The Making of Raekwon’s ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…’
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
1. “Striving for Perfection”
Raekwon: When we sat down and did “Striving for Perfection,” we knew how important the intro to an album is. We were coming in as young, scrambling niggas. We had visions—goals and dreams. And when we was saying certain things, shit was relating to niggas’ lives for real. But at the end of the day, we was just trying to let it be known that, Yo, we gonna do this and we ain’t gonna stop. If we fall off, we fall off. But if we get on, this is only the beginning. It was just something like, Yo, if this shit don’t work right here, gotta go another route. Probably gotta go get on some robbin’ some bank shit. Some ol’ other shit. So, we felt like we was just striving to get recognized in the game as those dudes that really repped the streets hard. And basically let niggas know: We will be rich in the next year—I guarantee you that.
RZA: The theme of the album is two guys that had enough of the negative life and was ready to move on, but had one more sting to pull off. They’re tired of doing what they doing, but they’re trying to make this last quarter million. That’s a lot of money in the streets. We gonna retire and see our grandbabies and get our lives together
Being that Rae and Ghost was two opposite guys as far as neighborhoods was concerned, I used John Woo’s The Killer. [In that movie] you got Chow Yun Fat [playing the role of Ah Jong] and Danny Lee [Inspector Li]. They have to become partners to work shit out.
Mostly everything [of the spoken interludes] is from The Killer on that album, that or personal talking. I met John Woo that same year. He sent me a letter. He’s honored that we did it. I felt confident we could settle anything that came up. You can usually settle that shit. It’s part of the budget, man. But John Woo didn’t want nothing, never no money for that. We actually became friends, he took me and Ghost to lunch and dinner many times. He gave me a lot of mentoring in film.
Method Man: In RZA, you got a guy that watched karate flicks most of his childhood. He has that type of mind; his imagination is crazy. So when he put those [early Wu] albums together, he was like a kid in a candy store—like, Now I can finally make my own karate movies. So when the solo albums dropped, mine took up where Wu-Tang left off, so it was good for me to come then. Dirty’s still had the kung fu element, but it was more twisted; it was like screwed music because it was seen through Dirty’s eyes this time. When Raekwon’s album came, since he was on some mobster shit, that’s how the nigga structured his album. Every gangster movie he could find, every quote—it’s like the way he put that album together.
Feat. Ghostface and Golden Arms
Raekwon: That’s a track where we runnin’ around we doing what we do, getting’ paper. We smackin’ niggas up. The beat just had us feeling like, “Who the knucklehead wanting respect?” That was just one of them tracks where we felt like we just got finished robbing a bank and we got home and broke that money up. See this knucklehead nigga, try to get slick with that paper: “One for you, two for me.” It’s like, “What are you, stupid? Tom-and-Jerryin’ me, nigga?”
RZA: My idea was besides them rapping the verses, after they talking all this brotherhood shit, they splitting the money up and he cheating them. The idea is that U-God gets killed in “Knuckleheadz.” It’s like a movie. One dies, two others go on. To me, the album is a movie and shit. You get to hear U-God come in. After that song, I had to give Rae a few back-to-back solo joints.
U-God: I was like two days out of prison. I just came out the penitentiary. I’d just come home on [Wu-Tang’s debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang] 36 Chambers, too. I did two years in prison. I came home on parole–work release right before the first album was done. That’s why I’m only on two songs on the first album. Then I got violated. Knucklehead cats out in the world, you know how we do. So I got violated for another eight more months. Then I came back home and got on Rae and Ghost’s album. When I did my verse for “Knuckleheadz,” it was a come-up time, everybody trying to come up and get into the game. I ain’t get a chance to do my vocals over. When I did that, I got locked back up again.
3. “Knowledge God”
Raekwon: “Knowledge God” was a serious story that I wrote. It’s like I’m sitting down and writing a letter, but it folded out into the crime scene of what we was gonna do. I was talking about going to go hit up a real nigga, a store owner like Mike Lavonia—them niggas that be having money in the hood and they be trying to stay out of the way of the tough guys. But at the same time, he still hold his ground because he got business out here in these streets. [He’s thinking], I’m not gonna be intimidated by y’all young boys, but at the same time I know some of y’all young boys might be scheming. That’s where that character came from.
