MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
STARTED OFF ON THE ISLAND
Growing up as hard, as rough, as wild, as crazy as we in Wu-Tang did, death was always a part of my life.
I remember the first time I saw somebody die. I was only about four or five years old. It was just me and my mother in the apartment. “Lovin’ You” by Minnie Riperton was playing on a radio in the street. It seemed like whenever shit was going down, there was always music playing along with it.
Something was always happening in the Park Hill projects. I remember a commotion outside my window—I could barely reach the windowsill to look out to the street. A crowd was forming, making the uproar that drew my mother and me outside to see what was going on. By the time we arrived, the gathering had gotten bigger, so she put me up on her shoulders. I looked around the courtyard and up the street. All my neighbors, as well as half of 260 Park Hill Terrace, were outside.
Soon, the cops, firemen, and an ambulance showed up. A woman was standing on the roof of the project next door—280 Park Hill—threatening to jump. She was pretty young, talking to herself and yelling down at everyone as the cops tried to talk her down off the ledge.
I remember staring up at her till my neck was stiff. I didn’t understand what was going on or what was about to happen. At first, it seemed like she was going to be okay. She looked like she didn’t really want to kill herself, but something still kept her from coming down off the ledge. I can still see her face—tormented, twisted in despair, her wide eyes staring down at the crowd seven stories below.
Then, without a word or warning that she’d had enough of making a spectacle, she jumped—or slipped and fell, I never knew which.
She flailed her arms for a second, then fell so fast I almost couldn’t see her. She hit the fence first, then landed on the steps at the side entrance. Blood flew, people screamed, and the cops and paramedics ran up to the bleeding soon-to-be corpse. Everybody there, my mother and me included, just stood and stared at the body in shock and disbelief while they got her ready to be carted off.
I was a toddler, and already I’d seen death up close. The sound of her hitting the concrete steps would resonate with me forever. At the time, I couldn’t understand what could make someone end their own life. As a five-year-old, you don’t always recognize what you see, but I always felt like that was the moment that made me self-aware. It made me think of life and death for the first time. I was young as hell, but it made an impact on me.
* * *
I come from a long line of project babies. It seems like poor people always start from the bottom. Either you make it out of the projects or you stay there, sometimes for generations. I still know people that have been there for their entire lives. Never advanced, never went nowhere else, never explored the rest of the world outside their neighborhood. I guess they’re content with that sort of life, but I knew early on it wasn’t for me.
Only the pure of heart make it out of the ghetto. What that means to me is that when you really believe in what or who you are, you stay focused on yourself, and you don’t hurt anyone while trying to get out. You don’t connive, you don’t do any ratchetness to get ahead, and you don’t backstab someone else to get out.
You get out with determination, willpower, and persistence in pursuing what you believe in. If you really believe you can become a doctor, and you study to become a doctor, that’s pure of heart.
Now, I became a songwriter, even though I had drugs and all that stuff in my world, and people was dyin’, and I might have sold poison and all that, but underneath all that drama, I was still pure of heart. I never sold to a pregnant woman. I helped old ladies down the stairs. I still managed to keep my personal morals in an unrighteous setting. Even though I was doing wrong to get by, there were still lines I would not cross.
I know people that went through some hard shit, they were thieves or murderers, and then they changed their life around, got a job, had a family, and they got their shit together. Now, just because you killed someone, you might think you’re done, man, you’re gonna be fucked for the rest of your life. Not necessarily. Even if a person accidentally hurts somebody or they did a wrong deed, they can always correct their deeds by choosing to act on their pureness of heart. In other words, you choose a right path. You choose righteousness over negativity.
That’s what I did.
* * *
My mother’s from Brownsville, Brooklyn. She was raised in the same project building as Raekwon’s mother, at 1543 East New York Avenue, in Howard Houses.
The Brownsville projects were the wildest, period. Ask anybody from New York City what part of Brooklyn is the roughest, they’re gonna say Brownsville.
Some projects you could walk through. Some you couldn’t. At its worst, you couldn’t walk through Brownsville. You couldn’t walk through Fort Greene or Pink Houses either. The tension and violence was always in the air in those places. Guaranteed there was gonna be fights topped off with a few people getting cut or stabbed, and even back then there might have been a shooting or two. Someone would probably end up dead by the end of the ruckus. That’s why I don’t like going back to my old projects nowadays; I feel like the spirits of my old comrades are calling to me. They’re still haunting the projects they hustled at and got killed in.
