Raekwon Discusses His New Album, Working With OutKast, His Wu-Tang Classics & More
For nearly 25 years, Raekwon has been an elite source of inventive Rap music. The Staten Island MC made his debut on the classic Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) by transmitting some of that album’s most memorable lines and verses. Following, Rae’ pivoted in a different direction with a cinematic Gangsta Rap classic in 1995’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, becoming not only a star within his clique, but a leader across the enter Hip-Hop landscape. Throughout, the man born Corey Woods packaged heartfelt revelations and street wise allegories with coded language, punchy cadences, and unique rhyme patterns.
Ever since, Raekwon’s career has been a series of advancements and retreats. Creating a narrative beyond an album or a crew, Rae’ has incorporated varying sounds, styles, and themes to his works of the last 20 years. Only when the components were truly worthy, he struck back with a sequel to the “Purple Tape” that served his first musical child with the honor it deserved. The masses and critics responded in kind. Nearly a decade later, Raekwon wants to grow and progress forward in self-proclaimed peak form. March 24’s The Wild is Raekwon surveying the crowded kingdom of the Rap game, and making his move. Recently, The Chef spoke to Ambrosia For Heads about what he’s trying to cook up with this LP. He breaks down a tribute to a legend on the album, remembers one of his more important guest appearances, and a couple bars from 1993 that still hold true today, hopefully for all of us.
Ambrosia For Heads: You previously spoke about how you see the industry is like as a jungle right now. Do you think The Wild symbolizes the power structure or those resisting and rebelling against that structure?
Raekwon: I would say a little bit of both. Because [the music industry] has a lot of diabolical-ness going on in it. Where, some shit that just don’t make sense is starting to make sense. I’m not saying it makes sense to me, but it’s just the adjustment-factor that I got to deal with. Like I said, I’ve [managed to make it] through this jungle and still been able to [not get hurt]. That’s what I do. When it comes to the music side of things that the creativity has to still be as strong and as empowering as the last project was. ‘Cause I’m an album-maker. That’s not a mystery to people. They pretty much know, “I know I can get an album from Rae’,” other than ‘I know Rae’ is just gonna give us one or two singles.’ I’ve always been an album-giver. Like I said, [we are] just dealing with times, lookin’ at a lot of shit that’s going on around us, it forces me to have to keep challenging myself in the greatest way with my music to be different.
Ambrosia For Heads: You’re an apex predator of the microphone, a king in the jungle. When you’re coming up, prey is people you’re competing with, whether in a battle or fighting for with a record deal. Then, it becomes throwing your weight around with other predators. Who or what is the prey at this juncture in your career?
Raekwon: The prey, to me, is the people that can’t relate. Whether they’re older or younger, sometimes people live in a box and think because you’re an O.G. [you do not have new and interesting things to say] and that you lose momentum. I used to agree with that, but then I had to say to myself, “that’s not happening over here.” I’m not losin’; I’m getting stronger. I don’t feel it…I don’t feel washed, I don’t feel like [I need to retire]. If I’m able to tap into the channels that keep me going, the prey is in trouble. Just when y’all think it’s over, they pulled me back in. I’m just being honest.
I listen to the radio. I see a lot of things that’s going on, and how they don’t really relate to what I came up in. Don’t get me wrong, I’m seeing a lot of these young cats doing they thing, and I’m proud of them, because you know what? When you get an opportunity to shine, you go for it. That’s what they’re doing. But as far as the music being to the next level or to the standards of an artist that really is an artist, [it is hard to find]. I’m always sure that I do it the best way every time. I gotta do it the best way every time, because that’s how I was taught. I was raised from that generation of artists that let us know how important it is to be creative, let us know how important lyrics and [wordplay] counts. People want to hear what they can understand, too. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes the beat carry a lot of dudes’ shit. But you’ve still got a lot of conscious people out there that want to listen to shit and be right there with you…understanding everything you’re saying and doing. The prey is the people that challenge me, challenge my wits on being considered one of the best. I don’t ever want to be in a situation where, “Rae’, his lyrics were simple. The production wasn’t…I wanted more.”
You know you can never really give everybody 100% of what they want, every time. If I go back to that super hard shit, then it’s like, “Yo, he didn’t grow.” But then, if I grew too far, it’s like, “Yo, but he didn’t have that hard.” With me, I kinda like just look at it like, yo, just give mothafuckas quality, man. Quality over quantity.
