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Nov 13, 2023

Chess and Hip-Hop, a Love Story

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The year 2020 has left an permanent mark on our memories with two distinct experiences: the unforgettable series ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ (which we miss dearly) and the seemingly endless lockdowns (an absence we miss far less). Since the release of ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ chess has witnessed an extraordinary resurgence in popularity. There are multiple factors contributing to this renewed interest, which we will delve into shortly.

However, it’s worth noting that chess is no stranger to the limelight in pop culture. While ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ created a massive buzz, it wasn’t the first time chess had made its way into the mainstream. Countless movies and songs have explored the intricate connections between chess and popular culture. So today, let’s delve into the intriguing relationship between chess and hip-hop!

Hip-Hop has always been ahead of its time in popular culture, and chess is no exception. This legendary game has been used, both metaphorically and literally, hundreds of times in US and French rap.

How Chess And Rap Are Connected

In the realm of chess, every move is a calculated step in a battle of wits. Players strategically maneuver to seize the upper hand, and when an opportunity arises, they don’t miss it! Each piece has a role, or at least attempts to find its role during the game. Chess is a game where there is no room for dishonesty, cheating, or pretense; it’s a straightforward showdown between two warriors. Themes of loyalty, destiny, fate, and resourcefulness have been seamlessly woven into the tapestry of Hip-Hop culture, particularly in the lyrics of rap artists. The connection between chess and rap is becoming increasingly apparent, isn’t it?

The Example of Wu-Tang Clan

The Wu-Tang Clan, notably RZA and GZA, have drawn profound inspiration from the game of chess in their artistic careers. Their debut album, ‘Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers,’ released in 1993, features a track titled ‘Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’,’ which opens with the lines: ‘The game of chess is like a sword fight, You must think first before you move.'

Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, Wu-Tang Clan, 1993

RZA, in his book ‘The Wu-Tang Manual’ (2005), recounts how he started learning chess at the tender age of 11, and how it has significantly influenced his life and work. He emphasizes that chess is an integral part of the ‘Wu-essence’, explaining, ‘It’s a game of war – it’s about battle. And Wu-Tang was formed in battles from challenging each other.’

RZA is the director of the Hip Hop Chess Federation, an organization whose mission is to ‘Help Chess players and enthusiasts from different walks of life.’ He has also been involved in funding a chess-based rehabilitation program for juvenile offenders in St. Louis, highlighting his deep connection to the game.

GZA and RZA playing chess

GZA views chess as a metaphor for life, stating, ‘Playing chess requires the same skills needed in life because you have to be aware of your surroundings. You have to observe your opponent, anticipate their moves, and plan ahead. That’s how life is in general, you have to plan ahead.’ In 2005, he released an album entirely dedicated to chess with Dj Muggs (the DJ of the Latin-American group Cypress Hill) titled ‘Grandmasters.’ The album includes tracks such as ‘Destruction of a Guard,’ ‘Opening,’ ‘Exploitation of Mistakes,’ and even ‘Queen’s Gambit’ (you see, I told you that Hip-Hop was ahead of its time 😉 ).

GZA playing with a fan at Immortal Game Event in Tampa, USA, 2022.

What About Other Rappers?

The Wu-Tang Clan is, of course, not the only one to reference chess in their tracks. Jay-Z also does it in ‘This Life Forever’:

‘Poppa raised me to chess moves


Over my years I’ve seen Rooks get taken by the Knight

Lose their Crown trying to defend a Queen

Checkmate, in 4 moves the Bobby Fischer of rap.’

We can also mention Lauryn Hill (from the Fugees): ‘I play my enemies like a game of chess, where I rest, No stress.’ Nicki Minaj, who showcases her superiority by comparing queens and chess: ‘You play checkers, couldn’t beat me playing chess.’ And Kodak Black, ‘I’m calculating every move, this sh*t is like playing chess.’

Alright, now that we’ve understood that US Rap is filled with references to chess, and French Rap being equally iconic, let’s see what’s happening there!

I want to remind you that chess is also a street art, as this game is often played outdoors, in parks, or on a sidewalk. This naturally reminds me of the classic track by the Fonky Family (a Marseille rap group) called ‘Art de Rue’ (French for ‘Street Art’), released in 1999 on their eponymous album. This track showcases various elements of Hip-Hop: Rap, Breakdance, Graffiti… We could add chess to the mix 😉

Art de Rue, Fonky Family, 1999

The chessboard metaphor is widespread, allowing artists to illustrate their contemplation of the world.

  • Medine - Home: ‘Le monde, un échiquier où règnent les rois, Où les pions noirs ont toujours un coup de retard’ -  ‘The world, a chessboard ruled by kings, where the black pawns are always a move behind.'
  • Mairo - Eritriste: ‘Chaque soir sur l'échiquier, J'me demande j'vais aller chez qui.’ - ‘Every evening on the chessboard, I wonder whose place I'll go to.'
  • Kery James - J’rap encore: ‘Chacun a sa place sur l’échiquier, j'informe les masses, vous polémiquez.’ - ‘Each has their place on the chessboard; I inform the masses, you debate.'
  • Deadi - Freestyle Underground: ‘Si bien qu'la loi du plus fou domine l'échiquier.’ - ‘So much that the law of the crazier dominates the chessboard.'

In the famous series The Wire, the chessboard is compared to the street, and D'Angelo explains its principles: ‘The king stays the king', ‘Pawns get taken out fast unless they're clever.' These are references found in rap lyrics, where artists draw parallels between chess and life because everything we learn in chess can be applied to our lives.

D’Angelo Explains How To Play Chess, The Wire, 2002

Marseille rapper SCH, on the other hand, uses the game to analyze the rap world: ‘Le rap, c’est un jeu d’échecs et les fous sont toujours au plus près du roi.’ - ‘Rap is a game of chess, and the mad ones are always closest to the king.'

Chess is sometimes used as a metaphor to assert superiority. Seth Gueko tells us, ‘Avec un fou, j’prends 2 tours sur ton échiquier’ - ‘With a bishop, I take two rooks on your chessboard' (I'd love to see that).

Finally, other rappers directly reference chess in the titles of their tracks:

  • IAM - Stratégie d’un pion - Pawn’s strategy
  • Sofiane - Echec et mat - Checkmate
  • Dub Inc - L’échiquier - The chessboard

In short, Hip-Hop has shown more love to the game of chess than any other music form on earth. Perhaps this will give good ideas to other music genres, and in the meantime, we can confidently say that chess is a game that transcends generations, cultures, and social classes... Probably the best game that has ever existed? 😉