When I was a kid, there was always someone looking to rob your sneakers, your coat, anything they could get their hands on. They would steal your fucking sneakers right off your feet. Back then, if you wore gold chains and shit, you better know how to shoot or how to fight. And the cops wouldn’t really do shit to prevent a crime or deal with it after the fact. They just didn’t care.
And when they actually did get involved, a lotta time it turned out worse for us. During the early seventies, law enforcement had no regard for life. My grandmother told me on more than one occasion that the cops in the Seventy-third Precinct in Brownsville were killing people in the neighborhood. She and a lot of her friends and family claimed that people would get escorted in, handcuffed and bleeding, and they would never be seen again. Guess the cops put them under the jail—literally. That’s how treacherous it was in Brownsville.
Just getting in and out of the neighborhood was an adventure. My mother got her pocketbook snatched four or five times right in front of me. She had to call the police to escort us from the train station to my grandmother’s building on several occasions because a group of kids were waiting on the corner to snatch the few dollars she had.
Each project or street had at least one gang or crew. You couldn’t walk from one block to the next if you didn’t know the right people. Thugs would come right off the stoop and get in your face. “Who you coming here to see? Why you think it’s okay for you to walk through my block if I don’t know you?”
The local gang, dressed in Kangols, Pumas, and Adidas tracksuits, hung around the bus stop near the Chinese restaurant on Pitkin Avenue. At the time, Pitkin Avenue was the shopping area in Brownsville. It was full of clothing stores, had OTB (Off-Track Betting), and dudes would be retailing stuff on the corner. There was also a slaughterhouse where they used to slaughter chickens. My grandmother would take me over there, and there would be chickens in a cage, and she’d get fresh chicken cut from the butcher.
We were always leery of these dudes, just like we were any time we went anywhere in the projects. I remember seeing them chillin’ one time as some guy came riding toward them on a ten-speed. One of the gangsters came out of nowhere and whacked him over the head with a pipe, then took the bike and went and sat down on the bench. We just kept walking like we didn’t see anything. No one else did anything or reacted, even though the dude who got hit was lying there twitching and bleeding.
My craziest Brownsville memory, though, involves Mike Tyson, who came from Brownsville. This was back in the seventies, before he was the world champion or had even started boxing. I was about eight years old, holding my mother’s hand, walking down Pitkin Avenue by the OTB, when this dude came by and snatched my mother’s earrings right off her earlobes. Left her with bloody ears and everything and just took off.
I was too young to remember exactly what he looked like at the time, but years later, when Tyson started getting famous, my mother saw him on TV and swore, “That’s the guy who snatched my earrings!” It sounds crazy, and of course I don’t have any proof, but that didn’t stop me from fantasizing as a kid that a slew of Brooklynites and even some Manhattanites could say the same thing about the World Champ.
* * *
I don’t know who my father is or where he comes from; I wish I could find out more about him. A big part of why I don’t know much about him is because of how I was conceived.
My mother probably wouldn’t want me to bring this up, because she hates me talking about it, but I was a product of rape. I was a rape baby. She told me my father had tricked her into believing he was a photographer and wanted her to model for him. He told her she was a natural beauty and all this other fly shit. He lured her to a spot and took advantage of her. She never pressed charges and never even reported it.
The only person who could have told me more about him was my mother’s friend Carol. Carol used to be pretty good-looking back in her Brooklyn days. She liked to party and used to hang around with my father and the dudes he ran with. She was on drugs and eventually contracted HIV. She had a brain aneurysm and is currently in a mental ward in Brooklyn. She doesn’t remember a goddamn thing now. Needless to say, she’s not much help to me as far as learning about my dad.
When I was around ten years old, I remember asking about my father a lot, but Moms wouldn’t tell me anything. She didn’t tell me about him until I was a grown man. I’d been asking off and on for years, though. My dad was the missing piece of my whole life.
“Who’s my dad though, Ma? Who is my dad?”
“God is your father!” she would always reply.
Finally, when I was twenty-one, she got into some of the details. She also explained why she kept me. She told me that one night, God came to her in a dream and told her not to abort this child, that I was gonna be a great man someday, so she kept me. That dream solidified her spirituality, her connection with God. My moms is real spiritual, I mean like super spiritual, so she always points out how it’s funny that my name turned out to be U-God. “And now look at you,” she told me once, as if confirming that the dream had been right.
She always emphasized that she never regretted having me, even during the tough times we went through. The way I see it, you’ve got to be a compassionate individual to love a child conceived the way I was.
