We Rode Around St. Louis With RZA Playing Wu-Tang’s New ‘A Better Tomorrow’ LP And Preaching Chess Lessons

One day after the police murder of Vonderrit Myers, VIBE treks to St. Louis with RZA as he visits the World Chess Hall of Fame, mentors at-risk kids in juvie and talks Wu-Tang’s brilliant new album

Words: Juan Vidal | Photos: Adrian O. Walker

RZA is seated center stage, donned in all black and addressing a room of more than 300 high school students in the city of St. Louis. He’s talking chess, martial arts, and hip-hop, three of his greatest loves. Alongside Adisa Banjoko, founder of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation, RZA is sharing personal anecdotes and fielding questions at the Demetrious Johnson Charitable Foundation, an organization that provides assistance for inner city youth. It’s the first stop on the day’s busy agenda.

“Listen, the people with brain power are the ones that will always rule the world,” RZA says.

Just a few miles away, in the neighborhood of Shaw, there was a fatal shooting. Exactly two months removed from the murder of Michael Brown, another young person, Vonderrit Myers, has been killed—this time by the gun of an off-duty police officer. With a city on the cusp of boiling over and a packed auditorium of youth desperate for answers, RZA has positioned himself to speak life where death currently abounds. He stands up at a point, offers the crowd a sermon of sorts about the 12 Jewels of Life: Knowledge, Wisdom, Understanding, Freedom, Justice, Equality, Food, Clothing, Shelter, Love, Peace, and Happiness. He touches on each with a fervor that would excite even the staunchest skeptic. And everything is tied seamlessly to chess—a game for which RZA is an avid spokesman—both as a discipline and as a metaphor for purposeful living.

In addition to his storied career as a rapper, producer, actor, and filmmaker, RZA has long been an advocate for chess. Years ago, he and the other members of the Wu-Tang Clan spearheaded a movement of emcees that often injected references to the game in their expression. Classics like “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’” and “Liquid Swords,” among others, not only highlight their sharp lyrical sensibility, they also serve as artful representations of their affinity for the ancient pastime.

“We have to start thinking more analytically,” RZA submits later en route to the next stop, the St. Louis County Juvenile Detention Center.

Blaring from a small Boombatix speaker is the new Wu-Tang Clan album, A Better Tomorrow, which is set for a Dec. 2 release through Warner Bros Music. Although tensions within the camp threatened the album’s progress for a time, compromises were eventually made to ensure its completion. The first group effort since 2007’s 8 Diagrams, this one is something special. And RZA speaks on the project, which marks 20 years since the Wu first burst onto the scene, with child-like elation. “Truth is, we went for it all on this one,” he says. “Man, I called up Rick Rubin and told him this might be my last joint.”

Standout tracks include the chest thumping DJ Mathematics-produced “Keep Watch,” “Mistaken Identity,” and the infectious piano-driven “Ruckus in B Minor”—which has RZA flexing on the nostalgic tip: “Rae, all those bad times is behind us /Ghost, put that mask on to remind us.” RZA enlisted Rubin to remix the track.

The certified head-nodders present throughout the LP are in many ways reminiscent of the purity of Wu-Tang Forever. And they do the work of re-establishing the power of RZA’s sound; heavy textures, gritty riffs, and drums that knock almost violently. They capture a time when intelligent lyricism and musicality were forefront.

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Speaker photo courtesy of Boombotix.