“Hey, what does that stand for?” A question I get asked every time I wear my Wu-Tang Clan C.R.E.A.M. sweatshirt. To the untrained ear “Cash Rules Everything Around Me” comes off as some type of materialistic shtick about a human craving for more than one needs. The real meaning is of a reality faced by those on the threshold of poverty that struggle each and every day to make ends meet. The darkness of the lyrics drifts unassumingly through the playful piano sample, courtesy of The Charmels’ “As Long as I’ve Got You,” a title that cleverly applies to C.R.E.A.M. as well as the original track, as we are all at the end of the day slaves to a paycheck.The original vision for the track comes from the mind of RZA, Wu Tang’s illustrious producer, and contains verses from Raekwon and Inspectah Deck as well as a hook performed by Method Man.Method Man:Cash rules everything around me:CREAM, get the moneyDollar, dollar bill y’allOne of the most well-known choruses in the entire genre, these lines have been referenced in over 200 songs in the almost 23 years since the song was released. Artists like Drake, Notorious BIG, Lecrae, Wyclef Jean, Mos Def, and Datsik have drawn inspiration from the words of the Wu-Tang Clan.Verse 1 by Raekwon:I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times sideStaying alive was no jiveHad secondhands, Mom’s bounced on old manSo then we moved to Shaolin landA young youth, yo, rocking the gold tooth, ‘Lo gooseOnly way I be gettin’ the G off was drug lootAnd let’s start it like this son, rolling with this one and that onePulling out Gats for funBut it was just a dream for the teen who was a fiendStarted smoking woolas at 16And running up in gates, and doing hits for high stakesMaking my way on fire escapesNo question I would speed for cracks and weedThe combination made my eyes bleedNo question I would flow off and try to get the dough allSticking up white boys in ball courtsMy life got no better, same damn ‘Lo sweaterTimes is rough and tough like leatherFigured out I went the wrong routeSo I got with a sick-a** clique and went all outCatching keys from across seasRolling in MPV’s every week we made forty G’sYo n***a respect mine or here go the TEC-9Ch-chick-POW, move from the gate now Verse 2 by Inspectah Deck:It’s been twenty-two long hard years of still strugglingSurvival got me bugging, but I’m alive on arrivalI peep at the shape of the streetsAnd stay awake to the ways of the world cause sh*t is deepA man with a dream with plans to make creamWhich failed; I went to jail at the age of fifteenA young buck selling drugs and such who never had muchTrying to get a clutch at what I could notThe court played me short, now I face incarcerationPacin’ – going upstate’s my destinationHandcuffed in the back of a bus, forty of usLife as a shorty shouldn’t be so roughBut as the world turned I learned life is hellLiving in the world no different from a cellEvery day I escape from Jakes giving chase, selling baseSmoking bones in the staircaseThough I don’t know why I chose to smoke sessI guess that’s the time when I’m not depressedBut I’m still depressed and I ask what’s it worth?Ready to give up so I seek the old EarthWho explained working hard may help you maintainTo learn to overcome the heartaches and painWe got stickup kids, corrupt cops, and crack rocks andStray shots, all on the block that stays hotLeave it up to me while I be living proofTo kick the truth to the young Black youthBut shorty’s running wild, smoking sess, drinking beerAnd ain’t trying to hear what I’m kicking in his earNeglected for now, but yo, it gots to be acceptedThat what? That life is hecticInspectah Deck, arrested at age 15 served jail time, this chance for reflection on his choices led him to becoming a better man. Both of these artists broke the mold and transcended what was considered possible for young black men growing up in New York. C.R.E.A.M. means having to do unpleasant things for the almighty dollar to provide the basic needs of survival, to Raekwon and Inspectah Deck it was just part of growing up.Rae refers to Staten Island as Shaolin land in homage to the kung fu film from which the group adopted their name, “Shaolin and Wu-Tang.” The members of the Wu-Tang Clan loved kung fu films and Asian martial arts culture, and this fascination permeated their music, spirituality, and overall life views. In this way overcoming the struggles of their pasts to build a more positive future. C.R.E.A.M. is an idea that in a way, I believe the Wu-Tang Clan overcame despite many across the world continually remaining caught in the cycle of poverty, crime, and hopelessness.
One year after the release of C.R.E.A.M., three Wu-Tang Clan members (RZA, GZA, and Ghostface Killah) visited the 1,500-year-old Shaolin Temple in China. This historic temple is known as the birthplace of kung fu and led to Wu-Tang members training under the tutelage of a martial artist called Shi Yan Ming.
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RZA, in interviews and through other outlets, has expressed the importance of learning the power of meditation, spirituality, discipline, and Chi-Kung as well as many other forms of martial arts. These experiences gave a perspective on the difficult upbringing that the Wu-Tang Clan and countless others have faced over the years and, along with Hip Hop, provided a much-needed outlet for talented men learning to better themselves.