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A Quietus Interview

It's All About the Respect: Raekwon Interviewed
Cian Traynor , April 20th, 2015 08:35

Ahead of new album Fly International Luxurious Art, the rapper talks to Cian Traynor about life lessons, the early days of Wu-Tang and the importance of leaving a legacy

It's mid-evening at a hotel just off Leicester Square when Raekwon is handed a phone. TQ has the final slot in what's been a long day of interviews, no doubt filled with questions primed to draw as much as possible from Wu-Tang's most outspoken member.

Normally this is the point where answers shorten, energy wanes and patience begins to crack. Instead Raekwon seems refreshingly engaged, happy to talk about his life and career without promotional parameters. Even after releasing six studio solo albums and launching his own record label, Ice H20, the 45-year-old doesn't appear to take any part of the process for granted.

Ever since 1995's Only Built For Cuban Linx… – arguably the most influential Wu-Tang Clan solo release – Raekwon has been celebrated as a storyteller with a gift for breaking his flow into precise blasts of scene-setting imagery. However, there have also been moments of critical indifference. There have been times when the steady flow of mixtapes between albums has raised questions over quality control.

But if a pattern has emerged since Raekwon re-established his stature with 2009's Only Built for Cuban Linx... Pt. II, it's that he uses new collaborations and stop-gap releases as an opportunity to gauge the hip hop climate and re-configure his approach accordingly.

New album Fly International Luxurious Art [F.I.L.A.] reveals just how far that trajectory has taken him. It pulls together a mix of production styles and a supporting cast that includes Snoop Dogg, Rick Ross, Ghostface Killah, Busta Rhymes, French Montana, A$AP Rocky and 2 Chainz. The end result is flashy, upbeat and accessible in a way that feels like a veteran rapper aiming to regenerate his audience. So what's changed?

"What's changed is that people are more and more driven by singles," he says. "Everyone's so into downloading because they don't trust that artists are working as hard as they say they are. Now it's all about, 'I have to check it out before I actually purchase it because I don't know anymore.' That's why I want you to let people know, man: this is a real hip hop album from a real dude, so get ready for it."

Why is it so hard for older MCs to maintain quality?

Raekwon: It's all about dedication. Sometimes you can make a substantial amount of money and automatically think that you've made it, that you did everything you wanted to do. Some people just stop. I think there are a lot of dudes out there that are runnin' out of gas. Some of my favourites, even ones I look up to... I haven't been fully impressed with their dynamics of makin' a body of work that makes sense to me.

What drives you to keep going, then?

R: I'm not doing this just because it takes care of me. I think I do it because I love the energy that comes when I get on the mic. It keeps me creative and I love to hear what the fans want, what they love or hate about it. When you devote yourself to being an artist, you have to stay on your craft and always try to get better and better. The better you get, the more your legacy shines. I always just try to go hard, man. If you don't want do it for real, don't do it at all.

So when things first blew up for you, how did you learn to maintain that focus?

R: Well, I could never do it alone. There will be days where I'm off, where I've got to go back to the drawing board. You gotta have a schedule, you gotta have a team that's passionate about seeing you do the things you say you wanna do. When it comes to delivering this, it takes a lot of work and I can't do that on my own. I can only give you my energy, you can only give me your opinion, but at the end of the day we've both got to work together. So it's all about having a strong team that really believes in your vision and helps you facilitate that.

If a young MC approached you for guidance, what advice would you give them?

R: I would tell them to just keep working hard. Master your craft, get a good team of lawyers and surround yourself with people who have good energy. Don't be settling. When you settle, that's when you lose a little somethin'. You've got to take every song like it's your last time to be heard. Do that and you'll be fine.

What lessons have you learned that you didn't know back in the day?

R: I would definitely say having your business together. That's a lesson learned for me. Comin' out the 'hood, sometimes we just wanna do whatever we think is smart without really handling business the right way. The other thing is being creative. Don't ever give up on that.

Meth remembers watching the video for 'Method Man' on TV while being broke and eating rice with ketchup, thinking: 'This rap shit is not popping.' Did you ever have a similar feeling before things took off?

R: For us, I think the most important thing was just putting our city on the map at that point. Staten Island was almost like the last borough of New York to be recognised in the game. So we were fed up about that and really wanted to show that talent existed on the island. The music was there but it wasn't out there, so we felt like we had a job to do. Like: 'Listen to this album. Y'all might love this shit, y'all might be able to understand us.' If people hadn't, we would have just made one record and kept it movin'.

