Let’s talk about writing in Hip Hop.

It’s 2018 and all convention from the last era got thrown out the window. One of the most charged debates in Hip Hop right now has to do with artists writing their own music. It’s far from a new concept. The Dr. Dre’s, Diddy’s, and Kanye’s of the world more or less got their passes for not being producers, executives, or visionaries and rap not being their main feature. In 2008 Snoop Dogg revealed he brought in ghostwriters for his album Ego Trippin’. Bay Area rapper Ray Luv spoke about writing and at the very least contributing to songs on Tupac’s first album. Nas talked about how Large Professor would edit some of his rhymes in the early years. Every decade of Hip Hop featured a prominent artist at the very least receiving help. So my question is where do we draw the line? Who gets the pass, who doesn’t, and why?

Nicki Minaj came into prominence at the beginning of this decade. In her fight for legitimacy within the genre, time and time again she’s made it known that she is the one behind her pen. Many attribute her scene stealing verse on the Kanye, Jay-Z, and Rick Ross assisted song “Monster” as the moment that catapulted her into the inner circles of rap. Being a female MC in a still male dominated genre, I don’t doubt a point of pride of hers is that she’s been able to hang with the fellas since day 1 and it’s all on her own merit. You can’t take that away from her. Hip Hop is a competitive sport and a constant dialogue of who’s the greatest right now and of all time. And when that conversation comes up, one rarely hears a rapper with a writer get brought up. It makes sense for someone to puff out their chest and make it a point to say that all of their bars, all of their hits are all attributed to them and them only. But does that point of pride delegitimize artists who create differently?

I like Cardi B. Outside of the long list of likable qualities of hers, I see her brand as an example of where Hip Hop, music as a whole, and media as a whole might be headed. In 2018 the world of music, movies, television, and anything radiating from our smartphone screens is undergoing revolution. All old conventions, labels, and borders are dissolving to the point where a young woman in the Bronx could go from saying funny shit on Instagram to a Rolling Stone cover and Grammy nominations all within just a few years. That’s an occurrence specific to this time period and is something to pay attention to moving forward. The Cardi B brand is one of the most cutting edge in media right now. And I say that to say, in her feud with Nicki Minaj, accusations of her having ghostwriters might be some of the final gasps of an old world. Or at the very least it is the mark of a separate entity from traditional rap starting to form. We already see it at different corners of the game. Some rappers don’t freestyle anymore. Some rappers kind of sing. Some rappers are mostly adlib. Some rappers are part visual artists. Some rappers are part fashion designers. And some rappers, like some artists outside of rap, are simply entertainers: like Cardi.

Media moves quicker now. Demand is at an all time high and attention spans are at an all time low. With this, the music industry continues to adjust and Hip Hop continues to be at the forefront of that adjustment; hence all of the different forms it’s started to take. Artists still put out major label albums, but might be inclined to drop multiple albums in a year, mixtapes in between albums, loose singles, remixes, freestyles, guest features, clothing, or short films. We’re seeing artists like Chance the Rapper put out albums very few and far between, but perform regularly on SNL, tour regularly, put out a movie, feature on a wide range of songs, and release recordings from their cutting room floors. Someone like Childish Gambino puts out albums every now and then, has a TV show every now and then, shows up in movies every now and then, and tours every now and then. Then there’s an artist like Drake who manages to put out an album virtually every year if not some form of musical body of work. And of course the big controversy surrounding him pertains to ghostwriting. Media moves quicker now and the artistry is taking a different shape as a result.

And is that a bad thing? Or is it just different than what we are used to?

Entities like Motown were built off of a team effort and an assembly line-style operation. There were writers, producers, musicians, performers, and whatever it took to craft a great finished product. Is that where Hip Hop is headed? Though again, the genre isn’t particularly new to this concept. Diddy had his production team The Hitmen and writers such as Biggie, Mase, and The Lox at the height of his music career. Dr. Dre had folks such as Mel Man, Scott Storch, Hi Tek, and others assisting in production as well as the likes of DOC, Tha Dogg Pound, Snoop, and Eminem as just a few of his writing staff. Kanye taps into a staff of producers that include Mike Dean, Plain Pat, or Hudson Mohawke among others as folks like Rhymefest, Consequence, or CyHi The Prynce contributed writing. Hell, we revere N.W.A. as a culture almost unanimously and that group was structured the same way that some get criticised for today: staffed with a producer, a DJ, and a couple of performers who also write for them. So when a modern artist is revealed to follow a similar model, is that a detriment to the culture, or do the ends justify the means? Is the music what matters or how it’s made? And if it’s the latter, who decides who gets a pass? When Nicki brings up Cardi B getting assistance, is that a valid reason to tear her down or is Cardi a growing media entity taking a shape different from the rules we may try to confine her to?

