Interview: Raekwon on Kanye, Justin Bieber and Shaolin vs. Wu Tang
In the annals of Rap, few are more legendary than Raekwon. Cornerstone of the Wu-Tang clan (and arguably among the most lyrically ruthless and precise of its members), the man has been creating classic rap recordings since the early 90s and is looked upon by fans with the same level of reverence reserved for old-school legends and and modern moguls such as Rakim, Jay-Z, Nas and only a small handful of others.
Famous as the originator of the gambino-influenced Scorsese storytelling flow which has become a rap paradigm since the release of his classic record Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, as well as for wearing some of the freshest Polo gear ever (the snow beach routinely breaks eBay records), perhaps the most exciting thing about Raekwon is that after a 20 year career he is currently releasing some of the most vital music of his career. 2009’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2 was one of the year’s most critically acclaimed records, and he continues to guest on some of the greatest contemporary rap releases as well, having featured on Kanye West’s latest opus and received a grammy nomination for Big Boi’s 'Royal Flush'. Against all odds, Raekwon may be one of the few contemporary musicians in any genre who continues to be as good today as he was 20 years ago.
DiS sat down with him (ermm, on the phone) to discuss the release of his new album, Shaolin vs. Wu Tang and to determine how exactly he continues to bring it. Coming across like a gentleman and a true family man, and nowhere near the incarcerated scarface one would expect from his back catalogue, we discussed the state of hip hop today, the burden of living up to a classic, and realized that he may be a bit mixed up about Justin Bieber…
DiS: First off, I just want to tell you I’ve been a Wu Tang fan for like 17 years so, it's amazing to get to talk to you.
Raekwon: Ah so you been there since day one huh?
DiS: Yeah - pretty much man, since I was like 13 or something.
R: That's good stuff man, thank you.
DiS: Yeah, so hey I just want to say congratulations - you’re coming off of a huge year with the Grammy [for his guest appearance on Big Boi’s 'Royal Flush'], all your sort of guest appearances and Cuban Linx 2, it seems like you’re going through a streak. I just got a chance to listen to the new album last week, it seems like more excellent work so congratulations.
R: Thank you Adam, it just feels good man, people seeing my growth, thank you.
DiS: Definitely. So Mel [Carter, Rae’s manager] said you were on vacation last week, so I just wanted to ask, what's vacation for Raekwon like?
R: Vacation for me is basically, you know, being able to get away with my kids because you know, I work hard, and I’m really just trying to step up the bar and become a better artist, so when I’m not down I just run back home and just try and get some time with my children - you know what I mean?
R: I think it’s just so important to be an artist but to be a father of two, you know what I mean? Be a dad so you know, we just probably go out, go to Miami or something and just relax under the sun for a little bit, stuff like that. Last time I went home, I went to Disney Land with my son and my daughter - you know, just giving them that time, I think it's so important, you have to balance family with business as well. And every now and then I know if I’m out for about three weeks, I’m going to at. I kind of like, talk to my kids, let them know, you want the nice things and this is what daddy has to do in order for you to be alright... like I gotta pay for your school, make sure you got clothes on your back, make sure you got your cereal, so you gotta take care of your kids. They’re young kids so it's definitely important to talk to them and let them know why Daddy ain’t here all the time, you know?
DiS: That’s great man! Okay, so getting to the new album album, I just wanted to ask about Shaolin vs Wu Tang;, coming off of Cuban Linx 2, which was like a classic Wu Tang record in the way it took it back to the vintage Wu sound, how is Shaolin vs Wu Tang different? What are you trying to bring to the table this time?
R: Well, number one, this album is definitely made for all the Wu Tang fans in the world. I wanted to go back down memory lane and give them an album they can say “Yo, it really sounds like that Wu Tang shit that we love”, you know what I mean? Like, there’s been a lot of controversy about the direction that Wu Tang clan as a group had gone with the music, so I wanted this album right here to be my follow up but still go back to Wu Tang fans because I feel like they love me so much and they support what I’ve done. I felt that it would be great to go back down memory lane and give them something for them, you know, really work hard it. So we came up with the title, which we felt was a great title, it wasn’t really derogatory to try and diss Wu Tang, because I can’t diss what I am, you know what I mean?
Shaolin vs Wu Tang is an album I feel is exciting, it's riveting, it's astonishing - it's astonishing to me, to just be able to create that sound again, put the skits on it and make everything just sound like how people wanted it I just really worked hard at it, at really making that happen now. Doing Cuban Linx 2, you know, I wanted to make sure that was great, so now I wanted to have my follow up album be just as great, as a real Wu Tang album that people will love to hear. I just took it upon myself to really guide that and go through that chamber again.
DiS: Yeah, man, definitely, well it sounds like you definitely hit the mark so...
R: You feel I hit the mark?!