From the start of Wu-Tang right up to your recent Throwback Thursday Series and the use of Isaac Hayes on the new album, soul music has always featured in your work. What is it about the combination of hip-hop and snippets of vintage soul that works so well?

R: Soul music was the nucleus of hip hop because that's what gave us a certain kind of feeling. It's what made hip-hop beautiful. As an artist, it's so important to create music that puts a chill through your body or does something to make you feel good. I think my album has a little bit of everything in it and that's important to me. But soul music is my fuel for doing that... Keith Sweat, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway. In order to be one of the greats, you've got to study the greats – and that's what I've been coin'.

So do you think the magic of listening to those old soul records growing up translated into the early Wu albums by adding a certain energy or substance?

R: Yeah, I think so. We all came from families that were big on music. Growing up as a '70s baby and listening to what our parents played means there are certain things in the music you just don't forget. I'll hear something and it can take me back to being a kid and gettin' an ass whuppin' or some shit that makes you laugh, you know? Some music reflects certain family members or things that meant a lot to us at the time.

Plus, soul music has so many great artists who put their thing down. That's important. I was just looking at Diana Ross the other day, how big she became and how she's still out there doin' her thing. Patti LaBelle showed up at an awards show recently and practically shut the building down. She just fuckin' ripped the roof off the bitch, you know what I mean? I love that kind of shit. That's what got us here today.

When your kids ask about your life, what do you tell them?

R: I tell them about growing up in music and how it motivated me. I applied that to my education and it made me a better person. I think a lot of people can learn from listening to hip hop. It ain't always about beats and rhymes. Sometimes it has a way of bringing out whatever hidden talents you may have. My kids will listen to hip hop but they won't understand the words. I have a five-year-old and she loves singing songs, like Justin Bieber's record or whatever, so I bought her a microphone recently. She's got a voice! And if that's what she loves, I'm down with encouraging that. But no, they ain't a fan of me! They appreciate all kinds of music and that's a good feelin', man. It makes me laugh.

But do you think there will come a time when they'll be listening to Cuban Linx and asking you questions about your life before hip-hop, standing out on street corners?

R: Yeah, we just haven't got to that point yet. When it's time for us to have that conversation, I guess I'll just sit down and keep it real with them. 'This is where your dad comes from, a certain kind of lifestyle. We grew up poor. I wasn't like y'all. I didn't have a beautiful home or even a place where I could rest properly. I had to be moved around all the time.'

When I was a kid, my moms couldn't stay still. She had to go do this, she had to go to school, she had to get jobs. So I was hoppin' all over the place: I'm in Queens, I'm in Brooklyn, I'm at an aunt's house. It took her a minute to actually get it together but she definitely did in the end and that's something I respect about her. She was a hardworkin' woman.

You've said that you want the new album to appeal to as many people as possible, which seems like a contrast to your first album. It was originally titled Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Niggaz, with emphasis on 'Only', because you were aiming to connect with a specific audience that could relate to what you were saying. Yet it still reached around the world... so why do you feel the need to consciously open things up?

R: It's all about the respect. It's just about people giving me my props and saying: 'You created a good album, my brother.' I'd be cool with that. I would have been happy with selling whatever, you know? But being that [Cuban Linx] did spread out to the world, it was only a blessing from God. He said: 'I want your music to be heard in every place.' And I can feel it whenever I travel somewhere. People jump out and really embrace me, man. That's what gives me the ability to still do what I do.

What impact has converting from a member of the Five-Percent Nation to traditional Islam made in your life?

R: I think it's just the fact of appreciating God and how he's given me the ability to be who I want to be. It's important to have a spiritual side because tomorrow's no promise to us. We have to pay homage to our saviour and put him in our life more because, without him, you don't know where you're going to go.

At the same time, you want to wash away a lot of the stuff that you had to do growing up as a kid... like sellin' drugs back in the day, you know? I put poison in people's mouths – not literally poison, but givin' them drugs to get high off. That was something I was never proud of. I was just trying to find a way to eat and take care of myself and help my moms the only way I knew how. Now I'm just thankful for what I've got.

How do you want to be remembered?

R: I just want to be remembered as a dope MC, man. As somebody who really covered a lot of ground and became internationally known. Hopefully, maybe you'll even see me hosting some awards, whether it's in 2015 or 2023 – I'm just going to sit here and wait my turn. The most important thing is just to be recognised as a legend, like the people call me. To have that title attached to your name, you've got to be a bad man. It's an honour to have that role.

Fly International Luxurious Art is out April 27th on Ice H20 and EMI