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From Staircase to Stage
The Story of Raekwon and the Wu-Tang Clan
Table of Contents
About The Book
Legendary wordsmith Raekwon the Chef opens up about his journey from the staircases of Park Hill in Staten Island to sold-out stadiums around the world with Wu-Tang Clan in this revealing memoir—perfect for fans of The Autobiography of Gucci Mane and Hustle Harder, Hustle Smarter.
There are rappers who everyone loves and there are rappers who every rapper loves, and Corey Woods, a.k.a. Raekwon the Chef, is one of the few who is both. His versatile flow, natural storytelling, and evocative imagery have inspired legions of fans and a new generation of rappers. Raekwon is one of the founding members of Wu-Tang Clan, and his voice and cadence are synonymous with the sound that has made the group iconic since 1991.
Now, for the first time, Raekwon tells his whole story, from struggling through poverty in order to make ends meet to turning a hobby into a legacy. The Wu-Tang tale is dense, complex, and full of drama, and here nothing is off-limits: the group’s origins, secrets behind songs like “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Protect Ya Neck,” and what it took to be one of the first hip-hop groups to go from the underground to the mainstream. Raekwon also delves deep into the making of his meticulous solo albums—particularly the classic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx—and talks about how spirituality and fatherhood continue to inspire his unstoppable creative process.
A celebration of perseverance and the power of music, From Staircase to Stage is a master storyteller’s lifelong journey to stay true to himself and his roots.
I met my father once. I was six years old, living in Brownsville, New York, with my mother, just a street away from her sisters and my cousins. My father had been living in East New York where his mother and a number of his family members lived. Those two neighborhoods are next to each other, just down the road, but he never visited us. He left when I was a baby; I never knew him at all. My older cousins, who were about eleven at the time, knew where he lived though. They knew who he was and they told me about him and promised I’d meet him someday. One day when we were playing, they said, “Know what we doing today? We taking you to see your father.” I didn’t know what to think, I just followed them to a small house about fifteen minutes away, not really sure if this was real or a game.
What I remember most about him was that he was red. He had red skin, red hair, a face full of red beard. He had Cherokee in his blood and I’d never seen a man who looked like that. He came out of the house, he embraced me, gave me a hug and talked with my cousins and me for a little while. Then he asked if I wanted to meet his mother, my grandmother. We walked over to her house, which was just around the way, and sat in her kitchen. My father left the room for a minute to go to the bathroom and I never saw him again. He slipped out a back door or upstairs window and out of my life forever.
Moms and him met in the late sixties, when she was just nineteen. She told me my father was a nice guy, a snappy dresser, and a great dancer. She said he was a good person and she fell for him. But he was already getting into trouble in the streets, living that gangster life, robbing and stealing. She said he had respect in the streets, and that meant something. In the ’hood, respect is a tangible commodity. It determines how you are treated by your extended family and your neighbors. And that respect is passed down. Like my mom always said when she talked about my dad, “Son, the only thing your father ever gave you was your name and your respect in the neighborhood.” And she was right.
Moms loved him. She was a good girl growing up, and when they met she was still going to school, trying to find herself, and staying out of trouble. But she fell for him. She used to say that he cared, he’d come and talk to her and spend time with her. But as nice a guy as she said he was, she never brought him around my grandmother, because I have a feeling Grandma would have sorted him out. Even after my father was gone, I could tell by the way my mother spoke to me about him that she still cared for him—even though he did nothing to help us, leaving her struggling to make ends meet, with a baby, when she was still in her teens.
My mom wasn’t naïve. She knew he was up to no good in the streets, but that wasn’t why she kicked him out. She dismissed him and forbade him from being around me when she found out he was on heroin. He’d managed to hide it from her for a while, but like any addict, eventually he slipped up. She had no problem with street life and violence: her sister and her friends ran wild in the neighborhood, acting tough, getting into fights, and making trouble. But she wasn’t going to let an addict be around her baby. It fucked her up emotionally to do it, but she closed the door on him. She could tell he wasn’t going to quit.
Mom was brokenhearted, so she cut him out of her life completely: she got rid of pictures, mementos, anything to remind her. To this day I don’t have a picture of my father. He had a brother and a sister, but I’ve never met them. I remember his face, but as the years go by, it fades in my memory. Some days I wish I had a photo, just a way to make a connection to the man that lives inside me that I never knew.
