Cuban Linx Revisited
Interview with Raekwon
by David Ma
Originally published on www.NERDTORIOUS.com
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… surpassed all expectations in 1995. Wu-Tang was hurling towards greatness and Raekwon, the MC with most time on Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), was up next. Hopes were high, and yet, Cuban Linx went platnium, embraced by fans and becoming a critical triumph. The New York Times named it one of the best albums of the ’95; Rolling Stone included it in their list of “Essential Recordings of the ’90s.” XXL‘s 2005 feature, “The Making of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx,” furthered its status, giving longtime fans an in-depth look at its making process.
This year, Cuban Linx marks its fourteenth anniversary with a long-talked about sequel, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. II. Rae’s legacy still rests largely on part one, which is something he knows and was very aware of when we spoke. “Motherfuckers love that shit. I know! That’s my rep right there,” he insisted, before adding: “That’s why I wanted to add more life to the original story and give fans what they’ve been asking for. We continued the new one exactly as if it was a movie sequel.” The addition of Dr. Dre and Marley Marl on the sequel adds clout, but it likely changes the overall feel of the original—as does guest spots by Busta Rhymes and Bun B. But Rae disagreed, explaining: “We kept the same vibe. I ain’t stupid. I went back and made sure that shit was compatible. RZA sat for hours and guided everyone through exactly what we needed. Trust me, this is what fans of the first one have been waiting for.”
Ahead of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. II, I spoke at length with Rae about the original Cuban Linx, hearing backstories and breaking down certain tracks individually. Could Cuban Linx ever have a fitting bookend? Here’s what the Chef had to say before the coming of part two.
When was the last time you sat down and heard Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… all the way through?
I probably heard it again around three months ago. It had been a while before that though.
What did you think of it fourteen years later?
It brought me back to a different time. It was when we straight didn’t give a fuck about what people thought. I was just trying to be a good MC. RZA was just trying to be a good producer. This was before all the money kicked in. I was thinking about me standing on my block and me trying to get off that motherfucker. I was formulating about feeding my family the best way I knew how. At that time, I would just be earning money the negative way, you know? So it was about making people all over the world respect the Wu and what we were doing.
Some say Cuban Linx revived “Mafioso rap,” which New York got down with again in the mid- to late ’90s. You think that’s true?
Well, I don’t look at it so much as Mafioso rap—that’s a term other niggas be calling it. I look at it as drug dealing, gangsta shit. I grew up in the street, so I talked about the shit I knew and saw. We did the hustlin’ thing, we did the crime thing; we did all the things that made us feel like mobsters or Mafiosos in some way. But, personally, if you ask me, I’d say Cuban Linx is more of a gangsta epic.
Looking back at the releases that followed, you think it influenced people like Jay-Z?
Of course. I think Jay was a student of our shit and what we accomplished in those days. He’ll tell you that himself. Ask him that the next time you interview Jay, and he’ll tell you. But, really, I was just trying to make something worth purchasing and worth respecting. So whether it influenced this rapper or that rapper doesn’t really fucking matter.
Okay, so if Cuban Linx is a movie, then RZA was the director and you were the star. By that standard, is it fair to say that Ghostface was the co-star?
Hell yeah. I like how you said that. Yeah, man, everything was on purpose. We wanted people to see me and think of Ghost, or see Ghost and think of me. Ghost and me, especially at the time, had this identical-twin effect on each other. We would joke about the same things and laugh at the same shit. We were into the same clothes and shit. We were like the EPMD of the crew [laughs].
At that time, my buzz was still coming up because of my verse on “C.R.E.A.M.” I mean, I had the most time on 36 Chambers, so fans and other niggas was looking at me like, “Yo, what you doing next?” Along the same vibe, Ghost was coming up too. So Ghost came on the record with me because we were close and because it was a team mentality then.
Did others in the crew ever hear those beats and want them for their own projects?
RZA’s house was more or less like a candy store. You come in and have all kinds of shit to choose from. I would take stuff that I felt would suit my album correctly; others would take their own beats too. The beats were like a grab bag. If I came in and heard a beat that someone already claimed, then I just had to fall back. We almost never fought over beats or nothing. I’d tell RZA if I liked a certain beat, and he’d see if it would fit me or not. It wasn’t a nigga just threw us a basket full of beats.
So do you think Cuban Linx is your best work?
