the records that changed raekwon’s life
The Wu Tang Clan rapper takes us on a hip hop tour through his life, from Staten Island to Cuban Linx.
The Chef Raekwon is sitting in his hotel room. No one has told him you can't smoke inside the building and the cloud seeping out from under his door is freaking out the nervous staff. Raekwon though? He's just chill, munching on some chicken. The Wu Tang linchpin is everything you'd expect from a member of the universe's greatest hip hop outfit - serene, charismatic and, even when speaking, blessed with a drawling baritone that could birth myths or start riots. He's got a new album that's just hit the shelves, Fly International Luxury Art; a sixth solo effort that fans have been waiting four years for, and by all accounts, it's another classic. The Chef was feeling good as we asked him to take us through the tracks of his years…
What songs remind you as being a kid in Queens and Staten Island?
I was born in Brooklyn but I went to live in Queens with my grandmother - she lived in Queens and from Queens we moved to Staten Island. We moved around a lot when I was a kid. I can remember back then Grandmaster Flash was big, and the whole Afrika Bambaataa scene - it was just great, great hip hop artists doing their thing back then, you know Kurtis Blow, all that kinda music. That was me coming up as a kid, listening. A lot of the times the block parties was coming to us too. So as kids, there'd be a day called Brooklyn Day, or Staten Island Day, where everything would be happening; music and entertainment and games and sports and fun and all of that, all in one day in the neighborhood. And as a kid coming up, looking out the window and seeing 'em setting up the music, and people with kids having fun and winning awards, that was amusement to me and my people. There used to be DJ battles in my neighborhood back in the day, and Grandmaster Flash came through a couple of times and battled a couple of local guys out there. It was dope to see.
What was the first song that made you want to rap?
The first guys that ever made me wanna rap were Run DMC and Eric B and Rakim. That was the era that really made me want to jump into it because everything they were talking about, we were living every day. These young guys coming out of neighborhoods like ours - we wanted to be like them. Rakim changed hip hop because he bought a serious side to the music and it made sense with the beat. He created a lane for lyrical cats to be heard. To put words together and make it sound good, but still make it sound hard is incredible. Rakim had so many different styles of rhyming, he knew how to rhyme fast, he knew how to rhyme slow, but he was saying shit, relatable shit to the hood, the streets, the world. That's always been something we've looked up to - deep lyrics, shit that you might not catch now, that you might catch ten years on, like, 'That's what he said! Oh shit, I didn't even know that!'
What were you listening to when the Wu first started?
It was the early 90s so we were checking for cats like Naughty By Nature, EPDM, the Hit Squad, cats like that were on our radar. And at the same time, local cats in the streets, such as the RZA, the GZA, they had tapes, so they were a big inspiration; they meant a lot to me too.
What about when you went on tour?
When we were on tour, it was more R&B stuff, old school soul music. We grew up on that, so we love that music. It's traveling music, it'll get you across the world and you'll feel good about yourself - Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, Blue Magic, real soulful old school 70s stuff. There are so many songs, Overjoyed, My Cherie A'mour, Superstition, just good music.
When you bought out Cuban Links 2, were you listening to much contemporary hip hop?
I was listening to stuff that was on the radio, stuff that you glance at, but it wasn't really influencing me. It wasn't intimidating me. If I listen to something that ain't really making me happy, then how can I create stuff that I want? So I tried to stay away from stuff that wasn't really doing it for me. I hear it of course! Hearing is just hearing, but it ain't really listening - you hear it cos they stuffin it down your throat, but I'm more like, if I'm in the studio, I'm there, if I'm in the house I'm watching a movie.
Which MCs do you check for now?
A check for a lot of cats, you got Kanye out there who's always doing something different and being creative, and you got these new cats coming up, the French Montanas. I'm always checking for the people who I came up with - I'm happy that they're able to receive the success they get. It's important for us as musicians to respect another musician that made it, I'm down for that. Busta Rhymes is a hip hop icon, he been doing it for so long he's got too many records I can remember, Pass the Courvoisier, Ante Up, Woo Ha, Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See, man makes hit records.
Do you associate any music with the birth of your son?
I always go back to soulful music. Soulful music to me is always a breathe of fresh air, 70s music. I always listen to it, even today, it's heavy music. I gotta stay in the timeless zone, it's what makes me make timeless music.
What are your favorite tracks of your own?
I love C.R.E.A.M., Knowledge God, Rainy Dayz, there's so many. They're hard.
F.I.L.A is out on 27 April
Text Ian McQuaid
[Photography The Exhibitionist Issue. No. 312, Spring 2011]