Raekwon “I didn’t want to reach out too much and have it be too cluttered with a bunch of features.”

It's been nearly 15 years since Raekwon released his classic solo album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, which brought the cinema to our stereos. The intervening years saw the release of two official albums, countless mix tapes, and the type of speculation music critics live for. News concerning Raekwon's follow-up to his seminal solo performance marked it as a project plagued with delays and creative differences, while The Chef kept the details close to his chest, declaring it almost done and promising that he would be fine-tuning and tweaking all the way to the very end. Rae compiled such an immense collection of tracks that any track or guest list would be impossible to take as fact. The last year alone, Raekwon has released two massive mix tapes (Staten Go Hard, Blood on Chef's Apron), featuring album-quality tracks with guests from all over the hip-hop world and with suggestive titles like “Criminology 2.”

After trying to set up this interview for what felt like months, I finally got the chance to talk to Raekwon as he drove through a rainstorm to Connecticut to do even more promotional appearances. I found Raekwon to be one of the most confident and charming speakers I've encountered, and I'm glad I gave in to the impulse to shoot the shit with a legend. By the time this sees print, the tracklists will have been available for some time, but you won't find Rae's thoughts on social media and the state of hip-hop marketing on any Amazon order page.



I'll try and keep it brief. I know from following your Twitter you're supposed to have a phone call at 1:30.

It's cool, it's cool.

How long have you had that Twitter?

Oh, I mean you know we've had it for a second. It's a great mechanism. It's kind of a gift and a curse too you know because I've never been so exposed with my whereabouts or the things I do on the internet. It's something that's totally different for me, but when you're dealing with an album of this capacity and so many people that's waited and like what your doing... You don't have the same marketing mechanics no more that basically used to do the things that we were accustomed to. Now it's about every artist knowing that he has to utilize the situation for hisself. It's like, yeah, we had to jump on it because we had to alert the world at a pace that we couldn't with just a regular marketing team. We have to get involved with that stuff.

The fan response looks like it's been great. You have all those videos up and everything and are giving people a look in your world.

And don't get me wrong, I respect that. I love the part of that. That's why I said it's a gift. The curse part is that sometimes you may not want everyone to know where you are or where you're going. That's like having a tracking device on yourself if you allow yourself to get that way.

"I mean, all I could do is just show you that I'm the author of shit that I once lived and I know how to talk that talk."

Have you had bad experiences with people showing up unwanted?

Not at all, I just know that's how I think. When we was coming up we didn't have none of these modern-day ideas that could lead you to where you wanted to be at or where people was at. Sometimes you gotta be careful about that.

There's one thing with your phone uses your gps to constantly ping where you're at. I know someone who was having problems with it updating when he didn't want it to, that's pretty scary.

Hell yeah! I mean shit, what if I was to do something and they fucking pick me up right away. It's like “Yo you bought the car like that, you bought the OnStar, you didn't think we was going to get you?” [laughs] But nothing's wrong with keeping it political for hip-hop reasons or sharing your differences and ideas with the West. I guess it's cool. I'm not mad at it. If I was mad at it I wouldn't do it. I'd be like, “Naw that ain't for me, fuck the fans, I ain't gotta get at ya, Yall catch me when y'all catch me.” You know that's not my thing. I feel like I walk with nothing but goodness in my heart all the time and people see that. They identify with that. As long as you treat brothers and sisters a certain kind of way they gonna be there supporting you. Come on, I could be anywhere in the world and let's just say I lose my fucking wallet or something, I could get on that and I know somebody will come through and be like, “Yo, I heard you was over there. What you need? Are you good?” That comes from being good to people, you know what I mean?

I gotta ask you, a lot of people probably don't understand the difference between OB4CL2 as a follow-up as opposed to Immobilarity or The Lex Diamond Story. What makes this a true sequel? Does it have that continuity from OB4CL or the storyline structure and everything?

This one is more intimate to Cuban Linx because now you got me and Ghost going back to back, that's number 1. Number 2, the sound of hip-hop that we made in '95, you will be able to relate to with this one more. When I was making them other albums, you gotta understand, I was opening doors for a lot of younger cats to do they thing that I was running across. I wanted to jump on different topics. I wasn't coming like I got a bag of crack in my bag. You know what I mean? I was more or less coming as an emcee making good albums. Managing to talk about things in different chambers. I think that's something people have to respect about me as an emcee.

