Raekwon Reflects on How 'Only Built 4 Cuban Linx' Came Together on 20-Year Anniversary: Exclusive

Bob Berg/Getty Images

Raekwon poses for a portrait in 1997 in New York City. 

Raekwon also recalls RZA approaching him about being a member of the Wu-Tang Clan.

On an otherwise uneventful Thursday night in Columbus, Ohio, the Only Built 4 Cuban Linx anniversary tour rolled through the Buckeye State and undertook its third stop. The crowd was typical of a Wu-Tang Clan show. Old heads feigning for that bit of nostalgia to reminisce their youthful days coincided with younger fans appreciating the novelty that has become the Wu brand over the past two decades. It's part of the reason Raekwon and Ghostface Killah are able to perform to packed houses 20 years after releasing arguably the Clan's greatest solo LP.

Raekwon Talks 'F.I.L.A.,' 'A Better Tomorrow' & More: 'Wu-Tang Will Make a Dope Album Again'

Similar to other veteran artists who've crossed the often unspoken, yet acknowledged point of understanding that fans desire the music of their hero's pinnacle prose, the Chef trotted out nothing but cuts from his debut effort. Toward the middle of his set, Rae performed "Can It Be All So Simple (Remix)" and interestingly let the Gladys Knight-sampled hook ride out beyond the song's instrumentals.

"This song saved my life," he yelled out as the vivid use of "The Way We Were (Try To Remember)" continued to repeat. It was at that point the show became more like a smoked out Sunday night over at Raekwon's early 90s Staten Island residency than it did a tour stop hundreds of miles away. It also proved that not much has changed between then and now. Rae still rains supreme as the Wu's street slang ambassador but perhaps more importantly, deep down, he's still that misunderstood petty hustler from Park Hill who would do anything to fulfill his musical prophecy.

From inception, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, released on August 1, 1995, was to be the defining example of Wu-Tang Clan's street side. Everything within–whether it be Shallah Diamond's apologue of perilous attempts at escaping the street life, as referenced in "Rainy Dayz," to "Criminology's" tales of triumph–the album exemplified Raekwon's knack for turning his memoirs into a musical movie. Cooked up in RZA's legendary basement studio, Cuban Linx separated itself from other classics at the time and even previous Wu releases. It became obvious that the Abbot handled OB4CL with kid gloves. The cinematic nature it embodied set a new standard for Mafioso rap never to be recreated.

Two decades after Raekwon's debut solo album hit shelves and in the midst of Rae and Ghost's anniversary tour, Billboard spoke with the man responsible for the landmark LP about Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and its legacy. He describes the project's lasting impact, current day influence and dropped some gems about how it came together. Even after 20 years, one listen can still feed the appetites of every Tommy Hil' Ice rocker, Wu-Gambino, and spot rusher.

You're on tour with Ghostface Killah in honor of Cuban Linx's 20-year anniversary. Talk about what it means to tour off of something two decades old.
Raekwon: Yeah, it's a special moment. It's a special time where we made a classic album 20-years ago and it got respected through out the whole game. It don't even feel like it's 20 years. We just want to go out there, do something for the people and celebrate, pop bottles and just pay homage to our album and sing it to people again. They love when we perform that album. We got a whole couple of weeks now of representing and having fun for that time.

Take me back to the old days before Wu-Tang, even before rap. What was teenage Raekwon like and what did you do to survive?
The thing about me was I was always trying to be successful at whatever I do. I remember the days where I used to envision myself just being an artist. All I needed was a shot. I feel I have it. I have my confidence at where I need to be at. I think every man's life, that journey is already written to where it's going to play out. I was just taking it day by day and I was living off the land. I had a little bit of rhymes and a whole lot of hip-hop in me. When you come from my neighborhood, the music is a language that we felt at that time we only knew. I was inspired by others that was in it before me and paved the way so they were like the big brother or big sister you never had and they teach you about music and the culture and the life. I always had a vision but I didn't know when it was going to strike.