My situation wasn’t unusual; my whole neighborhood was fatherless. All of my friends’ fathers weren’t around. The ones that were, which was maybe 3 percent, didn’t interact with their kids because they were lost in one way or another or caught up in street life. In those days, in the late seventies, it was all about pimpin’ and having women and doing drugs, and gangs of various sizes ran shit all through the communities of Brooklyn. People would be gambling in the streets, shooting dice, playing craps, with music by Sam Cooke, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, the O’Jays, Donny Hathaway, the Gap Band, Teena Marie, and the Spinners coming out of the radio.
One of my mother’s sisters, my aunt Priscilla, was very involved in that life when she was young. My mother and her sisters were all brown-skinned girls, but Priscilla was different in every way: she was light-skinned and wild. Mind you, her crew wasn’t like the Bloods and Crips, it was more like the Warriors. These were loose coalitions of street crews, and her particular group was out there to protect their friends and certain businesses in the neighborhood. They got into fights, I’m sure they stuck people up here and there, and it got to the point that my aunt was getting into serious shit. Tough as she was, she was the first in the family to move out of Brownsville to Staten Island, where she said it was safer.
Even though my mom was younger than her, I always felt like Aunt Priscilla was closer to my age. I felt like she understood me and I understood her. Even though Priscilla became a responsible working woman after her wild younger years, my mom came off as older because she was more serious, even when she was cutting loose. I get it, she had a hard life and she worked hard to support me and be a good parent. My aunt did what she had to do too, she just seemed to enjoy life a bit more. They were different, but they were closer to each other than they were to any of their other sisters. When we came home one day to find our door kicked in and all of our valuables gone, it made sense for us to follow my aunt to Staten Island.
Looking back on things, Brownsville was a war zone then. The violence became as ruthless as what goes on between drug cartels in Mexico today. As a child, I saw bodies hung from poles, throats slit, laid out in the street for the neighborhood to see, sending a message to everybody that the gang who did it was not fucking around. When gangs in Brownsville did shit in the seventies, they did it nasty. I remember riding in the car with my grandmother one day, and when we were stopped at a light, I saw a man get hit in the head with a car jack. Not just the iron, the entire device that you put under your car to lift it when you needed to change a tire. Those seventies cars were heavy as hell, so the jacks that came with them were heavy-duty. I was looking out the back window daydreaming when this dude ran out of nowhere and crowned this bigger dude. The guy on the receiving end was bald, so I saw it all in detail when his shit got cracked wide open. Brooklyn was serious.
I was about eight when we moved to Staten Island. Moms wanted a new life, and by then two of her sisters had relocated so it made sense. I was in school and didn’t see her a lot because she worked so much just to keep us afloat. I went back and forth to Queens to live with my grandmother during the summer and whenever my mom couldn’t support me. That was my life, going from one place to the other. I didn’t get to spend too much time with my mom, but when I did, she made it count. Every year for my birthday she’d take me into Manhattan to see a movie. The year I’ll never forget is when she took me to see The Wiz in Times Square. Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, coproduced by Berry Gordy—that film is a masterpiece. It was like a dream to me, sitting there watching it on the big screen and today, at fifty, I still remember it clear as day.
I loved the time I got to spend with my mom, but I felt at home living with my grandmother, Prince, who was always Nana to me. When you’re a kid, your grandmother seems like she’s so old, though mine was probably fifty-five at the time. I remember when she’d come to get me, all the way from Far Rockaway, Queens, to Staten Island on the A train and then the ferry, and that ride back by her side, seemed like it took an entire day. But I didn’t mind, because when the train emerged from underground in Queens it seemed like we had entered another world. Eventually she got this big green Chevy, and she’d ride out to get me and let me sit in the big back seat with my face up against the glass, watching everything that passed before my eyes.
My mother has four sisters and two brothers, so my first father figures of any kind were my uncles, Orrie and Lenny. Orrie joined the army and made a life of it and was rarely around. He traveled the world and ended up settling in North Carolina, near Fort Bragg, where he’d been stationed. He’d come through and drop off money for Nana. He brought her plates from the faraway places he visited for her to display in her china case. G.I. Joe was the shit when I was a kid, so I looked up to him with that army suit on. My other uncle was more of an introvert and he was cool and really into music. When he’d come to visit, I’d share a room with him, but he didn’t trust me or interact with me much. I don’t remember what he did to get money, but he had enough to buy himself a stereo rack system that he left in the house and forbade me from ever touching. You might as well know this about me now: I’m a hardhead and already was at ten years old, so when he went out, of course I started pushing buttons and turned something on that I couldn’t turn off. I had to get Nana to come fix it, and when Lenny got back he flipped out on me.