Definitely my best so far. Let me tell you something: we’re lyrical cats. When I did my thing on Cuban Linx, I was just an MC. Now, as you get older, you realize rapping is a job. It’s like you’re a boxer who trains for months; each album is another fight, and each fight makes you better. I feel like my rhymes are glowing right now. We use our imaginations when we put words to paper, and I feel like I’ve rose, like, fifty more notches since then. I feel like I’m one of these dudes who get better the longer I stay in the game. You’ll see on the new one.
Where do you think Cuban Linx ranks among other great rap albums of the ’90s?
It has to be in the top two. I would never say its number one, because I liked a lot of albums from the ’90s. But you never heard niggas rhyme as hard as we did over beats like that before. Like, sometimes you hear a beat and you’re like, “This shit’s nice.” But sometimes you hear a beat and be like, “Where the fuck you get that from?!” So having those beats and those rhymes on the same plate was mad powerful. I wouldn’t say Cuban Linx is number one, because it’s too cocky. So I’ll say top two and that way I’m in at least one of those motherfuckers. [laughs]
Let’s go through some songs off the album. Talk about “Striving for Perfection” and what you wanted it to convey as an intro.
I like that you brought this up and let me speak on it. That joint right there, that ain’t even a song, but it has a lot of feeling in it. Basically, it was like I was talking to an older brother in the hood who saw I had potential. We’d talk about trials and tribulations, what’s important, and how to achieve perfection. I was striving for it, and that’s what it was. That intro is like a flashback of me as a kid—a kid who would one day grow up to be this great MC.
What about “Knuckleheads”? Talk about the story you guys told on this track. How does it strike you when you hear it now?
We were once straight knuckleheads waiting for opportunities to come so we could get that coin [yells: "who's the knucklehead wantin' respect!" ]. My rhymes just came through me because of the dope beat RZA laced up. Sometimes I’ll just kick some shit and not necessarily tell a story. This song reminds me of how much less I used to think about what I was rapping about. I was just rhyming to RZA’s beat. Don’t get me wrong though, I love that song.
What do you think of Ghost’s verse on “Criminology”? It’s considered one of his best. Were you there when he recorded it?
Hell yeah, I was there. He hit it right on the target. Like I said, we were coming of age then. We were starting to get love everywhere—on the streets, on our block, everywhere. We felt like we had something incredible, something that was ours only, something authentic. And we were always those dudes that knew how to really write. So when Ghost spit that verse, it was perfect. I came in after him and basically just added to what Ghost started and history was made. When you think of Wu-Tang, you think of strong lyrical content and this verse represents that.
In that XXL interview you guys did, RZA said the beat on “Incarcerated Scarfaces” was originally written for GZA. Did you know that back then?
I can believe GZA wanted that beat, sure. I smoke so much goddamn weed, I don’t remember exactly what happened. I mean, it could’ve been something that GZA initially saw and passed on so I ended up with it too. I mean, we were a team, but we weren’t just in competition with the world—we were competing among ourselves too sometimes.
What about “Guillotine Swords”? It’s GZA’s only appearance on the album. Why wasn’t he on it more?
That’s because the track was originally for Meth’s album. It was supposed to be an interlude or a skit. But I loved it so much that I went to RZA and was like, “Why didn’t you give me that one? It’s the shit!” RZA was like, “Nah, it’s just a skit on Meth’s album.” I told him I don’t want a skit, and that I wanted it as a whole song. I stepped up for this one, and it is what it is. GZA just happened to be in the studio and stepped up too. At the time, he was just busy plotting his own shit, that’s why he wasn’t on it more.
I’ve also read that Cappadonna’s verse was so good on “Ice Water” that GZA felt clowned and left the studio. Otherwise, he would’ve had another verse on the album. Is that true?
Is that what happened? [laughs] You’re taking me way back! [laughs] That was fifteen years ago, and I smoke too much weed to remember shit like that! Honestly, it was just basement thoughts and theories. Whoever came through and delivered nice is what we used. I think you’re right—GZA was supposed to be on it, and Cappadonna very well could have came through and bogarted the track! [laughs] Look, we were pure MCs. So if you had a glass slipper, and the slipper fit the beat, then it was yours. I mean, Cap was just a maniac MC at the time.
In the same interview, you said you wrote “Rainy Days” when you were in Barbados. Why go all the way to Barbados? RZA also mentioned that this is his favorite track off the album.
