Raw Power: U-God On The Genesis Of The Wu-Tang

In the following interview plus extract from his new book, Raw, U-God, one of the original members of the Wu-Tang Clan talks about the origins of the group, RZA's BO, and that time he nearly punched Leonardo DiCaprio in the face

U-God author portrait, credit: Angie Bambii

There’s a moment in Lamont "U-God" Hawkins’s new autobiography, Raw: My Journey Into the Wu-Tang, which perfectly captures the dizzy heights of celebrity the Wu-Tang Clan so quickly ascended to, and their roisterous response to the strange milieu they found themselves in.

Picture the scene: it’s 1996, Los Angeles, California. The nine original members of the Wu-Tang Clan are in town to record their follow-up the ground-breaking Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). They’ve been invited to a party at Hollywood director-producer Brett Rattner’s Beverley Hills mansion. Initially, no-one is up for it. But finally, U-God himself and Ghost Face Killah decide, "fuck it" and head on down to the $3.6 million dollar home of the brain behind Charlie Sheen / Chris Tucker vehicle Money Talks. "We threw a gallon of rum in us," Hawkins writes, "I was smoking. Ghost didn’t smoke, he just drank. We were pissy fucking drunk." Before they know it, U-God is threatening to punch Leonardo DiCaprio in the face and Ghost is pissing on the floor and ripping up the flowerbeds outside.

"Yeah…" Hawkins drawls down the phone line when I tell him how much I cracked up reading this passage. "It’s a moment. It’s a moment. Moments in time, during the peak of our dynasty when we was hanging with the who’s who of Hollywood and everybody wanted to meet the ghetto phenomenon called Wu-Tang Clan."

Born n Brooklyn in 1970, Lamont Hawkins was still a child when he moved to the Staten Island housing project where he would ultimately meet RZA, Raekwon and the rest of the Clan. Now aged 47, after some half a dozen Wu-Tang albums, a brace of solo records, plus guest spots with Cypress Hill, Kool Keith, Cannibal Ox, and others, he tells his own story, from start to finish, in all its gory detail.

After the jump, we’ll feature a short extract from the book, where U-God explains how the Wu Tang came together in the first place. But first off, I wanted to ask the man himself about the process of writing – and how some of his band mates might have reacted to some of the book’s more contentious moments.

So what made you decide to write this book at this time?

U-GOD: Well, what made me write this book is, my manager, Domingo [Neris], I used to tell him all these stories, all the stuff that I’ve been though, and he was just cracking up. He said, you’ve got to write this down. I finally listened and started just writing my stories down. It took me two and a half years to put it together. Over twenty rewrites, thousands of hours editing, and lots of time reminiscing through all the crazy times.

When you first started writing the book, did you discuss it at any point with the other members of the Wu-Tang?

U-GOD: What am I going to discuss my life story with other people for? The book is about my journey, from five years old through my adolescence. It covers all the turbulent times growing up in New York during the Koch era, the drug game, incarceration, how we all met, our first recordings at RZA’s apartment, how we came to be this unbelievable force in the music biz, the trials and tribulations of nine brothers coming up in the game as seen through my eyes, one of the original founders of the Wu-Tang Clan.

And now that it’s finished, have you showed it to any of them?

Raekwon’s got a copy, Meth, a few of the other brothers… See, we all do things and support each other’s projects. When it’s time to come together and form like Voltron under that W flag we there… Otherwise RZA and Meth is doing their Hollywood thing, I’m writing books, Rae, Ghost, & Genius stay on the road performing. Everybody doing what they do.

And how have they reacted to it?

All the feedback I’ve received has been positive from brothers. It’s not easy to write a book. It takes a lot of time and patience to chisel one of these things, for real!

And if you had to sum up, if there was one message that you really wanted to get across with this book, what would that message be?