Personally, I think Hip Hop is in one of it’s most shapeless, creative and exciting periods: to where it can’t properly be defined, contained, or controlled and I see beauty in that.

I write. I take pride in writing. I take pride in my original thoughts. I feel like a Nicki in that I want you to know this was all me and I have a point to prove. But I also see how an extreme criticism of times changing according to the conditions can actually stunt the growth of a genre. And Hip Hop, with its lasting relevance, was always about evolution. Should we be mad music isn’t getting made the way we like it or is music just supposed to be enjoyed? Are we denying valid and talented voices from being heard by setting up invisible barricades? Would setting up too many rules in a genre built off of breaking rules stunt its growth?

Just some food for thought.

Back in 2011 True went up in flames. The two-alarm fire claimed the shop itself, a lot of merchandise, as well as a lot of memories. Out of the ash and rubble, a few of those memories survived.

His facial expression kind of says it all. Kanye was a new artist. The College Dropout had yet to drop and he wasn’t quite Kanye West just yet. The folks that did know him knew him for his mixtapes. But he carried himself like a superstar regardless, asking if he could have True closed down while he shopped. It didn’t quite work out. This wasn’t long after his fabled car crash: just before the streetwear scene was in full bloom and those that had a love for it outside of the hype were keyed in. It feels weird talking about the man as of recent but from what I gathered, there are still things about him that remained in tact.

Since it opened in ’96, the shop and Hip Hop have had a close and thorough relationship with one another. This is a beacon of small business in SF and somehow someway it survived a lot, including both a gutting of everything we know and associate with the city as well as the literal elements. In dedication to this idea of small business, perseverance, and lasting memories, I’ve got 42 polaroids in the chamber and 42 stories attached to them. Stay tuned for more surprises.

“When shit hits the fan, are you still a fan?”

-Kendrick Lamar

We need to shift the discussion about Kanye West.

Louis Wain was a 20th Century painter rumored to have suffered schizophrenia. They say he painted a series of cats while navigating through the growing severity of his illness and that series became a road map of his mind state. If Kanye’s now infamous TMZ breakdown is any indicator, he too is subject to an internal struggle and not unlike Louis Wain with his paintings, Kanye made this visible through art. I was just as hurt as anyone by his recent antics and am just as confused about where to definitively place my feelings. But in an industry known to catch bodies, I don’t feel we talk enough about the man’s environment. If we want to understand ‘Ye, we need to understand his state of mind and if we want to understand his state of mind, we need to understand Hollywood, the concept of celebrity, and the way in which American media functions. And let’s be clear, our media is an anomaly wholy emblematic of America: one that affects our everyday lives and one that ‘Ye threw himself into, documenting album by album.

“Maybe the environment’s a little sick.”

We need to talk celebrity. American media cultivates a love ‘em/hate ‘em dynamic with public figures and Dave Chappelle spoke on that environment while on the hate ‘em swing of the pendulum. Rumors circulated that he lost his mind and went into hiding. After dismissing those claims in an interview, he explained how people in the industry lose themselves. “What is happening in Hollywood?” he asked. What is happening that otherwise “strong people” are so consistently broken?

Toward the end of the 20th century this country invented celebrity: someone part human and part brand. Their function in the machine is like any other corporation or product made to create, facilitate, and grow profit; no different from McDonalds or Pepsi. It is taking Michael Jordan the basketball player and making Michael Jordan the shoe, Michael Jordan the lover of Gatorade, or Michael Jordan the denouncer of drugs. Now greatness in one field is made a commodity used to circulate money and influence buyers. Simultaneously the 24 hour news cycle came into play, which bred the need for constant story, drama, and sensationalism; functions that would only intensify in the Internet era. It birthed tabloids, paparazzi and a national call to invest our attention into the lives of others: not unlike the attention required for a product for sale. What I mean to say is these performers, or rather these human beings, ceased to be just that. And from this came a storied struggle between person and persona; the human being and the product. We are all familiar with people under the spotlight cracking to the point that it’s a pattern. This is Michael Jackson’s “Wacko Jacko” headlines, Britney Spears’ shaved head, Whitney Houston’s drug addiction, Tupac’s bullet wounds, Lindsay Lohan’s mug shots. This is Hollywood. And I would argue that if we talk about the Kanye West story, we need to recognize it isn’t wholly his.

