Ten years ago, some men with rhymes changed the face of hip-hop music. In the shadow of fellow Wu-Tang Clan stars Method Man and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon and his lyrical accomplice, Ghostface Killah, created Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, a criminology rap classic that hustlers worldwide could relate to.
Compiled by: Paul W. Arnold, Paul Cantor, Jon Caramanica, Andrea Duncan, Toshitaka Kondo, Chairman Mao, Adam Matthews and Vanessa Satten
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the May 2005 issue of XXL Magazine to celebrate the album’s 10th anniversary. It is being re-printed here at Raekwon’s 20th anniversary.
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 10-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
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