When did the possibility of a career in hip-hop start to get more real for you?
When I was in my '20s that's when I started to feel a little hopeful of the things we was doing. We were definitely into it heavy. I remember it as a youngster, of course but when you get in your 18's or 20's it's like your life is already in your hands so whichever way you want to play, you going to play it. I was always into music. I remember days where we would go see producers that we didn't even know was famous. A person like Easy Mo Bee, who helped put Biggie on, we didn't even know who he was. All I knew was he was a dope producer and was giving us the opportunity to come to his house. All this nostalgia that I guess was written, we didn't even know what was happening.

You and Ghost came from different projects and back then Staten Island was really separated by its neighborhoods. Tell us about that dynamic and originally meeting him.
We always knew each other because our projects were down the streets from each other. We pretty much grew up in the same high school. We never knew we were going to have the chemistry we have but we knew when it came to doing the job and assisting this franchise that we got, we got close. We would laugh about a lot of things that we record on or reminisce on but at the same time we got to focus and we've got a goal and that's to represent the fans. I remember Ghost telling me one day that, 'yo, you inspire me,' and I'm like, 'well you inspire me!' But he was like, 'nah, you inspire me to be creative and write things that I never imagined even being an artist that writes.' I look at that like, 'wow, thank you!' I never looked at it like that but I guess he seen something in me and I seen something in him. The chemistry became organic and it was what it was.

How big were the Force MDs when you were coming up?
My whole hip-hop movement was started around the time of ‘87/'88 when things were going on. Their name was big. The Force MDs it was like they were dope because they was the vehicle, they was around the way. It was like, 'oh shit! Wow!' Seeing them come through the Park Hill days and Stapleton days, just being available for us to see them and tell them that they were definitely one of the illist groups ever to do it. That was more inspiration as a kid.

Now, I magnify that because them being from around my way--they wasn't actually from Park Hill--but they was from Staten Island so that gives you hope and when you start picking out people from around the way that it's like, 'yo he want it, yo he's chasing a deal, he's doing this,' that was me and RZA coming up. He was doing it in a slow way but it's correct in my eyes. It made me want to get more out. It was like, 'he did it, why can't you do it? Why can't you show me how to do it after you do it?' I just wanted to be in the mix. It was nourishment for me. It was a way to escape pain, poverty life and in ‘88/'89 all that music was powerful and with them coming with the R&B and coming out as emcees at the same time, you wouldn't imagine how much inspiration that is for a kid from the neighborhood. You really feel like you can do it.

RZA and GZA were really the only two Clan members that attained some decent fame prior to everyone releasing music as Wu-Tang. How big were they in getting things moving forward for you?
Yeah man, I mean these are our heroes, man. When I look at RZA and GZA I looked at somebody that mastered poetry and knowing how to rhyme and just make great music that could affect the world. I got to say I've got to be one of the biggest fans at the time because I was kind of one of the first members that they really, really said, 'yo, we're doing this thing. We need you here.' I always told members of the crew, 'yo, I knew RZA longer than you,' or, 'I knew GZA longer, we have a history.' And everybody respected that because they was always in and out.

When they came to Staten Island they would break out. To make a long story short I think that they seen something back then that made a lot of sense to they personalities. Hip-hop was just an essential that allowed them to be the people that they are and it spoke in the music. I'm like wow, being inspired by smart men that love hip-hop but really look at the science of making great music. I was intrigued after that. I would always do a lot of hanging around, especially [around] RZA but GZA. He was always in and out. He would come through to the video shoots one time and when they represented for them I felt good for them. It felt good to know a rhymer that did something I love and all of that meant more and more inspiration to take on.

How did RZA approach you about being a member of Wu-Tang?
RZA used to live in our neighborhood and he was always known for that. He was always a hustler in his own way. I used to always go back to selling newspapers on the bridge, standing out in the cold or stuff like that. I always knew he had talent and he knew I was good at things and I was a smart individual and we stuck around each other and the fruits of our labor came mad years later [laughs]. It's just like I said like, things started to giddy up but it took 10 years or it took five or six years for them to really get it right and get it where we were going. It's just a lot of family biz because we were young still. We would get on the train with no money, jump off the train, go get a sandwich with only two dollars in our pocket and we would be outside at 6 AM. [It would be the] middle of the night and we would be on the train but that's how much we loved to move around and that's how much we loved music.