In them early ’80s, cocaine was a rich-nigga high. So if you was doing that back in the day and you had knowledge of self, you was a sharp nigga to us, ’cause that was the sign of the times then. But nobody never said nothing about it.... [The sniffing at the start of the song] just happened. That was a part of the take. When I did it, it wasn’t like we knew that was gonna be a part of the track.... I just did it on some [makes sniffing sound]. You know, a nigga don’t gotta yell to hear the mic. A nigga could do another sound to hear the mic. So that happened to come out. I felt when I was sitting down writing that drug paraphernalia rhyme, that I could’ve been a nigga on it like that at that time. We could have really been getting skied up, going to get this nigga after that. So, it matched perfectly. But that wasn’t like we was sniffin’ [coke in the studio] or no shit.
RZA: That was me trying to produce like a DJ, produce a breakbeat. Ghost actually asked me to make one of those beats. You listen to old DJ tapes. That’s how I made that song and he wanted his shit to sound like a break-beat. He had a rhyme; he knew was going to change the game—that was the verse that got him recognized. [Cypress Hill’s] DJ Muggs called me up and was like, “Yo, he killed that shit. He ripped that shit.” From that point on, he’s the co-star. He wins Best Supporting Actor. Rae got nominated, maybe won or didn’t—but Ghost definitely wins.
Ghostface: I wrote that verse in San Francisco. We used to carry the beat machine around a lot. We was out there a good two weeks, so RZA was making beats all day. I heard that beat and I loved that track. The year was ’95. Hip-hop was still hip-hop, and we was going in. I don’t know if I was drunk when I wrote that, but I know when I went in the booth, I had a battery in my back, fucking with the Ballantine Ale. I recorded a lot of my shit on Ballantine.
5. “Incarcerated Scarfaces”
Raekwon: The way RZA had it poppin’ back then, we would come into his spot. It was like dudes would come in on their own time and create stuff. I remember I just came in, and the beat was just pumpin’. I wrote the hook—that was the first thing I did. I think one of my mans just got hit with some heavy time around that time. I had a lot of niggas up there, too. So, it was like, Yo, this one gotta be for them niggas right here. This right here will be just for them niggas in jail. It won’t be for nobody else. I just wrote it out real quick. I did three verses on that, so Ghost didn’t have to come in and really do anything to it.
RZA: I wasn’t making that beat for Rae. I was finished with Rae. I like having 13 tracks. I don’t like having 18. I was making it for GZA probably. He was next. But then Rae heard that beat, grabbed his pen and paper, and started writing. Two hours later, it was written.
6. “Rainy Dayz”
Feat. Ghostface and Blue Raspberry
Raekwon: When we wrote “Rainy Dayz” I think we was already out of the country. We was in Barbados by the water. Some joints we [had the beats to] we went out of town with. And that one specifically, we wrote by the water. Had that good villa right off the ocean and shit. Three, four in the morning. Wind is blowing, curtains is blowing, and we just really got a chance to put it down. I think I wrote mine out there.
We just basically gave you some action on how niggas in the hood think. Like how a nigga lady think—they don’t act like they there to try to bring you back from doing what you gotta do, but they try to get you caught up. We was like, This is gonna be perfect for the struggling girl who can’t understand her man and he a thorough nigga. We wanted to put the girl in the skit [at the start of the song] from the movie when she said, “I sing for him and he isn’t here.” He ain’t here, bitch, ’cause he makin’ money! He trying to put some food on the table!
RZA: This is one of my favorites, if not my favorite track. It stayed on the grill for a long time. That’s what we called it back then. I didn’t take a song off until I was satisfied. I generally like to do ’em, mix ’em, put ’em away. This was too emotional and too real for me, too close to my personal situation. This was the life we was living, just talking and rapping and hoping. Record royalties take too long to come. We had a platinum album, but we waiting on the check to come fast, like babies wanting they food.
