by: Michael Shields
Twenty Years after its release, The Purple Tape’s legend and impact remains just as potent as ever….
In 1995, Raekwon wasn’t so sure he was qualified to release a solo album. He was comfortable contributing on Wu-Tang’s tracks, “coming in there and throwing his darts,” as he put it, but he was unsure about stepping into the spotlight. At the urging of those around him, Raekwon went to work. Inspired by Redman, who released an album enclosed in a red plastic casing, Raekwon made the request to his studio, Loud Records, to press the cassette of his debut album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, in a purple casing when complete. He wanted it to stand out. He wanted his cassette to attract attention amongst all those that pile up on hip-hop junkie’s car floorboards. Humoring Raekwon, Loud Records pressed the album in a purple-tinted casing for the first 10,000 cassettes. And with this, the legend of The Purple Tape was born. With a limited availability, only the die-hards, the true Wu-Tang and Raekwon heads, ended up with The Purple Tape, a symbol that they were down from day one.
The approach paid off. In spades. Quickly, the lore of the tape grew, and demand for one of those 10,000 copies is robust even to this day. You can find shirts sold with the image of The Purple Tape portrayed upon them in all its glory. A reissue was released in 2012 where 10,000 more tapes were produced as a Limited Edition collection, complete with a 36-page hardcover book with extended artwork plus liner notes written by Brian Coleman and Raekwon. Nas raps about The Purple Tape on “Last Real Nigga Alive” on 2002’s God’s Son. And in Prodigy’s autobiography entitled, My Infamous Life, he talks about how deeply The Purple Tape impacted him, and how it had him “wanting to drive fast.” There is no question this crafty marketing decision made Only Built 4 Cuban Linx stick out amongst the myriad of exceptional hip-hop albums available in the mid-90s, a period of time flush with hard-hitting classics. But what truly mattered wasn’t the color of the cassette, but rather what happened when you unsheathed it, threw it in the boom box, and pressed PLAY.
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was the third solo album released by a member of the Clan following the release in 1993 of the almighty, 36 Chambers. Succeeding Method Man’s Tical, and Ol’ Dirty Bastards’ Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty version, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was Raekwon’s turn to strike out on his own. But like a sensible law-enforcer, Raekwon was heedful enough to bring back up, in the form of Ghostface Killah and Rza. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is a concept album in that its inspiration is drawn from cinema. It was designed to exist in the same vein as a film, where Raekwon (Lex Diamonds) was the star, Ghostface (Tony Starks) the co-star/side-kick and the director/producer was Rza (Bobby Steels), with the rest of the Clan, the “Wu-Gambinos,” rounding out the supporting cast. Arguably, Raekwon is Wu-Tang’s best storyteller, and on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx he weaves together a slew of narratives in the style of a mafia movie. Stepping directly in the footsteps of Kool G Rap, Raekwon bridged the gap between gangster rap and the Cosa Nostra and painted a vivid portrait of black kingpins relishing in the fruits of a flourishing drug trade.
“The theme of the album is two guys that had enough of the negative life and was ready to move on, but had one more sting to pull off. They’re tired of doing what they doing, but they’re trying to make this last quarter million. That’s a lot of money in the streets. We gonna retire and see our grandbabies and get our lives together.”
With Raekwon’s rhymes, calculating and precise, paired with Ghostface’s in your face, larger than life persona, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was an album that demanded your attention. Featuring an expansive eighteen tracks, two of those skits1, none of which can be dismissed, it is an album whose sum is even greater than its considerable parts. And while the subject matter may weigh dramatically on the transformation of drugs into heaping stacks of dead presidents, never has the lifestyle of the rich and dangerous been portrayed with such poetic harmony and poignancy. Twenty years after its emergence, it’s still remarkable to look back at an album of such soaring quality that transcends its illicit subject matter and stands illustriously as a tightly packaged, machiavellian work of art.
