THE CHEF REFLECTS ON WU TANG FOLKLORE ON THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY OF ‘ONLY BUILT 4 CUBAN LINX’
Words by Lily Mercer
Raekwon’s always had style. His alter egos Lex Diamonds and The Chef conjure up illusions of a drug king pin wearing silk shirts in his mansion, and even dressed casually for our interview he exudes a certain level of style. He’s a seasoned MC, always knowing when to rap and when to let his silence do the talking, like on Method Man’s ‘The Turn’ when he leaves the final bar empty for extra impact. His flow is distinctively his, though members of Wu Tang have accused him of missing the beat. “You know the guys tell me, ‘Sometimes you rhyme off beat or you don’t hit the beat where it needs to be hit at, but my thing is, I’m just going off feeling. It ain’t so much of me trying to do it the way I wanna do it, I just make the record according to how it feels. And if it feels this way, I’m gonna come at it this way. That’s The Chef for you kid.”
The iconic purple plastic cassette tape containing the 18 songs on Raekwon’s debut album, ‘OB4CL’, will turn twenty this August 1st. Known as The Purple Tape to dedicated fans, the album is undoubtedly one of the best hip hop releases of the nineties. Since its release, he’s barely taken a year off between releasing solo albums and Wu Tang projects. Not only is Raekwon still relevant, he works hard to continue producing music for loyal fans that span from his generation through to his children’s generation. This work rate is rare today, with many artists not understanding how much work it takes to get into the industry and more importantly, stay there. Raekwon agrees, “I remember when we first came up in the game, how important it was going out there and promoting you album. Nowadays a lot of artists don’t do that, they don’t get on the road and do radio and do interviews. To me that’s not cool because you gotta still do that as an artist and an entertainer. I still gotta do it.”
Raekwon is one of the most active members of the group, still touring the world both solo and as part of Wu Tang clan. Having released at least one album or mixtape per year since 2006, this year sees him release his sixth studio album, ‘F.I.L.A’ [Fly International Luxurious Art]. Though he’s said in the past that 50 is the cut off age for a rapper, he’s only five years short of that and seems reluctant to stop producing music. “It depends, maybe I might wanna stop and do something else that I feel I wanna get into. For the most part, I’m feeling good right now, I think if I lose momentum in what I do then it might be time to hang it up, but right now it’s too early for me. I still feel good, I still feel like I got more albums in store for you guys and I’m just at my best right now. I think putting it down doesn’t necessarily mean I’m not coming out to do shows, of course I’ll still be traveling to do shows or whatever but as far as trying to dance at 50 years old in the game, it’s gon’ be something to question.
Many of Raekwon’s peers are still active, including his frequent collaborator, Nas. Having first collaborated together on Mobb Deep’s ‘Eye For An Eye’, Raekwon enlisted the Queens MC for ‘Verbal Intercourse’ on ‘OB4CL’. He speaks highly of Nas, “That’s our brother man, he’s a good dude. [He’s] very humble, very intelligent, he’s a genius. [He] knows what he’s doing in the music industry and being that we all came up together, it’s like a certain amount of respect we got for each other. It feels good to come up with your peers and know 20 years later, we still making moves, because there ain’t a lot of us left.” More recently, Nas appeared on the Shaolin Vs Wu Tang song, ‘Rich & Black’. As Raekwon explains, collaborating with Nas is a very natural experience for him, “When me and him connect, it’s always fun because we’ve both been doing it for so long. We both have almost an equal amount of success. We’ve been good friends for a long time.”
Though he was familiar with Nas prior to ‘Illmatic’, the first time he ever heard ‘N.Y. State of Mind’ was when some girls from London played him the song. “It was so crazy because they actually lived up in New York and they was heavily into hip hop. They used to ride around in their van and they had this mixtape or something that they had Nas’ record on. Me and Ghost when we used to hang with them, we’d all just be cooling, bugging out, smoking, drinking, listening to it and I think the first time I ever heard ‘N.Y. State of Mind’ was from one of them tapes.” Recalling his first reaction to hearing the song, he said to the girls, “Oh shit, let me hear that again! Play that again!” and they played it like “Oh yo, that’s Nas, a new artist,” and we were like, “Word.” We were up on him but we didn’t know they was up on him.”