Blue Raspberry: I was on the microphone singing that old song by Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer [“No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”], that [sings] “It’s raining, it’s pouring, my love life is boring me to tears.” I was just singing that, and so then RZA started playing a track. So that’s where [sings] “It’s raining, he’s changing” came from. That’s the kind of mind state it put me in. I got a little stumped in the middle, so it’s like, “No sunlight, more gunfights.” When I said “No sunlight,” RZA brought in the “More gunfights,” which brought me into a whole other realm of the song, where I could go ahead and complete it.
7. “Guillotine [Swords]”
Feat. Ghostface, Inspectah Deck and GZA
Raekwon: To me, that was a “Symphony” track. Meth had a piece of that beat on his album that was used as a skit. ’Cause that’s how RZA is. Sometimes he’d mix other shit in and give you a piece of something but not really act like it’s gonna be assigned to that. He’ll see if somebody like it and use it for fillers or whatever. I had told RZA awhile ago after he did that, “Yo, I want that beat.”
We was the first to be talking that Cristal shit. I know that for a fact. I never even heard of Cristal before that. Back then we would go do dinners and shit with [Loud Records president] Steve Rifkind and them up at the label. And our mission would be like, when we sit at the table, we want the best fuckin’ wine they got in the building. We might have asked for something else. We might have asked for some Mo or something and they didn’t have it. So we was like, “What the fuck is the next best thing, Steve?” And Steve’s like, “Give ’em the next best thing.” They came out with Cristal. Me and Ghost liked the bottle, and the name on the bottle was Louis Roederer. I was like, I’m Lou Diamond. Louie Roederer. Me and Ghost is loving how fruity the bottle looked. It cost more than the muthafuckin’ other, so we was like, Cristal, nigga! That’s our new shit!
RZA: For that beat right there, a very open beat, not too heavy on production. This is me trying to imitate the sound Isaac Hayes did on “Do Your Thing.” That da-na-na-na-na, I found a way to imitate that shit. When you plug the Yamaha VL7 [keyboard] up to a MPC [sampler], because of the note cutoff of the MPC, it cause the notes to stutter, ’cause it don’t link up perfect. I heard it and I could reproduce it, but only with those two machines. I had the prototype from Yamaha ’cause I didn’t want nobody else to get it.
GZA: I don’t know why I only got on one track. Maybe ’cause it was just a Rae and Ghost album—it was featuring Ghost, and I think he was probably pleased with me just getting on one. Just to fill in a slot.
8. “Can It Be All So Simple (Remix)”
Raekwon: The remix came from when we used to do shows when Enter the Wu-Tang dropped. Me and Ghost used to come out to that part of the beat in the middle of the show. RZA did a little bit of magic to it and touched it and twirled it, and Ghost basically was talking about how he got shot back in the days when he was out of town. He started going into his story rhyme shit. Back then a lot of niggas we knew was in and out of different states and cities, and you know shit could happen. So when he wrote that, I guess he was going back to the time when he got popped: “Emergency trauma Black teen headed for surgery.” It was like he was just describing a moment.
9. “Shark Niggas [Biters]”
Raekwon: It was one of them skits where we was looking at our competition. And when Ghost is saying whatever he was saying, we kinda knew who he was talking about, but it wasn’t like we trying to start a beef. It’s just sometimes, when you get in that booth and you start saying what you wanna say, it just happened. Back then we was feeling good. The liquor’s making a nigga feel stronger. We know we coming up with a good album. And we letting it be known, listen: Blah blah blah blah blah. And that’s all we did.
RZA: This was the end of the first side. That’s how we thought of it right then. We was letting niggas know, we know what we was doing, knew what we had in our hand. Don’t sound like none of my crew. Eventually niggas did bite. If they would have bit it that year, they would have gotten fucked up. We was enforcing, we was fucking niggas the fuck up. You grow up out of your meanness. Hip-hop had only one rule: no biting. We knew that everybody was already jumping on it already. You had a few niggas trying to clone our shit, already had a few fake Meth’s popping up. Fuck that. We gonna see you. At one point, a nigga would kill you if you sounded like them.