The core message would be that, I’ve got to tell my life, this is my life story. I have my own beliefs. I have my own belief system that works for my life. What works for me may not work for you. But at the same time, any person should take away that you can do anything you put your mind to, it just takes concentration and focus. At the beginning of my career, I wasn’t really, really focused. I was a wild street guy who was making a transition into music and my focus was more on my street hustle than music back then. Now that I’m one hundred percent focused on my craft, you can see the difference in my work. When I’m one hundred percent focused, when anybody’s one hundred percent focused, they can do a lot of things. And that’s basically what it is. If you want something, you have to focus on it every day.

One of the things that struck me, reading the book, especially in the section on your childhood, the two major themes going on there seem to be this religious sensibility, this spirituality, and on the other hand, this extraordinary amount of violence. Now, for a lot of people, they would seem to be two incompatible things. How do you reconcile this apparent contradiction?

Well, violence is the way of life in the ghetto. It goes hand in hand. It’s part of growing up. You know what I’m saying? A lot of brothers I grew up with ain’t around anymore. What saved me was I had to take anger management classes. I had to wean myself off that violence thing. My hot-headedness got me in trouble. I had to learn through trial and error to control my temper, but I had to be like that in the hood to gain respect in the hood. It’s about that. I have a family to take care of. I have babies. I can’t lose my head like that anymore. Where my money at? I can’t do that. Now I got lawyers. I got accountants. And you know what? I’m just gonna chill and I’m just gonna let certain things roll off me because it doesn’t even matter. And right now, you’ve got to really, really do something to make me feel like I gotta go back there. I’m not gonna do it. I can’t let anything trigger that response.

credit: Stan Oh

The following is an extract from Raw: My Journey Into the Wu-Tang by Lamont "U-God" Hawkins:

Ever since the Baby Crash Crew, we were always rhyming and making up little songs together. That didn’t change when we started hustling in front of the buildings of Park Hill.

At the time, I wasn’t really rhyming seriously yet, but I was the beatbox guy in the hallway for other dudes to get their own shit off. It was nothing for me to beatbox for people, because that got me my rhythm, which gave me certain things, like beat coordination as well as improved physical coordination, that other motherfuckers didn’t have.

I’d beatbox for Cappadonna and Raekwon while they caught wreck. When RZA came along, we started taking our beats and rhymes more seriously. I already knew him as the DJ from the Stapleton block party. By 1989, he’d moved out of his mother’s place and got his own apartment, which was actually his family’s old apartment that he sublet from his mother (in the city, once you get an apartment, you never let it go). He’d also moved away from DJing and started making his own beats. He was getting serious about the rap game, and so were we.

The nights I got tired of ducking the cops and dealing with junkies and stashing guns around where we were posted up and keeping an eye out for any potential drama that might pop up those were the nights I’d go to RZA’s place. Even though it was in Stapleton, another project just like ours, when we were at his crib, we didn’t have to worry about all the shit going on back in Park Hill. We could concentrate on what really mattered: our music.

I’d walk into his building and take the elevator up to his floor. You could hear the beats and smell the weed before you even stepped into the hallway. The door was never locked at RZA’s joint. Stapleton apartments were like that. First off, there’s not much to steal, but also, who’s gonna try anything up in RZA’s pad with an endless cycle of hood-ass, slanging-ass, gun-toting individuals coming in and out all day?

Now, I was still hustlin’, so I’d walk in wearing all fly shit, new sneakers. I was strapped back then, so I’d take out my gun and put it on the glass table near where Ghost would usually be sitting. RZA, on the other hand, wasn’t hustlin’ like that, so when I came on looking fresh, he’d be smelling like a goddamn onion. We used to call him “RZA Radish” back then, ’cause he never wore deodorant.

We’d bring our forties and weed and whatever else and just write and rap and listen to beats and build for hours and hours. RZA’s brew back then was Brass Monkey, a premixed cocktail of dark rum, vodka, and orange juice. Ghostface and RZA were living together at the time, so they’d be eating ramen noodles and watching kung fu flicks. For a while, those two were like me and Meth, on some Dynamic Duo shit. RZA and Ghost would just be in that crib all day long, eatin’ Oodles of Noodles, watching kung fu movies, and making beats on a little four-track recorder.