Despite being put on to Nas by a couple of London girls, Raekwon is one of the best of his generation when it comes to acting as an A&R for the new stars. When asked if he’s as passionate about listening to music as he is about making it, he responds, “Oh absolutely, I think its important people know that too.” Whether remixing a hot song or collaborating with some young talent, he manages to stay very relevant without adapting his own style to fit in. His upcoming album showcases this skill, as he enlists rapper Freddie Gibbs for a track on ‘F.I.L.A’. He says of the Ohio- raised MC, “Gibbs is a cool dude, he’s a respectable dude.” The song came about after the pair first built a friendship outside of the studio, “When I do a record with somebody, it’s cus I have a relationship with them or I feel like they cool. I gotta know who you are first. Gibbs is a cool dude you know, we did shows together and we have the same kind of mutual respect for each other. I asked him to do something for me, he asked me to do something for him.” His last statement leaves us wondering, do they have another collaboration yet to be released? It could be, unless he’s referring to ‘Bomb’, the song from Freddie Gibbs’ album with Madlib, ‘Piñata’.
He explains the importance of passing the torch onto the new school artists and how a feature can shine spotlight on those under the radar. “These labels come to certain artists to get them to help launch that artist. Like even I can recall when Ghostface did a record with Amy Winehouse, I never knew who Amy Winehouse was, but they needed a certain type of dude that can help her get some street credibility.” He stresses the importance of teaming up with new talent saying, “You’re never supposed to sleep on anybody when it comes to that, you never know who’s who.” A personal example he offers is the time he worked with OutKast at a point when artists from the East Coast and the South weren’t particularly close. “Cats like OutKast, back in the day when they first emerged into the East Coast with their music from the South, I was one of the guys that did they first record with. Sometimes we do get used in the greatest way to help other brands build they situations. But then again it’s also respect, you meet a dope MC or a dope talent, you wanna work with them cus you know what they gon’ do, you know they gon’ blow up. We always felt that from Ghost doing a record with Ne-Yo. Then the next thing you know, Ne-Yo take off and we ain’t stupid, we not gon’ just get on anything with anybody, we gotta see it makes sense for us too.”
Though he has a lot of love for artists in today’s hip hop scene, even offering up his own remix to DeJ Loaf’s ‘Try Me’ before some of his younger peers caught on, he agrees that lyricism is lost on today’s rap fans. “I think people do appreciate guys that really take the time to show they skill. I think that was one of the things that was so important that as an artist, that’s Hip Hop 101, you gotta know how to put words together and create songs as well as freestyles and concepts and whatever you do. That’s a number one rule to me, you gotta have some skill.” Though he spotlights artists like Gibbs who can rap circles around the average XXL Freshman, he ascertains that it takes more than rapping to be a successful hip hop artist these days. “I think these young cats, you got some that’s in it for [rapping], you got some that’s in it for hook purposes and some thats just in it for partying. I guess as long as you covering all boundaries, people are gonna accept you and respect what you do.”
During the nineties, Wu Tang were some of the most influential style ambassadors for hip hop culture, making Raekwon’s observation the significance of fashion when it comes to boosting a rapper’s profile today more insightful. “You can’t just be an artist that’s not interesting to anybody, you gotta make people see some kind of interest in you, that’s why you see a lot of kids that dress different, this whole European style of dressing.” Having regularly toured Europe, he’s had time to notice the cultural differences between Europeans and Americans, interestingly he comments, “I feel like they took that from you guys, like the more fitted jeans. Now fashion has become a symbol of how when you come to the UK, this is how y’all do it. Even the combat boots on the girls, I seen girls wearing that shit here first. Now my little daughter got a pair, she’s five years old, she got the combat boots. I see women like Beyonce dressing like that with the hat on, with the plaid shirt around the waist. All that’s fashion, that’s fashionable shit and what [are] the two biggest places where fashion come from? London and Paris.”
In keeping with the conflict theme of this issue of Viper, we ask what’s the biggest conflict Raekwon faced in life? His response gives insight into the negative sides of the life of a celebrated musician, “I’d say the biggest conflict I’ve faced in life is just really trying to surround myself with the people I really feel care about me. Because one thing about me, I love hard, always been a loyal dude and a team player. But I guess in the business, it’s hard to see who really is your people, because either they wanna get something out of you or they need you to do something or they want something from you. So I think that’s my biggest fear, to see who’s really really in my corner.” It’s one of the few vulnerable comments you’ll hear from Raekwon, who’s one of the most cheerful jet- lagged rappers I’ve ever met. But having spent his entire adult life as a recognisable face in hip hop, it’s understandable how important authentic friendship is to him. “Sometimes you could know someone for four years and may not be genuine but you might meet someone three months ago that really love you to death and you could be like, “Damn, I just met this motherfucker but he seem closer than him.” You never really know but all you can do is go off your heart and look at it from that perspective. But yeah I always wanna know who’s really representing me, ‘cause I know if I’m representing you, you gon’ know that. The last couple of years, I may have lost probably like 60% of the people that I really thought was down with me. I’m not even just talking from an ego perspective, I’m talking from a looking out for each other perspective. I had to really like take a look at a lot of shit and be like, this ain’t right, there’s something going on here.”