Now this album, Cuban Linx 2, is me going for the head of the first one, but still respecting it. It's like watching videotapes of the nigga that's nice. You know what I mean? That album allowed me to be an individual, and if I have to challenge that individual of Cuban Linx, of course I'm gonna watch his tapes and come just as strong. I might not knock 'em out the first round like the way he knocked 'em out, but I'm knocking him out within the first three rounds. That's how my mind thinks when it comes to stepping on the grounds of a classic you made. All you want to do is just get better and look at that one as a method of showing you how strong you have to come.

You've said “You can't outdo a classic, just let it be a classic and continue on--”

Yes, exactly. And that's the truth. People may say this one is better because it's a different sound. Or people that know the first one may say no it ain't better. All you can do is compliment and grow from it. You want the music to feel like back then but still move forward. You're going to be able to reminisce but still respect that we put a twist on a few things. It's still all the same styles though.

The thing for me is that that first round of Wu albums are all defaults. Like when I want that CSI style I go GZA, Liquid Swords. When I'm in the mood for that I have an album I already know all the way I'm going to love. What are you doing to make this a default in it's own right. You can't take that default status away from the first so how are you making it stand out?

I mean, all I could do is just show you that I'm the author of shit that I once lived and I know how to talk that talk. The thing you have to remember is two has to be different to a degree because it wouldn't be two if it was the same. So my thing is, I go with my gut feeling which tells me, “Yo, you're at your best and this is the file cabinet they want you to go in. Just be wise, just be wise and stay strong. Try to make every song as interesting as you can.” And that's all it is man, there's no method to my madness on some other shit. It's just me being an artist that's still passionate for emceeing. I'm gon bust my head all day for y'all to let y'all know I got lyrics lyrics if I know that the fans out there want lyrics; and then, for the beats, I'm gonna bust my ass for that too because I know how important niggas like beats.

So when it comes to me being a veteran of the game and knowing how important production is, yeah I'm taking it very serious because now y'all playing with my ear now. And I'm always going to work 10 times harder and the staff I got around me is gonna monitor me, they gonna let me do me of course, but at the same time they gonna monitor me. When I say that I mean I'm around sharp brothers B and sisters that already know what they like. They automatically still speaking for y'all as well. At the end of the day all I can do is be true to the game. That's all I want to do.

"I might not knock 'em out the first round like the way he knocked 'em out, but I'm knocking him out within the first three rounds... All you want to do is just get better and look at that one as a method of showing you how strong you have to come."

You mentioned being back with Ghostface a minute ago. While you guys are certainly different you get associated more than anyone else in Wu-Tang, I think. I've heard it suggested that you guys had pretty much made a Wu-Tang album without the clan, or at least without RZA on Big Doe Rehab, Can you talk a little about your creative relationship with Ghost and why you work so well together.

I mean, me and Ghost always was cool like that. We always had that type of bond with one another and we was able to relate to a lot of things within our music and whatever. We like the same dudes, we like the same clothes, we like the same kinda jewelry, this and that. We came in the game as the EPMD's of our chamber, of our crew. It's just always been like that. We vibe off the same energy. When you see us get together and do something that's only because it's like that. When you hear him do an album and you don't hear so much of me, that's us giving each other a break so we can go out and be the best that we can be for each other. He has his own walk, I have my own walk. That's how Wu-Tang was born anyways. We always told y'all each man was his own man, regardless of whateva we do when we form Voltron. I know for me, as a fan, I would love to hear a Rae album, a Ghost album and then a Rae and Ghost album; it makes it more exciting. It's just about being different and respecting that each artist is important to hisself.

Since Wu-Tang appeared, it seems like a lot of your innovations have become pretty standard. It seems like a lot of the disagreement within Wu-Tang as a whole has been over how you're going to push the boundaries next and how you're going to evolve together. When it comes to putting out straight, consistent burners vs. pushing out and evolving a little more with all the setbacks and stumbling that can bring, which would you rather do?

Number one man, we family forever. When I say “family forever” that's probably something the world won't ever ever understand. We go through things, but what family you know that don't go through things? On top of that, how many years we gave y'all of being a family just based on business purposes, on dropping albums. We been together 15 years. How many groups you know that do that? How many groups you could get them on a record after five years together? [Laughs]

That's what I'm saying, people gotta respect that we've been around each other for a long time and we've been putting up with each other's shit for a long time. At the end of the day we're not just rappers, we make music, we emcees. We people that really got a heart and take things a certain kind of way because we men, too. But, we gave you so much opportunity and time to see us do it again and again and again. Come on, now is the time when it's like brothers are still here with the passion but they're here to get paid the right way and get paid the way they deserve. You can't have dudes on the lead playing all these years and breaking records and all that and not receiving the merits they're supposed to get.