Ambrosia For Heads: You mention pleasing fans. Following your classic debut and another classic Wu-Tang album, you progressed and took risks in your solo career afterwards with Immobilarity and Lex Diamond Story. In many ways, The Wild feels like progression and has you turning a page. How would you compare that growth of now to then?
Raekwon: This growth is beautiful for me; it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. I feel like a better artist than back then. It’s just about being able to stand the test of time and still be as sharp [as ever]. I just feel like I’m growing at a pace where I sound more professional, I sound more like I know what I want to say now. I know how to present my own albums now. At one point, after [Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…] was made, that was when I took on the role of doing my own albums [with RZA]. Of course the participation of the producers [plays a hand], but I had to become my own A&R. I had to format shit. I had to do everything that it takes to keep my sanity in the music to where it needs to be. I just feel like right now, I’m at the top of my game. This album gave me the opportunity to show y’all: look, 20 years later, this dude still sound like a young-boy, like a young bull. That’s important. A lot of people think that when wine sit on the table for a long time and you don’t pop it that it may dull or don’t have that taste. This wine only became richer and more expensive at the end of the day.
Ambrosia For Heads: Speaking of that, you’ve got a record on the album called “Marvin.” It’s a great concept. What does Marvin Gaye mean to you, as a peer of music?
Raekwon: He’s a pharaoh in the music. He’s somebody whose life has driven his music. He put his heart into everything he did, and it hit the world all over. Like Michael Jackson. At first I was thinking about doing a song about Michael, but then I felt like Marvin is more soulful to me, and more [relateable]. Marvin just seemed so real. He wasn’t always a nigga runnin’ around with a bunch of jewelry on. He wasn’t the nigga who jumped out the car and have fuckin’ 10,000 bodyguards. I know people that say he used to come to the neighborhood, even after he was super successful and still be a regular dude. You’d catch him walking by himself. That’s how I am. That’s my persona. I’m blessed to be able to go a lot of places across the world and don’t have to look after my shoulder or nothing like that, to where people is out to harm me. It’s always being embraced. He’s definitely one of those brothers where I can say we shared the same life. To this biography or whatever people want to call it, I just wanted to pay respects to one of the greatest musicians in the world.
Ambrosia For Heads: To that point, I remember passing you and Sean Price just walking together one night in Philadelphia. It was before a show, but you were just talking to people on Chestnut Street.
Raekwon: I guess that’s how Wu-Tang [Clan] was always the way we were because we didn’t let anything overcome our humility of where we at, today. We’re humble because we came from a tough struggle, man. We come from the poor part; a lot of niggas ain’t gonna make it out the way we made it out and become this successful across the world. So I love the fact that I can just be grounded and be myself and still get the respect that I deserve based on everything that I’ve done in the business.
Ambrosia For Heads: On “Purple Brick Road” you rap, “Spent my time to achieve all of the fortune and fame / And for myself, making a name / But deep inside, I try to cover up the scars to be a shining star.” Vulnerability is one of the things that some of your greatest verses have, so tell me why you think you need to cover them up at this point?
Raekwon: Scars is just the trials and tribulations that we go through…the ups and downs of the business, and trying to make the people understand that I’m a great artist. Yo, I work hard, man. Y’all help me live a great lifestyle. [But] I have my tough times. I was in a slump before I wrote [Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. II]. It took me almost six years to come with [that] ’cause I was in a zone. I was having issues with taxes and my moms was gettin’ a lil’ ill, just personal things. It’s like yo, this is where I’m gonna really have to be strong. The scars is just the imperfections that we all [have]. I have to cover them every now and then to try to move forward and block the frail. A lot of times shit can get to you and let you know be as motivated as an artist. It can fuck up your whole disposition, as far as being creative. That’s the last thing I ever want to do. ‘Cause that affects my family’s well-being and my children and people that believe in me and know that I get busy. [Repeats excerpt of lyrics]
Ambrosia For Heads: When we last spoke, you told me that you want to develop artists more. You were key to artists like La The Darkman, Yelawolf, and even 2 Chainz told me once how much your early support mean to him. I hear something really special in this MC, Pure. Tell me about him and what you heard, especially on an album with limited guests.