I was a teenager watching MTV when Through the Wire debuted. I burned .mp3’s of Jesus Walks onto CD-R’s for my friends and family. The All Falls Down video came out my last summer before high school. My coming of age ran parallel to his career; all of my personal growths and discoveries of the world lived to a score by Kanye West. He is one of the premiere figures of 21st Century pop culture. He is something to take note of specifically because the common theme of his art is fame and celebrity. From the get go it was his obsession and his penetration and critique of it was his mission statement. The way I see it he deep-sea dove into superstardom, an often times sick facet of American culture, and allowed his work to reflect this journey: this monster. I watched the whole thing in slow motion. He was a college dropout with his head in the clouds, working 9 to 5’s and impatiently waiting for a chance to get out his dreams. He waxed poetic about wanting the good life all while being strangely candid about his own insecurities pertaining to material values: vying for acceptance, success, and the spoils of fame. When he got that fame he so dreamt of, he surrounded himself with it and, in storybook fashion, that dream slowly tinged into nightmare.

He was the college dropout. A former art school student working a graveshift just waiting on a spaceship to take him where it seemed only he knew he deserved to be. From the get go he set the stage for what was to come. Born to a Christian family in the young and restless Midwest, his relationship with God and the church became a fast established theme bordering on struggle; he wanted to talk to God but was afraid because they ain’t spoke in so long. His sense of conflict extended to his own materialism as he talked about being so self conscious that you always see him with at least one of his watches, commenting on the things we buy to cover up what’s inside. And perhaps the very foundation of Kanye West was his loved ones and his ties to where he came from. He was still the guy that promised to Mr. Randy he was gonna marry his daughter. His cousins, his aunts, and most importantly his mom were constants in his story and something that humanized him. By the end of the album he talks about them over a sample chop declaring all that glitters is not gold, and all gold is not reality. The closing song after that is a conversation with his idol and newfound partner Jay-Z as they trade stories about this guy that finally found his spaceship. He arrived.

Louis Wain’s first painting of a cat simply looked like a cat.

The second painting shifts slightly, just like Kanye’s second album. Late Registration features a Kanye backed by much more boastful and larger than life orchestration to match his newfound position. It is a Kanye now confronted with the life and the celebrity he so pined for. He made a mil himself and took pride in the fact that he was still himself despite the forces around him so adamant on bringing him down. His idol Jay-Z’s empire began splitting and Kanye was called on to be his right hand. And he took up the challenge. He remembered when he couldn’t afford a Ford Escort or a four track recorder. But now he let the top drop on the drop top porsche as he viewed the spoils of his success through Yves St. Laurent glasses; acknowledging that life was moving too fast and he needed to slow down. His father told him he needed Jesus, took him to church and let the water wash over his Caesar. Probably because at this point everything that was supposed to be bad made him feel so good and everything that they told him not to was exactly what he would. The story of Kanye West is characterized by this internal struggle of materialism and growing ego offset against the church boy with close ties to his family roots in Chicago. He spoke poetry over drums about his aunt’s deathbed and how important the family around him was. And ever the mama’s boy, he wasted no time serenading the woman who told him to go to school and get his doctorate, something to fall back on that he could profit with. But who still supported him when he did the opposite. And with her blessings he delved deeper into this world, though the struggle hadn’t come to a head yet.

