You, Two Rooks, and a Tight Hip-Hop Hook

Eight year-old Bum Rush the Boards 2012 participant practicing with father before start of the tournament (April 21, 2012)

Imagine you’re the lead character in a movie about an African-American high school student from DC’s Ward 8 or the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, NY with a talent and winning streak for chess – a game that is purported to have origins dating back to 600 A.D.

Your residential surroundings might not be ideal, but your parents and teachers recognize your desire to live a less than ordinary life and overwhelmingly give their support and time to help you walk this path. Your character – the quintessential protagonist – has one best friend who also shares your dream, another who serves as relentless roadblock, and a love interest whose commitment to you has started to waiver.

What would you want the soundtrack of this movie to sound like?

If none of these suit your tastes, try looking to hip-hop culture for some inspiration. About two weekends ago I did exactly that.

I had already decided to attend and write about the Word, Beats & Life Seventh Annual Bum Rush the Boards event before my interest was heightened further after reading a recent New York Times piece about the rise of successful young chess champions in urban environments.

Like one of the students in the New York Times story,  I’m a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School, but chess was not an activity that was ever presented to me in my adolescence. And although I grew up during the meteoric rise of The Wu-Tang Clan, a popular hip hop ensemble obsessed with mastery of chess, my days and nights were sadly limited to spades, Scrabble, and Nintendo.

Luckily for the young participants I met that Saturday in late April, Words, Beats & Life, Inc. realized almost a decade ago that chess can offer significant benefits to players who master its intricacies, including enhancing memory performance; building self confidence and discipline; increasing concentration; improving communication and independence skills; and developing critical thinking skills.

Couple this long list of pros with hip-hop music – an art form that when done right can be an amazing and genuine expression of artistry and imagination – and you get Bum Rush the Boards. Started in 2005, Bum Rush the Boards is billed as a civic event convened to “promote strategic thought and actions within the hip-hop and chess communities.”

With great partners like Chess Challenge in DC – and DC’s DJ RBI providing a backdrop of songs from artists like CommonJay ElectronicaA Tribe Called Quest and Outkast – over 100 students from various DC metro area elementary, middle and high schools were given an outlet to showcase their love of chess with a full-day tournament.

As round one of the tourney’s four kicked off, most parents watched intently from the stands, but a few parental units with kids as young as six decided to unwisely join the tournament monitors on the playing floor. They were kindly and respectfully guided back to the stands by round two. Five hours passed with a lunch break, and a few workshops on DJ mixing and abstract art in between play. The winning chess teams were from Ballou Senior High School and the Ceasar Chavez Public Charter Schools, and in the end, dozens of students got an opportunity to display their talent for the game and enjoy time with others in an environment that fed their creativity through a continuous stream of hip-hop music and art.

Here’s a link to the event photos I captured and details on what I learned:

  • There’s no reason anyone should be without a basic understanding of chess – It’s always good to try a new activity that will challenge and stimulate your mind. While I was there, a former chess coach took pity on my novice understanding of the game and gave me a mini lesson. And without taking notes, I discovered the game is not too difficult to pick up and actually quite fun. Sixty-four squares, a few knights and rooks, eight pawns to guard your most important pieces, a diagonal move here and there. Got it.
  • Chess play does not need to occur in so-called traditional environments – Mentions of chess can evoke stereotypical images of tweed jackets, bow ties, boarding schools and perhaps, even solemn old men with long white beards congregating in New York’s Central Park. Groups like Words, Beats and Life have proven that chess is not a one-dimensional activity and can be coupled with other cultural elements like hip hop music and art in an effort to enhance strategic and creative thought.
  • Organizations like Chess in the Schools and Chess Challenge in DC are doing what successful enrichment programs do best – Whether it’s focused on polo, tennis, golf or advanced spelling, after-school programs that teach children a new skill while also getting them to think strategically; develop self-discipline and positive social skills; and increase their self-esteem, are a great resource for schools which lack immediate access to such programming, and they deserve our support. I plan to help sponsor a Chess Challenge in DC school.
  • Mastering chess is another pathway to a life in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) – A large number of the chess coaches I met at the Bum Rush the Boards tournament were math or science teachers at their respective schools. And while no singular extracurricular activity can compensate for years of hard academic work, a specialized curriculum and dedicated adult supervision, I assume for these chess coaches, learning the game as a child served as a significant catalyst towards their interest and eventual success in STEM studies and careers.

If chess is an activity you know well and love, you can make a huge impact in the life of a child by sharing your knowledge with them. If you’re a novice to the game, try to take your skills up a notch. The benefits are endless. Mix in a little hip hop music with your play and you might find a creative spark you never knew existed.

Still don’t believe me? Read what this guy has to say. Chess and hip hop are his specialties.

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I Speak for the Liner Notes!

"Hear Me Howling!: Blues, Ballads & Beyond as Recorded by the San Francisco Bay by Chris Strachwitz in the 1960s" - Authored by Adam Machado, 2012 Winner of the Grammy Award for Best Album Notes

If he were actually real, he’d probably be less than happy to have his name evoked in an effort to preserve the future of an item that’s made of paper and could potentially lead to the destruction of more trees, but I’m channeling my inner Lorax today by paying homage to the under appreciated art form that is music’s liner note. 

