Raekwon, The Making of “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…”

*This story original appeared in the May 2005 issue of XXL Magazine*

Compiled by: Paul W. Arnold, Paul Cantor, Jon Caramanica, Andrea Duncan, Toshitaka Kondo, Chairman Mao, Adam Matthews and Vanessa Satten

Hov and Kris can claim albums they’ve christened as blueprints. But if any recording from rap’s modern age has earned the title, it’s Raekwon the Chef’s colossal Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…. Released on August 1, 1995, behind solo efforts from Method Man and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the Chef’s showcase broke new ground, deviating from past Wu-Tang Clan efforts, which emphasized nimble verbal jousts, and bringing something completely unexpected: a narrative-driven concept album that followed two ambitious street hoods (Rae and, in a star-making performance, partner-in-rhyme Ghostface Killah) along their rough road to the riches. Cinematic in structure, infused with Rae’s personality and humor and Ghost’s indelible wordplay, and supported by some of Wu svengali RZA’s finest production work, Cuban Linx inspired hip-hop hustlers everywhere to chronicle their own grimy paths to glory—from Jay-Z, with Reasonable Doubt, to 50 Cent, with Get Rich or Die Tryin’.

“I was straight up into a drug zone vibe,” Raekwon recalls of making his autobiographical opus. “It was almost like a tablet of my life, where I wanted to go, and all the shit I seen. We was just showing niggas that we master all sides of the streets when it comes to trying to get to the top.”

Although East Coast rap gangstas like Kool G Rap and Mob Style (the late-’80s Harlem outfit that included Pretty Tone Capone and famed crime lord the original AZ) had covered similar subject matter, Cuban Linx’s gritty vignettes elevated such storytelling to another level, portraying a slice of underworld life where Five Percent Nation theology, gangland robberies, and recreational cocaine bumps commingled freely. The album also kick-started several trends within the rap game: Cuban Linx was the first instance of rappers adopting mafia-inspired aliases (“Wu-Gambinos”); songs like “Incarcerated Scarfaces” and “Ice Cream” initiated slang like “politic” and “butter-pecan Rican” into the hip-hop vernacular; and Cristal became the bubbly of choice for the ghetto-fabulous set, thanks to Rae and the Clan’s endorsement in various song lyrics.

Nothing, however, was more indicative of Raekwon’s allegiance to the street soldier aesthetic than the LP’s intended full title, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Niggaz—as much a declaration of its musical potency as a forewarning to those not prepared for the uncut raw contained within. (Eventually, and understandably, the N-word was dropped.) Rae also cosmetically distinguished his product from those of other artists, insisting on a purple-tinted cassette and CD case instead of a conventional clear version.

“I wanted to portray an image that if I was selling cracks or dimes in the street, [you would] recognize these dimes from other niggas’ dimes,” he explains. “Recognize that I’m putting myself in another class, where this might not reach everybody table, but for the niggas who table it do reach, it’s like, Yo, that’s some hip-hop bible to the streets.”

Ultimately, this uncompromising approach remains Cuban Linx’s most enduring legacy. Raekwon and Ghostface could create their own slang, devote skits to Wallabee Clarks, use entire dialogue passages from their favorite films as interludes, and invite just one guest star to their coming-out party (Nas), because they didn’t give two shits about fitting in with what other rappers were doing. As the duo spelled out on the controversial skit “Shark Niggas (Biters),” the whole key was to “be original.” In this spirit, XXL also breaks form—from devoting our expanded Classic Material tributes to groundbreaking works of the dearly departed. On the [15]-year anniversary of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…’s release, we spoke with Raekwon and his collaborators to get their reflections and insights on the creation of this hard-boiled hip-hop classic.
Chairman Mao

Builders:
Raekwon the Chef, a.k.a. Lex Diamonds
RZA, a.k.a. Bobby Steels
Ghostface Killah, a.k.a. Tony Starks
Inspectah Deck, a.k.a. Rollie Fingers
Masta Killa, a.k.a. Noodles
GZA, a.k.a. Genius, a.k.a. Maximilian
U-God, a.k.a. Golden Arms, a.k.a. Lucky Hands
Cappadonna, a.k.a. Cappachino
Blue Raspberry, guest vocalist
Nas, guest rapper

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  • ThaWu

    OB4CL is a classic and so is Part II. Damn I remember listening to this album non-stop, evey single track is ace. Even the outro is WOW.