DiS: Yeah man! I think it's going to be right up there with Cuban Linx 2, so I just can’t wait for it to drop so I can listen to some more. So given what you’ve said about trying to hit the classic Wu Tang sound, is it hard to find a balance between doing something progressive, like Eight Diagrams, for instance, which I felt was a controversial record for you guys, versus sticking with the classic sound? Is this a hard balance for you to meet?
R: I mean, nothing’s easy man, when you sit there, number one, the fans are so stubborn these days - sometimes you could try your hardest but it's not easy you know? Because the production is so important and it has to make you feel like them times, but by the same token, you don’t want to sound outdated.
R: We still want to sound like we giving you something new, so you know, for me, I just had to go with my heart and really go back to the tapes and see what back then made people excited. That’s what we’ve done, but it's not a walk in the park when you’re trying to emulate classic albums, know what I mean?.
I think it's just so important that we keep an open mind as far as letting an artist be creative. You know, letting them know we want is important but at the end of the day all you can do is just try and do the best you can. I think that comes with being successful...people want to see you come back to the shit that you did back then, but sometimes people can’t deliver that kind of music to you, know what I mean? So me not being a producer, shit, I got to look all round the world to make sure that I can at least get the right sound. It becomes difficult every now and then but I just tend to work a little bit harder at finding things and I think that’s why I was able to be successful with Cuban Linx 2 because I really took my time. It's the same with Shaolin vs Wu Tang, I wanted to really go back to that 36 Chambers dark vibe, that still not only was dark but was still you know, bright in certain ways [I know] and capture that Wu Tang essence. I really made it my business to really like go in on this one right here, and just the fact having great features involved with it [the album features guest appearances by Rick Ross, Jim Jones, Busta Rhymes, Lloyd Banks and the UK’s own Estelle], I wanted to pull these features that I had into our world and I think we did a great job at picking the right guys to assist us with this project.
DiS: Yeah, definitely, I thought it was really cool that you got Jim Jones on a track with you.
R: Yeah, I mean, like I said that track right there ['Rock n’ Roll'] that’s definitely a great track and at the end of the day, Jones is a good friend of mine and I think that he respect what Wu Tang does, you know, they [the Diplomats] represent the eagle, we represent the eagle, you know what I mean?
R: Which is our W, our W is like an eagle, and their logo is like an eagle too,, so to me the track just really fitted both of us and I felt he would do his thing on it. So it’s an honour to have so many great features of cats that I got love for in the game. And I thought the track fit him like a glove too. So not only was I creating a great album but at the same time I was really being a great A&R by picking people who are so good on the record.
DiS: Excellent. So not only have you been recording your own stuff lately, but you’ve had a really hot year with guest appearances as well, like Royal Flush for instance, Yelawolf and your work the Kanye record, so I just wanted to ask you a bit about that. When you’re writing for different peoples tracks, how does the process work? Is it a different process than when you’re writing for yourself?
R: It's definitely a different process, because I try to jump into their world but still give them the best of me when I’m there, you know. Yelawolf definitely is a good friend of mine , I remember when he was starting to do his thing, I got a call from somebody that works with him and they was telling me about him, and I already said back then like “yo this dude is going to be the shit”. I just came in and did what I know how to do, like I listened to the track first and foremost, I loved the track, I’m always going to be one of them type of dudes where I can’t just get on anything but if I like it, I’m gonna get on it. That's just what happened - we just made a great record together. Even with Kanye, you know with me being a big fan of Kanye for so many years and having the opportunity to work with him, it was like, I’m gonna go in and do my job, and he’s gonna come in and do what he do. So I would definitely just say it was just me being creative and me just showing the hunger and letting everybody know, “yo I’m gonna deliver” you know what I mean? Like, I’m gonna give you what you expect out of me, and that’s all we’ve been doing for the whole year, you know. I didn’t even know that I’d be on 30 features or something like that, so to me it feels good to know that people are still checking for me and I’m back in the loop with a lot of things. It's a blessing.
DiS: I wanna ask too, you’ve probably had a bunch of questions like this but, how did you end up working on that Justin Bieber remix? Whose idea was that?
R: That was a Kayne and Justin Bieber conversation on the net - the two of them. Basically, it got back to me — like my fans called me — my fans jumped in and said “yo, you know what's going on?” and I’m like “word, that's whats going on?” And next thing you know, I’m getting a call from Kanye and I was excited to do it, I felt like it would be something would really have people, you know, lift their head up and be like “Oh shit,” like “Word? let me see what Rae’s gonna do”. And some people thought it was kind of crazy to do some shit like that, and some people respected it, because they say “yo, they paying homage“, and that's what its all about man. I think a lesbian artist that been in the game for a minute [HE ACTUALLY SAID THIS], we need to embrace the younger generation and give them an opportunity to stand next to us and do great, great music. And Kayne definitely orchestrated that, you know, he orchestrated that in a great way and I think that like an artist like myself, I don’t discredit the younger generation. I don’t look at everybody like they’ve got to be a fucking banging MC, you know what I mean? As long as you’re a great artist and you have a strong brand and I love you for what you do, I’m gonna get down with you and we’re gonna make something that's hot and we going to complement each other. I think that’s what we all did at the same time.
