With razor sharp wordplay and luxury slanguage, few rappers in their 40s have enjoyed the same prolonged relevance as Raekwon. In the summer of 1995, Corey Woods released Only Built For Cuban Linx and ushered in a new era of Mafioso rap along with his Wu Tang Clan co-star Ghostface Killah. A masterpiece in criminology, the album heavily influenced the early careers of Jay-Z, Biggie and countless others as well as furthering the Wu Tang’s unparalleled rise.
Raekwon pulled off a rare feat by following it up with a quality sequel in 2009 and has continued to earn a reputation as one of the most consistent and digitally savvy members of the Wu. While the group celebrates their 20th anniversary, Rae remains focused on his solo career and is preparing for the April 28th release of his sixth album Fly International Luxurious Art as well as a documentary about the making of his classic debut.
Let’s talk about your new album Fly International Luxurious Art. You’ve said previously that it’s going to be “for all rap fans.” How do you cater to a wider audience without diluting your individual style?
I just try to be open-minded about creating music and also give them [the fans] an opportunity to see growth as well. Even though I’m a ‘90s artist, I still know every now and then, I have to give it a little shine in certain pieces of the music instead of just giving them that raw ‘90s sound. I just go with the determination – “this is what you do, this is your job, you’re supposed to know how to do this.” I collaborate with the right producers who understand the music that we are going after and we just go into it with a strong will and make it happen.
Do you still get nervous before you release material? Are you nervous about FILA?
Of course I’m excited and nervous at the same time, but I think the nervousness is coming from that it’s just around the corner. So I really want to see fans go out there and go pick it up. You want to know that it’s everything you thought it was and that they feel the same way. That’s when the nervousness is kicking in, but as far as anything else like the sales and whatever, I don’t really care about that. I care more about the quality and giving my people dope music, so that’s where I’m at. If it sells a million copies in the first week then I’m blessed, but more importantly it’s all about the quality.
Some of my favorite hit records, the beats are maybe over four or five years old.
I’ve read you hear beats you like and keep them for years with specific projects in mind?
Absolutely. Some beats I pick up, I’m a person that likes to travel a lot. I run into producers all the time and I’m constantly looking at the new, looking at the adventurous as far as producer-wise and really just holding onto stuff that I like. Now some stuff I might have forgotten that I had and I’ll take a trip down memory lane when we’re listening to beats and be like “yo, I forgot about that one.” I’ll bring that one to light because it was something that I felt still could work for today. So I do that as far as beats and some of my favorite hit records, the beats are maybe over four or five years old. I’m used to holding certain things and pulling it out at the right time.
Are you already storing beats for Only Built For Cuban Linx 3?
You know me, I’m always a person that’s going to be thinking ahead of time. So we have some things lined up. I don’t really want to go too deep into that because it’s about this project [FILA] right now, but you can bet your behind we’ve got some other stuff lined up for that.
You can write a song within 30 minutes. Are there quite a few popular songs you’ve written that quickly?
I wrote a lot of records fast. I guess I’m probably just one of those artists that once I get that feeling and that tingle happening, I go right into mode. Some artists they don’t have the ability to do that, but I do and I’m blessed to have that. It’s just all about the production, if I get the right production and I’m feeling good about where I want to go with the music then it’s already made before I even put it in the booth. I made a lot of great records like that.
Wu Tang often competed amongst themselves in the studio and clearly you’ve still got that competitive mentality. Does that mean there aren’t a lot of friends or women around when you’re in the studio?
Personally, I like to work alone. Sometimes, don’t get me wrong, the studio does get crowded and it happens organically, but I think when the best comes out is when we focus and sit there taking it like a job. One thing about me, I always want to make sure the fans know that I take everything serious when it comes to making great music for them and sometimes you can’t get it done if you’ve got a lot of people there… but sometimes you might need that too. You work under different circumstances you know.
When people first heard your lyrics, your slang was almost impenetrable. Were you worried that people wouldn’t be able to understand your style?
Yeah, I was because I was talking from a street perspective, where it was just presented with that kind of attitude. Coming into the business and leaving the hustle game alone to change your life and just wanting to be a better person. We always had good intentions, [we] just didn’t know a way to get there, so that’s what it was all about for us, man. It was speaking from reality and giving you an opportunity to go into a place you might not have went and still see how important it is to still dream and believe that you could be a better person. That was the whole theme of making Cuban Linx, it was about how no bonds can break our relationship or how we feel about each other and where we are going. So it was just a beautiful concept to emulate at that time.
Did you think Steve Rifkind, who was at the time the president of Loud Records, fully understood what you were trying to do with OB4CL?
Yes, at the time Steve always believed in me. There ain’t never been a dull moment that he didn’t believe what I wanted to do and he’d try to make me comfortable. I think he had just seen an artist that was pretty much excited about being a star. He supported me. He followed me in everything I wanted to do. The only thing that he didn’t do was when I wanted to do a whole movie about Cuban Linx. Instead of doing videos, that’s what I would have preferred to do. I wanted to make one big movie about the album, man. That’s when they were like, “You can’t get too big now. Let’s see how this goes first.” Later on he regretted that we didn’t make a Cuban Linx movie, but these type of things could always come around again and you never know what could happen.