We’re the type of niggas that vibe off of landscapes and shit—trees, water, mountains, all that shit. Yeah, we took a trip to Barbados for that one. Me and Ghost took a break to get away so we could concentrate and write this record. We felt like this album was important for everybody; for the crew, for us, for hip-hop. I grabbed a little radio and Ghost grabbed his notebook, and we went out there and chopped up this song. We came home and ironed it out, and it made the album. Yeah, I can see why RZA likes it so much. [laughs]
Talk about the remix of “Can It All Be So Simple.” Why did you feel this needed a remix?
Well, the video for the original was a major moment in Wu history. That’s when we came into the game, and [we] always wanted to do a remix because we loved the video so much. Hype Williams killed it one that one! So we kind of flipped it around for the remix. I came on first for the original and Ghost followed. On the remix, Ghost came first. This was when remixes were the shit and everyone wanted the next hot remix. I remember hearing the original on the radio all the time and seeing it on late night video shows, so I always knew people liked it. It was just something we felt we had to do.
“Glaciers of Ice.” Talk about this track and its influences.
Look, we come from a part of the hood where niggas loved fashion and shit. [Big Daddy] Kane, Slick Rick, and all those dudes knew that clothes could add to an entertainer’s image. So we looked up to niggas like that. I remember when big chains came back out [laughs]. I swear, I remember like thirty niggas wearing the same shit at one spot! So we kinda bit off that old-school legacy and formulated it into modern shit. I think that helped make Cuban Linx popular with cats who actually remembered that shit.
You guys still dye your shoes?
Ghost probably does. [laughs] Dude’s a shoe fanatic! I bet he still dyes his shit. Ghost was in love with Wallabee Clarks when we wrote that. I mean, I was in love with them too. We actually started going to this Chinese man on the other side of Staten Island to dye our shit, because it didn’t have the colors we wanted. That dude didn’t speak no English or nothing. You kind of pointed and try your best to explain to him what you wanted. He’d do it too! The blue and cream joints were my best pairs of shoes at the time. And Ghost became a maniac with that shit once he got some money. I swear he has like two thousand pairs at least. He spent a lot of money on them shits. [laughs]
What was the reaction in the studio like after Nas dropped his verse on “Verbal Intercourse”? Whose decision was it to even get Nas on?
It was my decision to get him on, because I was always a big fan of Nas. We came up around the same time sorta, and we were friends. I would go to Queens sometimes, and he’d come to Staten Island too. One day, me and Nas were getting smoked out, hanging out at Chinese restaurants and shit. We went back to the studio and his rhyming was all over the place! [laughs] I told him to take it easy, because he didn’t know which verse he wanted to spit. So he did a few verses for me. And me, being a fan of his and the critic that I am, I told him to go with the verse that we ended up using on the album [repeats Nas' line: "Through the lights cameras and action glamour glitters and gold..."] I was like, “This is over! Knockout!” It’s a true story too. When you interview Nas, ask him, he’ll tell you.
Let’s move onto another track on the album, “Wisdom Body.”
I love this track. It was probably around the time Ghost bought his Jesus piece. It was one of his first big pieces.
What’s a Jesus piece?
It was a large Cuban link chain with a Jesus on it. At the time, he was feeling himself and getting good results from his rhyme-pen.
How come Ghost is the only one on this track? Why weren’t you on it?
I actually walked in right after he did the verse. I was planning on getting on it, but when I heard it, I decided to leave it alone. [laughs] There are some things you just don’t touch. It was perfect. Ghost is animated in his own way. He’s a serious lyricist, but he’ll make you laugh too. We were just trying to represent us all, you know? How many niggas you know would let their brother take a track of theirs, rap on it, and call it their own when it isn’t even their album? That’s what you call unconditional love. We make our own rules. We’ve never been the type to listen to bosses, because we’re our own bosses. As long as he’s there with me, he can do whatever he feels is right. This track just shows trust between us.
RZA said in an interview that he didn’t really like the beat on “Spot Rusherz.” What do you think of it?
I love that fucking beat. I love to write stories, and that beat was perfect for a caper. Yeah, RZA fought me for it and didn’t want it on there, but I insisted. I mean, RZA’s the type of nigga who wants authentic material. Anything that’s too clean was wack to him back then. But for me, I think I sound good over clean beats sometimes. I love to tell stories, and that’s what Cuban Linx is—a bunch of good stories within a story itself.
What’s your approach for story raps.
