'From Staircase to Stage': Raekwon on growing up in N.Y. and the Wu-Tang Clan

Nov 30, 2021
Originally published on November 30, 2021 8:12 am

To hear the broadcast version of this interview, use the audio player above.

"Park Hill was a pretty nice environment — the buildings were very clean and they had doormen, intercoms in order to get in the building," recalls Raekwon, the legendary rapper best known as a core member of the canonical Wu-Tang Clan, of some early memories.

In a new memoir, From Staircase to Stage, the rapper born Corey Woods remembers watching as that relatively serene Staten Island neighborhood rapidly declined, succumbing to the wildfires of the crack-cocaine epidemic.

Steve Inskeep spoke to Raekwon about the new book, the difficulties of his upbringing and the many trappings — good and bad — of success.

"Things just started going downhill in the community — no more security guards, no more doormen, people were getting shot, dope fiends were getting strung out — all of these things started to just happen, like, overnight. The neighborhood was just going down."

As the neighborhood declined, he made it to high school — but didn't thrive, and life didn't get much easier. Racial tensions at the predominantly white high school he was sent to, and a deficit of opportunity in his own community, led him away from the classroom.

"You're realizing, 'I didn't go to school today. Okay, that's one day. Alright, one day ain't bad. One day goes to five days — it ain't that bad. It's bad, not that bad. Then one day you realize, 'I haven't been to school in 97 days.' "

As he began selling weed to make a few different ends meet, a friend he'd known from school named Robert Diggs, the RZA, had begun working on music, rapping and producing beats out of his house — a notable difference from the projects Raekwon called home at the time. With natural gifts and a surfeit of ambition, RZA's gravity drew Raekwon and a crew of friends into his orbit. What resulted ended up being one of the most revered and analyzed rap groups in history.

"We share a brotherhood that will never, ever die," Raekwon says, of both RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan, "based on the fact of what we've been through."

Correction: 12/01/21

The web adaptation of this story originally misidentified Corey Woods as Cory Woods, and Robert Diggs as Robert Driggs.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The rapper Raekwon is over 50 now. He's famous as part of the Wu-Tang Clan, and we reached him at a home that he owns in Dallas, Texas.

RAEKWON: It's nice out here, you know? It's private. Pretty much a serenity vibe that I get when I'm out here, though. So I decided to just buy some land out here, you know?

INSKEEP: Do you sometimes think about how far you've come from Park Hill, Staten Island?

RAEKWON: Oh, listen, every day, man.

INSKEEP: He's had occasion lately to think about how he came so far from a troubled neighborhood in New York City.

RAEKWON: Because where we came from, it was like a cracked window, you know? Like, you would never think a body could slide through that window at that height, and we were able to do it. So I constantly think about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "C.R.E.A.M.")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side, staying alive was no jive. Had secondhands, Mom's bounced on old man. So then we moved to Shaolin land.

INSKEEP: Raekwon writes about his youth in a new memoir. The first line of the first chapter reads, I met my father once. The book is called "From Staircase To Stage." The staircase refers to a public housing project where he lived with his mom.

RAEKWON: Park Hill was a pretty nice environment. The buildings were very clean and they had doormen, intercoms in order to get in the building.

INSKEEP: He was known as Cory Woods then, a boy who loved stickball and other sports. But just as he reached his teenage years, a crack epidemic was spreading.

RAEKWON: Things just started going downhill in the community - like, no more security guards, no more doormen. People were getting shot. You know, dope fiends was getting strung out. So all these things started to just happen, like, overnight. The neighborhood was just going down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "C.R.E.A.M.")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) Cash rules everything around me. C.R.E.A.M., get the money. Dollar dollar bill, y'all.

INSKEEP: When you hear the way Raekwon grew up, it becomes easy to understand why he later rapped about a world driven by desperate greed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INCARCERATED SCARFACES")

RAEKWON: (Rapping) Now, yo, yo, what up, yo? Time is running out. It's for real though, let's connect, politic, ditto. We could trade places, get lifted in the staircases. Word up, peace, incarcerated scarfaces.

INSKEEP: As the neighborhood declined, he made it to high school, but life got no easier.

You have a line in here that I think a lot of people are going to relate to in different ways, and I'm just going to say it - I [expletive] hated everything about high school except lunch.

RAEKWON: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: I read that, and my first question was, wow, the lunch was good? What was for lunch?