“That that don’t kill me can only make me stronger”

Haters were saying he changed. Now he was doing his thing. He was truly living the good life and they couldn’t tell him nothing. By the numbers this was Kanye at peak popularity. He transitioned from being beat-maker that also made raps, to certified rap star, to bonafide pop star. He was not only in the building, he owned the building. Surging with an energy defiant of anyone and anything, and perhaps still rightfully so, this is when ‘Ye started to not only reflect on his ascension but also critique it. The man that first craved the life, then embraced the life, now had everything the life had to offer and he started to dawn on him that it wasn’t all that he thought it was. The flashing lights started to blind him. Paparazzi became a main source of hatred. He got noticed and now the attention felt drowning. His idol Jay-Z was no longer his idol, but a big brother and all of the very humanizing dynamics that come with that. Perhaps one of the most important sections of the album has him writing a love letter to the city of Chicago. Essentially talking to his family, his roots, and everything he associated with his life pre-fame, he regretfully exclaims that if he ever cared for Chicago then he wouldn’t have ever hit the airport to follow his dreams. It’s a thought that resonates especially because not long after, the same Mr. Randy’s daughter that he planned to marry left him. And then things took the steepest of turns when his mother died in Hollywood.

Maybe the environment’s a little sick.

This is why I even thought to write this piece. To talk about the person, we can’t exclude the eroding effects of the persona. His mother died after a botched cosmetic surgery. She was the one who suggested he live a simple more traditional life and stay in school and he pushed to drop out of college and chase these Hollywood dreams. With it came everything he wanted but the culture of it all started to warp his reality. He was supremely heartbroken and being the artist he is, he didn’t stop documenting this journey for anything. It shouldn’t surprise any of us what present day Kanye looks like, it was all always in his lyrics. The beginning of this album almost picks up where he left off. Returning back to his family with his world and identity thoroughly impacted, this was the album where he acknowledged the poison of it all. His dad cracked a joke and all the kids laughed but he couldn’t hear them all the way in first class. His friend showed him pictures of his kids and all he could show him was pictures of his crib. His god sister got married by the lake but he didn’t know who he wanted to take, plus he had to leave before they even cut the cake. He chased the good life all his life long then looked back on his life and his life was gone. What I hear at this point in his story is a man reflective of the turning point he’s reached and the chill washing over him of what’s to come. He’s on stage looking over his audience thinking both about how amazing it is and about the monster he’s become. He’s clinging to women he knows won’t be around for long and mourning what was. The last song is the most telling: an audio recording of a live performance wherein he sings about his story likened to Pinocchio’s. The audience cheers and applauds as he cries about wanting to be a real boy.

There is no Gucci I can buy

There is no Louis Vuitton to put on

There is no YSL that they could sell

To get my heart out of this hell

And my mind out of this jail

There is no clothes that I could buy

That could turn back the time

There is no vacation spot I could fly

That could bring back a piece of real life

Real life, what does it feel like?

Not unlike what Dave Chappelle spoke on, Kanye felt the love ‘em side of the media’s pendulum swing into hatred. Public outburst after public outburst had the masses hating the person no different from the persona. This was a human being whose struggle, triumph, success, joy, pain, and great torment was made to be our entertainment all the way through. And what’s especially cold is that the great musical return to form that his fans, his contemporaries, and critics went on to applaud him for were still stories of great personal pain. He told us he’s a monster. He told us to run away. He told us that no one man should have all this power. He told us he was lost in the world. And by the end of this he very overtly posed for us the question who will survive in America?

And we cheered. And we applauded.

And he went mad.

I couldn’t tell you what is performance and what is reality. That is part of the allure of Kanye. Personally, my best guest is that it is the most intimate of performance art. And running parallel to his experiences within the media machine is an artwork that embodies it as opposed to simply speaking on it. What was a chill that washed over him thinking about things to come came to a head. The church boy from Chicago wasn’t flying back. The struggle between his roots and fame was no longer a struggle. He jumped into it full force. There wasn’t a struggle with God, he was a God. He was Yeezus. He was what celebrity made him and he took a full dive in. Debauchery, darkness, ego, drugs, sex, and rock n roll became the man. He woke up on Mr. Randy’s daughter’s couch hungover making a point to say that with just one more hit he could own her. What was a reflection of a crossroads at one point became a stark decision to embrace what this thing made him.

He became fragmented. He became indecisive. He lost all form and lost himself. Did he belong to the church and God’s dream? Did he belong to this convoluted title of being famous? Was he this ugliness he embraced? Was he the old Kanye? Which one?

