I got a call from the homegirl TeLisa D on the first of the month (no Bone Thugz N’ Harmony). She told me that she was going to do a special edition of her online radio show (“The B Word”) about the 15th anniversary of the release of Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx” and wondered if I could share some of my memories. Of course, I said yes.
As I called to leave the just under 2 minute voice message, all the memories of that summer day I first heard “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2” came rushing back to me. I’d just graduated high school a few months prior and I was less than 3 weeks away from my 20th birthday (I’ll explain why in the book).
Most of my high school class was getting ready to go to college. I, on the other hand, was working with the Boston Public School and the Office Of The Attorney General doing mediation trainings for $25 an hour. I was saving up to go to college as I was accepted at Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD. I wouldn’t leave Boston until January for the spring semester.
We’d been waiting for “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx” to drop for a minute already. Wu Tang Clan’s music was essentially the soundtrack to my time @ English High. From the opening bars of “Protect Ya Neck” and the flipside “Method Man” to the release of “Enter The 36 Chambers”, it was as if they were was a group that incorporated all of the things I was immersed in from birth in their music.
They used audio from old Shaw Brothers Ku Fung films, referenced John Woo flicks, namedropped Marvel comic book characters and even incorporated traditional Chinese legends in their music. These were all things I was well versed in growing up in South End Boston right next to Chinatown. Growing up, we had Kung Fu Theater come on every Saturday afternoon and comic books were only a quarter back then.
My senior year of high school was bananas musicwise. The Roots “Do You Want More??!”, Smif N’ Wessun’s “Dah Shinin”, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version”, Big L’s “Lifestyles Ov Da Poor & Dangerous”, Masta Ace’s “Sittin’ On Chrome” and Mobb Deep’s “The Infamous” were the shit up until the end of the school year. Then Show & AG’s “Goodfellas” dropped right around graduation. We were enjoying a Hip Hop Golden Era.
Following the “Fresh” soundtrack featuring the GZA single “I Got Cha Back” and Raekwon’s “Heaven & Hell” anticipation was high for both albums all throughout the year. When the single and videos for “Criminology” and “Glaciers Of Ice” dropped it was a foregone conclusion the album would be ill. We just had no idea how ill or influential it would become in such a short time.
The album dropped back on August 1st, 1995 and I remember being with my boys in a car that one of their girlfriend’s owned. We went to the Tower Records down the street from our old apartment on Mass. Ave and we decided to cop the CD. Our logic was to go for sound quality and not to take a chance on the tape deck eating it. We stuck that CD in and cruised around Boston and Cambridge all damn day with “OB4CL” as our personal theme music.
We copped the album on a Tuesday yet we rarely (if ever) discussed Soundscan numbers. When we copped the album, none of us ever speculated on how much the jawn would sell or where it would be on the Billboard charts the following week. All we cared about was the overall quality of said album. Keep in mind that we were a bunch of dudes that were aware of the industry as we were actually on the radars of many record labels ourselves. It was all about the music and we were fans.
Keep in mind that “Heaven & Hell” (which dropped the previous summer) was still getting played on the radio and in June 1995 both sides of the “Criminology”/”Glaciers Of Ice” single began getting played on the radio in addition to “Heaven & Hell”. This meant that three different singles were getting constant burn from an album (“Only Built For Cuban Linx…”) that dropped 5 weeks after the official release of the intended lead single (“Criminology”/”Glaciers Of Ice”).
Once the album dropped, I remember heads at radio stations would make their OWN edits of album tracks so they could play them on the air. This was all before the Telecommunications Act Of 1996, back then stations still had the freedom and leeway to play what they felt like. They weren’t part of a monolithic entity where they were tied in a set playlist yet. I’d hear ‘Wu Gambinos” or “Verbal Intercourse” at noon ON THE RADIO less than a week later. Regular shit then. Completely incomprehensible now.
Here we are, 3/4ths through one of the greatest years in recent Hip Hop memory. We’re deep in yet another Hip Hop Golden Age. We still have a disgusting amount of classic albums yet to drop this same year (GZA’s “Liquid Swords”, AZ’s “Doe Or Die” and Cypress Hill’s “Temples Of Boom” among them). Son, the world is still 5 months from even hearing “Fu Gee La” yet!. The Purple Tape is in decks all over this great nation of ours but MTV will be airing the final episode of “Yo! MTV Raps” on August 17th, 1995. My 20th birthday. Say word?
