Raekwon is many things. He’s a member of the greatest rap group ever assembled, the Wu-Tang Clan. He’s a Staten Island Don, who, along with his partner Ghostface Killah, charted the course for Mafioso rap at its inception in the ’90s. He’s the mind and microphone behind Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, one of the finest examples of lyrical virtuosity ever committed to (purple) tape. In short, the man is a legend.
That being said, Raekwon is the first to acknowledge that not all legends are created equal. Some still have that spark to create, to push, and to grow long past their perceived “prime” has ended. Others give up a long before then, allowing the game pass them by, bemoaning the state of how things are, and wishing it would go back to how it used to be. The Chef counts himself as a member of the former camp. “You know, it’s one thing to be a legend, and to be a legend that don’t got it no more,” he said. “I’m a legend that still has it.”
You see the phrase “return to form” used by a lot of writers to describe a new album that surpasses the quality of an artist’s last release. It’s past cliché, but I’m here to tell you that The Wild is a definite return to form for Raekwon after his previous album Fly International Luxurious Art. On The Wild he sounds less like a guy chasing trends, and more like an artist confident in his own abilities, working with sounds that he’s most familiar, while dropping lyrical word-bombs with impunity. “This is for fun,” he said. “When you do sh*t for fun you do it forever.”
I recently had the chance to talk with Raekwon about The Wild, but also a whole range of different topics. He gave us a state of the Wu-Tang Clan. He talked about his one-time adversary the Notorious B.I.G. He spoke about the prospects for an Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Part 3. He also revealed his deep, abiding love and respect for Motown singer Marvin Gaye. Read our conversation below and look for his new album The Wild on 3/24.
Before we go into any other topics, I have to ask you about Marvin Gaye. There’s a song on your new album titled “Marvin,” that’s basically outlines his entire biography. What is it about Marvin that strikes a chord for you?
He’s a revolutionist. He’s a writer. He’s a man that came from the bottom, you know? Talking about Detroit. Talking about some of the roughest places in the world. He was a visionary and his music is universal. I like the fact that when music was going through a transition, he had a lot of things on his mind, so he went to go create an album on top of a mountain, something that was totally different from what was going on at that time. Nobody believed in him, but he believed in himself and I kind of feel a little resemblance when it comes to stuff like that.
What’s your favorite Marvin Gaye album?
I’d definitely have to say What’s Going On. That was a furious album. That’s the one he wrote on the mountaintop.
How did you end up getting Cee Lo to sing the hook on “Marvin?”
I had a good relationship with him and I told him that I needed him to check out something I was doing and I said that it reminds me of Marvin Gaye. I know that he’s a big fan of Marvin as well and everything just collided. I gave him the beat with the song on it and he just did the rest. He put the cherry on the top and it came out perfect.
So how did The Wild come together?
It took kind of ignoring everything else and really just focusing. I was just making songs, having fun and running into the right production. At the time, I didn’t have a title, but I had a lot of things that I wanted to give to the people. It’s just wild times. Looking at reality, looking at what’s going on I just thought, let me call the album The Wild. When you make titles, they just hit you sometimes. Looking at the industry and seeing how things work today, it’s like one big zoo, one big jungle and I feel like with me being in the game as long as I’ve been, I wanted to come back in and give guys something new and fresh; 2017 style.
In the intro track you dedicated the album someone named Mel Carter. Can you tell us who that is and why you decided to honor him in that way?
This was a business friend that I knew for a long time. We stuck together since 1993 or 1994. He’s just a great man and he was like a brother to me. He was a manager of mine, then he became a financial advisor, and then he became many different things; an uncle. When you have friends that you share a lifetime with, you want to appreciate the time that you’re with them. He passed away shortly in the mix of making this album and I just had him on my mind, and it was a tough time for me, but I know he would’ve wanted me to go on so the main thing became just to keep doing it, and doing it on behalf of him.
Can you talk a little bit about some of the producers you collaborated with?
There were various cats from new to old. You know, my man Xtreme from Chicago who’s responsible for a number of great records out there. Frank G is a newcomer, Mark Henry who’s a really good friend of mine; real deep into the music. There was something special about those guys doing what they were doing because production is important. Production is the eyes of the music. I needed something to vibe to, and they all got together collectively and made something dope. Even my boy Dame Grease came in, the kid who was responsible for DMX back in the day, he came through and brought something strong to the table.
Speaking of newcomers, you have an artist name P.U.R.E. who makes an appearance on the song “M&N” What can you say about him?
Pure is my new artist signed to ICE H20. P.U.R.E. is a charismatic fellow; definitely a great artist. I’ve always been the kind of guy that likes to discover people from the bottom and give them the opportunity to live out they dreams. I’m into lyrics number one, and some people may think it ain’t about lyrics, but for me it, because it shows me that you’re using your mind, and are able to put things together. I just felt like he was dope and I wanted him on the album. The clever thing we did that was totally different conceptually with “M&N” was to make a rhyme with all “M’s” in it. When you run across an artist like that that’s using their mind in that way, that’s brilliant. I see star power in this kid.
Do you feel like there’s been a dip in the attention that gets paid to lyricism in rap these days?
