by Alex Shtaerman
While his reputation as one of the most savage MCs on the planet has remained largely unblemished for well over a decade, it is Raekwon’s exploits in recent years, or perhaps the lack thereof, that, for some, has brought into question the service at The Chef’s five star restaurant of rhymes. However, despite seemingly perpetual delays, fans continue to file in and wait patiently in line for a fresh serving of Rae’s highly anticipated new LP, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II, now slated for a March 2009 release date. In a recent interview with RiotSound.com, Raekwon digs deep to clear up all the rumors and separate fact from fiction when it comes to all issues pertinent to his forthcoming album. With a rare glimpse into the true nature of Hip-Hop’s culinary genius, we go behind the aroma, spices and kitchenware to get a taste of what fans around the world have spent nearly two years salivating over, perhaps with good reason. In today’s world of disposable, drive through Hip-Hop, a slow cooked meal is something that may just be worth waiting for.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Just to give the fans some insight into the Clan and how everything first came about – with yourself personally, how did you initially become involved with MCing and how did you become part of Wu-Tang when the group first came together?
RAEKWON: I’ve been rhyming from the block, you know, and we’ve been doing this for a long time; some of our favorite MCs were right out the neighborhood. We happened to live in one of them neighborhoods where there was a lot of MC contests and battles, breakdacing, graffiti writers, etcetera. So I kinda grew up with all that stuff. When Run DMC and all that starting poppin’ off, that’s when we really took Hip-Hop to another level, as far as in our neighborhood. You’d have brothers out there basically just portraying themselves like the MCs that was out around that time.
I always felt like I knew how to rhyme a little bit. Like I wasn’t crazy crazy with it, but we was having fun, we were freestyle kings. And then later on down the line, Rza and Gza had made albums and they was big influences in the neighborhood as far as being able to take [rapping] that far. And then we all just got involved. The next thing you know Rza came to me and was like “yo, I want you to come get down with us”. And I was like, let’s go baby, let’s do it. So it was a dream overnight that happened.
RIOTSOUND.COM: So was it something that kind of came out of nowhere or was there a process of building up to that point where Rza wanted to put the group together?
RAEKWON: I mean, we always was wanting that to happen but at the same time nobody was really committed the way Rza was. I guess the day he came home with his record and he walked through the block and he was like “this is my record”, that’s when it all took another effect on him. I was like “wow, a record, wow”, you know what I mean. And ever since that I wanted a record [too].
RIOTSOUND.COM: As far as MCing goes, you are known for a very cinematic style where you paint very vivid pictures incorporating specific details that tend to really jump out at the listener. How did you develop that unique style of storytelling that in many ways has come to be your trademark as an MC?
RAEKWON: With me, I’m a big fan of brothers like Slick Rick and Rakim and [Big Daddy] Kane and Biz [Markie] and all them cats. Them was the dudes that I really followed outside of us; us meaning the Clan. These are the dudes that basically influenced me and I just feel like I’m a melting pot of all those elements. I love stories and I love talking about stuff that I can see really taking place as far as what I know and what I’ve been through. And for most part I rhyme according to the production. If the production tells me to write a story [to the music], then I start really vibing out to it on that level. It’s natural, I guess I don’t really take it – I mean, I’m a fan of Hip-Hop but I’m a fan of MCs [first], so I’m also an assassin when it come to that. I always try to keep my pen game up and basically really write from the heart and whatever I may see. It’s like drawing on a piece of paper, I draw to the beat. If something tells me to go one way with it and a story comes out of it, then that’s what it’s gonna be, you know
“back then when we came in, if you had more than two
two MCs on the mic, everybody was looking at you stupid.
So we just showed the world that when it comes down to
it you can’t knock talent, you can’t knock hustle and
you can’t knock brothers who really believe in theyself”
RIOTSOUND.COM: Wu-Tang recently dropped a soundtrack LP for the new documentary film Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan. The soundtrack is stacked with a selection of some of the Clan’s biggest hits. With so many classic songs on one disc, do you feel like this CD embodies an era in Hip-Hop or is it merely the Clan’s best work to date? When it comes to Hip-Hop today, a lot of people talk about the “Wu-Tang era” in the past tense, as if it’s a part of history as opposed to being part of the future as well. In your view, how do you see it?
RAEKWON: I think I look at it as a part of history that we put together. To me, it’s definitely some of the best work ever made from the Clan but also there’s a lot of other things that brothers got that people just ain’t really catching on to. You got something that’s gonna catch on and something that’s not, but at the end of the day that [album] was just for the cause, for the DVD, and it’s something that people gonna vibe on. But for me, [I feel] that there’s so much that brothers still got that people gotta really take heed to.