Raekwon: I’m just so proud of my guy. This is a new artist that I signed to my ICE H20 imprint. I’m really feelin’ his personality and his aura and how he listens and understands what this business is about. Not only him being a real great artist, he’s a real great person too. When you think of his name…I gave him that name. ‘Cause that’s what I felt from him. I’m always out there looking to see who’s talented and who has what it takes to be a star…not just be an artist to be a star. He definitely had all those traits that I’ve been looking for. I’ve always [believed] you have to pass the torch. [In the past I tried], and it just never got over the mountain top. But with this guy, I feel that he has what it takes and the world is gonna accept him in the greatest way. [On the song] I wanted him to show his cleverness, with me, and come together and do something [special, with a conceptual rhyme scheme]. I feel like I’m his Cus D’Amato when it comes to making him great.
Ambrosia For Heads: I remember where I was the first time I heard “Skew It On A Bar-B.” That song was nuts. As you show new sounds, new styles on The Wild, how did you feel when you were presented with that? Also, what does it mean to you to be the first MC Andre and Big Boi made a song with who wasn’t from Dungeon Family?
Raekwon: That was a monumental time back then, because we was up, doing our thing. They was up too, though! It wasn’t to the point where Outkast wasn’t heard, it was just that they wasn’t heard from the New York side of things. It was the South actually starting to get their just due. When you think about records back then, everybody was just doing their music according to where they’re from. With me being a humble dude and meeting Big Boi in Lennox Square Mall back then…he was real humble, respectful. I knew who he was; he knew who I was. The energy was golden. I think we walked into the studio with that same energy: no egos. He asked me, “Yo Rae’, we want to get you on a record.” I was like, “I’d be delighted to fuck wit’ y’all. I like y’all; I’m a fan!” For me to have that blessing to be able to come up in there with him and do it, it was dope. I love their flow. I said, “Oh aiight. This is how y’all gon’ do it? Y’all gonna freak it on some fast shit!” The [BPMs] was blazin’, and you know me, I come from the school of rhymers. The beat is fast, you gotta get with it. The beat is slow, you freak it [accordingly]. It’s all about how to step in and approach that mic. You know, we got in there; I think I might’ve had like two takes. He was like, “Yo, it’s over.” And it was over, official. That cracked so many places… even to this day I go to the South; I live in the South too, [but] there’s people today who still talk about that record.
Ambrosia For Heads: One of my all-time favorite lines of yours is in “C.R.E.A.M.” You said, “Figured out I went the wrong route / So I got with a sick-ass clique and went all out.” I don’t care who they are, everybody hopes to relate to those two bars. When did you make that discovery?
Raekwon: [Laughs] That line comes from growing up in the neighborhood and really being around wild cats and just buggin’ out, doin’ a lot of shit, not carin’ whether I live or die at the time. I knew it was important for me to be around people that got more of an intelligent side on life. A lot of times you hang with dudes and they just want to do the same shit all the time. Like, there ain’t no real fuckin’ growth. They don’t know that really, if a man ain’t got nothing to live for, he ain’t got nothing to die for. So me knowing that that was the ride I was taking, I had to get around some brothas with some great energy, some knowledgeable people that I could really look at and say, “Yo, it ain’t about the money; he’s mad smart. He know how to get down…the way he carry his self, his posture, his aura [is great].” I felt like when Wu-Tang had came on the set, that I was running with a strong team. I kind of felt the greatness from when we was in the studio doing our thing. For me, you can’t tell me that I didn’t see the future. Like, I knew we was gonna be good. But I didn’t know we was gonna be great. I damn sure didn’t know we was gonna be internationally known! I just knew that there was a lot of power in the room with these guys. A lot of smart, intelligent m’fuckas in here. That’s what I meant when I said, “I got with a sick-ass clique and went all out.” That was the mind-frame: we gonna make it; we ain’t gonna let nothing stop it. We all in one frame of mind. We all talented. We all feed off each other. We all learn from each other. We write with each other. We write for each other. It’s fun! That’s what you want with your brothers: they see the best in you and help get it out of you like you help get it out of them.
Raekwon’s The Wild releases March 24 on ICE H20/Empire.