One friend that has always remained close with is Ghostface Killah, with the pair featuring prominently on each other’s debut solo albums. Their relationship is one of the strongest in hip hop, evident from their partnership even on solo albums. As a double act they go bar for bar, effortlessly trading lyrics in a shared verse. One of the best examples of this is on ‘Heaven & Hell’, taken from ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx’ on which the duo politic back and forth about aspirational goods and robbing vic’s. The pair are so close that it’s not unusual to see them reciting each other’s verses when the other isn’t present at a show. Raekwon even refers to Ghostface’s 1996 debut, ‘Ironman’, as the sister to ‘OB4CL’, released a year earlier. Like all good friendships, theirs has been tested, with Rae admitting that they’ve occasionally stepped in when their crews have clashed in the past. “We always been cool but we have a different set of men that hang with us, he got his crew and I got mine.
Sometimes we get caught in situations where we have to defend both of our crews, based on certain situations between us. For the most part, we tend to respect each other’s position and each other’s peoples but sometimes it’s not like that and it’s like Ghost might be with someone that I feel is a creep, or I might feel like he’s using Ghost to try to play me, thinking that he can pull that or vice versa. He feels the same way. Me and Ghost had to get past that in our careers before we even became friends because there were people around him I didn’t like, there were people around me that he didn’t like and you know, we had to figure out a way to meet in the middle. We respect where we come from because we come from the street and sometimes in the street, you cross a man, you never could be safe around that man no more. Because you’ll be like, I don’t feel safe around that man, I don’t want him around me. All this is normal stuff when you come up in the neighbourhood, you learn who they are and move forward.”
Growing up in the projects in New York, the members of Wu Tang Clan were acquainted with gangs in the boroughs of Staten Island and Brooklyn, but they weren’t gang affiliated. In RZA’s book, The Tao of Wu-Tang, he explains how the group’s connection united Staten Island gangs from rival parts of the borough. Not only did they appease gang relations with their music, they also challenged the belief that a large group of men is seen as a gang. “That type of stuff is always gonna exist because that’s what it is, you have many guys that have they crews. I grew up with a crew, that’s pretty much normal shit. That’s across the world, you come out here, you still see dudes running around town ten deep, fifteen deep hanging out, because sometimes we [are] all we know. That’s just what it is.” With nine talented MCs making intelligent music promoting the Five Percent Nation lifestyle, Wu Tang were noble, the term Clan adding to this perception. But people were still intimidated as RZA details in the book, speaking of their debut showcase when they ran on stage, faces covered in stockings to a shocked room of record label employees. Ol’ Dirty Bastard took it upon himself to break the ice, singing ’Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ and exhibiting his infectious personality. Raekwon laughs as he recalls the story, reflecting on the love he had for ODB.
After Wu Tang released their debut album, ‘Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers’, each of the Wu Tang members began to focus on solo material. ‘OB4CL’ was the second solo album from members of the collective following the release of Method Man’s ‘Tical’ in 1994. Having started out making music as a group, Raekwon has adapted into a very strong solo artist, even if he is occasionally backed by a RZA instrumental. Considering he’s still making music with Wu Tang and as a solo artist, I’m curious if the approaching is different for the two projects, “When we do it together as a group, it’s always more fun and easier because it’s a group, you don’t have to worry about doing so much work, you just gotta get in how you fit in. But when you doing it solo, you become the captain in the chair and you dictate what you wanna get on and you just take your time and do it to your best ability.” He elaborates on the style Wu Tang use to create songs, as well as the input of RZA, “When you dealing with a group, it’s almost like an assembly line, you get in and do your thing and play your part. But when it’s time for me to do my own thing, it’s gonna either be smoother because I don’t have to worry about his opinion, eight other opinions or whatever the case may be, ‘cause that’s what happens sometimes. I know it’s hard for the RZA ‘cause he gotta sit here and hear nine people’s mouths tell him this and that. Even though it’s still difficult with nine people, it’s convenient that way but then doing it alone, it’s more organic.”