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Raekwon: Reflections of a Flashy Don

The Wu-Tang Clan MC joins Boardroom Book Club to discuss building an enduring career in hip-hop and his new memoir, From Staircase to Stage.

Raekwon the Chef wrote a book. And while those uninitiated to the arcane mythological multiverse of gods and earths known as the Wu-Tang Clan may be confused to hear that it’s not a cookbook, it’s not lacking for prime cuts.

And the man who made 1995’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, a slice-and-dice noir saga with monolithic status in the annals of what came to be called mafioso rap, would know a thing or two about those.

In his new memoir entitled From Staircase to Stage, a title that harkens back to his days in the cypher in the housing project stairwells of Shaolin, the man born Corey Woods gets as personal as he’s ever been in exploring how he and his crew made it all the way to hip-hop glory when so many others in similar circumstances did not.

On the latest episode of “Boardroom Book Club,” Raekwon takes Boardroom through the creation of the memoir, his current “3 Chambers Tour” with Wu brothers Ghostface Killah and GZA, and what it means to keep it moving as one of the rap game’s preeminent verbal swordsmen 30 years on.

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SAM DUNN: What made this the right time to drop a memoir?

RAEKWON: Sometimes you sit down and you realize, ‘Yo, I’m in the business, still thrusting through it, really doing what I want to do, still here.’ It’s a blessing. And at the same time, it was important for me to want to take it to this level now, [to] write a memoir to talk about not only my personal life, but also my life with the crew.

We had our ups and downs. Great times, sad times — you know, we lost our brother Ol’ Dirty Bastard — so it was so much to discuss and give the new generation a manual that they could imitate. They need to know how important it is to be an artist and someone that really cares about the culture.

We connected with Anthony Bozza; he wrote a book with Eminem. We had a great rapport, so it just really made me want to dive into the past, the present, and the future.

SD: What made Anthony Bozza the guy you knew you had to work with on the book?

From Staircase to Stage
From Staircase to Stage, published by Simon & Schuster, debuted Nov. 30.

RAE: We had to know some of the players who we felt were top-tier in the business, and Anthony as a writer is excellent. He’s done a lot of work with tons of tons of people that I respect in the business, so I knew he was the right guy to foresee what I wanted to bring to the table.

He was telling me how much he was a big fan and [that] he was there when Wu-Tang emerged. He studied our careers. But the most important thing was it had to be my words — it can’t be anybody else’s words — and I thought he pretty much dived into it the way that we were supposed to. He asked the right questions. ‘Hold up, let me, let me reflect.’ It’s just all about that connection that we had.

It’s like being in the studio with a beat-maker — you’re trying to get a song out, you want to be able to have that chemistry where y’all both be on the same page to where whenever this record comes out, it’s going to be hot. And the rest is history. Shout-out Bozza, man.

SD: Some of the subject matter you touch on gets intense. How did it feel to revisit some of the heavier, more difficult moments from your life?

RAE: I think I was just being honest, just wanted my friends to really feel close to me, because you guys saved my life. I tell people all the time: If it wasn’t for hip-hop and my fans, I don’t know where I would’ve been.

I don’t really talk too much about my personal life, but it has so much to do with where I’m going. I come from bad conditions, man, where everybody don’t get an opportunity the way I’ve got it. I wanted to tell a real story so that my fans can understand that I appreciate them for just giving me a shot.

“GZA’s more of a scientist; I’m more of a flashier Don. I’m wild. I’m like a Gotti.”

I wanted to talk about coming from a single-parent home, my mom being in abusive relationships, me getting kicked out — but that getting kicked out of the house helped me become a better man. Seeing some of my friends die. Dealing with trauma situations. I almost lost my leg. I felt like it was no holds barred on this one.

Even when it came down to the little drama with the crew — everybody wants to shine, but everybody can’t shine. Sometimes, it would be animosity that you don’t even know about. Then, you gotta worry about guys trying to get over on you, guys that you love. It’s like, ‘you playing me like a sucker, or do you love me like a brother?’ I just wanted to just tap into these things and I didn’t want to lie about nothing.

When people read this, somebody is going to want to make a movie behind this, because it’s the truth. It’s just moments, man. These moments are priceless. And I wanted my kids to read this book as well, too, so they could know their dad from when he was a kid to where he’s at today.

SD: From Staircase to Stage. What’s the significance of the title?

RAE: My history of hip hop music. A lot of times, we’d be in a staircase listening to music. We would just be somewhere inside the building, ’cause we came up in a rough neighborhood, so a lot of times guys didn’t really want to be out on the street. You know, you could either get picked up by the police or certain things were happening. We was living in a spooky environment, so the comfort zone was the staircase.