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  • JC

    now THIS is a CLASSIC, to all the high schoolers out there…lol…i swear you youngn’s wouldn’t know what a classic was if it smacked you in the face…i bought THIS CLASSIC when i was in high school…and its STILL hot…oh, Rick Ross take notes…class is in session…LOL…The Purple Tape foreva…

    “It’s like a cycle, niggaz come home, some’ll go in…do a bullet, come back, do the same shit again…” -Verbal Intercourse XXL

  • Malik

    Once upon a time rappers actually attempted to make complete albums and if the album was just a collection of songs, people wouldn’t start saying it’s a classic constantly. The good ol’ days.

  • Omunique

    I agree wit Malik. I love it when you can play an artist’s ENTIRE album through, without pressn the Next button. OB4CL is definitely one of those albums! Shout out to The Chef!!!!

  • elliott bones

    “what if he… ooooo i luv him”

    that sample fuked my head up the whole summer
    and following school year…

    now as a man listening to these songs
    and not a teenager…

    i realize how much more “a work of art” this album really is….

    damn do i miss this era in hiphop music!

  • ayo

    “So GZA felt robbed a little bit. He had to go back home like, “Whatever, yo.” We even laugh about that shit to this day. Like, a nigga robbed GZA. But Cap won. Funny shit.” yo i would have love to been alive and able to hang out in the hip hop club house that RZA’s place was.. that shyt sounds like a dream for a rappin nigga.. jus commin in to a beat already bumpin and jus writin and smokin hella weed whateva whateva..

  • ellery

    thanx rae for this classic album used to bumb this in my cell tryin 2 get thrue them tough days…shout out from holland Amsterdam

  • caino

    A true classic in every sense!! Young guns take notes!!

    l saw the Wu-Tang in concert last night, everyone (minus Method Man) was in attendance and its the best concert l’ve been to this year. Younger kats should take notes, true pioneers of hiphop!

  • http://xxlmag jayruckNYC

    This is what u call a classic. Classic albums should be able to stand against each other. Cuban Linx. The Chronic. Doggystyle. Illmatic. Death Certificate. Reasonable Doubt. These are classics! The albums people call classics these days just dont compare. Not really crazy about Part II but its probably cuz I love part one so much. This was a flawless album.

  • BeerGangsta

    Rae is underrated!! Rae is my favorite Wu and not Meth. Rae style is better. Dre has made beats for him before. Fans don’t know what to buy or play. South music is overrated!!

  • jozeppi

    I voted for Verbal Intercourse, but I’m pretty surprised Knuckleheadz is voteless. I love that song especially U-Gods part.

  • M. Baby!

    Classic!!! is all I gotta say. Verbal Intercourse got my vote. Just the fact that they finally stepped outside of the Clan and got NaS on the track was crazy. I wished they would’ve collabed with more artist from NY back in the day. This album is in my Top 5 Hip-Hop albums of all time, word. Rae had the best solo album from the WU. I always so it’s Rae, Meth, Ghost.

  • http://www.myspace.com/slotchmusic ms_spittuh

    I remember being a 7 year old 1st grader listening to my older sisters bump this shit. They were in their 20s. To this day, its sitting right here next to OB4CL2. Thanks to my sisters for turning me on to hip hop, and I’m from TX ;-) There was no “screw” music in our house. I didn’t even know what that shit was until I started going to school with drug dealers n shit lol. Wu Tang / EPMD / Def Sqad for life! :)

  • Wadoo

    Yo man i remember me & my cousin walking to the store in Jersey & buying this CD. We listened to this album for a full year non stop. Rapping in the mirror with a remote control for a mic the whole CD. This album is Timeless. Glaciers of Ice would come on in the Car. It would make you drive fast!!!! LOl… Yo peace Ray & Ghost. Thank You my brothers. Classic shit for real my dude. I listen to this now with the youngins in the hood. Teach them what real rap is. They should do a show & rap this whole album on stage. It would Bug niggas out!!!!!

  • Magnetic

    @Jozeppi

    Knuckleheadz is cool but was the wackest joint on the album. Thats when you know shit is hot, when the wackest song on the album is not really wack at all, just wack compared to the rest of the album. I was rocking this album last weekend, wordup

  • Magnetic

    RZA is bugging, the beat on “Spot Rusherz” is ill, I love that shit, sound like Steely Dan or sum shit

  • W. J. Rice

    Wu-Tang between 93-97 bodied all Hip hop. RZA solidified himself as a versatile producer and MC

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