Ghostface: I didn’t want niggas to sound like me. Basically we was just wilding, starting a lot of trouble. We was airing out at that time. I’m not here to fuck around and start throwing out names. But at that time, niggas knew what was going on and who niggas was talking about. You know how Wu came through. At that time, it was on for anybody. We came into the game like, Fuck everybody. Niggas can’t touch this, whatever, whatever. That was our mind-frame back then. We ran all that shit—jails, streets, Brooklyn House, Rikers Island, and Up North—Wu-Tang was what was up. So we was just them two niggas bugging out off of that shit.
God bless the dead, I love Big. He’s a fucking icon. Even when I seen him out in Cali, I wanted to tell son, Yo, let’s go ahead and make this record together because I matured through the years, and at the same time, I recognized good music. We shook hands on some peace shit, but that was all, ’cause they was on their way leaving out. A day or two later, niggas aired him out. I felt bad like a muthafucka because it was like, Damn, the niggas aired out one of my New York niggas.
10. “Ice Water”
Feat. Ghostface and Cappadonna
Raekwon: Everybody knew Cap from the hood. We knew Cap could rhyme, and I think he was getting hot at that time, too. Me and Ghost had already dropped our part. So we needed him to come up there and do his thing. He slid right in between, and he do what he do.
Cappa knocked GZA out, and knocked everybody [else who had rhymed over that track] out. He knocked niggas out on the strength of the rhyme was phat; but also, when he said certain names that was from the hood, everybody went crazy. So he kinda won with a landslide. But GZA came sharp. 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.
RZA: On side A, you had U-God come down with the sting with them. In my mind, in the movie, he’s killed already. Now there’s a new nigga coming in, with a whole new flow and shit.
Cappadonna, he’d hardly been to the basement. He was in jail but he still sounded good, still had it in him. I let him know, You can pop in how Green Hornet did. And Big Un—he’s in jail for life, a thorough-ass nigga, a real street nigga. We let him do the talking [between the second and third verses]. He confirmed Ghost and Rae’s association from the streets. He was from Stapleton with Ghost.... So, he’s immortalized now. Music and film, it keeps you there forever.
Inspectah Deck: That’s my shit. When I do shows, I come out and freestyle to that. Niggas be going crazy. That beat alone was RZA on his weed high. I think RZA smoked weed that day. He don’t normally smoke. When we smoke, he don’t fuck with us. He might take a pull or two, and then he comes with that crazy shit.
U-God: Cappa did eight years in prison. Cappa came home. I’m the one that came and got Cappa out of his bed when Rae and them niggas were recording. He didn’t even wanna come, ’cause he was bitter. When you in jail and you come home and cats you grew up with is doing it without you, of course you gonna feel bitter. I got him out his fuckin’ bed, slapped off all that bitterness and brung him down to the studio. Rae’s carpet fell out. Cappa taught me how to rhyme! I used to be his beatbox.
11. “Glaciers of Ice”
Feat. Ghostface and Masta Killa
Raekwon: The [opening skit] was something me and Ghost really wanted to stress, because around that time we was really buying Clarks left and right. We had bumped into a Chinese nigga who could dye shit. That was Ghost’s man. And we was just runnin’ back and forth to that nigga every time we wanted to go get some shoes. Back then, we was into shoes hard. We wanted to wear Clarks because the shits was comfortable and nobody in the game was fuckin’ with ’em. So you know, we’d be going to dye shit, and that’s where Ghost came up with the idea to slice ’em. I was the solid-color nigga; he was the striped nigga. We started coming up with different flavors. So he was letting niggas know, “I wanna get a pair of Clarks like, I’m a murder ’em!”
When I rhymed to “Glaciers” it wasn’t even to that beat. It was the drum part of that beat that I rhymed to. That day, when I went home, I didn’t like my rhyme. Everybody else kept stressing they liked my rhyme. But I didn’t. RZA was like, “Don’t worry about it. Go home, go get some rest, you tired, you buggin’.” I was like, Fuck that. When I come back tomorrow, I’m changing that shit.
