So then we moved to Shaolin Land
"Shaolin Land" means Staten Island. But why did the Wu-Tang Clan name Staten Island after an ancient Chinese temple?
Everything Wu-Tang has a reason. The Wu-Tang Clan were inspired by a slew of interesting influences: martial arts movies, superhero comics, the game of chess, and mobster films are just the tip of the iceberg.
Their broad lexicon also includes the numerology of a Nation of Islam offshoot called the Five Percent Nation, street language from the projects of Staten Island and Brooklyn, and inside jokes among Wu-Tang Clan members, most of whom have known each other since high school or before.
"Shaolin Land" is a peaceful, spiritual place in several of the Wu-Tang crew's favorite films, and in Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang (1981), the film that inspired the Clan's name, the Shaolin are a group of martial arts disciples who battle the Wu-Tang. For the RZA, the mind behind much of Wu-Tang's lore, "Shaolin was the foundation of Wu-Tang. Shaolin is your mind and Wu-Tang is your body. You could be Wu-Tang, and Shaolin is where you come from. That's why I named Staten Island Shaolin. We are Wu-Tang and we come from Shaolin" (The Wu-Tang Manual, 63).
In 1995, members of the Wu-Tang Clan met a real monk from the original Shaolin in China. The Shaolin Temple is over 1500 years old and is said to be the birthplace of kung fu. The monk, Sifu, became a teacher to RZA, GZA, and Ghostface Killah, who studied the yoga-like practice of chi-gong and learned from Sifu about the spiritual side of martial arts.
According to RZA, the original Shaolin—which he visited with Sifu in 1999—shifted his whole perspective toward a focus on spirituality and enlightenment. The RZA's amazing and amusing book, The Wu-Tang Manual, includes a chapter titled "The Way of the Wu: The Razor-Sharp Sutra" that integrates the skills he learned from the Shaolin with his views on clan ties, martial arts and aggression, and street-based spirituality. Thanks to RZA, the Wu-Tang Clan actually has its own sutra—a Buddhist and Hindu term for a line of thought or idea that becomes a recited scripture.
So I got with a sick tight clique and went all out
Catchin' keys from across seas
Rollin' in MPVs, every week we made forty Gs
These lines are key to understanding "C.R.E.A.M.," as they describe Raekwon's rise through the drug-dealing ranks of Shaolin Land.
Raekwon was originally from Brooklyn, but moved at a young age from the Brooklyn slums to the Park Hill housing projects in Staten Island. There he met Ghostface Killah, who later introduced him to RZA and brought him into the Wu-Tang Clan.
But before Raekwon made his way into Wu-Tang, he made his living working in what's broadly known as the "street economy." That term refers to all the unofficial ways that people without documented jobs can make money, ranging from trading CDs or sunglasses to trading drugs or sex for cash.
Of course, despite being illegal, drugs have long been the center of a very lucrative underground economy. Lucrative, that is, for the few who succeed in that world. For most Black youth like Raekwon, the drug trade is a dangerous world, and a very difficult economic choice to back out of, since getting involved in the trade often leads to prison time and comes with a high risk of violence.
Policing of the drug economy is especially intense in urban communities of color, and young Black men are known to be disproportionately targeted in arrest and sentencing, meaning they're more likely than white youth to be arrested and locked up for committing the same drug-related crimes. Still, in the housing projects of Staten Island with few options, some end up seeing the illicit drug economy as their only choice.
"Every week we made forty Gs," says Rae: that's a popping business at $40,000 a week. But part of the focus of "C.R.E.A.M." is that even though cash might rule everything around us, the drug trade and street economies are a hard way to get by. The Wu-Tang Clan paints a picture, and it's not a pretty one.
The court played me short, now I face incarceration
Pacin', going up state's my destination
When the elusive Inspectah Deck joined the Wu-Tang Clan, he had just been released from prison.
Inspectah Deck, who was also born in Brooklyn and also grew up in the Park Hill projects in Staten Island, knew street life as well as anyone in the Wu-Tang Clan.
Unfortunately, by a young age he knew prison life even better.
In New York, long-term prisons are generally located upstate, far from the urban centers where most of the arrests and convictions take place. According to RZA, Inspectah Deck came home from prison "with some lyrics and some styles" (The Wu-Tang Manual, 28).
Inspectah Deck is often talked about as the Wu-Tang Clan's unsung hero, a quiet, observant, and subtle presence. Just check out these lines from the Wu-Tang Clan's "Can It Be All So Simple," sung by Method Man:
He's like that dude that'll sit back and watch you
Play yourself and all that, right?
And see you sit there and know you lyin'
And he'll take you to court after that
'Cause he the Inspectah, that's why...
Everyday I escape from Jakes givin' chase, sellin' base
Smokin' bones in the staircase
Though I don't know why I chose to smoke sess
Jakes = cops, base = freebase cocaine, and sess = marijuana.
Inspectah Deck is describing his spiral into life as a dealer and user. He was dealing cocaine, he says, but using marijuana to relax in the meantime.
As a general rule, drug dealers don't take the drugs they sell. In the crack-cocaine world, this rule is followed especially strictly. A lot of dealers are aware of the highly negative effects that the drugs they sell are having on their customers, and know they couldn't run an efficient business if they got bogged down in the drug itself.
Ready to give up so I seek the Old Earth
Who explained working hard may help you maintain
"Old Earth" is Wu-Tang slang for an elder woman, drawn from the extensive system of terminology of the Five Percent Nation.
The Five Percent Nation is a street-based offshoot of the Nation of Islam that became very popular with Black youth in New York in the 1980s. The Five Percent Nation had close ties with hip-hop culture and used the "cipher" to bring together young people and get them reciting the credo of the Five Percenters.
The credo is based around a set of 120 questions and answers, beginning with the question "Who is the original man?" and the response, "The original man is the Asiatic Black man, the Maker, the Owner, the Cream of the planet Earth, the Father of Civilization, and God of the Universe."
Prospective Five Percenters had to memorize each of the 120 answers, word for word, and others in the movement would test them on it on the street. "A cipher was held by the brothers standing in a circle testing you—you had to show and prove. The word 'cipher' in hip-hop comes from that," wrote RZA (The Wu-Tang Manual, 43).
In the Five Percent lexicon, Old Earth referred to an elder woman, such as your mother or grandmother. Here Inspectah Deck describes a scene where he goes to ask his mother for advice about his life, and she recommends hard work as a way to get out of the game. Hard work as an artist is exactly what Inspectah Deck brought to his new career as a rapper.
Leave it up to me while I be living proof
To kick the truth to the young black youth
But shorty's running wild, smokin' sess, drinkin' beer
And ain't trying to hear what I'm kickin' in his ear
These four lines show Inspectah Deck trying—unsuccessfully—to reach other young people with his story.
The Inspectah's whole verse is heavy with a sense of depression, bitterness, and hopelessness about the poverty and violence he grew up surrounded by. He comes in strong in this verse, "alive on arrival," but doesn't seem to see a way out until the very end, when he tells the audience that he is "living proof" of just how dangerous the street life can be.
After all, he ended up in jail, and by age 22, when he wrote this verse, he felt he'd seen way too much. This verse also shows that he's having trouble getting an ear with younger folks—"shorty"—whom he's worried won't be able to get out of the street life.