In 1993, Staten Island's Wu Tang Clan released their landmark album Enter The Wu
, a release that's often lauded as one of the greatest debuts to come out of any genre. The success of the album allowed the Clan to take advantage of their unique contract with Loud Records — it was a contract that gave each of the group’s nine members the opportunity to pursue solo deals with other record companies.
Method Man was the first to strike a deal, signing with Def Jam and subsequently releasing Tical
. Ol Dirty Bastard followed with his Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version
on Elektra Records. The third album in the first wave of solo releases that also included efforts from GZA and Ghostface Killah was Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx
. Unleashed in August 1995, Linx
was a departure from the previous Wu-branded long players and would ultimately go on to heavily influence and become a touchstone for an entire sub-genre of hip-hop — Mafioso Rap. The typical Kung-fu samples are swapped in favor of clips from John Woo's The Killer
that help push forward the cinematic narrative of street guys wanting to better themselves and sharing their stories in the process.
"I think some albums do something to you in your life and it kind of brings you into a certain space to remember either the good times or the rough times," Raekwon says via phone when reflecting on why the album has continued to be so highly regarded over the past 20 years. "I think at that time I was speaking as a voice for the ghetto and for kids all over too — just making music and being an artist that can put that kind of effect in your world. I grew up listening to great artists and it seemed like not only were they giving us great music, but they were also painting a picture of how to be a better person and understand the world that you're in. I was the voice of a bunch of people from that world. When you give people proof and you give people facts on certain situations and they feel like it's coming from the horse's mouth. People love that and I think that's what that album did. It woke up a whole generation of kids that didn't know how to express where they were at the time."
Being any sort of entertainer for over 20 years is a feat in itself, but even more so when it comes to the fragile landscape of hip-hop. Raekwon credits his remaining relevant in the industry to his struggles, work ethic, family and pure love for the culture.
"I lost a lot of good friends and I saw where their lives ended up at and it constantly made me think about how fortunate I am to have a situation like this and really take time to work on myself and surround myself with decent people," he says. "We come from something that we never want to go back to, so I think it's just about hard work, endurance and constantly wanting to be more successful. I would never want to create something that could help my life and then lose that spark overnight. So for me, I just get out there and live through the culture. I love this culture — the music of hip-hop. I love all kinds of music, but I apply all of it as one. It's like a chicken noodle soup for me. You've got your vegetables, your soup...all that shit is involved to me. It's all about the belief and the confidence. I feel that people recognize me as a great artist and I have to hold that torch up high for them. Not only for them, but for my family as well. So, I get out there and I do this for them too. It ain't just for Rae. It's a way to put myself in a better situation and leave something behind for my family. So I'm always going to wake up with that energy."
When Wu Tang's clothing line Wu Wear emerged in the mid-'90s, it was initially a cash grab based on the demand for bootleg Wu shirts and the line exploded into an international phenomenon. Never one to rest on his laurels, Raekwon is revisiting the look of his iconic Ralph Lauren Snow Beach jacket from the "Can It All Be So Simple" video with his own CL-95 Linx Beach jacket.
"It's like Run DMC with the Adidas. Everybody knew Run DMC for those sneakers and I think a lot of people knew me for wearing that jacket," he says. "I wanted to revisit the 90s and give them something that came from that time that meant a lot to me and I know how important that jacket was. It's like a time capsule piece. It's something I can point to and say this had something to do with my flow and with my style"
Comfortable with his position as one of hip-hop's elder statesmen now, Rae sees himself as one of the last of a dying breed of emcees.
"You've got a lot of young kids doing their thing now, on their level right now," he says. "So the generation that's under us is getting their time to shine and that's cool. But as far as the authenticity...it didn't go anywhere, but it went somewhere. I don't know if that's easy to say or understand. Unfortunately, cats like me who really, really busted their heads to make classics are scarce right now," he continues. "To each his own, you know? You might like the music today. I like it, but I don't love it. I respect it because it feels good and hip-hop is all about feeling good and expression."
The Only Built 4 Cuban Linx tour rolls into House of Blues next week and while the focus will be that album, fans should come expecting more.
"We're definitely going to go through the album because this is definitely the Cuban Linx tour," Raekwon says. "We will be having fun, but we've also got other things in store for the fans because it's hard to just come in and just focus on one thing but we know that's the bulk of what everybody wants to hear. All I can say is that it's going to be a dope show."
Raekwon & Ghostface Killah, 8 p.m., Thursday, July 16, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Avenue, 216-523-2583. Tickets: $25 ADV, $28 DOS, houseofblues.com.