by Wu-Tang Clan
Raekwon, whose verse dominates the first half of "C.R.E.A.M.," is considered the Wu-Tang Clan's resident slang expert—the RZA wrote that Raekwon's first solo album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, "had the most slang ever in hip-hop" (The Wu-Tang Manual, 21). He integrates his renowned slang skills throughout his long verse in C.R.E.A.M. from the first line on. We'll give you a few lines of analysis, and let you mess around with the rest (Rapgenius.com has some great ideas, although not all of them line up with the lyrics analysis in The Wu-Tang Manual).
According to the RZA, "crime side" in Raekwon's first line means "the side of black life you always see reported in the newspapers—crime, death, murder. The side Rae and all of us grew up on" (The Wu-Tang Manual, 150). In the second line, he raps, "stayin' alive was no jive" to mean, surviving wasn't easy. Line three brings out two slang phrases: "had second hands" meaning he wore hand-me-downs, and "moms bounced on old man" meaning his mom left his dad. In the fourth line, Rae uses "Shaolin Land," Wu-Tang's name for Staten Island where many of them grew up (see the Lyrics tab for more on the tale of Shaolin Land). In line five, Raekwon rocks a gold tooth (obvious enough) and "'Lo goose," meaning a puffy down jacket made by Polo Ralph Lauren, which were a show of fashion and wealth in the ghetto in the early 1990s. The sixth line brings out no less than three slang meaning for one phrase, "G off", which can mean "get off" (as in move up in the world), become a gangsta (a G), and make money (make Gs). Rapgenius.com calls this line "a triple entendre in 12 syllables"—a feat many rappers aspire to but few achieve.
Raekwon's characteristic slang attack goes on and on. A couple of other key terms in his verses are "woolas" to mean marijuana joints mixed with cocaine, "running up in gates" to mean invading a drug-selling spot to steal the stash (a very, very dangerous form of robbery), "catchin' keys" to mean buying kilos of cocaine to sell at a profit, and "Tek-Nine" to refer to a dangerous type of handgun called the TEC-DC9 while simultaneously suggesting the dangerousness of the nine members of the Wu-Tang Clan. There's pretty much not a single line in Raekwon's part in C.R.E.A.M. that does not include slang, which is why he is "known for the freshest slang in the entire Wu-Tang family."
It should be pretty obvious that using slang like this is a skill. Raekwon's use of it creates a series of inside jokes and lines that are likely to be more meaningful to people who come from the same places as the Wu-Tang Clan. But his slang vocabulary also means that Raekwon can work with the sounds of the words more easily and flexibly, often giving a word multiple meanings (as in the "G off" example). He uses slang to build up metaphor while also building up the idiosyncratic lore of the Wu-Tang Clan themselves.
The Wu-Tang Clan have been quite successful with spreading their family language around. The Wu-Tang Manual includes glossaries of Wu-Tang slang and Wu-Tang numerology that are several pages apiece, and hardcore Wu-Tang fans become intimately familiar with a world of characters, nicknames, and numbers imbued with complex meaning. In the single phrase "36 chambers," for example, 36 is actually understood to mean nine Wu-Tang members times four chambers of the heart, while also referring to the 36 levels of learning required of Shaolin kung fu fighters. There are also, according to RZA, 36 fatal points on the body, and if you imagine these points in a circle at ten degrees of separation between each point, you get 360 degrees, a perfect circle, or a cipher—circles formed around free-styling rappers (The Wu-Tang Manual, 49). Are you following?
It's okay if you're not. The Wu-Tang Clan has created a world, and invited us into it—but adjusting to its rules takes time. This is not a new technique in literature: way back when, the likes of John Milton, Chaucer and Shakespeare came up with new terms or used slang in their writing in a way that helped dozens of new words enter the English language. Chaucer's comical, raunchy commentary on society was a center of olde englishe slang. If you've ever read those guys' work, the issues of comprehension are actually pretty similar. You have to take a deep breath and submit yourself to their whole way of thinking, sometimes not stopping on individual words but taking in the broader feeling of the piece. With the Wu-Tang Clan, this definitely involves listening to the whole Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) album.
Literary slang is a cultural skill, and involves a great sense of audience—after all, if no one can understand it, no one's going to like it. But if just enough people can understand it, an obscure street lexicon may just catch on. And hundreds of years later, it might be considered iconic, influential, and lasting work even if (or maybe partially because) the meaning takes awhile to fully comprehend. Just like Mr. Shakespeare, Wu-Tang makes us work for it.