The day before Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in Los Angeles in 1997, my “Renaissance Man” guest had a powwow with the great Brooklyn rapper over a beef that lingered between them.
Let me set the stage:
On “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx” Raekwon’s first solo album, which also featured Ghostface Killah, the pair essentially insinuated that Biggie copied Nas’ album cover, which naturally caused bad blood in the hyper-competitive New York City hip-hop scene when it debuted in 1995.
Broke my heart … It was like, ‘How? Wow. Like, is this where rap is going?’ You know, so that’s something we’ll never forget. You know, like I said, man, we got a lot of respect for Big and just him representing Brooklyn to the fullest man.”
The two had similarities: Raekwon is one of the genre’s greatest lyricists and he helped put his home turf on the map. Until he and the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan came on the scene, the borough was largely underrepresented in rap. And they are Shaolin through and through. Ask Raekwon for a restaurant recommendation and he gives the most Staten Island answer ever: a pizzeria, specifically Brother’s Pizzeria on South Avenue
I love pizza. We New Yorkers, so you know, we eat that every day … it’s owned by real Italians. Like, I sat down to slices in the building with gangsters and all that, but the pizza is so good. And they have literally been there for about at least 50 years … They know me very well.”
Learning valuable life lessons
If pizza fueled his body, Raekwon’s creativity was fed by his neighborhood where he hung out with RZA, Method Man, Ghostface and the rest of the giants who would make up the Wu-Tang Clan. He writes about his journey in his new memoir, “From Staircase to Stage: The Story of Raekwon and the Wu-Tang Clan.”
Born in Brooklyn, he moved to Staten Island when he was 9.
“I say it was nice when we got there, but then maybe two or three years later, it just changed completely. Change, you know, infested. Rats, roaches running around. Just the slums, but we made the best of it, and it basically taught me so much. It taught me how to be a man.”
There he was growing up on Run-DMC, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One and Ice Cube, wearing Ewing sneakers, and Adidas shell-toe kicks, which were $30 so he wasn’t able to get new pairs all the time. “I had to do everything to keep those crispy … We treasured our clothing because we know our mothers didn’t have money like that, so we made sure we kept our clothing up to par. I used to love to get up and iron…”
He told me how he brought Method Man, a Long Island transplant, into the crew and they’d hang out in a staircase, which he called “the Arena.” The pair had English class together, and he admitted they didn’t do work. “We’d just be back there writing lyrics … I was like his teacher. I was like, ‘I like that, but I need you to sing it later.’ “
A phone call changed his life, and hip-hop, forever
Then, RZA got a record deal and their lives changed.
“I just recall RZA not being happy about his success … I was the guy that he went to to cheer him up … When he got to the point where he felt like he wanted to do something different, he called me and said, ‘Yo, I want to start this group.’ And I was like, ‘Now you talking’ … Nobody was trying to think it would take off fully. But in the back of my mind, I’m like, ‘This is the beginning of something dope. I just don’t know where it’s going to go yet.’ “
As we now know, it went to the moon. Wu-Tang became not only a rap super group, but a brand, a logo and a force in hip-hop. Hell, they even had a hilarious cameo in “The Racial Draft,” which is the greatest “Chappelle’s Show” sketch. When Raekwon went solo in 1995 with “Cuban Linx,” he said they were all at the top of their games. That album was so formative for me because I was also going solo from the Fab Five into the NBA. I bought a burgundy Suburban with real TVs and a CD player that played that album over and over becoming the soundtrack to my early pro years. It was so raw and unrefined that you could even hear someone, ahem, sniffing something.
I wanted to make a serious album, that a cat like Rakim, KRS-One or LL or Kane would be like, ‘Yo, who’s these guys right here.’ ” He was inspired by the way his neighborhood hustlers dressed and lived. They drove Mercedes and wore Cuban link chains, hence the title.
“We did care about saving our money, yet it was like, ‘Yo, you see my money on me’ … You blow [the cash].” He said the hustlers kept them away from selling drugs and influenced them to stay legit and cultivate their talent.
I have something else in common with Raekwon, who said J Cole is the rapper of this current generation. We both have original names that people now put on their kids’ birth certificates. The funny thing is, Raekwon’s real name is Corey.
“For someone to name their kid after you and say, ‘Yo, I was inspired by you’ is a great feeling. It’s something I run home and tell my moms and give her a hug and say, ‘Yo, moms, you raised a king.’ I got an opportunity to talk to some of these guys.”
What does he tell them? “Be great. Your family didn’t name you that for no reason.” And that goes for all the Jalens … and the Coreys out there.
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.