Not enough can be said about Rza’s production on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, as it is some of the finest work in his esteemed career. This was the first instance where Rza was given the opportunity to indulge in his deep-seeded affinity for cinematic soundscapes. Laying down a thick backdrop of moody, melancholy and hypnotic beats, and employing strings, mesmeric piano loops, and vocal samples, Rza constructed not just a palette for his team of MC’s to craft upon, but a full cinemascore that composed unique atmospheres for the multitude of distinct “scenes” throughout the album. Occasionally minimalistic, and at other times vast and symphonic, Rza set the tone of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, a defining album for both Raekwon and Ghostface, but also for Rza, one of the greatest producers to ever drop a beat.
This week, almost twenty years to the day of the release of this seminal album, Raekwon and Ghostface convened at New York’s Irving Plaza for a two-day celebratory throwdown in honor of the genre-defining classic. On night one, after the stage was properly warmed up by an extended dj set by Mister Cee playing “no ratchet music tonight, only ’90s shit,” Raekwon emerged from backstage grinning from ear to ear as the introduction to Only Built 4 Cuban Link’s opening track “Striving for Perfection” welcomed the crowd to the Anniversary Bash. Forewarning the mostly forty-something audience assembled before him that they were in for some “motion picture shit,” Raekwon commenced the party spitting ferociously and was joined onstage by Ghostface just in time for “Criminology,” a bonafide barnburner. From there on, then the duo purposefully dug deep into the album, leaving no stone unturned.
Before the night was through Raekwon and Ghostface swept through favorites such as “Ice Cream,” “Verbal Intercourse,” “Rainy Dayz,” and “Guillotine (Swords),” on way to treating those in attendance to an Anniversary surprise. As the unmistakable beat for “2 Gunz Up” roared out of the loudspeakers, Jadakiss and Sheek Louch emerged onstage as Raekwon and Ghostface watched on in elation. The L.O.X members went through a medley of their own hits including “All About the Benjamins,” “Niggaz Done Started Something,” “By Your Side,” and “We Gonna Make It.” Obligation demanded Jadakiss stick around for one more track following the surprise mini-set, performing the raucous banger, “Run” with Ghostface before Raekwon and Ghostface took back the reigns of the show and closed the evening with a bevy of classics from their vast catalogs such as “Daytona 500,” “One,” “C.R.E.A.M,” and “Cherchez LaGhost.” But while the evening steered away from the Only Built For Cuban Linx at times, those in attendance were there to hail the almighty Rae and Ghost, to give praise to where praise was due, and to celebrate the esteemed Purple Tape.
It is very telling to the quality of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx that it is considered by critics and fans alike to be one of the greatest of the Wu-Tang Clan’s solo projects. The list of solid albums that have trickled out of the Wu-Tang’s camp is astounding, but yet Only Built 4 Cuban Linx sits alongside classic Wu-Tang spinoffs like Liquid Swords and Ironman as the cream of the crop. It’s an album whose first person narratives are piercing, and rife with paranoia, excess, hope and betrayal. It is an album whose lyrical complexities and gifted production reveal themselves more majestic upon each listen. The influence of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is enormous, inspiring career-defining albums by the likes of Jay Z, Nas2, and Mobb Deep. And unsurprisingly, twenty years later, a whole new generation of MCs is striving to emerge from the gargantuan shadow cast by two of the greatest to ever do it, Raekwon and Ghostface, and the classic album they dropped on the first day of August, 1995.
- Interestingly enough, the skit “Shark Niggas (Biters)” takes on a whole new meaning with the recent feud between Ghostface and Action Bronson. [↩]
- Nas (“Nas Escobar”) appeared on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx on the track, “Verbal Intercouse.” Raekwon has always been a fan of Nas stating, “For us, how Nas got on the album was like, if there could be a 10th member of the Wu, it would have been him. I had a lot of friends who I could have called on at that time, but that was an album that I personally wanted to make one of the illest rap albums of the world… and I knew [Nas] fit that chamber.” [↩]