Our Hip-Hop is different from the commercial Hip-Hop of today. You don’t have a lot of artists drawing today the way they supposed to draw. Everybody is just making bubble gum rap, good commercial music, but at the end of the day we make albums and we stay authentic all day. So, we just come from that side and I think a lot of people recognize our era was “back then” but also [part of it] is they might not see cats too much now. You know how it be sometimes, outta sight outta mind. So that’s just the real.
But for me, I always keep it out there and continue to let our legacy be felt one way or another. You always gonna hear something from Rae. You gonna hear me doing it with the big boys and you gonna hear me doing it with the young G’s, I’m gonna keep it grounded. But I think today’s music is still in its own zone and Wu-Tang is still the Witty Unpredictable. It’s about how bad you really want that raw Hip-Hop in your tape deck or in your CD player. If you really want it, there are some cats you can call, you know what I mean.
RIOTSOUND.COM: One of the tracks featured on The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan soundtrack is “C.R.E.A.M.”, which is among the most celebrated Wu tracks of all time. Can you take us back to when that song was originally recorded? What was the studio session like? How did you write your verse and what were you feeling at that particular time?
RAEKWON: Mmmmmmm… well, number one, “cream” was always a word on the block, before we was even making records that word was existing in our neighborhood. The word “cream” was used [as a synonym] for money, because it was a way in which you wanted to get your money; you wanted your money like you wanted… it’s like putting butter on bread. You got your bread, it may not be a lot, but when you put that little bit of butter on it, it’ll seem like a lot more bread. So that butter, we would call it “cream”. Basically you’d be hearing brothers saying “yo, get that cream” or “get that money!”
So we decided to make a record called “C.R.E.A.M.”, Rza had the beat – me and him had the beat a long time ago, before we actually got on wax. It was one of them classic kind of beats that I always told him “yo, I want to get on that”. So when we finally did the Enter The 36 Chambers album, he pulled the beat out and he knew that was something that I wanted to do and I [ended up] getting on there. But I actually wrote a story to it at first and one of my peoples from the neighborhood was like “alright, I like that story but I need you to tell ‘em how WE get down, tell ‘em where YOU came from”. So it made me leave that day with a big thought in my head, like word, he’s right, maybe I need to write a new verse. And I wrote that verse on the stove man, you know, I grew up on the crime side. Next thing you know I played it for the crew and everybody started liking it. Meth happened to hear it and he came with the [line] “Cash Rules Everything Around Me”…
RIOTSOUND.COM: Did Meth just make that up on the spot, that actual acronym?
RAEKWON: Actually it was – see we always had our influences from people in the neighborhood, cats that would come around or come smoke blunts with us and chill and sit up in the living room with us. Cats would be thinking of things as well, like coming in the room and being like “yo, I broke down the word cream!” So Meth was like “yea, yea, what you got?” And the dude was like “Cash Rules Everything Around Me”. So Meth was like “Mmmmmmm”, and I was like “Mmmmmmm” when I heard it, you know what I mean. But it was definitely a group effort thing and that’s what I’m talking about when you got brothers that really got a lot of [skill] in this game, to come up with something so crazy where “cream” really took off to be one of the big words in the world. I’m talking about if you go to Australia, niggas is saying “cream”.
So it’s definitely one of our monumental records and it’s an honor for me to even just get that love for that kind of record. But I’ma keep it real, sometimes I wanna hear [the love] and sometimes I don’t wanna hear it because there’s so much more that I got to offer, but I respect that people pay homage to a classic song. But as far as right now, I’m on fire baby, I’m fifteen years up, so it’s more to me than that record. I carry more classics but I think people got to also open up more, you know.
RIOTSOUND.COM: It goes without saying that every single person reading this will want to know one thing; what is the status of Cuban Linx II? Will the album be released in the coming months, and also, why has it taken so long? Are there any issues with Aftermath that are holding back the album from coming out?
RAEKWON: Alright, let me clear it all up – we’re going to clear it all up right now. Number one, Cuban Linx is a landmark album in my archives and when I think about doing Cuban Linx II I’m very [particular] when it comes to making my product. Because I want to let everybody know that I understand what you want. You want me to go back to that cocaine rap, drug rap storytelling, vivid imagination, Wu sounding artistical shit – and I’ma give you that. I never rush my projects, especially this album. I took my time on it and actually I was going to do a situation with Aftermath but we didn’t end up coming to the right agreements. But with me and Dre, we so cool with one another that we ain’t really worry about it, we just wanted to work with each other.