My grandmother used to take me to Rockaways’ Playland every other month. We’d walk there from where we lived in the Hammels project in Queens, which was about six miles. Nana was in her late fifties doing that just to let me have some fun—she was a strong and loving woman. She kept me close because her neighborhood was so crime-infested; she wasn’t going to let me run in the streets with the other kids. I had to stay in the back or the front of the building where she could see me. That didn’t matter to me. Rockaways’ Playland was the highlight of my life. The summers I was there, my mom would send whatever money she could. It wasn’t much, just pennies and quarters and dimes. At the end of the day it was probably eighteen dollars, but when you’re a kid, that’s a lot. Nana used to let me go in the store and get snacks and that was the greatest. I’d take my fifty cents and feel good about it and get some chips, always the spicy ones in the red bag, or onion rings, and a twenty-five-cent juice. Wise Onion Rings, Bon Ton Bar-B-Q chips and a juice, that was all I needed. I was big on cookies too.
About this time, I was eleven and hip-hop was starting to bloom. It was music in the parks, it was turntables and people dancing. I wasn’t allowed out there, but my bedroom window at Nana’s faced the park so I’d see guys setting up and jamming. They’d be wearing Kangols and mock neck shirts with Lee jeans or French-cut slacks. Looking out that window I saw Adidas hard shells for the first time. All of it was mad cool. I wanted those sneakers, and I wanted to be like those guys. At that time Adidas were thirty-two dollars and Pro-Keds were eighteen, so you know which ones I had. That was the year I realized that music was dope. I’d stay up as late as I could watching these block parties from my window. Nana would close the window and lower the shade and put me to sleep before something happened—a robbery, a shooting, a stabbing. Something always happened later in the night when those parties took off.
My grandmother got it, though, because she loved music. She also loved baseball. We sat around watching Mets games all summer long, and I remember one time she took me to a game. For the rest of her days she used to laugh about it, because for some reason when the crowd would chant “Let’s go Mets!” I kept saying “Let’s go Rets!” She kept turning to me and saying, “Boy? That ain’t the name of it. It’s Mets!” I’d say, “Okay, it’s Mets.” Then I’d start chanting “Rets” again. Don’t ask me why, I don’t know.
I should mention that at the time, after a series of relationships, my grandmother was married to my step-grandfather Charles, who everyone called Cheese. He was good guy, but kept to himself. He just drank his Bacardi and smoked his Pall Mall reds, which was the cigarette of choice for the OGs back then. He loved baseball too and would talk to me about the game while we watched it together. So because of them I got into baseball. After Nana got me a glove for my birthday, she let me start hanging out with the kids in the building who were into sports. We started out throwing rocks at an X on the wall, then we started playing stickball. I discovered that I had a good arm and could pitch. Between watching music develop beneath my window every night and becoming obsessed with baseball, I had some serious interests.
But then I got hurt playing ball when I dove to make a catch and landed on a jagged tin can. I had to go to the hospital and get stitches. My knee was never really the same, so I began to just stay inside and watch ball games instead of playing with my friends. That was when music took over, and I began to sneak out at night to see what was going on. I was seeing too many dope things going on: parents who I’d see during the day, now out there dancing, smoking, and not acting like parents. There was a crazy lady that lived in the building who I liked to observe too. She was always up to something. She’d have a pile of discarded items and trash she’d try to sell people; she’d have entire conversations with herself or start yelling at someone walking by about something they had nothing to do with, and follow them all the way down the block like a protester. Pretty soon, my friends and I started doing bad shit like hanging out in the elevator shaft above the elevator as it went up and down or kicking people’s doors and running away.
My Nana was no dummy. She saw that I was getting into shit and gave me a few ass whoopings around that time. By then, my mom was set up in Staten Island, and she’d managed to get her life a bit more stable in every way. She’d started a new relationship and felt it was time for me to quit bouncing back and forth—as I’d done from eight to eleven—and come be with her on a more permanent basis. It was time to put down roots.