The phrase “which one?” is scattered all over his album cover: a photo of his parents getting married on one end, and perhaps the embodiment of Hollywood on the other. The man whose mama passed in Hollywood due to cosmetic surgery now aligned himself with a family even more submerged in that same Hollywood culture. By the next album he had not only lost two loved ones, but also broke ties with a lot of the people he came into the industry with; even his big brother Jay-Z.  It’s all right there in front of our faces and always has been. And he sang:

If mama knew now how you turned out

You too wild, you too wild

So what are we supposed to make of ‘Ye?

I’m as confused as you are. I’m as hurt as you are. I’m as livid, as insulted, as disappointed, as saddened, and as concerned. But as we continue the conversation about this childhood hero of mine, this man that scored my coming of age and whose growth ran parallel with mine and an entire generation, I don’t think we should omit the toxicity of our media. We’ve seen our media destroy artists we love. We’ve seen our media depict our communities in the most unflattering and dangerous ways. We’ve seen our media egg on and spotlight men that wouldn’t have risen to power without it. We’ve seen television morph into reality television and most recently morph into reality itself all with the help of this…thing. And when we talk about Kanye West we need to talk about a man who threw himself into it all, told us about it every step of the way, and perhaps let it destroy him on the world stage. I miss the old Kanye too. And I’m praying for the person behind the persona.

Who will survive in America, really?

I think it’s time we call it like it is.

The times are changing. We will look back on this moment with the privilege of knowing we saw it with our own two. I don’t know if you feel it too. Who can say where it will take us but it doesn’t feel ordinary and every breath of it feels pivotal. From business, to politics, to culture, the way in which we live, operate, and understand evolved rapidly and there’s no sign of it slowing down. I sat down with two men with their fingers on the pulse, communicating this shift via the language they know best: clothing.

This era is all about you and it is important that you know that.

Eison Triple Thread is a made-to-wear men’s shop located in downtown San Francisco. Eison is a family name representative of three generations of San Franciscans before Julian, the founder. He describes incorporating his family name into the brand name as a statement of “solidarity, roots, and stability.” This is an especially potent statement to make in a city undergoing an immovable facelift. The Eison name is literally engraved in concrete on Louisburg St. and Julian seeks to further make its mark in the city by way of his business. He apologized for a very minor scuff on his slacks before we officially greeted each other.

How we present ourselves is a tool of communication no different from the words we choose.

Dario Smith, Director of Product at Eison, made that fact clear when detailing the journey that led him to this point. He was in a bike accident while working a “shit job” and underwent reconstructive surgery. After recovering, it was time to interview for new gig so he researched menswear to best make that first impression. Through that process it dawned on him just how important the concept of a first impression is. Then as time went on, his interview-style attire trickled into his every day and he slowly noticed people treated him accordingly. His new wardrobe communicated an air of respect distinct from his usual, more casual style. Eventually he became peoples’ source for fashion advice and a light bulb went off. These concurrent events domino-effected into a mission to help people make good first impressions; not by dressing up as a thing they are supposed to be but more so really getting to the crux of what it means to dress as themselves.

“Some people don’t know how or don’t get a chance to express their character,” he emphasized.

This era is all about you. Let’s call it like it is. We are on the other side of a major power shift in every industry that serves the people. Obsolete is the idea of any kind of authority figure telling you about you. Today we the people get to create civilization in our image; tailoring life to fit our desires. I see it on the level of entertainment. By way of streaming services, we the people have the freedom to choose and tailor what it is we want to watch or listen to. We aren’t forced to tune into whatever’s on. I see it on the level of politics and culture. By way of social media, we the people have access to information. We have the power to mobilize on a mass level, the ability to communicate at rapid speeds, come to a consensus about what we want, and succinctly demand it. We can more accurately choose and tailor who is fit to be in positions of power and what ideas and institutions we do and do not condone. Think #blacklivesmatter. Think #metoo. Think #neveragain. These are lasting and powerful movements that succeeded in unifying the people and whistle-blowing those misusing their positions in power. Obsolete is the idea that someone in power is too big for consequence. I see this same shift in commerce. The three of us talked about the now infamous H&M ad that made light of racially discriminatory language: a Black boy wearing a “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” hoodie. Just the same, Snapchat found themselves in hot water over an ad making light of domestic violence: a quiz asking “would you rather punch Chris Brown or Slap Rihanna?” In both scenarios, the public backlash was not only fiery but managed to instantly hit both companies precisely where it hurts most: their profits. In that same vein, a company that adjusts product to consumer demand shows clear reward: think Black Panther, a movie that answered moviegoers’ cries for representation, and its immediate and historic success. I only mention those examples to say those that serve us don’t so much influence us to change the way we consume, but rather now more than ever we influence them to change the way they produce. We are on the other side of a power shift and the name of the game when it comes to consumerism in the 21st Century is understanding and capitalizing on this new dynamic. Personalization is the name of the game. This era is all about you.