My thing was, this is my baby, and at the end of the day I gotta nurture it the right way. If I feel like I’m not getting that proper nurture, I’m going to step somewhere else where I feel that I am. So it was never personal with that situation. It would have been a good thing [to drop the album on Aftermath] but, you know, it is what it is. Dre still came up for air for me and represented, he hit me with two bangers. At the end of the day I still was covered but when it comes to dealing with these record companies nowadays when you a classic cat and been around so long, they kind of hesitate on what they think may be successful for you. So I was dealing with that type of situation on top of really trying to bring the album to the world. And I just kept on having to tell myself like, yo, you could throw it out there but what if it don’t stick the way it’s supposed to? Or do you go in for like a dummy kind of contract? That’s not me.
So when it comes down to it, if people gotta wait, they just gotta respect that I need to get my business right and that I’m going to walk into these labels with dignity and honor for something that the world respected me on. So if I don’t feel like they respecting me like that, then it’s like, ya’ll got to get out my way, I could find somewhere else to go to distribute my music. And that’s what I did. I wound up creating another situation for me to grow as an artist and as a businessman recognizing my value. It took a little time and I know people are saying “yo Chef, you ain’t coming with the shit, you frontin’”. But yo, I ain’t frontin’ my nigga, it’s just I gotta get my money right, you know, this is a business.
I feel like in the end everything happened for the better, because as I thought the way I thought I didn’t put myself in a situation with something that’s not going to allow me to be what I wanna be. I wanna make this album one of the best albums that brothers could say they heard, again. Not even based on the fact of Cuban Linx [is a classic album] but just based on the fact of [creating] another classic album with a new twist to it. I really worked hard on this and I just refuse to go for just any kind of sucker deals, man. So that was the situation with the long wait. But right now we got everything together and my team is as strong as ever, shoutout to Team Chef. Our date now is set for March ’09. Like I said, I never want to rush my projects, I’m not in it for the money, I’m more or less in it for the strategic-ness. I just want to make sure that the fans know that – yo, he got busy on this album, he gave us the formula we was waiting for; he didn’t cross over and try to be something that he not, Chef stayed Chef and he came with a powerful production. And that’s exactly what I did this time. We got a lot of good elements that was added to this project that are really gonna blow ya’ll minds. Like when I start hittin’ ya’ll with these singles and b-sides and all of that, you gonna know that this kid wasn’t playin’, he went in and did what he had to do.
“At that time we was real rebellious, we was coming up
from Staten Island, the long forgotten borough and
we didn’t really care about nobody. But it was never
ever a situation where we didn’t respect Big or we didn’t
look at him as one of the great MCs. We always saluted
him. But the people I think blew it out of proportion”
RIOTSOUND.COM: I interviewed Gza some time ago during a period where he was doing some work with you for Cuban Linx II along with some other members of the Clan and he had mentioned how great the album was coming together and that he was really excited about it and felt it was a very strong body of work. I don’t remember the exact words he used, but that was definitely the crux of it. We’ve also heard that Cuban Linx II will have a more hardcore and street feel to it – but of course there has been a lot of speculation. Personally, how would you characterize the tone and feel of what this record will be?
RAEKWON: What I feel the record is, like them brothas told you, it’s definitely a street record. It’s definitely me back in the hoodies and wearing the Timberlands and it’s 25 degrees outside and we trying to get money; I went back to that style. It wasn’t really a braggadocios world that I was trying to be in on this album. I was more or less just keeping it street. I would definitely say that it’s not [necessarily] a dark album but by the same token while it has color, it has the significance of the street side, the edgy hardcore. I wanted to go back to the hardcore-ness and rhyming in the big park type shit, that was my attitude.
RIOTSOUND.COM: As far as the new documentary goes, Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan – it was directed by Gerald K. Barclay, one of the Clan’s original video directors. What do you think people will enjoy most about the film when they see it?
RAEKWON: I think when people catch the film, they gonna look at it and say “these dudes really believed in what they believed in”. And it’s just so crazy because back then when we came in, if you had more than two MCs on the mic, everybody was looking at you stupid. So we just showed the world that when it comes down to it you can’t knock talent, you can’t knock hustle and you can’t knock brothers who really believe in theyself. And I think that’s what really stood out about the film to me; people gonna say “you know, them cats came a long way”. And we still here fifteen years later gettin’ money, traveling the world, considered the Black Beatles. So I really look at that and I appreciate that and I think it’s important for people to really see the legacy of things we’ve been through. And [the story in the film] is told by someone from the neighborhood who we knew. He had a camera, he had a vision, he was there for us and then he kept a little something on the side to really let everybody know like, I’ma show these dudes from this angle. And he did it and it’s a good piece of work.
RIOTSOUND.COM: If we go back to the period right after 8 Diagrams was released, there was definitely some dysfunction going on within the group. Several members including yourself were speaking their minds on various issues and there was some back and forth going on. As we speak now, would you say the majority of those issues have been resolved or are there still things that are lingering?