When I came back, it was like the shit was a whole new different beat with the drums under it. He made Blue Raspberry hit certain notes. He’d have her scream, go crazy. That shit’s nothing but an AK festival with all the screaming. I took it like he had a shooting range with a bunch of Iraq niggas and just having a festival.
Blue Raspberry: One night, I was just at the studio and I was playing around on the microphone, singing Patti LaBelle’s “Over the Rainbow.” I was with no music, no nothing. I was sitting there, just singing. And when I got to the end like, [sings] “Why then, oh why c-a-a-n’t I?” RZA recorded it. And that’s where he put it, in “Glaciers of Ice.”
RZA: The Clarks skit is totally how Ghost is. He recorded the skit, I think we was in the car. I had a portable DAT. I made everybody get one, ’cause no telling where we gonna be at when an idea hits. Put it under your bed with your bitch, whatever.
Ghostface: We was in the car one day, driving around with the DAT machine with microphone. And we just started talking shit about how we’re gonna do it this summer with the Clarks. The dying was something I was doing already. I’m an inventor. Niggas can’t fuck with me when it comes to style. Only nigga that is right there with me is probably Slick Rick. Other than that, I’m boss.
12. “Verbal Intercourse”
Feat. Ghostface and Nas
Raekwon: We got in the studio. RZA played the beat. Nas was liking it, and he was trying different rhymes to it. We would sit there, and he’d say some of his shit. But he didn’t really know which rhyme he wanted to say. And I was there, being like his little coach. And I was like, “That’s it, son.” He was like, “That’s it?” I was like, “Nigga, that’s it!” But he had already went through three or four rhymes, and he couldn’t really see which one he wanted it to be. But I heard it. Once it came out his mouth, I was like, That’s it.
Our main focus was just to make sure that he get his nut off and do what he gotta do. When he did his thing, I must have wrote something real quick, just to add on and get the shit really looking like something. Ghost just put the cherry on the top. No hook, ’cause we didn’t care about hooks like that. All we had was the “RZA, Chef, Ghost, and Nas...,” which is more or less an introductory hook. Not really a hook.
Nas: Rae would come out to Queensbridge. I would go to Staten Island. We’d just ride and hang out all night. We didn’t call each other to work. We called each other to hang out. Somehow we wound up in the studio. RZA had a couple of beats ready. He played them for me. I got on both of them. The other one never came out. I was honored to be asked to be on the album. Raekwon was ahead of his time. I knew Rae was a classic artist and the album was going to be a music classic.
Ghostface: Nas banged it out in one night. He went first with his shit. We all came after. Son was fast. Nas had a couple verses. He spit one verse to us and then another, not on the mic. He just asked, “How this sound?” And then we picked the one he spit. He still had the pen in his hand and all the other shit, but son got in there and just threw an ill crack verse. He was on fire.
13. “Wisdom Body”
Raekwon: In my eyes, Cuban Linx was always Ghost’s album as well as it was mine. That’s one thing about me. I already knew that me and him was a pair. So even though people felt like it was a Raekwon album, I looked at it like it was a Wu-Tang album, and this is me and Ghost’s department right here, ’cause dudes don’t really talk [the street stuff] like that. Or dudes talk it but don’t talk it the way we talk it. So when Ghost had put [“Wisdom Body”] up there on the album, I felt like, This track is definitely needed and it sound fly. I wasn’t at the studio that day when he did it, but I knew the rhyme he was gonna play, ’cause I remember RZA keep playing the beat over and over, like, “Somebody gotta eat this.” That’s how RZA is. “Somebody gotta eat that, whether you wanna eat it or not, somebody gotta eat that.” And Ghost just ate it up alone.
RZA: This [track was originally called] “Fly Bitch Shit.” At this time, Ghost became Tony Starks. On that song, Ghost came in and did that song one day, I actually put it in the stash; it was Ghost by himself at first. Then Rae jumped on it. I was like, No, it’s too personal to Ghost.
It’s a glitch in that performance, the way he did it the first time on ADAT. He never came with that same wetness of voice. He’s more high-pitched when other producers work with him. His voice should be compressed on 90 mhz and sloped down. I know that; other producers and engineers don’t know that. I had nine compressors—one for each MC—that I could just patch in.