RZA had a vision, he would be like, 'come with me,' and it was like, 'ain't nothing on this fucking block for me. Why not come with you? I love what you're doing,' and that's what I would do. It was just a way to escape the neighborhood and feel like, 'damn, I had a good day,' and not have to sit around and be subjected to all the bullshit all the time. It was a lot of negativity in my neighborhood in those days and it felt good to be off the block.

You were the only member of Wu-Tang to choose to do your freshman solo deal with Loud Records, the company the group as a whole was signed to. What made Loud appealing to you moving toward Cuban Linx?
It was an opportunity I had and we had a little bit of resources and the resources that we had allowed us more hope than the other dudes who did a deal. That was always the move but when we had the resources it was like, 'now we got to go work,' because alright it's one thing to know you're getting play but now it's another thing to get up and go look for a situation and that's what we did right away, all of us. We got up, we was in vans and we would come to RZA house, have a meeting and say, 'yo look, we need to go up here and play this record.' It was all about going and seeing what your situation would be while a few of the Wu-Tang management guys would come in and go fish out meetings [with perspective record labels].

All we wanted was to get a great deal and give us all an opportunity to make some money. When it came to our record being one of the hottest records, that might've came after the deal. That might've came when we was already done with our album and we already had our name caught up in the game as far as people knowing who we was. Next thing we know, going to get a deal, it was like, "Who's going to take this deal? Who's going to try not to jerk us?" We was always smart about not being jerked as a group as far as what we were doing but we knew we had an individual run. We needed to make sure that whatever deal came at us it benefited the future of us. We all sat down and said, "Yeah, we can do the deal if we stay Clansmen but still at the end of the day–I got an album, he got an album, he got an album." RZA knew that all this music he had worked on so he had to work in this philosophy and if he didn't, we would've been shortchanging and would've receded the plan of everybody having they own shot at they own personal career.
You got to remember, back then it was hard to get a deal if you was one person or two people so to try to come in and get 10 people [a deal] it's like saying, "Well do got 10 albums or 10 situations that you know you can fulfill?' RZA answered that question with, "Yes." It was so much not needed or not wanted at that time because it was so much of a risk of not really making it. It went the other way but we was young and we took the best thing that we felt was there. It was a little money now but it was the platform and we've got that solo understanding together.

Obviously Mafioso films like Scarface heavily influenced the album. How big were movies like that to you when you were younger and when you were putting this album together?
I was always into those kinds of movies: The Godfather, Once Upon A Time In America, Scarface; these are all movies of our people that come from nothing and sharpen they're livelihoods. These movies are always in the back of my head 'cause they was movies that I felt like, 'damn, I could relate but I could only relate on my side, which is the street side of things.' I knew there was more than one guy in front of me that had a family and I have a family. The movies are just a narration of what was going on in my world as well. I just felt like that album was needed because I never really considered myself the favorite emcee-type. I envisioned myself as the storyteller emcee, the visionary emcee. That [type] was my favorite because I was out there. I was living in times where we had to make a living to survive more than anybody else so looking at these movies and being inspired and when it came down to making my album I knew that I didn't want to have the fancy album. I wanted an album that was strong and something that represented my life and my pain that I was caught up in and everything and loving the fact that I had a legendary team at a young age. We knew we was legends at that time and I knew that I was destined to make a powerful album and I knew that that's where my mind was going to go.
Kool G Rap is considered the "Godfather" of Mafioso rap.

I know you have an affinity for Queens hip-hop, but how big was G Rap in what you specifically wanted to do as a solo artist?
He was the grandfather of my style. He taught us the ropes. He said everything that needed saying. I thought he was talking to me. He was a hero to us and still is a hero and the crazy shit about it is I still converse with G Rap today.

What does he tell you?
He's my brother; he's my big brother. He would just call me and let me know... Last time I talked to him he talked about doing like a sitcom, like he wanted me attached to it and I'm like, 'damn that's big coming from someone who inspired me today.' He's good. That's my big brother. Rakim, [Big Daddy] Kane, Slick Rick, Public Enemy, Salt N Pepa, Queen Latifah, it's like those are my ancestors. They told me how to walk and stand for something for real in music, which is artistry. You can't just act like you an artist. You got to be an artist.