RAEKWON: [laughing]… there’s always lingering, you always can’t never get rid of the lingering bullshit… but for the most part it’s feelings and it’s grown men having discussions about real situations and sometimes we aren’t always going to agree with each other. One thing about Wu-Tang is we not yes men dudes. If we feel like something ain’t right we gonna speak on it. If it’s right then it’s right but at that time we wasn’t feeling comfortable. Rza kinda left us feeling like he wasn’t really caring about how we feel as a crew. And that was a big thing back then, I was emotional about that. But I wasn’t emotional like I’ma go around and tear him apart, that’s not my thing. My thing was that I also got a classic coming and I’m not going to sacrifice my name and my brand because you want to go make some cinematic opera type of album. Like I said, it wasn’t weak but it just wasn’t what we wanted at that time. Brothers wanted more Hip-Hop, more energy and more of certain things that that album ain’t have, and we spoke on it.
And he was just acting like “well, I’m the Rza, I know what I’m doing”. So that kinda like burnt us a little bit. But other than that, we always going to go through it, till the day we return to the essence, man. We always going to be arguing, we always going to have disagreements but at the end of the day it’s still love because we know where we came from. But at the same time we don’t sugarcoat what’s going on as far as when it comes to these kinds of situations. We love our fans and we always want to let our fans know that we respect their word and we respect their criticism. But [with that situation] it’s like Rza was being real ignorant with his way of thinking. And sometimes that ain’t cool, there ain’t no I’s in team. And he know that, but at that time he wasn’t trying to hear nobody. So that’s what it was back then, but nobody is walking around with [those feelings] right now. I mean, it is what it is. For me, I ain’t really got time to be beefing. These are my brothers, we always gonna go through it, so it’s nothing new under the sun.
RIOTSOUND.COM: When Only Built 4 Cuban Linx first came out it brought about some tension between Wu-Tang and the Bad Boy camp due to comments Ghost made on the album that were directed towards Biggie. People were saying that you were dissin’ Big and there was definitely a bit of controversy surrounding all that. However, in 2006, you and Ghost did the song “Three Bricks” that posthumously also featured Biggie. Can you give us some insight into the situation and what really took place beyond the rumors and speculation?
RAEKWON: Well, number one, we never really had a big beef with Biggie. God bless the dead, I don’t really even like talking about that because that brother is not here to really see what it is and how we could explain it. But, you know, back then we was real competitive, we didn’t care about nobody if you wasn’t Wu-Tang and it wasn’t nothing personal. It’s like boxing; you got dudes that are like “I don’t like that cat, I want to knock that cat out” or whatever, whatever… and that was our energy back then. But we did have an opportunity to talk to Big out in L.A. and let him know like, that ain’t about nothing, it’s just Hip-Hop, it’s a sport or whatever.
At that time we was real rebellious, we was coming up from Staten Island, the long forgotten borough and we didn’t really care about nobody. But it was never ever a situation where we didn’t respect Big or we didn’t look at him as one of the great MCs. We always saluted him. But the people I think blew it out of proportion… guys from his crew, guys from our crew made it seem more like a diss where really Ghost was just saying whatever he said outta instinct. There wasn’t like nothing ever in the script where we was gonna start trying to air out B.I.G. It wasn’t like that. That was something that Ghost said at the period of time he said it, just doing a skit. And I guess that being it was on my record – then Rae dissed [Biggie] too. And like I said, it was all in friendly competition, but by the same token we on different sides of the table from one another. So, you know, it is what it is.
But I actually got a chance to kick it with Big and [all that talk of beef], it wasn’t about nothing, you know what I mean. Later on down the line, a couple of years passed after the brother perished, I got a call from Puff and his crew and they was like “yo, we want you to get on this Biggie record”. And I was like “of course!” Of course I’ma pay respect to that man – and we did the song called “Three Bricks”. I knew it was a remake of some of his stuff that he previously did, so I decided to come in and do a story and write my side of the story on some Scarface shit, like we were all together getting money and we were taking orders from B.I.G.
So we put it together, I did my thing, Ghost did his thing; and it kinda made me feel good because I know he’s looking down watching us and I know he saying “wow, Chef and them, they really got love for me”, you know what I mean. And its always been like that. If Ghost woulda said any other person’s name, if that’s what it was at the time then that’s what it was. But everything is just about sportsmanship and being able to be men when it’s all said and done. The baby picture [reference], Ghost did aim that at B.I.G. and B.I.G. knew that. But at the end of the day it wasn’t nothing crazy to throw over the wall. We got respect for Biggie, he from the town, he from New York. So anybody from New York that I feel worked as hard as us and such as him, it’s like we them dudes. So he always gonna be that dude to me, regardless.
For more news and info on Rae stay tuned to www.MySpace/com/Raekwon