Let’s talk about fashion because that’s always influenced your music. You were getting up early ironing slacks and silk shirts before you went to school.
Absolutely man, I was just a kid inspired to be somebody and have the nice things that I deserve in life because I work for them. We were fly guys at a young age and that had a lot do with our personalities because we already felt like we were grown before we were grown. What I mean by grown is just the ability to be smart and not do foolish things to hurt ourselves. I was always around educated men. Dressing up and all of that was important because if you looked like somebody, you felt like somebody and you were somebody, so that’s what it was always about.
You guys had gold teeth in the ’80s, years before grills were popular.
Exactly, exactly. On Times Square we could get anything that we wanted and as kids we grew up early. We were next to people that made gold, that wore chunks of gold and even made gold pendants and jewellery and we were putting gold in our mouths. Just coming up in that time where all that stuff was big, because we were in the kids out in the front, getting in the seat watching all of this. So we emulated what we saw.
I read in an interview that you were holding guns at 16.
I will just say that I had a rough come up and I come from a single parent home. The streets raised me. I’m a product of the neighborhood. I speak for millions of kids all around the world, some things that we do, we don’t realize what we’re doing when we’re doing it. We only see the moment and, for me, just living under certain circumstances really made me a stronger person today, because I know what it is to have to get up, go out there and be somebody. It wasn’t even about holding guns or that type of stuff. That’s just living in the neighbourhood, more importantly I had to surround myself with the winners and the dreamers to be where I’m at today.
I had to really, really like Cuban Linx before ya’ll did.
Did you make a lot of sacrifices in changing your routine from being in the streets to a legal hustle?
Of course, when I started to see things were escalating in a truthful way, where it was like, “Yo, this is going to happen.” Yes, I started getting up early and taking advantage of the studio. Getting in there to be the first one on the track and be the last one to leave. It was just determination because at the time I felt like it was a job that I was passionate about wanting to live out. So I knew I had to get up and do different things and do it in a good way.
Going from poverty to success, did that shake your worldview when it first started happening?
That’s what I was about to tell you, it’s almost a good, scary feeling because you tend to love the fact that you’re becoming successful and earning money to take care of your family, but then the scary thing is – do you know how many real, good and loyal friends you have? I had to learn in the long run how things went and I sat down a lot of people and really thought they were true and you know things happen, man. But for the most part it was an experience. Like any kid coming out of the neighborhood that gets the opportunity to make a couple of hundred, 300 grand a year, you sit here and you say to yourself, “Damn, there’s more to it than just the money.” It’s about the loyalty of friends that’s around you that we can all make money together. That’s the plan, but sometimes things don’t always be that way.
I’ve heard you describe Cuban Linx as an album that was for people with broken dreams and no hope. I really like that.
It’s the truth. If you don’t have something to live for, then you don’t you have something to die for. That album was a testament of the street life and the circumstances and the places we had to walk down and deal with. That album kind of speaks for it. So that’s why we celebrate the 20 year anniversary, because it’s an album of hope for guys such as myself and inner-city kids that didn’t even know hip hop could take them somewhere. If they didn’t believe it, they believe it now, so that’s important that we spread that.
You almost had a co-producer role during the making of Cuban Linx.
That’s how it is when you’re making an album, you’ve got to be hands on with what you like and what you don’t like. I was making sure that I loved it before ya’ll actually loved it. I had to really, really like it before ya’ll did. We were making albums and everything at that time, and it was all about the production. I pretty much was a little bit more hands on than everybody might assume RZA was. We were both really in there working at it, because it was my project, the guys helped out to make it a classic as well.
Is there a member of the Wu Tang Clan who you feel is the most underrated and never got the shine they deserved?
I would say probably Masta Killa. He’s definitely one of the artists I know that has a lot of talent and really deserves a little bit more credit. I mean he’s been on a lot of good records. He should be the guy that we should be talking about a little bit more than others. Yeah... one of my favorites.
You and Ghostface were recently at Sundance Film Festival promoting your new OB4CL documentary The Purple Tape Files. How was that experience?
That was amazing right there, because this year is the 20th anniversary of the Purple Tape album. For us to present [the documentary] to the world, it’s something that we are really doing the same as if we were making another album. You’re getting a good opportunity to see Raekwon go to the film world and give you a glimpse of how that album is made. The first place I wanted to go was Sundance Film Festival, and we got invited there and we showed the trailer and it was a good look. Everybody appreciated it and it’s kind of driven me to make the project even more official, better than ever. When we got done, we knew there were costs to make this project, so we kind of started a crowd-funding situation with the fans to give them an opportunity to invest their time, money, and effort to help bring this project to the world and give it the best insight that I can give it.
This legacy we built, we want to share it with the world and we want the fans to be attached as if they directed it with me. Look forward to these things, man. There’s a lot information that you might have wanted to know, so we have to make sure that everything is answered in the most eloquent way. We’re still in the premature stages, but for the most part we are getting a lot of things covered and we still have time to make it a great thing. On a scale of 1-10 it has to be a 25 for me, so it might be a 10 for you, but it has to be a 20 for me. Just imagine where we want go with it. It’s going to be dope, the way we’ve shot everything. You’ll love it. Trust me.