Raekwon: Striving for Perfection
Raekwon the Chef is on his press grind. His schedule is ridiculous, but he seems relaxed. Quite the professional, he gives a firm handshake and responds to questions by reeling off neatly quotable soundbites. “London always love hip-hop man, y’all hip-hop for real out here. Word. But we were just saying, we don’t hear enough of it on the radio out here.” I try and offer an explanation, but Raekwon has his own theory. “Maybe it’s because they don’t want it to stir up the minds of the people, you know what I’m saying?”
Even after over 20 years in the industry, Raekwon seems excited and hungry, showing none of the fatigue that’s often expected from veteran rappers still doing the rounds in Europe’s hip-hop nostalgia industry. “I’m at my best man. I’m only getting more vintage and expensive,” he argues. “That’s why I called my album Fly International Luxurious Art. If you want me, you gotta be ready to taste the best.”
Fly International Luxurious Art, which was released in late April, is Raekwon’s sixth solo album. Since releasing Only Built For Cuban Linx… Pt.2 – the impressive sequel to his seminal ’94 debut – in 2009, Raekwon’s career has been rejuvenated (“That kind of brought my mojo back,” he nods). On his previous album, 2011’s Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang, Raekwon reached out to the hardcore Wu fans, lyrically building dark criminal narratives with fragmented, cinematic details while borrowing RZA’s aesthetic of soul samples fused with oriental melody. It seems like the aim of F.I.L.A., on the other hand, is to juggle Raekwon’s veteran status with a more contemporary update of his personal brand. While the likes of Rick Ross, French Montana, A$AP Rocky, and – yes – 2 Chainz appear as guests, Rae has wisely resisted any attempts of club-friendly trap, instead sticking to beats that, for the most part, complement his flow.
“Coming up in the 90s, and then seeing how the music changed from how [it was when] we was coming up … I had to be able to do both. I think that, as artists, we have to adapt with what’s going on today, but not lose who we are,” Raekwon argues. “I have to give everybody something. And that’s what I do, that’s why I’m the chef. Because the chef has to make sure he has multiple dishes, and that he’s able to serve,” he says, making hand gestures as if sprinkling herbs into pots and pans.
And this year, Raekwon has a lot on his plate. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… reaches its 20th anniversary in August, and a documentary entitled The Purple Tape Files (in reference to the coloured cassette it was initially released on) is currently in production. The documentary, which Raekwon describes as “organic, up close and personal” is a crowd-funded project that offers amateur rappers willing to donate $200 the chance to have their mixtape reviewed by Raekwon and Ghostface Killah – who features on 15 of Cuban Linx’s 18 tracks and is generally considered to be the album’s co-star. The film was initially announced at the Sundance festival in Utah earlier this year. “We showed a seven minute trailer. Blew everybody’s head off. It was amazing to everybody. So that felt good to me,” Rae claims with unflinching confidence.
With dialogue excerpts sampled from Scarface, Johnny Woo’s crime movie The Killer and the Richard Prior-starring blaxploitation film The Mack, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… saw Raekwon and the rest of the Clan adopt Mafioso pseudonyms and engage in aspirational criminal fantasies. But the Wu-Tang Clan belong to a generation who felt the brunt of Reaganomics, which coincided with a crack cocaine epidemic that wrecked communities while tempting the disenfranchised youth with a short-term escape from poverty. And so while it presents itself partly as a work of fiction, much of the inspiration behind Cuban Linx is, of course, is rooted in reality.
“It was the struggle man, it was us coming up in the inner-city slums and not really knowing nothing else but that,” Rae reflects. “Going to the studio and then coming back and seeing what we seeing: running from po-lice, seeing friends go to jail – the life is just crazy man. It was scary, but it was a reality for us. And yeah, Cuban Linx, the style of it reflects on that hustling mentality that we had as kids, wanting to escape the ghetto and be rich, to come into a better way of living.”
While producing GZA’s debut Liquid Swords during the same era, RZA had envisioned listeners shivering in their cars on a windy winter night while creating the album’s ice-cold, eerie beats. Cuban Linx, on the other hand, was always intended to be a summer record despite its heavy lyrical content. Sonically, RZA’s mission was a success. The beats and samples on Cuban Linx sound warped with heat, making it easy to imagine Rae and Ghost wiping sweat from their brow as they’re climbing a graffiti-smothered stairwell or scheming on a sun-beaten street corner.
And testament to the tight organisation of the 93-97 period known as RZA’s “Five Year Plan”, Cuban Linx dropped while the sun was still out. So, as a 25-year-old rapper with a game-changing solo album out on the streets, how was New York’s summer of 1995 for Raekwon? “There was a lot of drugs, a lot of kids moving around the neighbourhood to go party,” he remembers fondly. “The hip-hop was dope back then. We would travel on a boat, 50 deep, to the city to come to these shows, really seeing hip-hop at its finest. You got guys coming out on the street, blasting their music, driving by in something nice with windows down – you can hear this shit five blocks away. Girls was coming out, switching they clothes up and looking sexy. They say ‘the roaring 20s’, for us it was like the roaring 90s.”