I've been doing this for a long time and I never thought I'd have my albums come out on my label now. That's a big improvement by itself. You gotta take consideration into the business side of things because we are being loyal to the fans and bringing it to you but then it's like sometimes it may not be time for that because it's not lucrative to each individual's life right then. If I know I'll make more on my own, I gotta think about that. I can't just jump up and say, "That makes sense, do it." I'm at a certain kind of lifestyle where I gotta keep making money and my bills gotta be paid on time. It's just about making sure your foundation is strong. I can't go backwards. Chef ain't going backwards.

When you started out you were firmly cemented as an East Coast rapper and you've always had that East Coast style, but even when you're referencing the far east I still always picture that crowded gritty New York world. Now you've traveled the world, you've spent some time on the West Coast, you're the first U.S. rapper to perform in Sierra Leone, how do you think that's affected you as a rapper?

Yeah, definitely. It made me look at it more cultural and more respectful to the culture. I feel good that I can make music that attracts the world and that makes me want to be a more powerful emcee. When you get in front of people and you travel and your passport is your passport you take that home and get in the booth and you know that you're working for the world. Everyone's checking for you. You might hear me say a city that I went through because that city's on my mind and I appreciate that city. Brazil or something. Places that we done been that we would have thought in our lifetime we would have never ever made it over there, you know, but we made it. It's definitely inspiring to travel because it give you the opportunity to really figure out your work.

You've got Emcees from all over on this album right? Who can we expect that's not from New York. (I love being wrong)

We've got a couple of East Coast bullies on this album. We've got Jadakiss, Styles, Beanie Sigel. These guys that came up with me through my time in the game. They're some of the favorites that we all wanted to see. I wanted to keep it light. I didn't want to reach out too much and have it be too cluttered with a bunch of features. It's one thing production-wise to get the greatest producers in the game in your corner but then it's another thing to get a lot of rappers in your corner. We always compare who sounds good with who and and who would sound good with who. So were were definitely precisely breaking it down and thinking who we should get on this album. When you think Cuban Links 2 you definitely want to see Rae and Ghost off the top do they things and anything else after that is gravy but we still want it to be fire that really matches the pot and what we making.

"I wasn't coming like I got a bag of crack in my bag."


You mention the production and gathering producers. There's been a lot of talk about production on this album; that RZA wasn't going to be involved, that it was going to be a Dr. Dre joint, that Busta Rhymes was executive producing. What makes a producer right for working with you and do you like the idea of one man controlling the direction more than picking up individual tracks from others?

I mean the album is very carved out with special techniques all involved with it. These dudes is technicians when the come to the table and these are dudes that broke records inside of hip-hop. Like I said, two has to be interesting because it's challenging one. To me, I'm always going to be an emcee that's paying attention to beats, especially hot shit. We get together and just make magic and we continue to make magic because this is what makes hip-hop special again, it's being creative. It's not just listening to one person tell you that, “No, you need this.” It's like, come on man, let's sit around and make a plan for all of us and make it be right, not just what I feel like is one sided.

Would the fact that there's not one producer all the way through, does that make you executive producer because you had the whole vision and were putting it all together?

I'm everything when it comes to my project. These are the challenges you take when your making something that's a classic. You gotta put on many hats. I just want the world to know that, of course, I don't expect that everything is going to be granted to me. I'm willing to get out there and earn like I'm the only producer again that never had a record deal.

You've been talking about the state of hip-hop for a long time. I mean everyone's been talking about it but one of the biggest problems is the commercialization, the politics and everything. Wu-Tang was one of the first groups to bring in a whole crew though and have everybody go off and get separate deals spread across different labels and then there were the Wu-Wear deals and the kung fu movies and everything. You came in saying that you didn't want to be a part of the industry, you wanted to be the new industry and I don't think anyone could say you didn't do that. There was the era of “crews control” and maybe a lot of emcees who weren't necessarily deserving got pulled up by more talented crew members and having a clothing line is like the minimum these days as far as marketing goes. Do you ever look at hip-hop now and go like, “Shit, we created a monster?

We look at it every day like that you know that's why we still have the ability to be who we are, we know what we've done for the game. We realize that all the success that you gave to the world is all still in our face today 15, 16 years later. It's just recognizing what you've done and keeping it moving in the right way for everyone to see.

Are you ever kind of sorry that so many people lifted that model though? It seems like it's causing problems in quality control with hip-hop at large?

Naw, why would that create problems? That can't create a problem if your showing dudes the blueprint to how to be successful. Wu-Tang, everything we came in with, was some street tactical shit and we believed it. Everybody should be able to look at what we did and take it. Everybody's growing up now to know what it is, right from wrong and good from bad. You gotta grow man.

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