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"Park Hill was a pretty nice environment — the buildings were very clean and they had doormen, intercoms in order to get in the building," recalls Raekwon, the legendary rapper best known as a core member of the canonical Wu-Tang Clan, of some early memories.
In a new memoir, From Staircase to Stage, the rapper born Corey Woods remembers watching as that relatively serene Staten Island neighborhood rapidly declined, succumbing to the wildfires of the crack-cocaine epidemic.
Steve Inskeep spoke to Raekwon about the new book, the difficulties of his upbringing and the many trappings — good and bad — of success.
"Things just started going downhill in the community — no more security guards, no more doormen, people were getting shot, dope fiends were getting strung out — all of these things started to just happen, like, overnight. The neighborhood was just going down."
As the neighborhood declined, he made it to high school — but didn't thrive, and life didn't get much easier. Racial tensions at the predominantly white high school he was sent to, and a deficit of opportunity in his own community, led him away from the classroom.
"You're realizing, 'I didn't go to school today. Okay, that's one day. Alright, one day ain't bad. One day goes to five days — it ain't that bad. It's bad, not that bad. Then one day you realize, 'I haven't been to school in 97 days.' "
As he began selling weed to make a few different ends meet, a friend he'd known from school named Robert Diggs, the RZA, had begun working on music, rapping and producing beats out of his house — a notable difference from the projects Raekwon called home at the time. With natural gifts and a surfeit of ambition, RZA's gravity drew Raekwon and a crew of friends into his orbit. What resulted ended up being one of the most revered and analyzed rap groups in history.
"We share a brotherhood that will never, ever die," Raekwon says, of both RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan, "based on the fact of what we've been through."