One day, I was on a radio station and I bumped into Kane and he told me, he was like, 'yo Chef, you're in the books.' Do you know how that felt for me? Do you know that feeling? It's a beautiful thing. He's a good brother and he's certified in the game and that meant everything in the world to me. Rakim said, "Yo, I actually want you to help me do my album." These are the guys I love, that I could've cried in front of. It just shows that I was a great student.

Mobb Deep Talk Career Beginnings & 'The Infamous' on Its 20th Anniversary

I've also been told by your A&Rs at the time that Mobb Deep's The Infamous was influential for you as far as what you wanted to put together with Cuban Linx. That true?
We come from the city, New York, where every borough has somebody special and when we came out every borough embraced us and we embraced every borough and out of every borough I was always was a big fan of hip-hop n----s from Queens even back in the Run-D.M.C. days, MC Shan, Queens willies. To see the generation after them, around the same time, I felt like we had the best teachers and these are the niggas. I love they rhymes. These niggas really know how to rhyme. I grew up in Queens so I felt like I had a little bit of history there and of course I'm from Brooklyn as well but Queens like, I felt attached. Me and Nas was cool, Mobb Deep. Even though we was on the same label there was a relationship--a friendship first, before anything--then came the fan shit. At the end of the day we fed off each other and the albums that was made were inspired from great emcees inside the boroughs. We had to be just as ill as they was.

Every Wu member aside from Ol' Dirty Bastard made the album. Was it a conscious effort on your part to include the rest of the Clan on Cuban Linx?
That was always the plan. Every album will always have every one of us attached to it because that was important. Every album represented something out of that Wu-Tang family. Ol' Dirty at that time, he was moving around, his album just became live. He was just popping off so he wasn't able to do it. Son was cool but he was the man that gave me the inspiration anyway from it. Before Wu-Tang Clan he was the inspiration so I don't take offense to it. It was like, 'you know what? That's my brother. Not everyone going to make it.' His power and confidence he instilled in me inspired me to make something great so he was proud of it. He did come to the photo shoot and was like, 'I'm not on your album but I'm here.'

A lot of songs on the album whether it be "Can It Be All So Simple (Remix)" or "Rainy Dayz" touch on topics that are heavily prevalent today, especially when it comes to urban plight and justice. Those songs seem so timeless…
Yeah, it's like depression, growing up in the inner city, we're always subjected to these kinds of situations and it goes on and becomes a tradition. Every year I believe a cop is going to kill an innocent person. That's just where we come from where we think like that. We were speaking on that music, like I said it was a lot of pain, it was a lot of glory on there, it was a lot of love but more important it was reality and you can't run from reality. For me to see a lot of things that we talked about that are still going on it's like, "Wow, where's the real justice at?" When you're in certain situations, you're a target for it. I'm so blessed that I have children that I'm able to say don't come from that because who said that my kid ain't a target? [It's] because of the situation and the reality of where we at. We can't run from that and a lot of music that's taking place is about the slums and the inner city.

I was just giving you a piece of Raekwon. I believe every artist should give you a reflection of where he's at and where he come from. I was the ones being made in the hood with no father. My mother was my father. She's not lesbian but she was like, 'I'm your father too.' I had to respect it, but the streets was my father. I had to grow up and go through certain experiences that I think made me a man and I wanted to represent that in this music. I don't have Wu-Tang style, I don't feel I had that. I feel I had that reality music that people weren't able to front on. I didn't lie about damn cocaine. I was an addict. I never did freebase or nothing, but I sniffed mad coke as a kid growing up. We saw [the] Scarface [actor] do it. We wanted to do it. I had a full life so I'm just telling you what I know reflects that. Now when I see things 20 years later that album has created that for people to see and I'm still here living off of that.

I've always been curious on how the skits and samples that were used on Cuban Linx came together. Was it a part of the script or something more spontaneous that just happened?
It was already planned. The album had a concept and I knew at the end of the day there were certain things that I wanted to speak on, RZA had ideas, Ghost had ideas and we put it together but it was all something we agreed on ahead of time. Even the birds chirping in the back, the skits, the killer movie, these were all my inspirations, these were all the things that was going on in my life at the time. All we was doing was giving you what was around us and saying, 'that's it, that's real.' We incorporated everything ‘cause I felt like I was sitting around the table with geniuses. These guys are geniuses.