Not familiar with this object? Here’s some help from Merriam-Webster and Wikipedia.

Liner Notes (plural, noun): (1) The text printed on a paper insert issued as part of the packaging of a compact disc, cassette, or on the sleeve of a phonograph record. (2) Exploratory notes about a music record, like credits for individual(s) involved in the recording, information about the record label releasing the record, copyright information, and sometimes, song lyrics.

Yes, the colorfully decorated, heavily worded and photo laden booklet that comes with every compact disc has an official name, and they outline every detail of an album’s creation: who wrote the lyrics; whether a song is a remake; what songs were sampled; the names of the guitarists, bass players, keyboardists, etc.; the background vocalists; and so on. One could say that liner notes are an intricate tool of music education.

I was inspired to write this post after attending an event a few days which featured the super talented musicians and artists of B-Fly Entertainment. The musical performance – see a video promo below – was not only a well produced mash up of how jazz and soul music have influenced and heavily contributed to the early and current streams of hip-hop music, but also a tribute to a slip of paper whose prevalence has floundered over the years with the advent of the MP3.

Performers read the poetic liner note dedications and expressions from great albums such as A Tribe Called Quest’s “Midnight Marauders”, Ahmad Jamal’s “Jamal Plays Jamal” and Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”And, although iTunes offers a digital booklet version of liners notes with some album purchases, their availability is in very, very limited supply.

So, why do I think this issue is important?

When publications like The Rolling Stone or The Los Angeles Times give an unfavorable review of an artist’s newest LP, the singer, musician or band usually has little recourse – albeit Twitter – to defend themselves, the creative vision that inspired their music, the team of people that helped create it, or the lyrics they wrote as an expression of their lives and the world around them.

While I speak for the liner notes in this post, liner notes have always had a way of speaking for the artist and the artist’s work. 

In Corinne Bailey Rae’s  2010 “The Sea”, she ends her liner notes with “This album, like everything I do, is made to try and impress Jason Bailey Rae.” Those  unfamiliar with Rae’s work or life, could read her lyrics, read her dedications and realize that this album and its poignant words are an expression of the pain Rae felt following the tragic, substance-related death of her husband, Jason, two years prior.

The significance of liner notes also have an industry stamp of approval.

Since 1964, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has given a Grammy Award for Best Album Notes to the authors of the best written liner notes, not the album artists or performers unless they also authored the notes. Past winners  include Johnny Cash, James Brown and even famed crime novelist, Walter Mosley, for writing liner notes to the comedic album “Richard Pryor…And It’s Deep Too!: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1968-1992)”. This year’s Grammy recipient – the album note cover at least – is pictured above.

And in a time when the Academy has been very eager to trim the so-called low-hanging fruit of Grammy Awards, an annual honoring of the liner note has managed to survive.

Liner Notes – they (1) educate, (2) promote the artist’s vision and (3) have the support of music’s holy grail. So as I typically do, here are a few bullets of what you can do to reinvigorate your love for an item that’s both, artistic and educational:

  • Tweak Your Instant Music Gratification: It’s the feeling you get when buying a song seconds after it becomes available on iTunes and immediately downloading it to your iPod. You can still get this same feeling the day an album is released by pre-ordering the CD via Amazon.com or Target.com and having it delivered to your doorstep. The added benefit? Reading and appreciating a slick, glossy version of the liner note’s photos, art, credits and dedications.
  • There’s Always, Always, Always Vinyl: There are many who feel that MP3s decrease the sound and playback quality of music and prefer compact discs. There are some who go even further and feel vinyl records are the only way to have a truly sublime listening experience, and for the optically challenged, they come with a large text version of the album’s liner note. If you’re wondering where does one find vinyl in an age of digital, Best Buy and the disappearing local music store, there’s (yes, again) Amazon.com and UrbanOutfitters.com. Both sites offer not only a great selection of vinyl records, but also record players that range from the cute, compact and pastel-colored to the high-end, ultra-complex and nostalgic. If that doesn’t work for you, there’s always the flea market. Here’s a photo of four vinyl records I picked up last year for a dollar each.
  • Buy Albums at Concerts: If you frequent concerts at smaller venues for artists that are still considered indie or underground, there will more than likely be an opportunity to purchase a CD version of their albums. The bonus? If you happen to bump into them in the VIP area, they’ll autograph your purchase. It happened to me in Chicago. The artist was Eric Roberson and the day happened to be December 31, 2009. Peep the photo. Liner notes included.

If you’re still not convinced and live in the Washington, DC area, you should check out B-Fly Entertainment’s series of Liner Notes performances in late April at The Dunes. I’ll be there, along with my friend, @MsAliTee, who not only introduced me the group, but is also my oracle on all things hip, cool and undiscovered in the arts, music and dance world.

We can grab food afterwards, and I don’t know, perhaps trade liner notes. 😉