Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 3, which looks at the backstory and legacy of Wu-Tang’s 1993 classic, “C.R.E.A.M.”
The Wu-Tang Clan are one of the biggest rap groups in history, and the Wu-Tang logo, the black and yellow W, is one of the biggest logos in rap history. And as Enter the 36 Chambers blew up and the ’90s rumbled on, that logo was everywhere: scrawled on notebooks, carved into school desks, and emblazoned on, like, 10 billion T-shirts. But prior to “C.R.E.A.M.,” I’m guessing the vast majority of the people who’d soon be wearing those T-shirts—lotta suburban teenagers, for starters—had no idea what winter in Staten Island was like for a young, poor, Black person. This disconnect between artist and fan got to be a problem for the group, and maybe for rap music as a whole, the more popular and dominant the genre became. Not everybody got the whole point right away, even though the point of “C.R.E.A.M.” was abundantly clear, starting with the opening lines of Raekwon’s opening verse.
I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side
Stayin’ alive was no jive
Had second-hands, Moms bounced on old man
So then we moved to Shaolin land
Shaolin land meaning Staten Island. You’re a teenager. You live wherever you live. You put on 36 Chambers. You’ve never heard anything like it. The first thing you hear is a sample from Shaolin and Wu Tang, a 1983 movie that you most likely haven’t seen. And then suddenly nearly a dozen individual voices, rappers, personalities, stars are all fighting for oxygen, for playing time. It’s aggressive, it’s grimy, it’s blunt, it’s winter all the time, it’s electrifying, and it’s fun. “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F’ Wit.” “Protect Ya Neck.” “Method Man” the song. Method Man the human. But “C.R.E.A.M.” is one of the big moments where these guys tell you where they’re from, and what it’s like where they’re from, and what it’s like for them to know how clueless you likely are about where they’re from. And to me there’s something beautiful but a little sad about the mythology the Wu-Tang Clan immediately created, the way Staten Island becomes Shaolin. Because for a suburban white kid, Staten Island is so far away it might as well actually be a mountain in China.
Raekwon was one of the group’s early breakout stars: He put out his first solo album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, in 1995, the same year as ODB’s Return to the 36 Chambers and GZA’s Liquid Swords, which is, canonically, Joe Biden’s favorite Wu-Tang Clan album. Help was on the way. That avalanche of product was a part of the master plan of the RZA, the group’s mastermind. The Wu-Tang as a whole were signed to Loud Records, but per the group’s deal, any member could sign as a solo artist to any label. RZA knew what he was doing, and better yet, he knew that most people in the music industry didn’t know what they were doing, or at least didn’t know what to do with him.
RZA’s real name is Robert Diggs, and yes, briefly, in the early ’90s, he was known as Prince Rakeem, a young rapper signed to Tommy Boy Records with a very minor hit called “Ooh, I Love You Rakeem.” I don’t play that for you now to denigrate him, but to denigrate whichever label guy put him in that situation. It’s clear Prince Rakeem’s label didn’t understand him or where he was from, and so reborn as the RZA, he had to do it—do pretty much everything—himself. Because apparently, even if you lived in Manhattan in the early ’90s, if you were a typical clueless major-label stooge—an A&R man, a mountain-climber who played an electric guitar—then Staten Island, which was physically only 20 to 25 miles away, might as well have been a mountain in China.
Inspectah Deck knew that too. He does the second verse on “C.R.E.A.M.” In the 2019 Showtime documentary Of Mics and Men, it’s clear that the other members of Wu-Tang really liked that line “I’m alive on arrival”; it’s possible that if it were up to them, he might be considered the best rapper in the crew. They talk a little bit about how his verses especially were a hard act to follow. He was so precise, so surgical, so vulnerable. A tragedy within the perpetual tragedy “C.R.E.A.M.” describes is that Inspectah Deck didn’t get his own immediate breakout solo album, because one of the other fun things about living in Staten Island was that the RZA’s basement studio kept flooding, and one such flood wiped out the original version of Deck’s Uncontrolled Substance, which should’ve come out with that first big wave of solo albums in ’94 or ’95, but instead got retooled and fussed over and delayed all the way to 1999, by which time the Wu-Tang Clan as a whole were in a very different place. The phase that comes after you’ve taken over the world is way different than the phase where you’re creating your own.
To hear the full episode, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Thursday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.