RZA was already a legend from making so many classic albums. You're not going to be able to find one rap group that has so many artists on that bar with so many classics. One group! Classics, not regular albums. I knew [RZA] was ahead of his time and he knew specifically everybody, every individual had his own style and all he had to do was get them in a room and that's what he did. He got them in a room and said, 'listen, it's your turn. I'll tell you something right now, a lot of people have been trying to emulate this style.' I would be like, 'what do you mean by that?' He was like, 'we're talking about what's going on and taking Wu-Tang [and fans] to another side of the table where now reality music kicks in even more.' First it was the gimmick factor of the karate flicks but then now it becomes records like "C.R.E.A.M." that people still want to hear from your solo album. He said it, 'a lot of people want to be stuck in this chamber. A lot of records and a lot of albums is made based on that same kind of philosophy.'

What were some of your best memories either of recording the album or even being in New York City when creating it?
I was scared to make an album solo. One thing, when we all started I knew we had the individual powers to do our own thing but it's still a myth because we never did it, we just knew that we could be that. It's like believing in yourself but not really knowing if we could do it. For me, when it was my time to be chosen to make an album, I was scared. I was determined to do it but I didn't know how. I just went in there and said, "You know what? I got to give them me. I can't give them nothing that I wouldn't be talking about." The streets was always something that always stayed in the back of my mind; that struggle.

You never really lose that struggle from the hood so it's like I know that my album would have that involved in it. I just went in and said 'yo, I'm going to make it, this is my time.' Of course it was assisted by my brothers, Wu-Tang Clan. I felt that comfortability and I felt that confidence that I knew I still had to make something. I went in with my heart and just said, 'yo, I ain't going to lose, my team ain't going to have me go out there looking crazy.' It was just an album that came from the heart and we're celebrating 20-years later. That shit bring me back to not having nothing, not having a career, not having children, just wild like we grew up, right? We told the truth, we let them know your history. That album is a testimony.

You've got a very interesting jacket you're releasing for the 20-year anniversary of the album. The Linx Beach jacket, which is a recreation of the one you were wearing in the "Can It Be All So Simple (Remix)" video. Why a jacket and why now?
I wanted to come out with something from the '90s because I know how important certain things of that nature are to people. People put me on the fashion list in hip-hop like, 'he's one of those guys.' [I used to come] out of the clubs with [Clarks] Wallabees on and the chains and all different styles of fashion and I felt like I wanted to do something for the 20th anniversary and give people the opportunity to get something that meant a lot to me and inspired me too. That Linx Beach jacket is me connecting with a new team of guys that's really heavy in making a great jacket and something that's representing that time when we made Cuban Linx. We have a couple of things coming out as well. I don't want to tell too much. I like to surprise people and have them go crazy. There's going to be a lot of things going on with the Purple Tape. The hood represents that Purple Tape. I know people going to go out there and get it and cop that memorabilia piece because it's only right.

You're also working on the documentary for Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… What's it like going from literal storyteller in your rhymes to somewhat directing, kind of like RZA has done over the years?
We're about 50 percent into it. We're in the process of talking about it to the world even more. For me, the film side of it was always there when making the music because we're doing a documentary so it's more like we're having a conversation about how the album was made, who was instrumental, what made us come up with that title… Just giving you some nice insight but also giving y'all an opportunity to go into our mind in-depth and just make it interesting. Something that take like 50 minutes and you like, 'wow! that's what the Purple Tape was about.' Get ready for it. We're going to have a couple of friends on there as well that was inspired. It's going to be an interesting piece.

Finally, it's been now over 10 years since we've lost Ol' Dirty Bastard. I know he was a big influence of yours, just within the group. What did he do for you and your musical legacy?
He was the wick. He was the one that gave us the belief and the vision to say I can do it for real. He seen something that we all thought we seen but he seen it and he was our biggest cheerleader. When our confidence got a little low he lifted it back up. He had a good heart. A lot of people didn't know he was a producer as well. Dirty was just feeling everything. He was a beat boxer back in the day so he kind of emulated Biz Markie. Biz is on that rap professor shit. Old Dirty was like his disciple. Dirty had so much hip-hop in him because he had great icons that he looked up to. From everybody in the game, Biz was more [his] style. Dirty was the liver, the lungs to our breathing.