OF her four sisters and two brothers, my mom, Andrea, was the responsible baby sister, the one who did well in school and planned to hold down a good job, the one they sheltered from the streets. She worked in the Twin Towers, for Bankers Trust, for years, some of them with my aunt Priscilla. Regardless, gangster blood was in my mom’s DNA. Later in life my mom told me that my Nana had been in a gang when she was young. It blew my mind, because I saw her as nothing but a nice, sweet lady, but that wasn’t always the case. In Nana’s day, guns weren’t the thing, it was knives, and she was no stranger to stabbing people. My mom told me that one time my grandmother found out my grandfather (this was not Cheese, he was my step-grandfather) had cheated on her with some female in their building and she wasn’t having that. So one day as she was cooking him breakfast, making him fish and grits, she brought it up. They started arguing and one thing led to another until she burnt the fuck out of him by throwing the hot pot of grits on him.
Before I go on, I have to tell you that fish and grits is a big meal in our family, and it’s one of my favorite meals to this day. You line the bottom of your plate in hot grits with cheese, drop your fried fish on there, sprinkle some black pepper over everything, and crack a raw egg on top, letting it cook until it’s a perfect sunny-side up. You stir it all together and that’s how my family makes grits. You should try it, you will not be disappointed.
The point of the story though is that, as a child, my mother was subjected to a lot of fights and saw violence all around, both in and out of the house. Even though she didn’t fight in the streets, my mom was a fighter. I saw this firsthand when I moved back in with her full-time in Staten Island. She had begun a new relationship with a guy named Glen, who she eventually married, and they had my little brother Kareem, whose middle name, Kente, was inspired by the TV show Roots. Glen was a cool dude—he was nice enough, kind of humble, with a great smile. He wasn’t out there in the streets, he had a job with the Transit Authority, which was good. I never got to know him because from the start he never paid any attention to me. He was a bit of a smooth type; he had a black motorcycle, and he’d pull up real slick and smile at me like, “That’s right, I’m fucking your mom.”
They were both still young and they were listening to all kinds of disco, like Junior’s “Mama Used to Say,” Kool & the Gang’s “Ladies Night,” Diana Ross’s “Love Hangover,” Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” everything by the Jackson Five, and Michael’s early solo stuff. These were big records at the time, and my mom loved them and played them constantly. After a little while I found myself singing along, loving all that music too. My mom was very social, she was a hangout chick, while Glen was more reserved—and that became a problem. She’d throw parties at the house and make fried fish and invite all her friends to come play cards, smoke joints, and probably sniff coke here and there. That’s what was going on in the days of disco, when hip-hop was just starting out. My mom wanted to be a part of that as much as she could, while still being a good mother to her two boys.
My mom and Glen started having big arguments, and those were also my soundtrack. At first when I’d hear the yelling, I’d go to see what was happening. She’d tell me to get back in my fucking room and close the door—and that’s when it would get bad. When the yelling and banging finally stopped, once Glen would leave, slamming the door behind him, I’d come out to ask if she was all right. She’d have bruises, or her hand would be bleeding, but she’d always say she was fine. “Don’t worry about it, son,” she’d say. “Just take your ass to bed and get to sleep.” I could tell she wasn’t all right, she was still angry and hurt. But I had no other choice, so I’d go back to my room.
Back then dudes was ruthless. They’d punch a lady in the face without a thought. Like I told you, Moms was a fighter, so she’d hit right back. And she had a big mouth and wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself in every way. She was the type to tell her man exactly what he needed to bring to the table. From what I overheard of their conversations, this is what started the fights. It was a cycle that ended in continuous abuse. It would start when they were drinking Bacardi or Smirnoff and smoking weed and going through whatever they was going through until the conversation turned to how she needed him to help her out more financially. And if that talk didn’t go the way she wanted, my mom was the type to say, “If you ain’t helping me, motherfucker, then what the fuck is you here for?”
When some people drink hard liquor and smoke weed, they get angry, they argue, and they start shit. My mom was living that life. She never started the beatings, but she was the agitator. I’d hear it all develop from my room, and as time went on, these episodes escalated the way things do when you keep having the same argument and don’t resolve it. Plates were broken, punches were thrown, and this became normal to me. All I could do was watch the little TV my mom had put in my room, sitting as close to the screen as I could with the volume turned up, trying to ignore what I still heard anyway. The fighting kept getting worse, so not long after my brother’s first birthday, when my mom told Glen once more to get out of her motherfucking house and never come back, he listened. After that they divorced and my mom started doing it all on her own, raising twelve-year-old me and my eighteen-month-old little brother.