RAEKWON: (Laughter) I mean, you know, when I say I hated school, it's just that I hated going to the school that we were going to, because our school was in a all-predominantly-white neighborhood. Coming up in a neighborhood where it's majority Black people, and then next thing you know, you got to go to a school that's 30 minutes out that's all white people school - it wasn't that I was racist. It's just that we didn't feel comfortable there - kids calling you names, the N-word. We calling the white boys - you know, if you get into a fight with a white kid back then, it - you know, it's liable to be a riot. You come out the school, there's 500 white boys there cursing you out, calling you names. That made it not fun to go to school.

INSKEEP: You got in a fight with a white kid.

RAEKWON: Yeah, many fights.

INSKEEP: He stopped attending school.

RAEKWON: I'm hanging out at a friend's house, watching karate flicks, movies, you know, looking at all these rooting-for-the-bad-guy movies.

INSKEEP: Clips from karate flicks later became part of Wu-Tang Clan music.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHAOLIN AND WU TANG")

LUNG-WEI WANG: (As The Lord) A game of chess is like a sword fight.

INSKEEP: But at the time, cutting class to see them meant trouble.

RAEKWON: You know, and realizing that, sure, I didn't go to school today. That's one day. So I'm like, all right, one day ain't bad. One day go to five days - ah, it ain't that bad. It's bad, but it ain't that bad. Until next thing you know, you realize you ain't been to school in 97 days, you know?

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

RAEKWON: Then it's like, oh, snap. But at the same token, I'm starting to have this thug mentality where I don't care anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "C.R.E.A.M.")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) So I got with a sick-ass clique and went all out.

RAEKWON: I started to sell weed, try to make a couple of dollars to buy myself some clothes, put a little bit of food in the house.

INSKEEP: So you're starting to get some kind of ambition, but you're not sure where to go or what to do with it. You don't see a path. And then this guy, the RZA, comes into your life who has an idea how he wants to go. How did you get together with him?

RAEKWON: Well, me and RZA, you know, we went to school together, and he lived in different parts of Staten Island. He lived in a house. I lived in the projects.

INSKEEP: He was a little more prosperous.

RAEKWON: And it wasn't the fact that RZA had a lot of brand-new stuff. He just had stuff. He had turntables in his house - certain little things that I didn't have at that time. So I always wanted to be around guys that motivated me, and RZA was one of those guys, you know?

INSKEEP: RZA had plans to make money. He took his friend to sell newspapers to drivers on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. He loved to beatbox. He loved wordplay. And he began gathering his friends into a group that became the Wu-Tang Clan.

RAEKWON: He had a passion. He would come around and - yo, check out this rhyme. I'm like, yo, you using so many big words. And I'm just watching him like, yo, this is very inspiring, you know? So it really made not only myself, but other guys in the neighborhood want to do it even more. But he was the guy at the top. And it gave us hope for something else.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DA MYSTERY OF CHESSBOXIN'")

RAEKWON: (Rapping) Raw I'ma (ph) give it to ya (ph), with no trivia. Raw like cocaine straight from Bolivia.

INSKEEP: Why do you think that that relationship with him got harder later?

RAEKWON: When his success came, he felt responsible. He felt he did it. But we always would tell him, even though you initiated the conversation, it took us to do the work as well. It's like I say, yo, you made the beat. We did the rhymes. You can't have one without the other.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROTECT YA NECK (THE JUMP OFF)")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) Dance with the mantis. Note the slim chances. Chant this anthem, swing like Pete Sampras.

RAEKWON: Once that started to get a little blurry and we didn't respect that anymore, that's when I knew we was at a level of success where egos is just as big as skyscrapers right now with all of us.

INSKEEP: I want to try to figure out what your relationship is now, because you're a little estranged, but you still work together. Is that right?

RAEKWON: Yeah. I mean, you know, like I said, I love him. You know what I mean? I love him for his beliefs in me and the group. And we share a brotherhood that will never, ever die based on the fact that what we been through, you know? And I tell people all the time, I was the one that was hanging out with RZA first. I was the guy that was the fly on the wall that was like, yo, this guy is onto something. We need to stay close to this kid because he got a vision.

And back then, we loved hip-hop. We loved it, but we wasn't in love with it. He was in love with it. He knew that he had something, and I was able to see that from the outside in and open up conversations for things to be what they are today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROTECT YA NECK")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) Wu-Tang Clan coming at ya. Watch your step, kid. Watch your step, kid. Protect ya neck, kid.

INSKEEP: The memoir from Raekwon is called "From Staircase To Stage." Thanks so much.

RAEKWON: You got it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROTECT YA NECK")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) Rae got it going on, pal. Call me the rap assassinator. Rhymes rugged and built like Schwarzenegger. And I'ma get mad deep like... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.