DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So I was getting ready to interview a member of a legendary rap group. It turns out he had beaten me into the studio.
LAMONT HAWKINS: How are you doing out there, radio land? It's a nice day in New York City. Sun is out.
GREENE: Lamont Hawkins, can you hear me?
HAWKINS: Who said my name out there?
GREENE: Hey. This is David Greene. I'm in LA. You're - I'm the one you're stuck talking to.
HAWKINS: I was like, where he came from?
HAWKINS: Hey, Lamont Hawkins. I'm like...
GREENE: (Laughter) Where's that voice coming from?
So that's Lamont Hawkins aka U-God. He was in our studio in New York City. U-God was one of nine original members of the Wu-Tang Clan, a hip-hop group who changed the sound of East Coast rap in the early '90s.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRING DA RUCKUS")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Shaolin shadowboxing and the Wu-Tang sword style.
GREENE: Their kung fu imagery, their hardcore approach to lyrics were really groundbreaking.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DA MYSTERY OF CHESSBOXIN")
HAWKINS: (Rapping) Raw I'm going to give it to you with no trivia. Raw like cocaine straight from Bolivia.
GREENE: That's U-God rhyming there. He and most of the other members of the group were from a part of New York City that's not known for its rap culture - Staten Island. They were from a neighborhood called Park Hill, and their struggles growing up there informed this raw style. U-God writes about this in his new book "Raw: My Journey Into The Wu-Tang." And I asked him to paint a portrait of the housing projects where he spent his childhood.
HAWKINS: It was a fairly subsidized, you know, complex of about probably like 20 buildings seven stories high, you know, some - a couple of them little more taller. But we all congested in one little area, you know, and...
GREENE: Yeah. You wrote about you - I mean, it was just - you would be out on the streets and ready to fight. Like, it sounds like you were just constantly being tested.
HAWKINS: Always, man. After a while, you know, you get tired, man. You know? After a while, you get tired of getting wedgies and getting punched in your chest and getting beat-up and getting slapped. So sooner or later, you fight back.
GREENE: And fight back he did. U-God also got swept up in the drug scene, which was thriving in the '80s. Park Hill was flush with crack cocaine and also guns. U-God remembers spotting crack for the first time when he was out with a friend.
HAWKINS: One day, we was walking the streets. It was raining. And I looked down in the gutter. I saw a little package, a little bundle. And my friend was like, yo. I picked it up. I said, what the hell is this? He was like, oh, that's drugs. I said, word? He said, I can get money for that. He said, I can probably get like 300. Three-hundred? I was like, yeah, all right. I'm thinking he's going to come back like a week later or something. He came back in like 20 minutes.
GREENE: With 300 bucks?
HAWKINS: With 300 bucks.
GREENE: And that kind of quick money was hard to resist. U-God started dealing - a lot. He built up a mini drug empire which landed him in prison. After getting out, he decided to leave the dealing behind and commit to making music. He and his neighborhood crew, who were already popular rapping at house parties and on the streets, became Wu-Tang Clan - nine distinct voices feeding off each other.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROTECT YA NECK")
RZA: Wu-Tang Clan coming at you.
METHOD MAN: Watch your step, kid. Watch your step, kid. Watch your step, kid.
GREENE: There's nothing really like you guys in rap or in music or maybe anywhere.
HAWKINS: Well, all I can say is, man, we are nine brothers that came from the streets for real. You know what I'm saying? And we witty, man. We unpredictable. We got talent. And we got natural game, man. We know what it - we slick with our stuff, man. You know, different type of group, man.
GREENE: But you competed against each other. That was part of what - I mean, which sounded crazy. You'd be up there like competing for the best verse.
HAWKINS: I'm not competing. I'm not - see, you're talking to the wrong person. I'm not - I'm a Scorpio. I don't compete.
HAWKINS: I'm more or less of a person - if I hear say something nice on a beat and it's like dum-dum-dum (ph), he's saying some flyness (ph), I'm like, oh, man. I got to get me some of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A BETTER TOMORROW")
HAWKINS: (Rapping) Yo. Curses from war, innocent blood spills for days. Soothe in godly ways, hands - solemn in praise.
Curses of war, innocent blood spills for days. Soothe in godly ways, hands - solemn in praise.
GREENE: This song - "A Better Tomorrow" - is deeply personal. U-God says he was expressing the pain of living in a place where violence is routine. The innocent blood he's rapping about belong to his 2-year-old son. Someone in Park Hill held the child up to shield himself from gunfire, and the baby was hit.
HAWKINS: When my son got shot, I didn't have no therapy at the time. I was just trying to relieve certain things in my mind and just know - when I talk about somebody getting shot, where I come from, it's like nothing, you know. People get shot where I'm from every day, you know. No disrespect what's going on in Florida. But, you know, that's what happens every day where I'm from.
You know, I feel the pain, but I don't have no therapy for that, you know. When my son got shot at 2 years old, he got shot by stray shots - stray bullets, bullets that wasn't meant for him, you know. And he, you know, lost a kidney, dislocated two of his fingers. And he died twice and came back, you know. And, you know...
GREENE: He's in his 20s now, right?
GREENE: And you write about so wanting to be a good parent.
GREENE: Are you a role model for him?
HAWKINS: I would hope to say, you know, a little bit. I try. You know, my whole situation is, man, you know, I didn't have a father growing up. I had to wing it. I just tell him don't be afraid to call your pops, man, because that's what I'm here for, you know.
GREENE: Because your success, I mean, that's the paradox. And I think you actually put it best when you were talking about the Wu-Tang song "C.R.E.A.M." You said that song depicts the harsh life in Park Hill, and that's what ended up taking you out of that, as you call it, ghetto environment.
HAWKINS: Yes. The very environment that was painted the picture of was wound up being the song that took us up out of there. You know, certain things are just super mystical that you just cannot explain.
GREENE: Like, what do you tell people who say that music shouldn't celebrate drugs and shouldn't celebrate violence?
HAWKINS: Well, we don't celebrate drugs on that song. We talk about the struggles. I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side. Staying alive was no jive. That's basically what he said was just we grew up rough. Mom's - it was a single-parent household, grew up in a crime-infested neighborhood, you know what I'm saying? And we just talked about making our way up out of that.
I don't want to glorify violence, bruh (ph). I talk about it because I know that I'm not the only one going through it. We know we ain't the only ones going through it. We're not special. I mean, we're not special in that aspect. Anybody that comes from the bottom that's not coming from a silver or a privileged life can relate to what we talk about.
GREENE: So did music save your life?
HAWKINS: Oh, yes, it has. All praises. And thank you for even interviewing me. Yes, it has (laughter). Yes, it has, my man. Yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELLS OF WAR")
HAWKINS: (Rapping) Skip the introduction, proceed the lip function. The junction get rushed by some grimy people busting weed.
GREENE: That was the rapper U-God from the Wu-Tang Clan. His new book is called "Raw: My Journey Into The Wu-Tang."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELLS OF WAR")
HAWKINS: (Rapping) Thoroughbred thugs insert the phantasm. Verbal smarts spark the word. Visit my scripture. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.