“I’m the eyes that’s in back of you, kid”
I was young when I first heard the intro to the purple tape. Too young, in fact. What I mean is, when that instrumental creeped in I was absolutely hypnotized; it was felt, but not all the way understood. It took time not only to identify with the hunger displayed from that track and on, but to also understand and be able to articulate what it meant to be a Black man in the early to mid 90’s. I thought rappers adonned those mafioso personas on wax just because it was cool. On that intro Raekwon and Ghostface trade cinematic dialogue over a score that only makes their words more cinematic: discussing their most fruitful escape out of the environment they inherited. Raekwon is trying to level up and not remain stuck in a cycle, Ghost is a family man who wants better for his mother, his children, and his lineage thereafter. This is 1995 Staten Island. This is the after effects of Reaganomics. If they were surrounded by picket fences and private schools maybe the conversation would sound more like Bill Gates and Paul Allen in 1975. I understand more why rappers of that era idolized the mafioso image because at birth America fed them a system of conditions, ideals, perceived moralities and other rhetoric that it failed to make tangible to its most vulnerable citizens. Give it enough time and Scarface seems more like the hero. Hell, the intro to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was scarcely different than the declaration “give me liberty or give me death.” They laid out the blueprint for their escape to a better life, vowing to look out for each other, and so a journey began.
The RZA was always destined to score Kill Bill. Hip Hop is in museums now. It is taught in classes. It gets open invitations to the White House. It is the director of Louis Vuitton. It is liable to dominate award shows. It speaks every language. It retains an air of underdog-ness but it is the closest it has ever been to being considered a legitimate art form. This era is marked by several moments that officially broke down many of the barriers that kept the genre in the fringes. Just a few years back, recluse singer Sade said in an interview that she adores Raekwon’s music. Personally, my mind was blown that she was even aware of the man who, while walking in the outside world is a part of any Hip Hop head’s secret world. This was a juxtaposition, now a juxtaposition no more: Sade and Raekwon. And to take it a step forward, what’s to stop us from calling Raekwon or any of his contemporaries at the time, some of the premiere writers of the 20th century? The RZA was always destined to score movies, let alone some of the greatest movies of all time. At the time he just might not have had the tools. I speak on this present day lens only to reflect back on the past and give context to how great Only Built 4 Cuban Linx actually was. It was crafted by masterminds.
Rae and Ghost wax drug and violent poetic over a score that sounds damp, dark, cold, and metal. It’s a strange mix of all of the elements of their environments filtered through metaphor of their fantasies. You can hear the young boys who obsessed over kung fu, comic books, and gangster flicks, then grew up to perceive life’s realities through this lens. It is the source of the words, sounds, and overall spirit: carrying through as they became grown men doing very grown men things. A narrative that started Wu Tang’s debut The 36 Chambers extends into the purple tape much like how a series like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad may take an episode to highlight and better understand a character. The debut introduced the narrative, and this was Raekwon taking the wheel for an episode; exploring his flavor with all of its idiosyncrasies. What distinguishes this tape from the group’s debut is the masterful blend of language. I feel like they call him the chef for this reason. His vocabulary is a blend of thick 90’s New York slang, drug dealer isms, terms taken from the Nation of Islam, and deep cuts out of Webster’s dictionary; like a man of several worlds blending four broken languages into one.
Then what we need to talk about is how this tape birthed one of rap’s greatest duos. Ghostface played perfectly the id to Raekwon’s ego. If the Grammys gave out awards for supporting actors we would have to talk about him. Forming the same coin, Rae’s cool gangster heads balances perfectly with Ghost’s livewire tails. They speak the same diction and come from the same place but the former is more Vincent Vega checking the cabinets in the kitchen and the latter is more Jules Winnfield yelling “English muthafucka, do you speak it?!” But with either temperament, there are two guns in that trunk. And the other members of the Clan as well as New York’s finest make their scene stealing appearances along the way as well, not robbing this solo effort of a great family affair. Let’s not even talk about how Nas spit one of the greatest verses of his career on this thing.
This was the golden era that old heads so rightfully want back.
1995 is hands down one of my favorite years in Hip Hop. Newcomers left and right were appearing with classic after classic just a couple years prior and by 1995 we knew who most of the major players were, they all knew each other, and because of it the competition put them all in rare form. I think of Mobb Deep’s album “The Infamous”, or Biggie’s song “Who Shot Ya” or Nas’s verse on “Fast Life.” There are photos from studio sessions that year of all of them at different increments in time sharing studio sessions and I absolutely attribute the leap in all of their leaps in artistry to those sessions. Old heads so rightfully want that era back because the energy must have been absolutely insane to witness in real time. The explosion of creativity was bar none and when we talk about the golden era, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is a requirement.
Happy anniversary to it!