Raekwon the Chef’s longevity in the Rap game has ran more than 20 years deep, with him being a part of both the Golden and Digital Eras of Hip Hop. He has pretty much seen and done it all, from dropping a classic debut in Only Built 4 Cuban Linx while tearing up the ‘90s during his rampant run as one of the star figures of the Wu-Tang Clan.
Unlike many rappers who had their runs in the ‘90s, the Staten Island emcee proves he still has plenty of fuel left, as he recently dropped a free EP entitled Lost Jewlry while releasing a slew of new records—most notably the “86” Remix featuring Brooklyn-bred AZ.
While the news of the Wu-Tang’s 20-year anniversary album is certainly on top of every Hip Hop head’s wish list, November is a long time away. In the meantime, the next plate the Chef is currently cooking up will be his sixth studio album, Fly International Luxurious Art (pronounced Fee-lah, for short). It’s going to be Raekwon’s most unique album to date, with a heavy dose of features—something Raekwon nor the Wu-Tang were particularly known for—and a sonically versatile sound that will showcase Rae’s ability to drop more radio-friendly records while still sticking to his niche of feeding the streets with hardcore narratives that made him so prominent throughout his career.
With so much in the works, Raekwon shares some details regarding F.I.L.A., who he thinks is the best New York-born rapper, what he thinks of young rappers and their drug use while listing notable names of legends that he would’ve loved to work with—including a mention for the King of Pop.
HipHopDX: In a recent interview you were quoted saying you wanted to be a “better and relevant artist.” Do you not think you’re relevant?
Raekwon: Nah, I’m not saying it like that. [By that], I meant trying to work harder to reach that pinnacle I feel comfortable at. It’s all about your work ethic. The harder you work, the more relevant you make yourself regardless of being relevant. You just think of yourself more in the eyes of the public. That’s what I mean. Just a little bit more in the limelight where they can really see me grow 10 times bigger.
DX: Do you think you had to climb back to that level after the whole Wu-Tang run and then with you becoming a solo artist?
Raekwon: I think just the fact we had one of the longest runs in the game, and you always want to make sure at the end of the day that you still put an impact the best way you can. It’s important to really know it’s a new generation. It’s a new kind of music going on. My thing is to still be there in the greatest way without discouraging my fans with the wrong energy. I want them to always know they’re going to get good energy in the music from me. That’s important—how to make your sound grow with the times.
AZ, Biggie & Raekwon’s Top 5 New York Emcees
DX: You dropped a lot of tracks lately, and you were even able to get AZ on the “86” remix. How did that happen?
Raekwon: AZ is from the Golden Era as well. I’ve known him pretty much like a brother, and I just heard his voice and felt his voice on the song. I just happened to be in one of my “86” moods at the time, and I thought about him and how he would destroy that beat. I just had to get in touch with him. Once I called him, he was delighted to work with me, because we’ve worked with each other in the past. I’ve done stuff with him on his album before, so we had a friendship already. I just called him to come in and do the job. He came in, and he nailed it. I had the song out already, but I didn’t have AZ on it…but I had the video with AZ. I wanted the world to have something special and get a visual out of it.
DX: You always talked about your preference of working with guys in the studio as opposed to online with e-mailing tracks back and forth. Were you able to work with AZ in the studio for the remix?
Raekwon: Actually, AZ was in another part of the town. He was somewhere else. We didn’t get an opportunity to work in the studio. I prefer [working in person], but I understand artists in general can’t always be at the same spot at the same time. Sometimes you get a better vibe when they’re next to you and you want that, but that doesn’t always necessarily be that way. It’s cool, because at the end of the day, it’s all about getting in tune and making it sound right for the fans.
DX: You mentioned earlier about AZ being from the Golden Era. Both of are also New York guys. Just curious, in your opinion, who’s the greatest New York rapper of all time? Dead or alive.
Raekwon: I would definitely have to go with Rakim. He’s the guy that inspired a lot of lyricists in the game now to understanding and seeing it’s serious. I would definitely have to give it to the God emcee Rakim.
DX: Where would you place Biggie?
Raekwon: I’d put him in the top 10. I think he’s done a lot for the game. He’s a true lyricists and emcee. He didn’t get a chance to make a lot of albums, but he did leave a strong impact behind. He made classic records so I got to give B.I.G. that position as well.
DX: Would you place the Wu-Tang in the top five?
Raekwon: That’s my group, so that’s definitely in the top five groups of all time. I’m sure people might say Public Enemy, Run DMC, but they got to at least mention the Wu in the top five.
DX: You were part of both eras and seen the change in cultures. Was the adjustment period harder for your sake?
Raekwon: I wouldn’t say it’s harder or easier. I just call it work. You got a job you love to do so you just reach out to the people who mean a lot to you, which are your fans. You communicate with them. For me, it’s work and love to the fans. I love them, for real.
