The Chef Serves it Up
By Paul Rogers
“I’ve done terrible things,” sighs Raekwon. “Comin‘ up in the street, just being wild; getting into trouble; not respecting myself or respecting people that’s around me . . . Fighting; beating people up. That wasn’t the person I wanted to be.”
Sure enough, so much of this Wu-Tang Clan rapper’s career has been about his navigating a path away from his early Staten Island street life. His solo work documents this struggle, and offers listeners lessons learned along the way.
“I feel like I’m no different from any other kid who experienced all different types of hell in [their] life, so I constantly want to be a better individual and I will make sure that, at the end of the day, I come with a whole different game plan of respect now for people—because I see that so many people have respect for me,” he says.
“It’s important to know where you come from, because anybody can change something from good to bad if they believe in it—and that’s where I’m at in my life.”
Raekwon, 41, is now a family man, a Muslim, and lives in an upscale neighborhood of Atlanta. It all seems a far cry from the drug- and crime-riddled narratives of his classic 1995 solo debut, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx . . .; it’s worthy 2009 Pt. II follow-up; and the “Lex Diamond” Mafioso persona Raekwon adopts on these records (and on 2003’s The Lex Diamond Story).
“You gotta remember that I’m called ‘The Chef’ for specific reasons,” Raekwon explains in his affably forthright manner. “I’m a guy that’s going to be able to serve you many different platters and give it to you in a way where you can see exactly where I’m going . . . The Mafioso rap style—that’s one of my styles.”
“Do I worry about telling kids certain things? Yeah, I worry about keepin‘ it away from them, but at the same time there’s only so much you can keep away.”
“I’m Just a Portrait of Life”
See, Raekwon doesn’t advocate a Lex Diamond lifestyle, but rather is a window onto it—and his viewpoint comes with implied warnings. Indeed, as he told XXL in 2005, “The theme of the [Only Built 4 Cuban Linx . . .] album is two guys that had enough of the negative life and was ready to move on.”
“I tell pictures of reality—things that [have] great possibilities of being seen,” he insists. “If I’m going to the Cuban Linx world, that’s for fans who respect that world. If I go somewhere else that’s for fans who respect me growing as an artist and sayin‘, ‘He don’t keep talking about the same type of shit,’” he continues. “I’m just a portrait of life and that’s all I try to do within all my music is be versatile and be on point with it that way.”
The Chef and the Wu
Like most Wu-Tang Clan members, Raekwon has woven a solo career around Wu reunions (and partial reunions) since the group’s seminal 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). And while Rae may not have matched the solo success of Clan cohorts Method Man and the late Ol‘ Dirty Bastard, he has—often in collaboration with Wu-Tang’s Ghostface Killah—dropped some of the more diverse and inventive work to come from that nine-member camp.
Raekwon’s fifth album, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, released in March, offers both a contrast to his Mafioso rap cuts and a return to the Clan sound of old (with several Wu-Tang members featured on the collection).
“That’s how I see it,” mulls Raekwon. “You think of Wu-Tang, you think of a variety of music and sound . . . That’s what I felt we needed to be when I made that album. Not saying that every song-for-song was a Wu-Tang song, but there was a lot of Wu-Tang-ness involved with it that I knew that people was like, ‘Yeah, you’re in the right direction.’”
Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang also features appearances from Nas, Rick Ross and Roots MC Black Thought. Indeed, Rae has frequently featured guest performers on his solo records—everyone from Slick Rick to Busta Rhymes—and he regularly drops in on other artists’ tracks: from Fat Joe and Pete Rock to, perhaps most controversially, Justin Bieber (alongside Kanye West on “Runaway Love Remix” last year).
Moolah and Music . . . and Fans
With characteristic frankness, Rae explains that such collaborations are about both moolah and music—expanding both his musical palette and his fan base by rubbing shoulders with other big names.
“For me, both is important . . . Of course the music itself is the most important thing. Collaborations [are] great; doing business is great. You can’t do business in a great sense without having great music, so for me I definitely try to balance both worlds,” says Raekwon.
“I’m an artist that I think, for a long time being in the game, I have done multiple projects by myself. Sometimes in a way it’s cool and sometimes in a way the fans want to know if you’re open to doing these [collaborative] things. And, for me, I’m all about pleasing the fans. If that’s what they want—they want to see me rhyme with some of the greatest and go head-up—it makes the hip-hop more special too.”
“But business is something that’s still in our corner because you can’t be having music that’s not hot and thinking you can do business. People want to see that you’re involved with the people that [are] winning and the people that’s making things happen and interesting artists—it just gives the listener something to brainstorm on.”
This music-with-business theme continues with the ever-more-prolific Raekwon’s second release of 2011, which will now be a mixtape rather than the album he’d originally planned. He’ll be using this as an opportunity to introduce fresh faces like buzz-heavy Canadian rapper JD Era, who he signed to his Ice H2O label in June, to a wider audience. (Rae recently opened a new H2O headquarters in Toronto, suggesting further forays into Canadian hip-hop are ahead).
“We was gonna do the album thing but, you know, the zone I’m in right now my mind is telling me take your time; stay practicing. My coaches is making a lot of great decisions for me and they like, ‘Let’s take our time,’ y‘know? So that’s what we’re doing right now.”
“So, yes, you will receive a mixtape this year. My guest host of course will be my new artist that I’m pumpin‘ right now, JD Era. So you’re gonna actually see not only JD Era and myself on the mixtape; you’re going to see me starting to merge a couple of ice water cats that I’ve actually been working with—my H2O Records team, you know what I mean.”
“You’re going to see me leaking a couple more records with them on it as well, so this album is going to be looked at as an album, but also it’s definitely going to be a strong, powerful mixtape.”
The Missing Linx
With so much going on with both his own music and his label, Raekwon is predictably cagey about persistent rumors of an imminent Only Built for Cuban Linx . . . Pt. III.
“[If] it happens, it’s going to happen. Right now, every project in my eyes is golden, so when I take it there to Golden Linx, I promise you we’re going to press that bat phone and you’re going to see the sky light up!”
In the meantime, Raekwon will be revisiting his revered debut opus at Rock the Bells on Saturday, in a set with Ghostface which is billed as “Only Built for Cuban Linx.”
“It’s just going to consist of us really just performing an album that we know the world really went crazy for,” he enthuses. “So it’s just going to be a lot of great imaging and building. We’re going to take you back to the times where this was one of the first albums we made.”
“You’re going to hear and sing them words. And we sound like the album. We sound like the records when we onstage, so it’s definitely going to be like you’ve got a pair of headphones on, listening to a classic.”
Rock the Bells Festival w/Raekwon + Ghostface and more at San Manuel Amphitheater, 2575 Glen Helen Pkwy., San Bernardino; rockthebells.net. Sat, Aug. 20.