I wish I could say that was the end of her abusive relationships, but it wasn’t. My mom continued to have boyfriends who were too quick with a fist, and she was right there to answer back. It was tough on me, because I wanted to protect her and help her, but she was the first to tell me to stay out of it because she didn’t want to see me get hurt. I loved that my mom handled herself, but I felt helpless and weak every single time.
After my brother was born, my mother went back to work for a while. It was hard for her to keep it all together, even with the help of her sisters and me as her main babysitter. Every day after school I’d sit with my little brother and watch cartoons, mostly Tom and Jerry, Scooby-Doo, the Flintstones, and Woody Woodpecker. I’ve always loved Tom and Jerry, they were the shit.
My mom chilled for a little bit after Glen, but soon she started having boyfriends again. She would start fighting with them if they weren’t willing to help her support our family. I hated to hear all the fights, but I got it—if the dude was going to be an extra burden financially she didn’t need him. She was barely getting by as it was. My mother’s next real relationship was with a guy she met at a bar named Pete, who was the opposite of Glen. He was a hangout guy, a real groovy dude who looked like a member of Kool & the Gang.
She fell for him because they shared the same spirit: both of them loved music, they loved to dance and party, and they loved to be social. They’d go out to bars or just have a party at home. Looking back now, I bet they were both sniffing blow. Soon enough my mom got pregnant and my sister Simoné was born, right around the time my mom turned thirty-two. Now, Pete was a good guy, and they had a nice relationship, but he was cocky. And now that I’m a man, I recognize that Pete was the type of guy who was running around fucking other girls while fucking the missus too. Knowing my mom, she definitely caught his ass out there.
One thing about Pete was that when he got upset and started yelling, his voice got so fucking loud. My mom never backed down, so they would be yelling and fighting and you couldn’t hear anything else. That became the normal for them. What I never understood was how they’d go to sleep and the next morning wake up and act like nothing happened. There was one time they couldn’t do that though. One night they got so bad that my mom hit Pete with something and broke his fucking arm. That wasn’t the end of things, because as crazy as it might seem, these two really loved each other. Pete was a ladies’ man, but he loved my mother. He also loved that they had a daughter together, so he stuck it out with her for five years.
They had the kind of relationship that is so wrong but was normal back then, the kind where men were quick to beat the shit out of their women. Men didn’t look at that behavior as wrong, they saw it as “checkin’ my bitch.” And my mother grew up seeing her siblings live that kind of life, so they were on the same page, even though it wasn’t the right page to be on. She definitely didn’t get that from my grandmother and step-grandfather. There was no abuse there that I know of, but I can tell you that they argued. My grandmother put up with it because he was putting meals on the table and paying the bills. So I think my mother had both of those realities stuck in her head. She was used to the type of violence that defined men and women in her world back then, and she felt like a bit of arguing and fighting wasn’t bad if he was putting food on the table. To her, you stuck with him no matter what if he was paying the bills, but if he wasn’t, he got to go.
Once my sister was born, my mom didn’t work anymore and felt like whoever was in her life was going to take care of her. And Pete did that: when he had a couple of dollars, he’d take all of us out to eat. We’d go to Beefsteak Charlie’s on 42nd Street, and I thought that was just the shit. We’d also go to Tad’s Steaks, where you could get a steak for ten dollars, and then see a movie. Those were the good times—the closest we had to what people consider normal family shit—and they didn’t happen often.
Pete was the closest thing I had to a father figure, but he never acted like a father when it came to me. He had his own child in our little family, so that’s where his focus was. And that was fine by me, because like I told you, I never knew what I was missing. My biological father was a ghost to me, a mystery in life and in death. I used to hear stories about him from people in the neighborhood as I grew into a man: that he overdosed, that he died of AIDS, that he left town, that he was in jail. The real truth is that he got stabbed up out in Brooklyn. He owed some gangster money, and when he didn’t pay up, they collected it another way. That street life caught up to my father the way it does to anyone who stays in it long enough.
- Publisher: Gallery Books (July 19, 2022)
- Length: 320 pages
- ISBN13: 9781982168735
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