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There are leaders and there are followers. There are originators and there are imitators. As fads in music come and go, one constant in hip hop has been the ability of the best maestros to make real, gritty rap about the experiences that come from growing up on the streets. Raekwon is largely responsible for bringing the language of these streets into pop culture, and that is still being reflected today.

After reinventing the game with Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the Staten Island rapper startled his fans with the raw lyrical power of his first solo album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Last year saw the release of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II, and with a new solo album, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, just around the corner, we thought it would be a good time to probe the rapper about his history, his cinematic approach to music, and the strength of Cuban links.  

You started with Cuban Linx in ’95, came back with Immobilarity in ’99, Lex Diamond Story in ’03, The Vatican in ’06 and finally Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II in ’09. Can you tell us what Cuban links mean to you? It was about the bond, the bond between the family. I felt like the family was the chain that could never be broken. So, Ghost and I wanted to call the album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. It was based on the fact you could not break a link. Anybody that knows about an actual Cuban link chain knows that it was one of the most solid chains that you could buy. It will never break and it will never pop. So we took that [analogy] and transferred it to the name of our album. We felt like family is that chain that should never break.

Also, you had to be a certain type of cat to rock a Cuban link chain. Plus your piece had to be chunky as well.
[Laughs] You’re crazy! At the end of the day, of course, it goes onto that level. Like you said we big fans of jewellery and all that. At the same time where we come from if you were able to wear jewellery like that, you had to be a certain kind of dude. You had to be a stand-up dude. Definitely that was also one of the synopses as well. We felt like we were those kind of cats. We were wearing jewellery since the game started for us. We were always into that type of stuff. Ever since the Rakim era with the cables and all of that. We translated all of that into the Cuban links chain.

You’re a dude that brought a lot of honesty to rap. Sometimes a dark honesty with lines like, “No question I would speed, for cracks and weed/The combination made my eyes bleed.” Why did you feel like you needed to be so honest with the listener? Because that’s where I come from. We always came from that cloth of talking about reality music. Ever since I did the song “C.R.E.A.M.” I described anything and everything I’ve been through in my life. I kind of knew the album was gonna be similar to the life story of mine. That all I really knew how to do is just talk about stuff I could relate to or [I’d] been through.

So when you hear stuff like that, “Cracks with weed” and all of that, back then I was going through that. I was a knucklehead being subjected to that. It wasn’t like it was making me weak – I was actually at my best. It was just I was addicted to certain things that I would never do today. That’s not even in my vocabulary to do shit like that now.

At that time I just wanted everyone to know that this is the chamber that I’m going to take you in as far as it comes to me. Wu-Tang, we attack emotions. That’s why we always told everybody we had 36 chambers. One of these particular chambers we talk about reality music. I guess that was my department, and all I did was talk about shit I was around.

At the end of the day, people felt that just around the music they were able to understand that it’s a product of that environment. At the same time, it was talking about things that really relate to the world. I don’t feel like I was the only one that’s been through that cycle, so I just speak to the people that were able to identify with that. 

You connected with a lot of people in doing so. When I listen to your music there is a lot of caper rap.  [Laughs] You’re crazy, I like your slang. You said there’s a lot of caper rap. That’s right! 

When I’m listening to any of your songs or albums, I feel like I’m watching a Michael Mann movie. I’m listening to every track to see what’s gonna happen. That’s right. That’s what I want you to do. That’s the plan. I show you the plan to really emphasize that kind of reality music to you. Like I said, I make movies when I get in the booth or back in the street freestyling. I’m going to say something that you can relate to. I really get off on stories. Definitely, when I do these albums they do transform into stories.  

How many Pyrex cups and Whistlers have you sold through your music and vivid imagery? [Laughs] To be honest with you, it’s beyond even trying to explain. I’ve been in the street a long time. It was not like my whole life is dedicated to one side of growing up. I was a kid. As a kid, I wanted to be fresh and go to school with money in my pocket. I was hard-pressed to get jobs. I had to actually turn to that life to really survive. It’s a long story, but I’m just blessed to escape that life and turn it into something positive. I was able to take all the bad things I’ve been around and turn it into something good.

Hip hop actually saved my life. It gave me an opportunity to change. I really wanted to change, I really wanted to get out of the street. I wanted to really get away from that life. I don’t know if you’ve been to Staten Island. We did not come up with places where they are giving out jobs, or organizations really coming together to help kids. That was really rare for us.

That’s probably why I really speak on the stuff I know. ’Cause that’s what was really there for me to see. I just try and keep everything on a reality level and at the same time be a great MC. I think I come across more as a narrator in music. I like to talk about stuff that could keep the people wondering. I might know somebody that’s going through this, or I like the way he’s telling that story because he’s talking about me. At the end the day, that’s what it’s about – to be able to relate to the urban areas where these kids understand this kind of music. That’s why we first called it Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. We felt like the world would understand it, but I was blessed with making the world identify. That’s a special thing right there. 

You know how to get your point across, even if it’s to let cats know they’re not dressing right. You even got specific with the brands, style and model numbers. Like I say, we grew up in the Polo and Tommy Hill era. If you did not have these kind of clothes while you were in the street, it was like you were considered nothing.  

Last question and statement, Rae. Sub-Zero or Frigidaire? Frigidaire

You’re the Harvey Keitel of rap. [Laughs] Respect, my brother. Respect.

Photography by: ANDREW THIELE