.

Would you say more people want to accepted or respected?

When it comes to music in any form, more people want their music to be accepted than respected. If you do something outside the box, you have a 50/50 chance of being successful. But I respect most is individualism. But what's successful for some might be different for someone else.

All of the early Wu Tang Clan were characterized as having really distinct flows. Sometimes I think you could have been spitting another language entirely on 36 Chambers, and it would still be as beloved.
Sometimes it takes me years to catch on to the lyrics of my favorite artists. So many of the things Rakim, or KRS said, I didn't catch it til years later. I was sounding it out because it sounded good, but I didn't know what he was saying. And to understand the depth or intelligence of some lines, sometimes it took me years to catch on.

Wu is putting out A Better Tomorrow on a bluetooth speaker. That seems really forward-thinking.
In chess the game is never over until it's over, and that's what you have to always respect. Against any opponent it isn't over until it's over.

Any punch that you can see coming should not knock you out. You can block it, you can duck it. Anything you see coming shouldn't knock you out.

It's kind of like side-stepping the computers for a bit.
That computer, man. [Laughs]. It's a blessing and it's a curse at the same time.

Instead of sweating computers we're looking into the future, and coming up with brilliant marketing tools, schemes and plans that breaks barriers and opens up doors for more people to add on.

When you think of the economy nowadays, the dollar is down. People are doing the best they can, and when what you can get for free is what people used to have to pay for, it changes the whole dynamic.

For the artist, and everyone who plays a part in making an album successful, you have producer, staff, engineers, so many people who put their time and effort into a project. All the people you may not even have heard of are proud to say, "I picked a string on this," or "I blew a horn on it."

I'm not trying to put together something sloppy, I'm up at nights. I'm not getting any rest. I'm going from here to there. It's like when I see an athlete in the field, it looks easy. I didn't see all the preparation that went into it. Why wouldn't I buy a ticket to see Floyd, or buy a pay per view special. He put so much time in the gym. He makes it look easy but the blood sweat and tears he put into that is undeniable.

So this is to give value to the music?
This tool right here is definitely going to open up new doors for the artist, and give value to the music.

It's great when you're thinking about your fans and the people who appreciate you. I'm thinking about making new ways for you to enjoy my music. I love my fans, and when they buy my product, and I want them to feel good about it.

What can you tell us about the new Wu-Tang album?
What I am most impressed by is my brother RZA's elevation of where he's gone as a producer. He may have started out on a drum machine, but to see him now come into a studio and play any instrument. Musically, we have expanded to make songs that are more, I would say, originally made. From hand. From scratch. Instruments played. Still with the boom-boom-bap because that's the foundation of hip-hop. So as long as you got that, it's within everything else. I think fans are really going to appreciate musically where we're at.

Is the record going to be gritty or more polished?
We've got over 700-800 songs in our catalog. If you're looking for that old gritty sound out the crate, we've got 700 songs that sound like that. So I hope fans can appreciate the growth of us as artists.

Music is like water, it's like wisdom. It can go on and on and on. There's no limitation to how you can shape it into the likeness, and innovatively, I think the Rza is one of the best producers on the planet.

Rza is hands on—that's the abbot. He listens to everything. There has never been a time when Rza has something on the grill and I wasn't feeling it. And I'm loving the new sounds personally. To me, everyday I strive to grow. I think that's very important for the fans to go for development musically. I'm interested to see how they're gonna react to the album. There's different chambers of music. There's 360 degrees. You might go and hear this chamber. I'm in the slow music chamber, to something totally opposite. Like Speedy Gonzales, know what I mean?

I think everything has its place. I can't expect everyone to do what Wu-Tang does because everybody is not Wu-Tang.

What's the most mind-blowing shit about performing all over the world?
It can take a lot to phase me. It probably was not the women. To keep it real with you, I've been fucking since I was like ten. I'm not proud of it, but I had my hustle days in the 80s. I've been blessed to have smart, beautiful women around me since the beginning.

But to go to different cities where they're speaking another language, but know every word to your song… I was in Japan, and none of them are speaking English, but they knew each and every word of our songs. That was mind blowing.

Where in Brooklyn were you brought up?
When you live in Brooklyn, and you're born here, you've probably been through every section. For me, I've been everywhere. Brooklyn has always been a cultural place, always been a melting pot of people. It was coming up it was very rough. The streets were rough. It was hard to keep a pair of sneakers on your feet.

People take for granted, like—OK, you can just walk into a store and buy $120 Jordans. Back then, you could do that… but could you keep them on your feet? That was the question.

I had an Izod shirt, I must've been 11 years old. That's when I bump into "DEEEEE BOO…" I was 11 years old at the time, and this man named Deebo walks over and says, "Yo shorty, we're gonna switch shirts, I'm gonna give you my shirt, and you're gonna give your shirt."

Deebo's shirt came down to my knees when I put it on. When he put on my shirt it must've looked like a belly shirt. But he took my shirt, and I was 11. Growing up out here, there's no one exempt from real shit happening. If you're growing up in Brooklyn, you will not be exempt from real shit happening. But it's all love. Brooklyn is love.

Real shit can happen anywhere.

Yeah, and it's probably being recorded.
Did you see that video of the police officer who shot a man who was just reaching to get his identification out of the car. You told him to get his ID. So you shoot him? Unfortunately, the police are killing us every day.

If he had survived that shot, they would have just shot him anyways. He would have been just another dead original man, who they'll find a way to discredit. Hopefully we can use better recordings because police need to finally be locked up for these doing these sorts of things. I would think twice about pulling a trigger, if I had to get locked up for 25 years with the people I've been locking up.

Thanks for coming by and destroying me at chess.
No problem.

Basim Usmani is like water. Follow him on Twitter.