We the people get to make the world in our image.

Eison Triple Thread does not sell clothes. At least they don’t on the forefront. They sell a customer experience. They do not have an inventory. They do not have a backstock. The hallmark of their business is the collaboration between you and them; a journey to nail down exactly who you are and how you want to present that to the world. They have materials from all over the globe. Listing off such exotic locales as Shanghai, Italy, Turkey, and Japan, Julian describes their travels as somewhat of a “modern day silk road.” Quickly making the distinction between fashion and style, he defines fashion as something more market-driven and dictated by those doing the selling for the purpose of selling. Style, however, is something personally curated. Recognizing that firm distinction feels like the driving force behind Eison and the core characteristic that separates them from more traditional tailoring shops. There are no leather couches, there is no taxidermy on the walls. That was the old world. And it’s distinction from the new world came up a lot in our conversation as did the name of their first collection: Antithesis.

The shop felt bright when I walked in. The dictionary definition of antithesis is the negation of the thesis. It is the contrast, the opposition, or the anti to the standard. Go to any tailor and per tradition, they follow a more dark color pallette. This one feels bright. This one has art on the walls. This one doesn’t have suits, it has materials. This one takes customers step-by-step, piece-by-piece, material-by-material as they collaborate with the shop to construct an outfit best for them. It relies on a partnership between the taste a customer walks in the door with and the information Julian and Dario gathered from spaces said customer couldn’t go and time they couldn’t spend. By the time they walk out the door for the last time, the goal is to not only have a piece of clothing, but also full knowledge of what it is, what it means, why it works, and what its value is. And value is an important piece of the Eison Triple Thread philosophy. They broke down the industry and how value is manufactured out of exclusivity. Exclusivity of knowledge, exclusivity of class, and the resulting exclusivity of access are the parts that sum up value in the fashion industry. Experts know, the wealthy can afford, and the few can obtain.

That was the old world.

In this new world, Julian and Dario envision dismantling that model and instead providing the average person background knowledge, fairer price points, and access to top shelf materials from around the world . Make no mistake, in this era you have the power and Eison Triple Thread is a shop that lopsides the dynamics accordingly. They call it Honest Luxury, a new world definition of luxury that isn’t “defined by traditional notions of exclusion and alienation, but rather by innovation, dynamism and inclusion.” In other words, they present you a value not invented out of thin air and dictated by a gatekeeper to your literal expense, but rather a value tailored to your own personal taste. They don’t want to teach you how to dress up as the thing you are supposed to be, but more so teach you how to better dress as yourself. And you shouldn’t like it because you’re supposed to like it, you should like it because you know what you like and this is that. Eison doesn’t have a backstock because no one piece would be like yours; because no one person is like you.

And this is all about you.

Personalization is key. In this era of you, customer service as an industry is ripe for innovation. Eison does sell clothing, but the driving force of their sell is their customer service and you are the focus of their growth moving forward. These guys are stylish, they are well traveled, and they are well learned. They could take these qualities of theirs and be any other shop that sells you clothes in their image and make sales based on their knowledge and your lack thereof. But the times are changing. This is a new world and truth be told, you know you better than they do. And their main objective is to get to know you over time. Their shift into the digital space reflects this. They plan to further innovate their online experience, incorporate an app that works in tandem with Spotify to create an outfit based on your mood and music taste, and eventually expand to areas outside of menswear.

San Francisco in a lot of ways retained the same energy from the gold rush: a destination for the innovative, hungry, and imaginative, and Julian and Dario are carrying on tradition; once more marking the city with the Eison name and doing it with style.

Shoutouts to the guys over at Eison Triple Thread!

www.eisontriplethread.com

@eisontriplethread

“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!