When she told me, I was shocked. The average person, even if born accidentally, is still often born out of love, and to know I’d been brought into the world like that really rocked me. The whole situation seemed like a fluke accident—after all, my mother wasn’t looking to get pregnant at the time, and certainly not by no fly-by-night photographer/rapist. But I had to accept that that was how I’d been born and that it wasn’t going to stop me from being great.
Yet make no mistake, I’m the product of both my parents. I have the side that comes from my mother, like her good heart, but I also got my father’s hustle. My father’s side—I know my mother doesn’t have it—must be where I get my internal drive from. Nobody else in my family has it, so it had to come from my father.
To this day, I have no idea where my pops is at. Even if I wanted to find him, I have no idea where to start looking. Those little bits Moms told me when I was older are all I really know about him. I want to know who he is, what else we have in common. Even though he tricked my mother, I was still his son. What features did I get from him? What habits? What disorders? Just a whole lot of questions I’ll never know the answers to.
* * *
For the first twelve years of my life, it was just me and my mom. We were always close. She raised me from a boy into the respectable man I am now, and did it on her own during the Ed Koch era, some of the wildest times New York City has ever seen.
The 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s were probably the city’s most violent times. Even before crack hit, NYC was teetering on bankruptcy. A lot of social programs got slashed, if not cut from the city’s budget altogether.
All five boroughs had violent neighborhoods. Muggings, robberies, rape, assaults, and murders were all too common. You couldn’t ride the train too late. Before crack, heroin was flowing, coke was flowing. Pimps, prostitutes, corrupt cops; all the New York City clichés were present and thriving.
Growing up, you always had to be aware of your surroundings. In the ghetto, in the projects, in those types of high-risk, high-violence parts of town, you always have to be aware, ’cause things could jump off at any moment. Like when I’m in the hood, I’m around these crazy motherfuckers. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m down with these motherfuckers, but it means I have to be aware what they’re doin’, ’cause if they’re fuckin’ around and I’m standing nearby, next thing you know my motherfucking head might get blown off by some motherfucker trying to get someone he got beef with.
So you grew up watching shit. You always had to be aware. You had the bullies to watch out for. You always had to be on point. And to this day it’s like that for a black man living in a poverty-stricken area. It ain’t the fact that you’re involved in shit—’cause often you ain’t doin’ anything—it’s that you’re so confined and so closed off in an urban box, that you have to be aware of everyone and everything around you at all times.
What a lot of people really don’t understand is how growing up like that changes a person for the rest of their life. I’m changed right now. It fucked me up, and I’m never going to be the same. I don’t have any close friends. I can’t have friends from Park Hill no more. I can’t deal with those dudes. I can’t deal with certain shit on the streets. I can’t be around certain people. Why? Because now I’m slashed. I’m always mentally aware of certain situations that I wasn’t aware of before. So I had to cut a lot of that stuff out of my life.
* * *
Eventually we left Brooklyn for Staten Island, and ended up in Park Hill.
In the late 1970s, welfare housing on the Island was going for a good rate. It was a chance for my mother and Raekwon’s mother to move out of Brownsville, and at first Park Hill was nice. When we got there, it was a working-class neighborhood and still a community. There were buzzers on the lobby doors. There was grass behind the buildings. The school was right down the block.
I mean, I still grew up in the notorious Park Hill projects. But back when we first arrived, Park Hill and most of Clifton and even nearby Stapleton had all just undergone urban renewal. It was a predominantly black population, and the neighborhood still looked newish, so things didn’t seem so rough.
Park Hill is privately owned, but federally subsidized. That’s a bad combination, because the federal government guarantees the owners that the residents’ rent will be paid. That sounds good, but not if the rent still gets paid whether repairs are made and upkeep maintained or not.
Still, at first, it wasn’t too bad. It was still a housing complex and rugged, but you had a fifty-fifty chance of walking through or near it and not getting fucked with by the locals. But then things started getting broken, and they wouldn’t get fixed for months, and sometimes not at all. As a result of the owners’ neglect, Park Hill began getting worse and worse.
* * *
But I didn’t see all that at the time. In a lot of ways, I had experiences like a lot of regular American kids. And there was a lot that was different, too.
I was a latchkey kid from the age of six or seven, which meant I was home alone, with no parental supervision, every day. Mom gave me the apartment key so I could let myself in after school, and “YOU DON’T ANSWER THE DOOR OR THE PHONE FOR ANYBODY!”