We would sit there and listen to our little musics, smoke our little joints, drink our 40s, and sing these hip-hop songs that was legendary to us. You know, the Slick Ricks, Big Daddy Kanes, the Biz Markies, the Heavy Ds. Everybody that we love and respect, we always would listen to their music in the staircase and we would emulate them. Next thing you know, we would start freestyling songs. So now this staircase became a platform for us to see the hidden talent that we really had.

SD: “We can trade places/ Get lifted in the staircases.

RAE: There you go, there you go. You know your shit.

SD: On that note, I feel like the timing with the book and celebrating the Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… albumon the 3 Chambers Tour with Ghostface Killah and GZA feels pretty poetic. And you know an album is iconic when it has two names: It’s Cuban Linx, but it’s also The Purple Tape.

RAE: It was only because that’s the color of the cassette; I never knew that it would pick up its own nickname and be called The Purple Tape. See, I wanted it that color for a reason because I wanted it to be something that people could say, ‘Yo, he was trying to do something different at the time than everybody was doing.’ Making the tape purple, it probably would have been a green tape, but they didn’t have a green tape. Green is my favorite color, but they just didn’t make green. That would have been crazy, too: “The Green Tape.”

I think The Purple Tape just manifests perfectly — purple represents royalty. At first, I was looking at it like, ‘Purple, are you serious? Are you trying to insult me that you only got these colors?’ But then I thought about it and my history and said, ‘Yo, purple is royal.’ I’m just thinking king mode now, so you know what? This tape is going to be purple.

Raekwon’s debut album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, a.k.a. “The Purple Tape,” debuted on Aug. 1, 1995

Knowing it had two names was something that I didn’t think that people would run with; they just know that that’s the tape to grab. A lot of times back then when tapes were important to us, we’d have a bunch of tapes in the backseat of our cars and we didn’t have time to look through all those clear tapes and be like, who’s who, so the purple one was always like rice and beans — you know the difference. You know how to pick that one real quick. You know who that is. That was all a part of my precise planning to get people to pay attention to it.

SD: What’s it like touring with Ghostface and GZA? What’s special about that combo, and what do you bring out of each other?

RAE: Me and Ghost, one thing about us is that we love being creative. We love doing things outside of the norm, and a lot of this stuff that we do is not really premeditated — it just happens. Sometimes, I’ll be walking down the street eating a Blimpie sandwich and next thing you know, I’m like, ‘Yo, hold up, what do you think about this?’

That’s one thing about us. We’re very creative, not only just with music, but just as dreamers. 24-hour dreamers.

When we all started dropping our albums, we was at a primetime feeling that Wu-Tang was really starting to get recognized on Voltron level, and being on tour with GZA — his [Liquid Swords] album had come out the same year as Ironman — we celebrating three dope albums that came out around the same time. And at the same time, we look at GZA as one of the guys that’s responsible for us writing the way we write because he always was a dope lyricist. He always was clever with words and he was also the big bro on the team.

You know, on a baseball team, you got the clean-up dude, he’s No. 4 for a reason. He’s there for that reason. So a lot of times, we had to feel like if he said a rhyme was dope that we wrote, it’s like, ‘Yes, I won.’ It didn’t matter. He was the guy that we wanted to always impress. So to be out on the road with him, it’s like being out here with the guy that inspired you to be a great lyricist, to be a great artist all the time.

GZA’s more of a scientist; I’m more of a flashier Don. I’m wild, I’m like a Gotti. He’s like a boss that doesn’t like “vain,” you know what I mean? Me, I wanna show everyone my money, $5,000 suits, $50,000 chains on, he doesn’t care about none of that. He’d rather show you his checkbook.

It just feels good to be on the road with these guys because it just takes us back to these albums, you know, GZA’s Liquid Swords, god damn. Fire fucking album. Ghost’s Ironman is almost like the cousin of Cuban Linx because me and Ghost was so connected, not only from a business perspective, but for friends as well. We shop together, we go shopping, we go take trips together. We hang out. He became like my Siamese twin out of the womb, and everybody knew that.

Just to be back out here dancing with my boys again, it’s a rejuvenation of love, man. We love each other. We wanted to give the fans something new and improved again being that we’re celebrating, but we also wanted to just get up there and be with the fans again, hang out with them again.

From Staircase to Stage is available now. Click here to find out where you can find a copy.

Click here to learn more about Raekwon’s wine label, Licataa.

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