DJ Muggs vs. GZA :: Grandmasters :: Angeles Records
as reviewed by Steve 'Flash' Juon

"The game of chess, is like a swordfight
You must think first, before you move"

As famous as that quote is to kung-fu flick and Wu-Tang Clan fans alike, I'd actually like to flip it on it's ear. FENCING is like a game of chess. When you've got your pads on, the helm over your head, and a rapier in your hand you are locked into mental combat. People think that all fencers do is duck and jab, but when that marshal signals to commence fighting that's the last thing on your mind. Fencers try to read their opponents before the match even starts, thinking about their strengths and weaknesses, anticipating what moves they will make before they've even begun to come up with counters and reversals. In turn the opponent is anticipating their first move will be countered, and thinking about how to counter that counter or swerve them with something altogether unexpected. The fool who charges in willy-nilly attempting to knock his opponent's block off usually winds up laying on the ground with a headache, because they saw it coming a mile away. Fencing and chess are one in the same. From the very first pawn moved, a good player already anticipates counters to that move and to the move thereafter. Grandmasters of chess can theorize so many different combinations in their head that they can see the ultimate victory far before the game is even concluded. Now this is not to say that swordfighting is not a martial art in it's own right, but to me a "swordfight" often carries with it the mental image of knights lumbering around in heavy armor, clumsily battering each other with crude blows meant to hack off limbs instead of piercing internal organs. Truly fencing is the thinking man's sport as chess is the thinking man's game.

While Wu-Tang Clan members have always bragged about the sharpness of their lyrical swords, GZA has stood alone amongst the crew's stylists as the intellectual fencer. His rhymes are not a smokescreen of confusing slang, a cliched array of punchlines, or a thuggish lyrical bravado. GZA instead prefers to use his rapier wit to pierce the preconceptions of what a rap artist should be. He most famously summed up his approach to the art of mic control with the phrase "Make it brief Son, half short and twice strong." Now THAT'S elegant thinking; the kind worthy of Kasparov. Why say four words when two will do? Why move two chess pieces when you can force mate with just one? Within GZA's brevity is sparkling clarity. When GZA speaks on beat each word counts. The end result is that his rhymes lock in your head and stay there. Truly a GZA rhyme is worth it's weight in gold. Though he hasn't received the commercial fame of Method Man or the critical acclaim of Ghostface Killah, GZA is easily the most influential Wu-Tang Clan member. From "Liquid Swords" to "Beneath the Surface" to "Legend of the Liquid Sword" he has shown the nature of a champion - always eloquent in triumph, never broken in defeat. With the right beats and the full focus of his faculties in effect a GZA album always shows why his pre Wu-Tang peers dubbed him "The Genius."

"Grandmasters" is an apt title for this brief 12 track, 44 minute collaboration between DJ Muggs and GZA. As the latter is to being underrated as a lyricist, the former is to being underrated as a producer. Rap heads are always quick to show love to DJ Premier, Alchemist, Pete Rock and Kanye West, but rarely do they remember to mention DJ Muggs as one of the best. Perhaps it's because Muggs rarely tries to overshadow the artists he produces for or hog the spotlight. Perhaps it's because most hip-hoppers so closely associate him with Cypress Hill they forget to recognize his accomplishments outside that group as well as inside it. Don't be fooled by the "versus" in this album's description - Muggs and GZA are not in any way opposed. The concept is as elegant as the selection is short. On this chess themed album DJ Muggs makes his moves with the music and GZA makes his counter moves with the lyrics. The result is not a fight in any way - it's a complex interwoven portrait of what happens when greats collaborate. You watch them make moves and become completely absorbed in it - winning is irrelevant. Fencers know it. Gamers know it. MC's and DJ's know it. You enter a heightened state of awareness that is commonly called being "in the zone," where you know what to do next without even consciously thinking it. The mind takes over the body. Make your move GZA - no, you already have. That's the "Queen's Gambit" in full effect. And with his "Unprotected Pieces" GZA already has ultimate victory in hand:

"Write off that unpredictable things could happen
Well aware of the sudden danger, we start scrapping
Violence can erupt within the blink of an eye
As a three night reign of terror, light up the skies
Other uprisings are in the years of making
The young start sizing up the hood, and get to taking
A high voltage power line, surrounds the gold mine
Soldiers on the front line, who sell dimes and hold nines
Many times enjoying themselves, much too much
Then hit the clutch, before they pull out on such and such
It's a very unforgivin environment
Cause one out of two, can get an early retirement
For many different reasons, the tale of the tape is uneven
What they perceive as a prank, had stopped them from breathin
He was known to run towns, and brutally gunned down
He said it was a great risk for him to be around"

GZA speaks slowly and methodically, only making the power of his deep voice and slightly slurred tongue seem that much more profound. He revels in storytelling, painting a picture as broad as it is dark, all laid out over the harrowing sonic landscape that Muggs provides. Not every song is as dark as "Those That's Bout It" and "Exploitations of Mistakes" though. GZA catches you off guard with the title "Unstoppable Threats" and lays down a verse that's feels fondly nostalgic:

"I was a young one at the time, but started mic trippin
Had rhythm like Ali, when he was rope skippin
I got crazy when I heard the break beat
I used to lose it on niggaz on 4th and Main Street
They couldn't stop the attack, once I moved forward
Many was drawn back, assault was seen awkward
Only armed with the bow, and a mad flow
Poisonous arrows on a mark that was set to go
Traveling at high speeds towards a target
I never hit bystanders in crowded markets
Documenters catch this most intimate footage
In the center they come close, label it the hooded
Remarkable clips, of an uncut episode
They was given the safe, but never was left the code
Close up, of those who have paved the road
Invincible, armor like that nigga we call The Toad"

As epic as "Grandmasters" is in concept and scale, at times it feels like Muggs and GZA could have raised the stakes even higher. Songs like "Destruction of a Guard" featuring Raekwon and "Advance Pawns" featuring Rae and RZA sound like Wu-Tang classics but also pull GZA back into the trap of being just one member of the Clan - the one who plays the often unheralded supporting role. As good as Muggs is on the boards some tracks like "All in Together Now" and "Those That's Bout It" feel as though he's going through the motions instead of taking it to the next level. A pedestrian Muggs track is still far superior to much of what passes for hardcore banging beats though, so this does not heavily handicap the album. GZA and Muggs play their chess theme to the hilt on "Grandmasters" and by and large theirs is a winning combination which would equally impress anyone from Deep Blue to Camillo Agrippa.

Music Vibes: 8 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 9 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 8.5 of 10

Originally posted: November 1, 2005