By Zoneil Maharaj
Mar 9, 2007 - 12:00 AM
A public library seems like an odd place to hold a hip hop tournament. But on the second floor of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in San Jose that’s exactly what’s going on.
B-Boys, deejays and emcees sign up and get ready to battle their opponents inside of a conference room. DJ Q-Bert, the seasoned DJ battle champ who possesses what might be the fastest hands in hip hop, brings his own clock ready to rock a speed round. To everyone’s astonishment, he loses to Kevin Epps, independent filmmaker and director of Straight Outta Hunter’s Point. Huh?!
Even Casual, the hip hop veteran of Hieroglyphics fame with an intimidating stature, gets served…by an eight-year-old.
“I forfeit, you won,” Casual says after being literally forced into submission.
That’s because in this battle, it doesn’t matter how fast you can freak a fader or how quick-witted your punchlines are, it comes down to patience, logic and precise decision-making. This is Hip Hop, Chess and Life Strategies – the world’s first hip hop chess tournament held on Feb. 23, featuring hip hop icons, martial arts experts and chess masters as they compete against each other and average Joes and Janes.
“I wanted to show an authentic intelligent side of hip hop that wasn’t forced,” says Adisa Banjoko, the journalist, independent publisher and author who organized the event. It was Banjoko’s son, Ayinde, who defeated Casual.
While working on his latest book Lyrical Swords 2: Westside Rebellion – a compilation of essays, interviews and profiles which includes a profile of Maurice Ashley, the world’s first and only black international chess grandmaster – Banjoko discovered what he calls hip hop’s “intellectual dirty secret.” This secret is the hip hop community’s fascination with chess, made evident on this day.
Those with attentive ears, like Banjoko, have caught the references to chess from early on when conscious, intellectual hip hop was still incubating in American society. Since hearing the line from Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without A Pause”: “No matter what the name, we’re all the same pieces in one big chess game,” he’s sought other hip hop activists who were as passionate about chess as he was. Ironically, Banjoko says, chess became a metaphor for street survival with the emergence of hard-core gangster rap.
Even 50 Cent alludes to chess on “Piggy Bank,” when he raps, “This is chess not checkers, these are warning shots. After your next move, I’ll give you what I got.”
“I’d be surprised if he (50 Cent) didn’t play by the way he runs his business,” says Banjoko who blogs for San Francisco Chronicle’s web site SFgate.com.
The members of the Wu-Tang clan are probably the biggest proponents of chess, especially GZA, whose debut album Liquid Swords depicted graphic illustrations of warriors fighting on a chess board. In 2005, he also released “Grandmasters” with DJ Muggs, an album conceptualized and based on the theme of chess, using the game as an extended metaphor for hip hop.
Inside of the MLK library, tables are being set up with rubbery chess mats. D’Lamont Robinson, the regional coordinator for Academic chess, an organization that teaches elementary school students to play chess, is helping to set up a board for the free-play session before the tournament, putting knights, bishops and pawns in place. Banjoko walks over to Robinson with Bay Area emcees T-Kash and Apakalips, asking him to give them a crash course.
Robinson didn’t come to teach, but does so willingly, and rapidly. He teaches them a strategy he calls “the smart king versus the not-so-smart king” to get an opponent in check mate in four moves. Soon, a crowd of 10, wearing fitted caps, hoodies and Nikes, huddles around the chess master as he swiftly glides pieces across the 64 squares.
“Chess is a life skills game. It teaches you how to reason out a situation,” Robinson says. “Life is a sequence of situations. Situations require plans. In chess, you learn the value of a plan.”
Robinson, 55, has played chess for more than 30 years and teaches at 40 elementary schools in the Silicon Valley. He’s articulate and has a way with words, filling every sentence with wisdom. When he teaches his elementary school students, he speaks in rhymes and poems to engage them and help them memorize each move. His goal, however, is to start a program to teach teenagers so that he can pass on all of his life skills and “adultisms” on to a generation that may need it the most.
“I want to develop good decision makers because our community needs good decision makers,” Robison says. “Life is complicated…life has rules, life has boundaries. The chess board has rules and it has boundaries. What better place to practice making decisions than on the chess board?”
When the games begin, masters of their arena, such as freestyle battle champ Okwerdz who can humiliate a man in any open mic setting, are forced into submission by average folk who just come to play.
Uche Nchekwube, a loan officer from the Bank of America, wandered in after work; he’s one of the three people wearing a button-up shirt and slacks.
“I was happy to see an event like that. It should be more prolific if anything,” Nchekwube says later. “I think there are people like myself who are aware of an intellectual side of hip hop and know that there are lyricists who write very thoughtfully…but America has an addiction to violence, racism and sex that transcends hip hop but is reflected in hip hop and other musical genres and in movies.”
However, Nchekwube, nor any of the other attendees came with preconceived negative stereotypes of hip hop culture. Everyone here reflects and represents the much overlooked positive and conscious aspect of hip hop and, for the most part, came out to have fun like Denny Prokopos, a 19-year-old Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu expert who loses to Nchekwube.
“Chess and jiu-jitsu have the same ultimate goal, which is finishing someone. When you make a move, it’s like you’re trying to put your opponent in submission,” says Prokopos as he demonstrates jiu-jitsu moves and arm grabs. “You bait the guy then get him… In either game you have to use strategy, not act sporadically, contemplate and move mathematically.”
Banjoko himself is a blue belt in jiu-jitsu and personally invited Prokopos and other martial artists such as Alan “Gumby” Marques to participate in the event.
Though the event is small – there are about 50 heads total in attendance – its importance is downplayed by the media who only give attention to negative aspects of hip hop culture, and though several of those slated to participate don’t show up, the event is still a success and marks the inauguration of the International Hip Hop Chess Federation.
“When people talk about what hip hop can be, this is one of those days to remember. The beauty of it was that it set an unprecedented tone of mutual respect,” Banjoko says later. “I’ve never been in a room of hip hop cats that were just kickin’ it. That’s the real beauty of hip hop, America and the world.”
Banjoko recently co-founded the Hip Hop Chess Federation in response to the amount of requests for hip hop chess tournaments after the announcement of Hip Hop, Chess and Life Strategies. Folks from as far as London were requesting similar tournaments be held in their city.
“I’m touched. This is real heart-warming,” Banjoko says to the room as the library begins to shut down. “You guys are the beginning of something that’s going to be enduring…We’re going to have to finish this again.”
*The next Hip Hop, Chess and Life Strategies tournament will be held on May 19th at the Omega Boys Club in SF from 1-4 PM. So come correct or get put in checkmate.
Zoneil Maharaj is the editor-in-chief of OH DANG! He is a afraid of heights, so he may never climb off his high horse. Send him love letters at email@example.com.
Shaminder Dulai is a freelance contributor to OH DANG! Check out his work at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sdulai