DX: It’s crazy because it’s not just the Digital Era of Hip Hop that we’re in right now. Hip Hop in general has changed, and it has evolved. The stereotypes have been broken down and so have racial barriers. Do you think Hip Hop is now more open-minded than ever?
Raekwon: Yeah, it’s a lifestyle. It’s a culture where you’re defining music at the level that we like it. It’s an opus as well as a culture. It’s a journey that takes you to where you want to be in the business. It gives everyone the opportunity to speak their mind on wax and be who they are. If this is who you want to be, then Hip Hop isn’t segregating you for that. It’s only right you allow it to fluctuate because it’s going to be here for 1,000 more years. Just enjoy it.
Raekwon Calls Wu-Tang’s 20th Anniversary “A Great Moment”
DX: Looking forward, the Wu Tang are about to have their 20-year anniversary. Does something like this sort of bring back the excitement, energy, and anxiety—pretty much making you feel more rejuvenated?
Raekwon: I mean it’s a great moment for us because it shows the level of achievement of being able to be in this game. Everything is a blessing right now.
DX: Do you believe that everyone’s legacy and status wouldn’t have been as big as it is now if they hadn’t gone solo? I know specifically, you and Ghost grew into bigger superstars after you branched out and dropped solo albums.
Raekwon: I think we came into the game telling everybody we would eventually do our own thing, which is always the mission. That’s what we’re doing. We’re able to show the people and cats that come into the game that you’re going in and making a career out of anything that makes sense for you. That’s what we did. We came in as a group, and we did our thing solo. Now it’s about handling business the right way and that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to take care of our families outside of our own families.
DX: Previously, you talked about how doing this Wu-Tang anniversary album would help certain members financially, as well as their legacies. Are there members of the group that you feel need to do this album just for financial help?
Raekwon: I think at the end of the day, all that plays a part. It’s really all about just applying it the best way to your life and do good business. Everything is supposed to help. That’s what we came into the music business for. To see our lives change for the better. So yeah, I think that is an opportunity that everybody has to look at. If it makes sense for your life, jump on it.
DX: Would you say money was the number one factor that led to a lot of the group’s issues back in the day?
Raekwon: I mean, that’s not a mystery. I don’t want to get into that, but every group goes through their trial or every artist goes through their financial things where they’re not in place. You learn from it, and don’t make the same mistake twice. It’s all about being honorable of your business and let others be honorable of your business. Things happen. You got to get past it but you can’t let it happen again.
DX: Did those experiences help you have a better outlook on the business and be a better businessman?
Raekwon: Absolutely. It gave me the ability to open my eyes now and take initiative....[Starts coughing]
DX: You good, Rae?
Raekwon: Yeah, hold on a second. It was that weed. But yeah, it gave us the opportunity to take advantage of what’s going on. We came into this business to one day be in the motherfucking box where we’re in the Hall of Fame. We’re doing that. We’re showing it can be done.
DX: After 20 years, did the thoughts of retirement and hitting that finish line ever come across your mind?
Raekwon: I’m not really trying to right this second. I got a lot of work to do, but there comes a point where you do think about it and say you’re not going to rhyme forever. That don’t mean I’m not going to tour. I tour all the time. I’ll tour ‘til I’m 90-years-old if I can make it to 90. I’m trying to be a Hip Hopper, but it depends. It might not make sense when I get to a certain age.
DX: The Wu Tang weren’t really known for collaborating with other artists, as it was rare to see you guys feature anyone on your tracks. If you had a choice, who are some artists that you would’ve loved to work with back during your run in the ‘90s and early 2000s?
Raekwon: It’s a lot of them. I probably would’ve chose to work with other solo artists or eggae artists. It’s a lot of artists in the game.
DX: Any names?
Raekwon: I probably would’ve loved to work with Shaggy or something. I would make a great record with him. Somebody like that. I know that’s a true artist and a true definition of good music. Luther Vandross or Stevie Wonder…Michael Jackson.
DX: Going back to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, it was more of a gangster’s album of you narrating street tales, and that was what originally established you as a rapper. But then you grew away from that and had to change your lyrical content because you were no longer about the drugs, violence. Did that transition period in your lifestyle make it harder for you to write your lyrics because you were stepping outside your comfort zone?
Raekwon: Nah, I’m just an emcee. Sometimes you say to yourself you want to evolve. If you’re an emcee, you don’t want to be stuck in one spot and leave it right there. All I’m doing is what Hip Hop taught me. I got the best teachers from living, and I just try not to put myself in one box. I love to tell stories but more importantly, I love to be creative. That’s the word. Got to be creative.
DX: Where you do you get that creativity or inspiration from?
Raekwon: Just from chilling, smoking good trees and sitting down and eating good food, traveling—not a care in the world. Also hearing good beats. I got to get inspired by what triggers my mind and feeling good about the track.
DX: What do you specifically look for when it comes to listening to beats?