Ghostface: You can hear the punches in there. There a few punches in there right in the beginning when I say, “Check the bangingest.” You can hear the shit switch up a little bit. RZA had to punch the other take in. ’Cause back then, since I was drinking, I’d slur a lot so I had to do a bunch of takes. You can hear that I’m a little bit drunk if you listen. That’s why I punched in, because I fucked up one of my words. So, I just kept the beginning and put the other take in. That’s the thing about these albums that we made earlier. We used to keep a lot of the fuckups. That’s what made it raw. Everything ain’t always gotta be too perfect.
14. “Spot Rusherz”
RZA: “Spot Rusherz” was another example of that zone. I wasn’t really feeling the beat. I was done with Rae’s album. Another time I was making beats for GZA. Rae and me got a similarity. We workaholics, we dedicated to the cause. It’s one of those things where he came in and aired it out. And to me, it saved the beat. I still don’t like that beat. I still wanted to get it off the album. The two gun shots at the end: Just in case you got bored, I was bringing you right back.
15. “Ice Cream”
Feat. Ghostface, Method Man and Cappachino
RZA: I gotta take total credit for the idea. I got this basement downstairs in my first nice apartment I had, in Mariner’s Harbor [in Staten Island]. There’s a line running from the basement to the production room on the second floor. I just zoned the fuck out one night and did the beat. Meth came over. I told him I got a crazy idea on this one. I wanna use girls’ breasts as imaginary ice cream cones. I came up with the idea to make T-shirts to go with it. “Meth, You gonna do the hook.” It was the first song besides “You’re All I Need to Get By” that we pressured him into. He didn’t like being the pretty boy. He took those words I said—“French vanilla,” “butter pecan”—and put them in perfect order. It was really Wu-Tang’s first reach out to women.
Women wasn’t even allowed into the studio. A woman wouldn’t be allowed in the studio until ’97. It’s a distraction. It reminds me of the ingenuity of the mind I had ticking and making these songs and thinking we can make the T-shirts. We must’ve sold 20,000 T-shirts at the Wu-Wear store alone.
Cappadonna: Well, the first joint I did, the one that put me on the map, was “Ice Cream.” And we did that one like, that was the beginning, nobody ain’t really had nothing. We had a lil’ studio up on Clove Lake. RZA had an apartment over there, with the studio in the basement. That’s the studio that got flooded out. They had a flood in there. But before the flood, I was out as a security guard up there at the time, and I had went in there and I heard “Ice Cream,” I had heard Rae’s verse; I heard Ghost’s verse on there. And I had made a joke about me getting on the track, and RZA took it seriously and was like, “Yo, go ahead. Lace that.”
Feat. Ghostface, Method Man, RZA and Masta Killa
Raekwon: The [Wu-Gambino] aliases come from how I used to like that movie Once Upon a Time in America, with Robert De Niro and James Woods. I liked how these young little niggas grew up, from the ground up, not having nothing to start, but still was confused about how they treated each other. And the names came. You know, “Tony Starks” came from Iron Man. “Lou Diamond” came from me being infatuated with the diamond world. Back then I was wearing a lot of ice, was calling shit ice. But then I started giving some of my niggas in the crew names. Being that it’s my album, I wanted niggas to know, You gotta have a certain a.k.a. when you’re on this track. This is a Gambino track. Wu-Gambinos. I would call Masta Killa “Noodles.” Call GZA “Maximilian.” Inside the movie, “Noodles” and “Max” was partners. I felt like GZA was like “Maximilian” because he was like the brains of the crew. He would say something real intellectual and smart, and I looked at him like a “Max.”
I called Deck “Rollie Fingers” ’cause of the way he roll blunts. So names just started fitting niggas. “Golden Arms,” U-God. Then niggas just start making they own names up. “Bobby Steels”—RZA was on some real Black Panther, DJ, ill producer shit.
RZA: Now that these guys pulled they sting off, they got one more big sting. They gotta call the heavy hitters in on this one. It’s Rae getting the rest of the team to make this thing official.