"Wu-Tang stayed competitive all the time. If your shit was weak, they would tell you"
While Wu-Tang’s enormous collective discography includes many great records released since 1997, it’s generally believed that those early albums possess a certain magic, perhaps generated by the group’s close proximity to each other at the time. Tension can be the catalyst for the Clan’s creative chemistry, and legend has it that during the sessions in RZA’s low-budget, claustrophobic basement studio in Staten Island, the emcees would fiercely battle each other for a chance to get on a beat. “It stayed competitive all the time man, in a good way,” Rae confirms. “Because if your shit was weak, they’d tell you. We protected the integrity of each other’s brand.” When he reflects on the early collective charisma of the Clan, he becomes visibly excited. “You had GZA with the witty, intelligent one-liners. Method Man with the flow – we felt like his flow was crazy, Meth could rhyme fast or slow. Ghost with the emotions attached to his music, he’s so emotional! With myself, I’m painting pictures of the scenes of the crimes, we all had a gift! U-God with that banging voice! Inspectah Deck comin’ with that intro to every record, he knows how to hit it, it’s like if he was a sniper,” he exclaims, holding up an imaginary rifle with his hands. “It’s like ‘hit it from fuckin’ 300 yards away’, Deck could hit it! Remember Deck is the one who set if off with Protect Ya Neck, and that changed the fucking game for us.
“And you know, RZA was a master man, at that time. He never really went outside. Like even when we was doing a lot of running around, RZA wasn’t outside like that. He stayed locked in his room, hair all out, looking like he just woke up. This guy was focused on his beats. He was younger, and he had the energy … But I guess he had something to prove at that time.”
Internal beef is nothing new for the Wu-Tang Clan – they’ve been falling out with each other publicly since the late 90s. But during the build up to the group’s 2014 album A Better Tomorrow, Raekwon and RZA had a dispute that echoed the controversy surrounding the group’s 2007 album 8 Diagrams, and this time their relationship appeared to be particularly sour. The album was originally intended to be released in 2013 to mark the Clan’s 20th anniversary. But despite a triumphant run of tour dates, the group struggled to muster up the same enthusiasm for the studio, and RZA blamed Raekwon’s alleged lack of cooperation and absence from the sessions for the album’s delay. In April 2014, Rae angrily expressed his dissatisfaction with RZA’s production and team management in an interview with Rolling Stone, effectively declaring himself on strike from the group. Shortly before RZA called a deadline for the record, a “truce” was called, and Raekwon recorded several verses for the album at the 11th hour.
But Raekwon had been right. A Better Tomorrow wasn’t a complete disaster – this is the Wu-Tang Clan after all, these individuals couldn’t make a dull record if they tried – but a lack of inspiration was audible, and too many of the album’s better verses were eclipsed by cheesy choruses performed by little-known singers. Since its release, Raekwon has distanced himself from A Better Tomorrow, and RZA likened the project to bearing a child “with one arm”.
No matter how bitter their feud might appear in the press, Raekwon insists that there’s a unity between himself and RZA that’s fundamentally unbreakable. “When we have beef with each other, it’s never physical beef or something that’s long-lasting,” he assures me. “Like he didn’t put his hands on me, he didn’t fuck my girl or no shit like that. It was just differences with the music.” So how exactly do they make amends after such harsh words have been exchanged? “When you think about where we come from, that’s something we would never forget. We know that we needed each other. So we always reminisce back to that, that helps sometimes with issues,” he explains. “So we could be mad at each other, but next time I see you, you’re getting a hug, ‘How you doing, how’s the family?’ Yeah, we went at it, and we’ll go back at it again if we have to. But nobody can take away the bond.”
But while the Clan may be able to bury the hatchet, whether or not they can ever revive the passion of their golden era is another question. “We all got family now. I got three babies. There’s guys in the group who’ve got five, six babies. So you can just imagine what they’ve got to deal with,” Rae says. “You lose certain desires after a while because now, you have another role to play. And we always knew that, not everybody’s going to be the same forever when it comes to being creative. Sometimes it becomes a conflict in the group. But, for me it’s like I’m still a kid. I love it. I love this job.”
It’s a PR-friendly statement, but Raekwon’s passion is convincing. He may have been central to the Wu-Tang Clan’s feuds numerous times in the past, but his stubbornness stems from his respect for the fans. And after all these years, it seems the chef never lost his appetite. “You know the last thing I’m ever going to do is give you something that ain’t from here,” he says, pounding his chest with a clenched fist. “It’s always from here bro.”
Fly International Luxurious Art is out now via Ice Water H20. The single 1,2 1,2 featuring Snoop Dogg can be purchased here.