Raekwon: It depends. Sometimes I get excited from hearing producers that made a lot of hit records that I never got an opportunity to work with. I might hear something that catches my ear or I might make something from scratch. I’m a co-producer, too, so we might co-produce at the same time. I just vibe off the moment of what’s around me and how my music is being portrayed. Music is like a TV. You gotta watch it and look at it in a way where it makes sense of you wanting to look at it.
DX: And with Cuban Linx, since you dropped it as your debut album and it became so successful, do you ever get stuck in the mindset where each album you make after that is now competing with Cuban Linx? Like is it mentally tougher to put together albums now? Like with what you’re doing right now with F.I.L.A., for example.
Raekwon: Nah, each album has its own catering. I want to make every album different. I think that’s special. Nobody wants to keep hearing the same thing every time. That’s like going to the movie and you want to switch to see a different type of movie. It’s like you know you love action flicks, but we might want to see drama. It’s about the artist’s versatility on each album, because it shows the growth in the music and also the artist as a person and a writer.
F.I.L.A. & Raekwon's Aspirations For A Global Album
DX: What makes F.I.L.A. different compared to the other albums you’ve dropped?
Raekwon: Fly International Luxurious Art—that’s a mirror on the wall with many different colors on it. It’s a good energy because it’s global music. It’s not just music that allows me to sit in one box. I want to make an album where people in London or people in Germany will love it. There are certain sounds I want to explore and not make it just a hardcore album from a hardcore emcee. I just want it to be universal—I want it to have stuff for the radio and for the hardest emcee’s. I want to mix it up and make it global and fly.
DX: Do you think you’re experimenting more on this album than on any previous album?
Raekwon: Yeah. I think I’m really at my best with vocab. I’m really being inspired again to sit down and come up with it. I’m with a lot of producers and they’re helping me really find my niche. It’s all about the production, too. I’m in a great space with producers and I got some shit. I might be sitting on two albums worth of good shit.
DX: One of the things I feel a lot of people overlook about you is that you’re more about the albums and doing a complete body of work as opposed to making just the smash hit and being content with complementary, sub par records. Are we seeing a decrease in artistry where guys are just chasing that one hit single and aren’t putting as much effort into their whole album?
Raekwon: Yeah, that shit has been going on for a long time. It’s like, people look at videos and they look at just singles. I’m just a different kind of artist. I like to work with people on albums that do features, but sometimes you want to become different. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. You just don’t want to be in a situation where you give somebody 12 records and they send you only three or four.
You want someone to be like, “Yo, that’s a lot of records that I have to respect.” That’s why now, you got a lot of people going to the stores and they listen to first, because they don’t want to spend their money on something they don’t think will be worth it. A lot of people want to listen to great records—like it’s a good single—but then when that record is over, they want to listen to a great album. I was always taught to make solid albums. When you make a classic like Cuban Linx, after that, I couldn’t make nothing but great albums and still be relevant now.
DX: Are we going to see more radio-friendly hits from your next album?
Raekwon: You’re going to see something hot. You’re going to see something that’s going to make you feel like, “Wow, he gave it to all of us.” It’s going to be stuff out there that you’ll know I didn’t have to go all the way to the left to get that respect. You’re going to feel good about it. It’s going to be great music and great features. This album may have more features than I’ve ever had in my life in a good way where it’s a different spoof for y’all. As a Hip Hopper, you’re going to say, “Damn, if I had a cold and Hip Hop had to save me, I’ll know what medicine to get. I’ll know what soups to go buy.” This is a good soup right here. I feel good and confident.
DX: And to finish off this interview, I want to move onto another rapper, Lil Wayne. He’s been in the news lately because of his medical condition, where he’s been getting seizures and such because of many allegations and a reported reaction to codeine. Is drug use something you encourage younger rappers to be more cautious about in order to make the industry better?
Raekwon: Yeah, I think sometimes we take drugs to get into the zone. And with me, I smoke weed. I know better than anyone else who do what they do. But I say at the end of the day, just know what you’re putting into your body. Do what you want to do. Do I encourage dudes to do it? No, because if it ain’t for you and you can’t handle it, then don’t fuck with it. If you can handle it and that’s what you want to do, then you’re a grown-ass man. If that enhances you as an artist, then hey, who the fuck am I to tell you don’t do what you want to do. For me to encourage the young cats to think that’s what you got to do to get to the next level, then nah, I ain’t saying that.
Sometimes go get your fucking 40 ounce. Get a beer or something. Or don’t fucking do it. If you’re a real emcee, then you can just be everything-free, like you don’t need that to get inspired. You’ve gotta respect that, too. It’s up to that person but I don’t think you need drugs to enhance who you are. I think we do it because we are who we are.
DX: Did you or any of the Wu members every try encouraging ODB to relax on that stuff? Because you guys lost a good friend through that.
Raekwon: Of course. But like I said, men are men and they’ll do what they want to do. You can tell someone something but at the end of the day, they’re going to make a decision.