I’d have a babysitter when my mother could afford it. But there were slim pickings for good babysitters, and I went through a lot of them.
I remember one of my babysitters. She was a good person who kept a clean house and cared for me. She would give me my lunch and make sure I did my homework. She had two daughters, and all three of them would babysit me at her apartment. But she was also a straight-up heroin addict.
One day I walked into the living room at their place, and saw her shooting heroin right on the couch. Her hands were all swollen with needle holes, but at the time I didn’t know what they were from. I can still see them now. Her boyfriend and a couple other folks I’d never seen before were there, too, all shooting that shit up.
You have to understand that my mother had no idea this was going on. She was busy working hard and going to school, trying to better our situation. So I just kept shit like that to myself.
And although that babysitter was a functioning drug addict, she was good to me. When I grew up, I never looked down on her. Plus, I didn’t even know what they were sticking in their arms at the time anyway. Years later, I realized they were just hard-core heroin addicts. And when I say “hard-core,” I mean hard-core.
I had another babysitter who was a little freaky. While she was babysitting me, she’d be playing with my penis. I never spoke up about it to anyone. I was too young to really know what was going on, but instinctually I knew she shouldn’t be doing it. Regardless, I liked it—it was the first awakening of my sexuality. And I liked her, so I’ll never reveal her name.
* * *
Growing up how we did, you’d think it was all hard times. We were too young to know we were “disadvantaged.” You sort of have a feeling something’s not right, but you’re a kid, so you adapt and learn how to have your fun anyway. And there were a lot of good times and funny memories to balance out the hard-core ones.
Like Big Titty Rose. Big Titty Rose had the first pair of titties I ever saw.
We’d gone up to my friend’s house to get some Kool-Aid, and there she was lying on the couch, butt-ass naked. She musta weighed about three hundred pounds. It was summertime and hot, so I guess she wasn’t trying to put any clothes on. I was so intimidated by these big-ass titties. She didn’t try to cover up or anything. She just lay there, changing the channel, with them big things hangin’ out. I was young, maybe around six or seven, so they looked even more huge. I was just in awe, I remember. They didn’t call her Big Titty Rose for no reason.
I might’ve been young, but there were still some girls that got me going. I watched a lot of TV as a kid, and I had a huge crush on Kim Fields’s character, Tootie, from The Facts of Life. I noticed that the credits listed Tandem Production Company. So one day, I called Information to get the number of the company so I could speak to her directly. Even though I didn’t speak to Tootie, I got an autographed picture of Kim on roller skates. She had braces on. I was in love with that girl right there. I showed my little friends and they were like, “Get outta here! How’d you get that?”
Clearly, I was very determined from a very young age. When I wanted something, I was gonna do whatever I had to do to get it.
* * *
When we weren’t watching TV or running up and down the streets, my friends and I mostly hung out in the back of the projects. Behind our building were a few acres of undeveloped land with grass and trees and two ponds. One pond was medium-sized and the other was real big.
On one side of the big pond were the whites, and on the other side were the blacks. If you tried to go to the other side, you’d get run out. This mob of white boys had motorbikes, and they tried to chase us back to the black side. They used to spray-paint KKK and all types of shit on the rocks to try and scare us off.
We mostly just stayed on our side of the pond. We’d be back there playing Huckleberry Finn and all types of shit. We used to catch catfish there. We’d make bike trails, dig for worms and salamanders. We’d hang rope from a tree and swing on it. We had our imagination and improvised back then. There was no PlayStation or Internet. Some of my friends didn’t even have a TV or a phone in their apartment. No air-conditioning in the summer, so you might as well be outside.
We used to make rafts out of tires and old mattresses, and go out in the middle of the pond with the fucking things. We used to play in this huge Dumpster in the back of the building. It was grimy, but it was ours. There were lots of things in it—Dumpster diving was a gold mine for kids back then. You had your sticks. You had your chalk. You had your bike ramps. All types of shit.
We’d build bikes from the scraps we’d find: you’d find a wheel over here, a pedal over there, handlebars somewhere else. Once you got all the pieces together, you had to get a chain. We used to pop the chain and take the little links off with a wrench so it fit whatever bike we were working on. Sometimes we’d pull the back tire back as far as it could go and still stay on, and make the chain fit that way. The seat wouldn’t match, the handlebars wouldn’t match, but you were out!
