It’s hard to believe but 20 years have passed since the release of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), one of the best records in the history of hip-hop. But here we are. The rappers who interspersed tracks with dialogue snippets from B-grade kung fu movies and produced an audio skit reenacting cartoonish and scatological torture are now in middle age.
For Lamont Hawkins, better known as U-God, the 20th anniversary of Enter the Wu Tang is no time for resting on laurels. This is in part because U-God has few laurels on which to rest. Unlike clanmates Ghostface Killah, Method Man, or the GZA, U-God has no Supreme Clientele, no supporting role in The Wire, and no celebrated soundtrack to his credit. His best-known verse remains the 20-year-old opening lines of “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” where he raps, “Raw, I’m a give it to ya, no trivia, raw like cocaine straight from Bolivia.” Kanye West later quoted those lines in his 2010 single, “Runaway.”
“I have been doing this for a long time,” U-God told me. “When you are going to be doing this every day, I keep getting better. I learned from my mistakes, I learned my weaknesses and strengths. I am not afraid to say I had weak spots.”
Those weak spots, U-God said with a laugh, were “big-titty bitches with long hair.” But he later expanded on this idea, and said he suffered from what he called the self-destruction switch. “I just don’t give a fuck,” he said.
“I have to chill with that, cause it could get out of hand. It could go from 0 to 60. The mentality, the self-destructiveness of the black man, we’ve all got that in us. We all have that destructive shit. We try to keep that bottled up, but society and being in poverty will cause you to push that button. I call it a self-destruct button. Shit my brothers be doing, just dumb shit, from carrying guns, getting in trouble with women. It’s self-destruction. You gotta chill and put that away. Keep that mentality far away.”
U-God knows of what he speaks. For much of the time Enter the Wu Tang was recorded, U-God was in jail for drug possession. When Ol Dirty Bastard raps “Come on baby, baby, come on,” on “Protect Ya Neck,” U-God says it was a reference to his incarceration and how the clan looked forward to his release.
Proximity to crime remains a theme on U-God’s latest record, Keynote Speaker. He is proud of his latest offering. “This is my Illmatic,” he said, referring to the debut record from Nas in 1994, regarded by many critics as another East Coast masterpiece of the era. “Put it in your tape deck, your CD player, or whatever and enjoy the ride.
Unlike the latest offerings from Jay Z and Kanye West, who spend most of their verses rapping about the tribulations that come with stratospheric wealth and fame. “I am trying to identify with a person who does not have a job, you want to put them in the raps, not just to the rich people who care about being a millionaire,” he said.
“I am bringing back street rap. I am bringing back the hood stuff. It is an element out there that is missing, the trials and tribulations and roughness.”
Even though U-God is no longer financially destitute, he says his experience of growing up in poverty provides the material he needs to identify with the underclass. “Money doesn’t make you susceptible from going through things. Your uncle’s an alcoholic, you go through it, it’s right in front of you. I am always going to have something to talk about.”
One thing U-God does not want to talk about is being in his forties. While his Wikipedia page says he was born in 1970, he denies it. When I asked about it, he said, “You don’t know how old I am. I am 35.” U-God was also dismissive of my question about whether a rapper could make it today in hip-hop if he praised the police and encouraged citizens to stand witness to crimes in their neighborhood. “I don’t know about it. Tell them dudes to go into law enforcement,” he said.
By the end of the interview, U-God had warmed up a little. I told him I normally don’t write about music, that my main job was covering the CIA and the military. He laughed. “I want you to tell those dudes, ‘We ain’t on that bullshit, we just trying to raise our families.” I told him I would pass on the message.