Opinion

20 Years Later: Why “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx” May Be 1995’s Greatest Hip-Hop Album

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Words by Jesse Fairfax

Though the popular sound, style, dialects and messages of Hip-Hop have changed over time, many rap careers have been historically born out of hopelessness. Instant hood superstars since the low budget clip for “Protect Ya Neck,” the Wu-Tang Clan was responsible for a major shift in New York’s popular sound in the early 1990s. Their breakout star was Method Man, a roughneck who had a hint of Casanova about him, with Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s unpredictable antics helping to put himself on the map as well. As each member desired to share spotlight their brothers, the Wu-Tang solo debut generally accepted as a true masterpiece of their breakout era is Raekwon The Chef’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.

cuban linx cover

If the stories like “C.R.E.A.M.” (and the urban legend of Ghostface Killah originally wearing a mask to avoid warrants) were to be taken as truth, the Clan hustled from rock bottom to make a way for themselves. This hunger and determination found on Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers was the natural byproduct of trying to better their lives through music. Still rough around the edges on cameos like ODB’s “Raw Hide” and Method Man’s “Meth vs. Chef,” on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx the still mostly unproven Raekwon had his moment to be heard. Making good on RZA’s unprecedented deal where each Killa Bee was welcome to pursue separate record labels, Rae wound up with Steve Rifkind’s Loud Records, a suitable fit following the label’s success with East coast stalwarts Mobb Deep.

 

With respect to The Gravediggaz’ horror based debut 6 Feet Deep, Only Built 4 Cuban Lynx was the first Wu-Tang related project adhering to a fleshed out story. Envisioning themselves amongst the ranks of mobsters, Raekwon & Ghostface Killah vividly meshed fiction and reality (an idea that continues today through Ghost’s Twelve Reasons To Die album series.) The title stemmed from the idea that a Cuban link chain is tough to break, symbolic of not only the duo’s brotherly bond but their rough and thorough demeanor. An extension of Raekwon’s vision for the album, day one purchasers would find the cassette was purple. Though Masta Ace’s Slaughtahouse was contained on a yellow tape and Redman’s Dare Iz A Darkside tape was red, Rae explained his logic to XXL magazine in 20o5, “I wanted to portray an image that if I was selling crack or dimes in the street, you would recognize these dimes from other niggas’ dimes.”

 

Hailing from the respective Park Hill and Stapleton Projects, with Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Raekwon & Ghostface Killah discovered a musical chemistry that makes them inseparable to this day. Basing the cinematic project around this brotherhood, the overarching theme was a hustle to get enough money to leave the illegal life behind. Placing meticulous thought into something as basic the album’s intro, “Striving For Perfection” had Ghost narrating his plans for the future. As Tony Starks threw all caution to the wind, his comrade in arms agreed “Let’s not think like we gon’ be stagnated.” Another mission fully executed by The RZA, the album made the nihilistic feel of Mobb Deep’s The Infamous (released just months prior) into something more adventurous. Looking back at his premonitions for this classic, the Clan’s leader said “When we did it, I said, ‘Yo, it’s gonna be a very dangerous album; it’s gonna change the game.’ It’s like the shit was lived; a lot of it was lived or experienced in one form or another.”

 

While Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was more plot driven than any prior Wu release, it maintained the familiar elements of Five Percent lingo and kung-fu movie fandom. Creatively blending real life aspirations of rap stardom with quasi-fictional illicit enterprise, Raekwon elevated his crew’s rugged stature where some thought their breakout talent could be limited. Imagining himself akin to a ghetto Scorcese, it was fitting that the album’s precursor “Heaven & Hell” would appear on the soundtrack to the 1994 hood saga Fresh. Less than a year later street single “Glaciers Of Ice” would premiere on late night mix shows, just a glimpse of the united front that would be taken as Ghostface proclaimed “My seeds/Roll with his seeds/Marry his seeds/That’s how we keep Wu-Tang money all up in the family.

Indicative of a far different era for New York radio, album cuts “Criminology” and “Incarcerated Scarfaces” would wind up in Hot 97’s daily rotation. Simultaneously setting a platform for Ghost’s triumphant career to come, Raekwon became revered for his slick talk with lines like “For real, it’s just slang rap democracy/Here’s the policy, slide off the rings plus the Wallabees.” Speaking of the Clark’s shoe, it’s worth noting Cuban Linx started Hip-Hop’s obsession with this footwear (in addition to the expensive Cristal brand of champagne).

In a climate fueled by competition and ego, tension amongst the East coast’s lyrical giants was all but inevitable. Just a summer before Jay Z’s seminal debut Reasonable Doubt attempted to follow in Raekwon’s footsteps with far more finesse, Ghostface Killah sent flying darts at  Brooklyn’s hometown hero The Notorious B.I.G. on “Shark Niggas (Biters).” Dishing out the same uncut hell recently caught by Action Bronson, Ghost used this skit to launch accusations of swagger jacking against his city’s reigning king at the time.  Not only speaking up in defense of their newfound rap compatriot Nas (whose 1994 release Illmatic arguably influenced the illustrative stories on Only Built 4 Cuban Lynx), Rae and Ghost’s loyalty extended so far as to grant the Queensbridge commando the album’s only guest spot not reserved for Wu members.

“Verbal Intercourse” birthed Nas’ switch from Nasty to Escobar, also netting him a coveted Hip-Hop Quotable in one time cultural bible “The Source” magazine.  Taking this concept further, “Wu-Gambinos” was a posse cut that had Masta Killa, Method Man and RZA tagging along to create Italian alter-egos long before Donald Glover discovered his stage name from an online name generator.

Examining the perils of criminal life from another perspective, “Rainy Dayz” spoke to the hearts and minds of women gravely concerned about the risks their mates took. Accentuated by the sweet yet commanding vocals of songstress Blue Raspberry, Ghostface was found on the verge of mental collapse, contrasted by Raekwon’s  far more optimistic outlook. Determined to one day go straight, the Chef dropped jewels including “I pump what’s only right, leave the poison alone” (along a similar vein he mused “I’m all about G-Notes/No time for weed mixed with coke/I wash my mouth out with soap” on the album’s remix to “Can It Be All So Simple”).

Also directed at ladies, “Ice Cream” proved the Wu could expand their reach without compromising their sound (a mission achieved once more by Rae & Ghost in 1995 on Jodeci’s “Freek’n You” remix).  Moreover, “Ice Cream” was a big break for Cappadonna, (a Clan affiliate plagued by legal troubles) who made the most of this opportunity with memorable appearances such as “’97 Mentality” and “Winter Warz” down the line.

As New York runs the continual risk of extinction within the mainstream, the importance of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx cant possibly go overstated. Representing a time when the Big Apple’s boroughs were far less friendly or gentrified, this was a life soundtrack for troubled hoodlums, Wu-Tang diehards, and Hip-Hop purists alike. RZA’s soulful yet edgy work behind the boards took street rap to new heights, as Raekwon and Ghostface Killah sought to catch breaks in a world where the people distributing and consuming hard drugs were often one and the same. Having set the bar so high together in these hungrier days, Rae’s publicized frustration with the producer in recent years likely stems from the camp’s inability to fully reunite since taking separate paths. Despite Cuban Linx being repackaged into limited edition box sets and being celebrated with a 20 year anniversary tour, the original purple tape remains a nostalgic collector’s item and a stamp of authenticity for those who were there from the jump.

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