“How are you able to make a mafia seem real? Why is it that your gift is to make people believe that you really know what you’re talking about? That’s what a writer does.” –Mario Puzo (Writer of The Godfather) Interview
“Cash rules everything around me”: Method Man uttered those five words in 1993 on Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M..” As the deciding factor between who eats and who doesn’t, who has a home and who is homeless, who lives and who dies, money, or the lack thereof, has an immense influence over thoughts, feelings, emotions, and ultimately, actions.
Raekwon, The Chef, who bats first on “C.R.E.A.M.,” starts the song with a vivid rhyme reminiscing on his days as a gun-pulling, home-invading, woolies-smoking, gold-tooth teenager living on the crime side of the late ’80s, early ’90s New York. The rich usage of imagery makes each detailed lyric feel as if he wrote it as scenes for a screenplay. He grants the listener a visual rap portrayal of what high-stake adolescence looks like when drug deals and aggressive robberies are survival tactics for a young Black man in search of money, power, and respect.
Toward the end of his verse, the gifted lyricist raps, “Figured out I went the wrong route, so I got with a sick-ass clique and went all out,” touching on how, collectively, Wu-Tang offered him another way to make a living that wasn’t scraping on blacktops and standing on corners. As if we needed another reminder, this 10-man rap crew from Staten Island defied the odds. Hustling may have been dangerous, but money in rap was, and still is, frankly uncertain.
“We knew it was hard to get a record deal because we didn’t know where to go... It wasn’t like a fuckin’ store you could go to and ask for one,” Raekwon, born Corey Woods, says in his relaxed speaking voice, every bit as captivating over the phone as it is on classic records.
For Raekwon, as a neighborhood kid with no knowledge of the record business or how to get in contact with a record label, that realization of rap becoming work didn’t come until signing with Loud Records for Wu-Tang’s 1993 debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
“When you’re in the streets all day,” the veteran rapper explains, “that’s a job, but that’s not a legal job. That job consists of risk. Once we were able to get a record deal, I felt confident that, you know, if the police happen to run up on me, I could be like, ‘Yo, I’m not out here throwing my life away. I have a job; I have something I have to do every day that requires my time, and it pays me.’
“When we got that record deal, I went back and told my moms, ‘Yo, I got a job, Ma,’” Raekwon continues. “She asked, ‘What’s your job? What do you do?’ I replied, ‘I’m going to make music. I’m going to rhyme with my boys. We signed to a record company now, and they’re going to pay us checks and fly us all around.’”
Raekwon’s memory at 50, twenty-some years removed from Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) entering the lexicon of classic rap debuts, is unaffected by time. The living legend vividly remembers entering the rap game in ‘93 as one of the underdogs with youthful bravado and plenty to prove. He wasn’t thinking of a solo career when the critical approval and world-renowned recognition followed Wu-Tang’s first offering. His primary focus, both mentally and artistically, was representing the group.
“I felt like I learned everything from all of those men,” Raekwon says. “That’s what it was about then. It was about us.” He reminisces on that special time when, as the new group coming from what was considered New York’s forgotten borough, they seized hip-hop’s approval as a united force of face-breaking, neck-snapping, concrete tough lyricists.
Although loyalty is worth more than gold in rap, RZA, the hip-hop mastermind behind Wu-Tang’s union, sound, and vision, saw great potential in splitting the united Voltron he formed. He chose to distribute their unique talents through various record labels instead of releasing an immediate group follow-up. First came Method Man, who commenced the string of Wu-Tang solo albums with Tical in November 1994 on Def Jam Records. Then came Ol’ Dirty Bastard with Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, released on Elektra Records in March of ‘95.
Five months after ODB, on August 1, 1995, Raekwon released his Loud Records debut, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.... He remembers that day, 25 years ago, like a birthday. From the moment he woke up in his New Jersey condo, the fans were on his mind. Were they going to understand it? Would this be something they overlook? All these questions followed him from room to room that morning.
Think about that for a second: One of the finest emcees of the 1990s was curious if his masterwork would be understood. Raekwon’s anxiety precluded social forums like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, which now give artists instant access to the fans’ reactions.
Raekwon didn’t have to wait long, though. “I remember being in the bathroom, just brushing my hair and listening to the radio,” he recalls, taking me back to a moment of which all artists dream:
“At that time, the radio personality was Wendy Williams. I remember hearing her say on the radio, ‘We got a new king in New York and his name is Raekwon, The Chef.’ When I heard that, that’s when I knew people saw my vision; I knew it was going to be on then.” –Raekwon
“That whole day I was getting phone calls and everything from people that were just saying, ‘Yo, you did it,’ ‘This album is banging,’ ‘It’s a classic,’” Raekwon remembers. “Man, it was a good feeling. Even the record company, Loud Records, had called to congratulate me. Saying that a lot of people wanted to meet. It was a great day for me and hip-hop.” He never stops thinking about hip-hop; it was never just about him.
Savant rappers of Raekwon’s esteem uphold the ethos that recognition without respect is no different than owning a luxury car without a running engine. Passive eyes may find shiny objects like Maybach Coupes or G-Wagons attractive enough for a glance, but how long will they look when the vehicle doesn’t move?
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... has maintained motion through time because the album is more than a pretty Porsche; it’s a speeding getaway car with bullet holes in the bumper, money in the trunk, police in the rearview, and a trigger-happy accomplice shooting from the passenger window—all while the car’s driver applies pressure to the gas praying they reach their safe house before they feel the heat of hellfire.
For the past 25 years, listeners have experienced the sweet sounds of crime, honor, and ecstasy by Raekwon, The Chef, and Ghostface Killah, the co-star of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., who appears on nearly every song. Together, the two wordsmiths brought Staten Island moxie, corner boy ambition, and mafioso extravagance to hip-hop’s welcome mat. With their debut, they didn’t get hip-hop’s attention by knocking on the door softly, waiting for someone to answer. They kicked the door down and told everyone this is a robbery.
Voices that make the music appear as real as the movies will always be respected in rap. The genre has natural gravitation toward men who rhyme as if their lives are on the line. Every Wu-Tang member brought authentic personas to RZA’s basement. Creatively, they all had something believable to the ear and the eye.
“The accolades are cool, but you always wanna show the world that you got ‘it’ and you got what it takes to be one of the best,” the seasoned sage Raekwon tells me as our call is winding down. “That was the biggest thing I’ve ever wanted, for people to know I’m taking it seriously and that I bust my ass making an album I felt was dope. You always want to make sure people respect, what I call, your mustache.”
“I realized I was creative when I was just in the neighborhood, hanging out with dudes that loved to be creative. Guys who would just rhyme, freestyle, and have fun. We would run around the neighborhood bugged out; getting into trouble, laughing, singing songs off the radio that meant a lot to us. That’s when I felt like it was something in us all that we had to find in order to become what we want to be.” –Raekwon
Raekwon wanted to be a rapper who carried himself like a Godfather. Hip-hop had no choice but to kiss his ring. Twenty-five years later, the culture still respects the king of kings and the album that earned him his crown.