Actually, that was the first one where everyone took on another name to go along with the concept of the album. That was done intentionally. We was probably 11 songs into the album. Everyone come with your Gambino name. My name was Bobby Steele when I was 12, 13, so I brought that back out. It was me and Ghost the last to lay our verses. Ghost goes last; everybody was up in the cut. Tru Master had to be the engineer to record me. I let niggas know I’m part of the sting. I’m coming for that money, too. For me it was a chance to show niggas, because I hadn’t been heard for a minute.
Masta Killa: That all was done in the same place. And it was a beautiful thing to see. Wu-Gambinos: You see Meth come in; he laid his verse. You see Deck come in; he lays his verse. RZA is there; he lays his verse. It’s inspiring to just see other MCs come through. And not just MCs. This is your brother. This is your family. It’s like the Jackson 5 and shit. They all in one room. It’s going to be magical. RZA was the Beethoven of the whole shit. I think he orchestrated the whole shit. A lot of times brothers came and it was like you came in and you rhymed; you could have left and you went wherever. When your album was completed, you came in to listen to what he stayed up putting his magic touches on things.
Method Man: We were high, hanging out. It was always a relaxed atmosphere because we were so used to being there, sleeping on the floors and all that. So it was like being home, writing rhymes in your own house. You went from the floor to the booth. It took three hours tops, just to put vocals on it.
That was the first time we ever used our aliases, the Wu-Gambino names. We were sitting there like, “My name gonna be this” and “My name gonna be that.” People really thought my fuckin’ name was Johnny Blaze. Raekwon started that. He was on it, so RZA put it to light. Rae always had that mobster mentality, always liked to watch gangster movies and read mob books and stuff like that, you know? So he pretty much knew the names of these cats and what they was about and stuff like that. He polished his whole style like that. Plus Staten Island is known for mobsters—that’s where the Italians live. Not saying all Italians are mobsters, but you know, we ain’t blind and shit.
17. “Heaven & Hell”
Ghostface: This was one of the first songs recorded for Cuban Linx ’cause we made it for the Fresh soundtrack. Rae wrote all of it, and then we just broke it up. I just did it with him. So, I was right there. I was the co-signing like, I’m a say this part. There a lot of things me and Rae do like that. I might write, and be like, “Yo, here, son just say these parts.” But on that one, he had did that. We recorded it the same day.
GZA: Some artists work together. I’ve thrown lines at brothers, and I’ve gotten lines from brothers. That’s how we get down.
18. “North Star [Jewels]”
Raekwon: “North Star” was a track I really, really wanted on my album. It was a track that I felt the vibe of it was motion picture–like. I was having a vision of that song: I could just see a little kid looking out the window, just eating a $100,000 Bar. He coulda been on the seventh floor, eighth floor. And he just looking out the window just looking at all these niggas out there in the street doing they thing. How they eat, how they get money. How they out there just trying to get that money. Back in them days, niggas would run up to cars and stick they drugs in the window to make niggas buy ’em and whatever. So that beat always reminded me of some slow, theatrical trouble that’s about to take place.
The inspiration that Papa Wu was saying, he was more or less giving a documentary of me with the words he was saying. He was talking about me like, “Yo, just keep your head up, man. Don’t let nothing get you down.” Just trying to really inspire me from an OG’s point of view. And in the hood, OGs is legends to us.
RZA: “Fly Bitch Shit” and “North Star” was one song, but I separated them out. The idea is Rae did everything he had to do. Everything is over now. The job is over. Mission is over. It’s a perfect closing to the album.
Papa Wu was a very smart mentor in the younger days to me and ODB. I formed Wu-Tang Clan. Everybody had dibs and dabs of street knowledge, knowledge of self. I brought him in to be a mentor to these men like, I love them and you the only person I know that have the intelligence to keep them in sync with knowledge. It’s very poisonous unless they got proper guidance. He was the smartest man I’d ever met at a certain time in my life. After two years, they’d turned him into a Wu-Tang member. His name used to be Freedom Allah. He was Five Percent. He became Papa Wu after the experience, went from silk pants and button-up shirts to fatigues.