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Raekwon Looks Back on ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx,’ 25 Years Later: ‘I Was Bringing My Life Story to the Table’

Wu-Tang Clan Raekwon
Erick Sasso

The Wu-Tang Clan’s first album, “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” was released in late 1993, and it sold respectably, though its cultural impact far outpaced its initial commercial fortunes. By the time the group’s second release, the mammoth double album “Wu-Tang Forever,” arrived in 1997, the Staten Island nine-piece was arguably the hottest commodity in hip-hop: The album went quadruple platinum in a matter of months, and the following years saw the Wu expand into everything from apparel and film to video games and book publishing. But the group’s real watershed year came in 1995, when solo albums from members Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and the GZA established just how vast the Shaolin Extended Universe really was.

It’s hard to think of many groups in any genre of music that have been so much more than just the sum of their parts. Though the tag-team posse cuts like “Protect Ya Neck” and “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” established Wu-Tang in the public imagination, it was only when the individual members got a chance to strike out on their own that the collective’s uncommon diversity of talent really came to the fore. It helped that these weren’t solo albums in the typical sense of the term: Though each member of the Clan had been given the freedom to sign their own separate label deals outside the contractual confines of the Wu, all of their early solo records featured plentiful guest spots from the rest of the group, and every album was produced almost entirely by Wu-Tang founder the RZA, then in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime creative spree. The first two out of the gate, Method Man and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, each notched hit crossover singles with their respective debuts, but Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…,” released 25 years ago this week, was something else entirely.

Hailing from Staten Island’s Park Hill neighborhood, Raekwon the Chef was one of the clear standouts on “36 Chambers,” and his complex story-songs and blustery delivery made him the group’s most likely candidate to compete with the likes of Nas and the Notorious B.I.G., whose confrontational hustler-poet styles were ascendant in New York hip-hop. But for his first solo outing, Raekwon had higher ambitions than simply out-rapping his regional peers. Instead, he envisioned “Cuban Linx” as a dense, cinematic concept album, inspired by films like Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” and John Woo’s “The Killer,” that would follow two drug dealers who resolve to pull off one last big score before going straight. And rather than hog the spotlight, he allotted a generous portion of the album’s running time to his bandmate Ghostface Killah (credited as a “co-star” on the album’s cover), whose volatile energy and Pollock-like splatters of abstract imagery made him a perfect sidekick, the Pesci to Raekwon’s De Niro.

“Cuban Linx” is a classic gangsta rap album, one of the greatest ever made, but to simply call it that would be like calling “A Clockwork Orange” a great crime novel. Like Anthony Burgess, Raekwon & Co. created an entirely self-contained universe with its own distinctive vernacular and twisted moral codes, then trusted you to find your way around by intuition alone. There were intricate webs of Cosa Nostra-inspired aliases and a whole network of sharply-sketched minor characters. (Take Mike Lavogna, the fictional kingpin figure whom Raekwon brings so vividly to life in a single verse, right down to the name of his pet fish, only to dismiss his eventual death with a curt, “His ass is out now, tallyho.”) The between-song dialogue might see Rae and Ghost describing a shootout, or talking about the weather, or devising DIY color schemes for their shoes. Most importantly, the album’s use of language took the Wu’s already opaque signature slang and elevated it into the sort of endlessly self-referential, cabalistic argot that fans could spend years trying to fully decipher. “Cuban Linx’s” overall narrative might not have always been clear-cut, but its details were as rich as any of the cinematic landmarks that had inspired it, offering an entrancingly strange, cracked-kaleidoscope snapshot of the New York underworld.

Now 50, Raekwon will mark the quarter century anniversary on Friday with an Instagram Live conversation with Ghostface, as well as a double vinyl instrumental edition planned for release in the fall. He recently spoke with Variety about the album’s legacy.

How does it feel to think about “Cuban Linx” turning 25? Did you ever imagine you’d still be doing interviews about it a quarter century later?

It’s a great feeling because it brings back so many moments in my life, even outside of music. That time was just about me being able to do a solo record that would allow me to be one of the elites in the game, so it definitely brings back good memories. I think this album has been a trailblazer for a lot of people’s careers, a lot of people’s fashion, a lot of people’s style in the game. This album has been a blueprint to a lot of that. So it’s a moment that will always be with me because it was a time when I really wanted to impress the masses, and to see the album still have life 25 years later is a blessing.

You were batting third for Wu-Tang solo albums, and obviously Method Man and ODB both had some pretty big singles on theirs. Was there a degree of pressure to equal them? How nervous were you going into those sessions?