It’s completely unthinkable that when Hip Hop was at it’s zenith MTV would remove it’s flagship Rap video show from the airwaves. I didn’t comprehend it then and I never will. Showbiz & AG’s “Next Level”, Junior M.A.F.I.A’s “Player’s Anthem”, Big L’s “Street Stuck”, Mobb Deep’s “Right Back At You” and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” were blasting out of everyone’s cars. It’s akin to the Los Angeles Lakers trading away Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum & Ron Artest for cash & draft picks before the 2010 NBA Playoffs.
This meant that by the time GZA dropped “Cold World” there was no more “Yo! MTV Raps”. Fat Joe’s “Success” premiered on BET’s “Rap City” instead. The videos for Mobb Deep’s “Give Up The Goods (Just Step)” and Cypress Hill’s “Throw Your Set In The Air”, Erick Sermon’s “Bomdigi”, Jamal’s “Fades ‘Em All”, AZ’s “Sugar Hill” and Dogg Pound’s “Let’s Play House” would never have a chance to air on the show either. BET’s “Rap City” won by default. Problem is, BET wasn’t available in every market yet and the internet was in it’s infancy.
Here’s where the real tragedy lies. Def Jam’s 1995 documentary film “The Show” dropped it’s soundtrack on August 15th, 1995 and the film itself hit theaters on August 20th. Without having MTV in it’s corner to help promote it to a larger audience the film did dreadfully at the box office while the soundtrack itself went platinum in two months.
The soundtrack was powered by the lead single “How High” from Redman & Method Man which I don’t think ever aired on “Yo! MTV Raps” either. How crazy is it to think MTV removed one of it’s most influential shows at one of the worst possible times to do so? On the positive side, Hip Hop videos were stuck into the regular rotation alongside music of other genres.
The first time I ever saw GZA’s “Cold World” video on MTV it was sandwiched between a Veruca Salt, Tricky and a Nine Inch Nails video. I miss those days. Mainstream music didn’t suck EITHER. I’ll never for the life of me forget watching the final episode of “Yo! MTV Raps” and the cipher that occurred. I knew that I was watching history but I had no grasp of how huge that moment really was at the time. None.
In 17 days, we went from the release of one of the most influential albums of the past 15 years regardless of genre to the final episode of one of the most influential shows in the 25+ year history of MTV. A sort of irony occurred where Raekwon and Ghostface did the knowledge to biters and subliminally dissed Biggie. After this album dropped, the entire Hip Hop world bit the Wu. Everyone had aliases. Everyone was a mafioso. Everyone decided to form their own fake Wu Gambino crew.
Eventually, Nas, AZ, Cormega & Foxy Brown would become The Firm (Nature who?). Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z & Charli Baltimore would become The Commission. Even Common Sense would become Petey Wheatstrow then Willie Stargell. The Wu had already drawn from “Once Upon A Time In America” so the rest of the Rap world would have to seek their own source materials. Groups were running up in labels asking for “Wu Tang deals” for God’s sake!
It turns out that the interlude “Shark Niggas (Biters)” became a sort of self fulfilling prophecy. Not only did people in the Hip Hop world fall under the spell of “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” but so did R&B artists as well. The Purple Tape soon became the gold standard of modern Hip Hop albums. Back in 1997, I decided to start an online Hip Hop magazine called Purple Tape. It didn’t go very well.
The true legacy of “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” was that it created a benchmark that made it extremely tough for any of Raekwon’s subsequent albums to live up to. “Immobilarity” and the scrapped “Blood On The Chef’s Apron” project that became “The Lex Diamonds Story” both disappointed. It took four years to make and the project moved to three different labels before it finally dropped on September 8th, 2009.
It was hailed as a modern classic and fans were finally fully satisfied with a Raekwon album again and it took 14 years for that to happen. Of course, when Raekwon and the Wu decide to do something, the entire Hip Hop world follows their lead. Why am I not surprised at that fact in the least? Nothing changes but the year. Let that marinate.