I really don’t caught up in that because at the end of the day, it’s all about good music. Sometimes we listen to stuff where we really don’t know what they’re saying, but we love the feeling. Then sometimes we want to hear stuff that makes sense to us and say, “Damn, I can hear this clearly.” You may not wanna listen to clever lyrics and shit in a club because that’s not the vibe you’re on. It’s really what you want at that time. If you choose to jump into the club and you came to party, it’s only right you listen to that kind of music, but if you wanna jump in the car, and you’re a thinker, and you wanna get somewhere fast and enjoy it and listen, then you know what selection to choose from. Hip-hop is like a Coogi shirt; there’s all different colors in that mother**ker. You wear the sh*t, you were it well, and you get the f*ck up out of it.
As we’re talking, today marks the 20th anniversary of the death of the Notorious B.I.G. I know you two had differences back in the day, but can you talk about what you’re feeling are about him now?
He’s an Egyptian King. He’s a Pharaoh. He’s one of the world’s favorite angels. Just to go back and reiterate, it was never a beef. It was just a competitive sport at the time. It never became anything negative because we all had the same friends. Anyway, today is a day for him to rest peacefully as he’s been resting and to enjoy him and celebrate him. Biggie is one our favorites and we’re gonna represent him to the fullest, like we represent Ol’ Dirty Bastard to the fullest.
Talking about another all-time great, you got Lil Wayne to make an appearance on the song “My Corner.” What was it like to work with him?
I really, really like Wayne. I study his bars. I think he’s a dope MC. He’s a legend to me. I always wanted to work with him. I remember seeing Wayne with like, 1,000 dudes in the club and it was like me, my man, and my man had his lady with him. When Wayne saw me he jumped down from the 1,000 guys he was around and came over and bowed down in front of me and saluted me. Right then and there, I knew he really respected Raekwon as a brand, as a name; everything I stood for. I never forgot that day. I always felt like we had something in common and I put the song on and he got the vibe of it quick. Wayne is a fast writer like me. Once we get a vibe, it’s over.
I know this album is taking up a lot of your focus now, but have you given any thought to when you might put together Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Part 3?
That’s something I’m gonna do when I’m ready. At the same time, given the climate of music these days, I can’t say people don’t really purchase music anymore, but I gotta really feel impressed about people wanting it. The game has changed so much that you can’t get a CD from the store anymore. A lot of my fans aren’t necessarily digitally inclined. They’re not computer savvy. It’s a tough decision about when I wanna go that way, because I wanna give a product that I know is going to be felt and that everyone had the opportunity to pick it up. I’m just gonna sit back and take time to look at what I’m doing right now and see where the people are at. See where the digital world is at. See how many people are really gonna get involved. It ain’t about the money it’s about the masses. If the people are in my ear like that, then, hey, you never know. Cuban Linx 3? You never know. That’s all I can say.
I have to believe there’s an audience that would love to hear you ride with Ghostface Killah on something like that again. I caught your show last year at the Metro in Chicago, and from what I saw, you’ve still got tremendous chemistry between one another. Can you talk a little bit about that partnership?
We brothers from another mother. The thing I like is about it is that we give you three different styles of us. I have a three-dimension expansion to my career from coming in with a group, to coming in and doing a duo with my brother Ghostface, to my own solo career. That’s three different chapters of music that is undeniable and successful on every level. Sometimes you want Ghost, you get Ghost. Sometimes you want Rae, you get Rae. Sometimes you wanna get Rae and Ghost, you get Rae and Ghost. That’s three different plates all on the same table. That’s the best thing. The combination factor is always there and you gotta switch it up sometimes.
Can you just give us a quick state of the Wu-Tang Clan?
The Wu is working man. The Wu is the way. It’s always the way. Everyone is trying to make the way happen in a greatest way for their family and for themselves. You got GZA doing great things and going to Ivy League colleges and talking. You got myself moving towards documentaries and doing things of that magnitude. You got brothers still touring. You got cats making movies. You got other brothers with other projects. For us the Wu is always the way and that’s what’s most important. We always say, “The Wu is the way and the Tang is the slang.”
Obviously as you mentioned everyone is busy right now, but do you think Voltron might form again sometime inside of a studio?
When it’s time. When it’s time. You know, you’re talking about eight guys and that’s not easy to get eight guys on deck every time.
I’m not going to ask you specifically about Martin Shkreli, except to ask you about how sick you are of hearing the name Martin Shkreli.
I really don’t want to talk about that because every time people ask me about it, I don’t know what the f**k is going on. It’s not that important to me. I wasn’t there when the deal closed. At the end of the day, he was a fortunate man to get something that somebody else never had. So, you know, what the f*ck, enjoy it! I don’t get caught up in the bullshit.
Getting back to The Wild, when people hear this record, when they hear the latest piece of music from the Chef, what do you want them to come away with either thinking or feeling?
I want them to know that I’m powerful. I’m unstoppable. I’m 20 years in the business and still know how to rhyme and still know how to get creative. I’m gonna stay fly, keep doing what I need to do, looking good and continue to make great music until my sh*t says, “Yo, you gotta stop.” It ain’t stopping no time soon. I just want the world to know we gave you a great project and whatever it sells, hey, it was great. That’s all that counts.