The nervous factor was always there, but I had a lot of confidence in what I was doing, because I had a strong background, and men around me who were all on the same level of really achieving what we wanted to achieve in this game. You get nervous for a little bit, but that comes with the territory. For the most part I was nervous because I really wanted people to understand me. It’s different when you make an album and you’re just having fun making it, you’re making dance music, you’re doing all different types of things… But for me, I knew that I wasn’t going to be the dancey-music type of guy, you know? (Laughs.) Even though I grew up on that type of hip-hop, and I love that type of hip-hop. But this album was going to be a direct reflection of me. It was me really bringing my life story to the table, just letting the world know I’m coming from a reality perspective. That was the goal, to describe what I’ve been around, what I’ve lived through, and basically the vision that I had captured. I just wanted to bring that to fruition and hopefully it would be respected because it was authentic.

Why did you decide to stay with [the Wu-Tang’s label] Loud Records for your solo career, as opposed to signing with a Def Jam like Meth or Geffen like GZA?

That label infrastructure was very important because they believed in me. They’d seen something in me that I had seen in myself, but they saw it on a higher level. Loud to me was always just as powerful as a Def Jam. Def Jam had the polish behind them, and Loud didn’t have that polish factor, but it still had all the proper mechanics. When you sit there and you think about labels and the power they bring to the table when they understand what culture is about, that’s what I was excited about – to get them to understand me. They knew that at the end of the day, this is a real hip-hop kid, someone who lives the culture and understands it, and I felt like they knew exactly how to deal with my personality and my swing at the plate. So I never really compared it to Def Jam, because they were more the Mercedes-Benz of the industry, and Loud was more like the Audi. They had the mighty Wu up there, they had Mobb Deep. So I felt at home, and for them to call on me, I felt like they was watching me really closely from the beginning, starting with “36 Chambers.” Then they put their chips on me.

Was there any track in particular that was a breakthrough when you started recording? Something you could point to and say, “This is the vibe the album needs to have, this is the sound.”

I would say “Criminology.” It was a cut that had a lot of energy, and it was a challenging song. It was like “Clash of the Titans” when it came to MCing. When I sat there and listened to that beat, [that sample of] Tony Montana screaming in the front of it, “You wanna go to war?” – that’s how I felt on the mic. I felt like anybody could come to me, but it’s gonna be a problem if you think you can just run right over me or get through me, you know? That record right there was definitely one of the records that set the climate of where I wanted to go with the album. Because New York MCs were really doing their thing at a major level back then, and in order to get that respect, you had to take it. So that type of song right there was definitely my torch I was carrying, my sword, my armor. And I wasn’t going to allow anything to dent my armor when it came to being one of the greats in New York City. Because one thing about being in New York is, when you study the greats, it’s important that you look at yourself as wanting to be one too. And we were in that pocket. Wu was starting to get that sort of respect, with songs like “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Protect Ya Neck,” and as for me I was trying to earn my stripes right then and there. It was a statement, something to put me in the game as someone who was worth paying attention to.

What did an average day look like in the studio making “Cuban Linx”? I know you guys went to Barbados for a while…

Yeah, me and Ghost did a little bit of traveling making that album, because we wanted complete concentration, so we tried to go somewhere secluded. We went to Barbados and then we ended up going to Miami. But a typical day in the studio at that time was just to come in and focus on tracks. If you had some good reefer, then just sitting around and watching RZA in his prime was enough for me. All I had to do was come through, and next thing you know I’m hearing tracks and different beats and different sounds, there were always good movies around – as we made beats there was always a TV around to take a break and smoke a joint and be inspired off a classic movie. That made everything fun. I would always come in and feel at home.

But I think the key thing was the recognition we was getting in the streets and from the people – that was the energy I needed coming inside the studio. Because I was one of the guys who was coming up at the time. And that’s all it takes sometimes is just word of mouth, a little bit of confidence, and whole lot of willpower to show the world you’re really ready to do this s–t. Even on a day when I might not have done any writing, just sitting in there listening and observing, that’s still a day of work for me, because I was still learning. I was a student of the game, really trying to absorb what the next level of greatness was gonna be for me.

How much editing and revising did you have to do for your verses on that record? Which ones took the longest to really nail down?

My pen was really moving fast at that time, so I was always doing a few verses and switching parts up, and trying to basically figure out what feels the best on each track. We wanted to make this a cinematic album, and storytelling was my thing – my position in the crew was that I was the great storyteller – so when it came down to certain tracks, I would write to them, and some of them I might not have felt good about and had to start all over, and some verses I might’ve written half of it and listened to it again and came back. Tracks like “Glaciers of Ice,” “Knuckleheadz,” “Rainy Dayz,” those were the ones I really had to go back-and-forth on, trying to create my vision. Because I was always listening to the track; the track told me what to write. It wasn’t me coming in with a book of rhymes and just putting it down. I always rhymed according to the sound and what I felt the beat was telling me to say. When it came to something like “Knowledge God,” that beat was so dope I knew that I couldn’t just freestyle on it, I had to take it somewhere special. That beat was like a fly car and I was the racecar driver, so I had to really test drive it a bit and make sure I could handle the curves, you know? Make sure my s–t was strong enough that I was complementing it.

