The song’s classic opening line, “I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side / Staying alive was no jive”, introduces us to Raekwon when he was a young Corey Woods, growing up in East New York, Brooklyn and Queens, before moving to Staten Island with his mother. From there, Rae walks us through the same cycle of street survival that many black kids found themselves caught up in during the Reagan era. Running through drugs, guns, crime, fashion, opulence and perseverance, Raekwon’s C.R.E.A.M. verse is both an introduction to and a microcosm of a lyrical style that he’s continued to refine over the 27 years since the song’s release.
Watch Red Bull Music Studios: Behind the Scenes with Raekwon:
Making Raekwon's The Appetition
Go behind the scenes with Raekwon at Red Bull Music Studios as he creates something fresh for his new EP.
“A young youth, yo rockin' the gold tooth, 'Lo goose / Only way, I begin to G-off was drug loot / And let's start it like this son, rollin' with this one / And that one, pullin' out gats for fun / But it was just a dream for the teen, who was a fiend / Started smokin' woolas at 16 / And running up in gates, and doing hits for high stakes / Making my way on fire escapes / No question I would speed, for cracks and weed / The combination made my eyes bleed / No question I would flow off, and try to get the dough all / Sticking up white boys in ball courts” – Raekwon's verse on the Wu-Tang Clan's C.R.E.A.M.
As is the case with any great MC, Rae’s style didn't form in a vacuum. While running the streets and trying to survive, he passed the time writing his first raps around the age of 14, learning the fundamentals from some of the genre’s pioneers – Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Kool G. Rap and Slick Rick – before expanding on the precedents set by that generation. Speaking with Raekwon ahead of the release of his new EP The Appetition, he told us how those MCs inspired him and his peers to harness the power of words.
When you around lyricism, lyricism guides you
“I just loved lyrics and I come from the Rakim, Kane and Slick Rick era… Ice Cube, too. I come from that, and in my neighbourhood, we was so passionate about listening to classic artists that we began to emulate them in our own little way. Looking at these dope artists we kinda felt like we was the disciples of those artists. So when you around lyricism, lyricism guides you. It tends to rub off on you. I think that’s what made me fall in love with being a real lyricist, a real writer.” Even in an era in which classic releases like Nas’s Illmatic took giant leaps forward technically and thematically, Raekwon stood out.
Much has been written about Raekwon's classic 1995 debut Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, an album that in some moments is blistering and violent (Criminology) and at other times tender and introspective (Can It Be All So Simple (Remix) and Rainy Dayz). Alongside Ghostface Killah, Raekwon dug even deeper into a style of rhyme-writing based around a complex approach to language and pulling from a reservoir of impossibly dense slang and coded speak.
Arguably, the album’s standout track is Verbal Intercourse, a lyrical stand-off between Raekwon, Ghostface and Nas. Probably feeling the pressure to prove himself to two of Wu-Tang’s sharpest swordsmen, Nas bolts out of the gate with a remarkably clever and world-weary verse. Nas’s verse would go on to win The Source’s prestigious Rhyme of the Month award, and Verbal Intercourse would eventually go down as one of the best displays of lyrical dexterity in rap history.
Raekwon recalls the recording session that produced that memorable song. “We was big fans of Nas and he f***ed with us and I wanted him on my album. He came to Staten Island to RZA’s basement. We played some beats for him. He loved the beat, but he didn’t actually have the rhyme yet but he started to go through some darts and he found something that caught me, Ghost and RZA’s attention. That’s that Cinderella… that Cinderfella s***, you know? He came with something that fit.”
In a glowing celebration of that album’s 20th anniversary, music writer Justin Chadwick summed up the album’s enduring legacy, drawing a connection between the album’s sheer lyrical density and its ability to hold listeners' attention so many years after its release.
The making of Solid Gold
Take a look behind the scenes during the making of Solid Gold, the first track on Raekwon's EP The Appetition.
“A symphony for the ears and a marathon for the mind, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… shines the spotlight squarely upon Raekwon and partner-in-rhyme Ghostface Killah’s impassioned, intricately-woven street soliloquies, propelled by RZA’s unparalleled studio wizardry."
Throughout his solo career, Rae has approached the art of rhyme-writing with a degree of density that's matched by few others. The complex wordplay and cinematic imagery found on albums like Immobilarity, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt II, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, and more recent joints like 2017’s The Wild, speak to the fact that Rae’s unorthodox approach to writing and delivery is still intact. And Raekwon’s lyrical style remains a dominant influence on hip-hop.
I put my season on things I feel, and I can make taste good
In the years since Raekwon and Wu-Tang first burst on to the scene in a flurry of whip-cracking beats, kung-fu chops and evocative street-level rhyme-slinging, the hip-hop landscape has changed radically. And yet the lyrical template that Raekwon helped lay down in the ’90s continues to inspire a contemporary movement of grimey and grandiose East Coast street rap.
None of these Wu-inspired acolytes have gained more prominence than Griselda Records – a Buffalo, NY, rap crew made up of Benny The Butcher, Conway, Westside Gunn and producer Daringer, who take direct inspiration from Raekwon's lyrical swordsmanship, scoring it with dark, atmospheric beats. As if Raekwon’s influence wasn’t clear enough, he makes an appearance on the intro to Griselda’s 2019 major label debut WWCD. Over a haunting guitar sample, Rae showers the crew with praise, advising them to “keep moving forward and shining.” It’s significant because it represents a symbolic passing of the baton from one generation to the next, and confirms Raekwon’s status as an OG in the game who is still delivering timeless jewels – as you can hear on his latest release.
Raekwon recorded his mini EP The Appetition – his first release since The Wild in 2017 – over three days at Red Bull Music Studios in New York City with Red Bull Songs writers K-So Jaynes and P. Wright, and producers LordQuest and TWhy Xclusive. Shell’s Kitchen finds Rae dropping vicious wordplay over an appropriately dramatic beat. Sonically, Chef It Up is the closest to a contemporary radio sound with its cutting-edge electronic soundscape. On it, Rae hits the ground running, spitting precise lines with the fire of a young lion, taking the time to let us know, “I’m here, I never left.” Solid Gold is a chilly, R 'n' B/rap hybrid that hammers home a message about the need to be solid while staying fly.
Raekwon is hyped about the music he's making right now and promises us there’s more to come. “This is just me giving you a bit of what it to expect in 2020 from The Chef. It’s like going to your favourite restaurant, and before you get your meal, they give you a little something to get your palette wet. That’s why they call me The Chef; I put my season on things I feel, and I can make taste good.”