I’d walk in and the beats would be blasting. Dudes would bring the mic cord out onto the terrace and be rhyming. Sounds fancy, but it’s far from it. Like I said, the Stapleton ’ jects looked like jail facilities. The terraces looked like the tiers in prison. But we’d have the mike out there, and weed be blowin’, and the Brass Monkey be flowin’, and everybody was just getting high and throwing darts (rapping). It was a getaway from the drama, a way to transcend our surroundings and the day-to- day grind.

RZA’s crib was our first studio, and that four-track was our first real equipment. That was our lab. When you have a whole bunch of possessions you don’t do anything with, you don’t

have anything. When you got that one piece of machinery that you really master, though, that enhances your art. A lot of motherfuckers don’t know how or don’t have the discipline to just stay right there, in that chamber, until you’ve mastered it. They move on too soon, and lose that potential mastery and end up losing themselves altogether. That’s the struggle of being an artist. You can’t keep coming out with the same shit, but you can’t lose yourself, either.

With RZA’s four-track, we kept making bangers. At the end of the night we’d leave his place with a tape of what we’d done. We’d go back to Park Hill, listen to our songs, and critique our shit more. We’d compare ourselves to other people and their verses and just sharpen one another’s steel. Then we’d write even more rhymes to improve our lyrics, some of us working harder on it than others. Meth was really working on it harder than other dudes.

One night, while working on one of our first original Wreck Posse cuts, “I Get Down for My Crown,” Meth wrote a verse from which a portion would later be used by Ghost on one of his biggest hits, “Cherchez La Ghost.”

Once Meth laid this verse down, I went into my rhyme books and put down my verse, and Deck came behind us and laid down the last verse. RZA even sampled the flushing toilet and added the sound effect to the joint as well. It was the first song that we laid down and felt good about as a group.

Back then we would dub tapes and pass them off to other brothers in the hood. That’s how you used to do it back in the day, you’d make a bunch of tapes and pass ’em around the project, and it would spread through word of mouth.

Next thing you know, everybody in our fucking neighborhood had the shit. Then that person would take it to another project, and someone there would take the shit and listen to it and they’d dub it and take it to another project. Next thing you know, everyone in the ’jects was jamming “I Get Down for My Crown.”

That song right there was an epiphany. We noticed when we did our first couple of songs together, they came out kinda hot. Meth, Deck, and me did a couple of other songs during the early days of fucking around with RZA, like “Let Me Put My Two Cents In.” We were EPMD babies and Public Enemy babies, Big Daddy Kane babies and Rakim babies. We just incorporated all that into our early little sounds. We would record ’em on tapes and listen to them and critique ourselves.

Once we got on those beats, when I first heard my voice over the music on tape, it seemed like the dream was even closer to being real, like it was something tangible that we could touch. ’Cause we weren’t just rhyming and beatboxing in the project hallways anymore, we were actually laying down vocals now. And even though we were still wildin’ in the streets, that dream of music saved us from getting too far gone.

Once we got a taste of hood success, RZA kept recording more joints. Deck put down a solo joint called “This Ain’t Your Average Flow.” That joint was crazy good, and it became a hood anthem.

When we started going to RZA’s on the regular, we started seeing who the MCs really were. Here comes Rae getting on a song. Then Genius is up there. And here’s Ol’ Dirty, who RZA said was his cousin. ODB and GZA were both RZA’s family, and they’d come through our hood fairly often. In fact, GZA lived in Park Hill for a little while with his family before they dipped to Brooklyn. They’d come see RZA in Stapleton, then they’d all come up to the Hill to smoke and drink and rhyme. Every so often we’d take a break from hustling to join them. RZA’s place was a sanctuary.

It was there that a whole team of dudes, some I knew well, some I’d only met once or twice, came together to form something that would never be duplicated in rap history. A crew with similar upbringings and perspectives, but radically different ways of conveying their individual viewpoints. That was the genesis of the Wu-Tang Clan.

RAW: My Journey into the Wu-Tang by Lamont "U-God" Hawkins is out now from Faber & Faber

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