My story raps mention states, cities, describes people, describes cars, and the colors of the whole fucking scene. That’s my lane. I’m an MC. I wanted to go beyond the depths of making a rhyme. I want to create visions. I mean, I like being flashy and all that, but I think storytelling is my department. I’m good at putting films in your ear, kid.
In that XXL interview, RZA said, “Women weren’t even allowed in the studio until ’97!” Why was that?
Wu has always been about being MCs. We looked at MCing as a sport. So I guess we just got so caught up in it, we felt like it was a man’s sport, know what I mean? I’m sure RZA had his own theories on what should happen in the studio and probably just felt it was his place.
Talk about “Ice Cream,” since it seems like the first track where Wu addressed women.
When we made “Ice Cream,” it was one of the tracks I wasn’t really going crazy over. I remember, we were doing the video for “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” and we started catching a lot of females. We felt like our female fanbase was expanding, so we wanted to reach out and let the women know that we respected them as queens. And queens, much like ice cream, come in all different flavors. So Meth came with that ill hook, and I started to like the track more. I hated it then, but I’m glad we did it, because it was the perfect time for something like that.
Moving on to “Heaven and Hell,” is it true that you wrote all the verses? Why didn’t you just spit them yourself?
I wrote them all because I was just in the zone at the time. One thing about us MCs: if you’re one of us, it don’t matter who does what. I don’t care about my brothers writing my rhymes; I don’t care about my brothers spitting my rhymes either. At that time, we were all kicking rhymes so hard that the track didn’t need more verses. What it did need though, was another voice. That’s what happened. They’re my brothers, and we make sure that everyone in the clan has a bulletproof vest on. I wasn’t about to go out and have another MC do it.
The album ends with “North Star (Jewels),” a track that features Poppa Wu and ODB. How do you think this ended the album when you listen to it today?
When I heard the beat, I pictured a little kid witnessing some street action, sitting right in the middle of a shoot out. He’s sitting on a park bench eating a 100 Grand candy bar, watching everything happen in slow motion. So I came up with the story line and arranged all that. Papa Wu was perfect to deliver that motivational type speech from an older brother’s point of view. I mean, everything we learn, we learn from the older brothers anyways. That was just the kind of vibe and message I was trying to get at in order to end the album. Having ODB on it and hearing it now just makes me sad, but in a way, it’s the perfect way to end the album.
What do you remember after finishing Cuban Linx and finding out about all the love it was getting?
I was surprised, actually. We weren’t worried about doing ten million. We ended up going platnium, which is cool, but we weren’t trying to make this album for everybody. We were trying to make it for niggas who were cut from the same cloth as us. At that time, we were talking for the street niggas, talking for drug dealers and shit. But the beats had a mainstream appeal for the masses too. I mean, no one was coming with shit like “Glaciers of Ice” or “Criminology.” We just didn’t think the whole album would gravitate to it like it did.
What makes the new Cuban Linx an actual sequel? Does it follow the same story line? Why not just call it something else so comparisons aren’t made?
It does follow the same story line, and, like the first one, we weren’t thinking about money. This is a lot like the original in many ways, not just the name. I’m talking about coming into the studio with boots and a hoodie on and just being a fucking MC. We weren’t about glamour. So I wanted to go back into that world we created on the original. The fact that the original went gold in like two days or some shit, made me work even harder. People were telling me to do a sequel since like ’96 or ’97, so I had to do it eventually.
Compare yourself as an MC then and now, and compare the beats between the first one and the new one.
It’s hard to compare, because that was fourteen years ago. I’m fourteen years better, fourteen years wiser. The sequel compliments the original because the production and the imagery are similar. I mean, every beat is important to me right now; the sound, the vibe, everything. I personally went back and made sure everything was compatible. I got Erick Sermon and Marley Marl on it this time around. And these dudes still got it! I mean, Marley sat down with RZA for hours. Erick sat down with RZA for hours. RZA guided them through exactly the type of beats and atmosphere we needed for the sequel.
You seem happy with the results of the new one.
I am. Man, seriously, I haven’t hustled this hard for any album since the beginning.
So after making Cuban Linx 2 and going through that whole process again, would you make this a trilogy? What about a Cuban Linx 3?
It’s like going to the movies and seeing Nightmare on Elm Street. [laughs] You never know when it’ll come. It’s up to the fans. If fans like it to where they want a Cuban Linx 3, then I’ll see what I need to do then. That’s why I did this new one—for the fans. Really though, a part three? Personally, I think I would do it.