Some of the records that Ghost and me wrote, we would start things and say, “If you don’t have a vision on this, don’t fight it. Go away and come back to it.” Give it a little time. You try different ways of getting inspired by fitting your surroundings to the music. I remember the whole purpose of travelling was to see a lot of water, to be on the oceanfront at night when the wind is blowing, to see a bunch of trees… It sounds crazy maybe, but there was a specific vibe we were always looking for back then, because that’s when the rhymes would start to come out. You listen to a rhyme like, “What brings rain, hail, snow and earthquakes, the beat breaks…” It had a lot to do with the culture and the environment of everything that was around us at the time.

Speaking of “Knowledge God,” there’s one thing I have to ask you: Who was Mike Lavogna?

(Laughing) Mike Lavogna?

Yeah, where did that character come from?

Well, the name I basically made up. I just thought it was a dope name. But back in the day there used to be this Chinese dude who owned a film factory in the neighborhood. We would see him all the time, and we used to want to rob him, although we never did. But we knew he was making money. He was kinda young, he always had a lot of FILA on, all these dope sweatsuits, Sergio Tacchini, had a little chain. He was somebody that we didn’t know, and at the time in the neighborhood, if you see somebody look like they’re doing better than you, you would envy that person based on what they got, because you want what they got, right?

So Mike Lavogna was basically him, but [I made him] Italian, because I went to school with a lot of Italians – Staten Island was mob land back then, that was where they rested their head at, the Todt Hill area, Great Kills, Arthur Kills area, places like that. So I was just having fun writing stories and coming up with names that were interesting. These were the guys that had money, guys that seemed like they were fortunate, but if you tried them, nine times out of 10 they may try to kill you. They may try to come back and get your ass, you know what I mean? That was one thing about the neighborhood, guys were always attracted to dudes that had money, so in order for you to have power, you definitely had to have strength. You had to be well-respected, had to have muscle. So that was me just letting my imagination fly when it came to describing vivid moments and s–t, making my own movies. We were watching movies like “The Killer,” where you got the Triad gangs that were very strong, people tried them, and they did what they needed to do to show and prove. You can’t let nobody do something to you and let them get away with it, right? So I was pretty much describing him as a strong dude, but at the end of the day, we’re still coming. We’re coming because we’re strong in our own way. Steel understands steel. Steel sharpens steel. So like I said, I was just painting vivid imagination pictures.

This record is incredibly dense, when you factor in not only the slang and the aliases, but also the references to Supreme Mathematics, all of these extremely specific New York details… I remember first hearing it when I was probably 14, living out in California, before Google, and I’ll be honest: I had no idea what the hell you and Ghost were even talking about half the time.

(Laughing) No doubt!

But that was part of why I loved it, trying to piece it all together. Were you guys aware that a lot of these lyrics might go over some people’s heads?

Oh, absolutely. That’s why when you look at the title, “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx,” you hear that word “only,” because we knew at the end of the day not everybody would understand. We were putting in all those kinds of phrases and words to indicate that we were talking to a specific audience that understood and could decode the slang we were bringing to the table. And the thing is, when I sit here and I think about some of my favorite artists and the guys that I loved [growing up], I used to feel like you did. I had to go back and rewind and figure out where they were going – keep running it, keep running it, keep listening until the tape pops. But it was just specific to the street life at that time, so if you wasn’t really out there like that, we wouldn’t expect you to really understand it. When you sit down and you really just take your time and listen, it’s hustlers’ music. It was the way we talked at that time. We were deep into the Nation of Islam, we were deep into the streets, and everything was just marble cake, it was all a mixture. Only certain people were going to understand that.

Looking back 25 years later, is there anything that you wish you’d done differently in that era?

I would have made a film with [the album]. I wanted to do that so bad after the album was done. Instead of doing separate music videos, I wanted to do a 45- or 30-minute movie to the music, and basically paint a picture one time for the world. I did speak on that with the label, and when I talked about it they laughed at me! Everyone in the room laughed at me, like, “You know we don’t do that, Rae. We do videos, we don’t do 30-minute movies.” But I was so in the pocket to where I went, “Yo, y’all gotta understand the picture that I’m painting. This is gonna be something that is so rare and so authentic. So let’s just do it. Let’s be the first ones to go after it in that way.” That would’ve been the only thing. It wouldn’t have been so much the music, but chilling on the video side and pretty much painting my own “Godfather” story one time with this album, or like a “Once Upon a Time in America.” If it was up to me, I would’ve wanted the album to come out, and then say, “Now watch this movie that represents the album.” That’s the one thing I wish I could’ve done.

You still could, right?

Oh, listen, we’re working on a super-big documentary about this album, which is right around the corner from being completed. So you’re gonna see more of this coming. It’s gonna open up the minds of people to understand, to see our vision. It’s called “The Purple Tape Files,” and it’s called that because it addresses some of the issues we overlooked back then that we felt should’ve been incorporated with the album. It’s gonna be an interesting documentary, and the timing couldn’t be better.