DiS: That's great man, well I think the track definitely worked. And I definitely feel like its going to be an introduction for a ton of people to the classic Wu Tang sound too.
R: Yeah man, you know, like I said, this one is definitely for the fans first and foremost, the Wu Tang fans that have been there for so long with me and the crew, it's like I just wanted to do this album in the name of them, because when I still go out and I do tours and all that, the shows is bananas, man, the Ws go up in the air and shit, and to be able to be in the game for so long and still get that kind of impact, I think it's important that us pay homage back. So I wanted this album to definitely be be for the world, of course, but I definitely wanted this one to be for the Wu Tang fans to say, wow, I got a solid fucking album that I can bug out with, and have fun, write graffiti or skateboard, or jump in the car - you know whatever makes you happy. So if you can get that sound from what you want from us, that sound along with a newer sound too - it think it's great, I think people appreciate that in the artists that they love.
DiS: Yeah, definitely. One other thing I wanted to ask, this is a bit about how you got to finish Cuban Linx Two. When I was talking to Mel last week, he mentioned that one of the guys who was really sort of instrumental and inspiring you to get the record out was Dr Dre through some of your work on Detox and talking to him. So I know that just obviously, Detox is one of the most anticipated rap albums similar to Cuban Linx 2 in that it’s taken a long time to come out. So do you think with the amount of time and the amount of work it took to get it out, can you relate to where Dre is at right now with Detox?
R: There’s definitely been a lot of controversy about it, I think that at the end of the day Dre is the kind of dude that is going to deliver. He’s going to make it the best that he feels it could be. I’m confident that he’s gonna do what he’s got to do. Like I said, we all got to understand that like, here it is: You got guys like ourselves who’ve got 20 years in the business of making quality music, you know, we want to deliver, we want to give you our best but by the same token, we want you to always have an open mind, know what I mean? Cause you can never redo everything. Like, even when I was making Cuban Links 2, I wasn’t in a competition to make a better one, I was just trying to complement it, come up with something that could sit next to it. I think that a lot of times, the fans, they get tough sometimes, they make you feel like shit sometimes, they make you feel good sometimes. I think at the end of the day, me knowing Dre and me knowing the kind of person he is as a perfectionist, he’s gonna deliver. He’s gonna make sure that, number one, you get a quality piece of work. I just think that’s so important, for an artist to just give you the best that he can give you. And when you think about cats like him, he’s never been a bullshitter when it comes to making great albums and great records. You seen the work he’s done in the past and at the end of the day, we just got to give him a shot and be open minded - if you like it , you like it, if you don’t like it, then you got your opinion, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with opinions. You speak your mind, but I feel like, he’s going to deliver.
DiS: So my last question is, what do you see as state of hip hop today? And how do you feel Wu Tang will fit into it?
R: Well I feel like hip hop today is definitely more commercialized, you know, there’s a lot of politics involved with it, and I think what Wu Tang bring to the table is to keep you grounded with that authentic hip hop - with that round sound of music that attacks you emotions, you know, just still being creative. I think that’s what we bring to the table. As far as hip-hop now, it’s very commercial, it's politicized in a certain way now. Like if you got money, a lot of things can happen for you now in a greater way. Now everybody is so much after the dollar because of the economy, they’re trying to protect their livelihoods by dealing with the politics on that level, as far as who got the money. I feel like the artistry side needs to grow a little bit more, but at the end of the day but people got to open up and still respect the art side of it. Because we want these kids to know that nothing is easy, you can’t come into this game and just think you’re going to have little bull shit, nursery rhymes or nursery hooks and call that hip-hop. You know, come on man, we come from the Eric B and Rakim chamber, the NWA, the Too Shorts, you know we come from all these great talented guys who paved the way for us, so we have to be at least as strong as they were with it. I just think that sometimes, you know, you may have a company that’s doing business with radio that has that relationship and then the next thing you know, they sitting on all this bullshit hip hop, and cats is like “Why’s this shit being played?” Because - the companies are doing business with the other companies, know what I mean? And once it becomes about money, it's like, now they don’t care about the music no more. So I just think it's so important for us to still kick the artistic side, be creative, man. But at the end of the day, if this is the new generation doing their thing, then hey, that’s what it is - you got a lot of young kids, and I got a lot of love for what a lot of the younger artists are doing. So if that’s for them and they like it then hey that’s cool. But we still got to recognize that there’s cats such as us out there, you know, great MC’s out there that we can’t turn our back on cause hear them on the radio all the time.
DiS: Yeah man, well definitely I know our audience is definitely loving your sound and loving Wu Tang so thanks, it’s an honour to talk to you.
R: Wu Tang Forever, Adam, you already know. ?
Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang is out now.