We had so much fun. I remember Jack the wino in the staircase, smelling like Night Train, and Sassy, the gospel lady who lived downstairs and used to yell at us out the window, calling us little devils and shit.
Even the pack of wild dogs roaming the neighborhoods couldn’t stop us from playing outside. Dudes would shoot dogs and leave their carcasses behind our building all the time. This was the late 1970s, and there was no real ASPCA, at least not in my hood. Sometimes the dogs would come after us while we were riding our bikes. But the weirdest shit was when two dogs got stuck together fucking on the street. Stuck together from butt cheek to butt cheek, and you’d have to throw a rock to separate them. Once they separated, one dog running one way and the second dog running the other way, the dog that had been doing the fucking, his dick would be bloodred. Strangest shit I ever saw in my life.
* * *
I didn’t stay on the Island every summer, either. Back then, we all had the Fresh Air Fund. It was part of growing up in New York City back in the day. Even Mike Tyson has mentioned the Fresh Air Fund.
There were two types of programs in the Fresh Air Fund. One was where you stayed with a family up in the mountains, and another was where you stayed in a bunch of bungalows, more like a summer camp. I went to the camp, up north in the mountains, for about two weeks. I didn’t want to go at first, crying and all, didn’t want to leave my peoples. But it was good to get off the streets, and when it came time to leave the camp, I didn’t even want to go home, I didn’t want to leave the peoples I knew there.
I was an overly aggressive kid and already fighting, so it kind of felt like being sent away to jail, even though it wasn’t anything like jail. I mean, you had four meals a day, you had a counselor watching over you, you had to make your bed every day, and there were inspections where you could win a prize for having the cleanest bunk. A lot of things that helped make us ready for the world, instilling some order into us.
But the craziest thing about camp is that’s where I first found out about fame. There I was, hanging with every type of kid from all five boroughs, about three hundred of us in this one camp area, and I was one of the most famous kids up there. The whole camp knew me. I started young with that fame shit. I wanted to be the man. At camp they called me Yoda, because I had big ears back then, and everybody didn’t call you by your name, they nicknamed you based on what you looked like.
I was one of the kids who my counselor looked on to keep the rest of the kids in check. He had a right-hand man—me—who was supposed to make sure that the kids wouldn’t act up, and if they did act up, they’d get punched in the face. Every time I went to camp, I was regulating. I knew I had to set my claim when I arrived, so boom, that was it.
Me and another kid named Monster, who grew up in Brooklyn, we hung out a lot. The counselors liked both of us because we kept the other kids in check. I was the right-hand man, and Monster was the left-hand man.
One time Monster and I were taking a shower, and you only have a certain amount of time before the next bunk comes in. But we were taking our time, just sitting there talking and shit, and we ended up taking a little bit too long, and the older kids came in. We still had soap on us. We were still sudsy.
Those older kids said, “Yo, you shorties gotta bounce so we can get in the showers.”
Now, Monster and me were already oily together; each of us had fought enough other kids to immediately overcome any hesitation to strike first and strike hard. I would punch your face in at the drop of a dime.
What I mean by oily is like, when you’re about to be aggressive on someone, that first punch is like an icebreaker. If you haven’t been in a fight for a long time, you might be hesitant to punch somebody in the face simply because you haven’t done it in a while. After you hit three people in the face, it starts to become second nature. By the time you hit the fifth or sixth person in the face, it becomes a reflex.
So by this time, we were already geared up for violence—we had absolutely no problem punching any kids who got out of line in the face.
We just looked at these older kids like, “You know who the fuck you talkin’ to?” Me and him end up going toe-to-toe with these motherfuckers in the showers, with our slippers on, covered in soap, just fucking these older kids up. By the time the counselors came in, all of us were all just covered in soap, and they’re like, “Yo, what’s goin’ on in here?” And the other kids were like, “Hey, we’re just trying to use the showers, just tryin’ to get cleaned up in here.”
Looking back on it now, I have to wonder what I was thinking back then. I was such a little, little man, I was insane. I was crazy.
So we got into a little rumble with those older kids, but after that, they respected us, no doubt. Whenever the whole camp would come together, they’d point to us and say, “There’s those two little dudes. Don’t fuck with those two, they’ll fuck you up.”
That was when I first found out that I liked that notoriety shit, I liked being known like that. We had heart. I had little to no parental guidance at the time, but I was still holding it down. It was around this time that I also realized I was able to stand up on my own, even as a little kid.
And that hasn’t changed.
Copyright © 2018 by Lamont “U-God” Hawkins