Raekwon “The Chef” has been scorching eardrums with incendiary pyroglyphics for over two decades and stands as a shining example of consistency in hip-hop. The Wu-Tang member has anchored a half dozen Clan albums as well as his own impressive solo catalogue, wielding a distinct al dente rhyme style that gave birth to rap’s Costra Nostra.
Understanding how his voice has echoed in the rap arena, The Staten Island native has cast a wide net for his latest project, FILA (Fly International Luxurious Art), to both shed light on his influence and bask in it. He’s piled unlikely accomplices like French Montana, A$AP Rocky, 2 Chainz and Estelle and more onto his private jet and crafted a mile high jam session that feels like the victory lap one must take after risking life and limb in the underworld he’s described for so long. It’s basically the unofficial “Entourage” soundtrack.
On the eve of its release WatchLOUD spoke with Raekwon about pivoting slightly from his expected sound (like his brother Ghost did so many years back with his Wizard Of Poetry project) while still making the mosaic thump.
WatchLOUD: You open the album’s first song “4 Am” with the words “Bernhard Goetz Cazal’s on…” Goetz is known as the subway vigilante who was acquitted of shooting four Black men on a subway in 1984. What is it about NY in the 80s that still inspires you now, lyrically?
Raekwon: It’s just the excitement of those times, you know, it was about skills. Whether you was an artist, an actor or a person that was just down for the action. It was more fun. The excitement of music. The feeling of music. That adrenaline was pumping and when I heard that track it just took me back to that life of the wilding fun. Scram Jones smelted that beat right there. That whole situation back then was just weird and funny to me. How he (Goetz) was moving at that time. He was like a “Nervous Thursdays” type of dude. The glasses he wore made him look like an assassin to me. So imagine if I had the new Cazals on they would be his style of glasses and the mentality of that type of person at that time.
I was just impressed at how many levels were in those four words. You captured New York history, NY style and NY crime in half a bar. As soon as you hear that name you know what time period that was. It was just a back to the future dart.
[laughs] You see how the slang come? The track made me do that. I go off the body language of the beat. That’s the excitement of making rhymes and making hip-hop. You wanna say things that make people want to question.
Do you wait until you hear the beat or do you have a book of rhymes?
I wish I had a notebook. Nah I write on paper and write according to once I hear the music. I’ve never been the dude to sit there and have a book of rhymes. I tried to but sometimes you don’t have your book and you in situations where you get the feeling for something at the moment. I like to write at the moment because it has a certain organic-ness to it and I give you a homemade cookie.
When you’re listening to a beat how do you decide what song goes on which project?
We definitely want one album to be different from the next. I like to give you rain, hail, sleet and snow. This particular album I wanted it to be a little brighter, more lifestyle, displaying my skill on every level as an artist. Not as an underground artist but as an artist. Basically trying to transition myself more into today’s sound waves. The waves now everything is bright. Still hard, but bright. For this record I wanted to explore places that I never been before. Especially with so many features. That’s not never Raekwon’s thing but in today’s world of music it just makes sense for an artist that comes from the ‘90s. I represent with a lot of dudes. I been around a lot of young cats that came up and got successful based on the leverage that they had with recognizing an OG on a record. You notice a lot of dudes been doing my beats over. So I been kind of like that four leaf clover that’s been popping up on everything. So I know that in today’s world I have to acknowledge that and make sure that it complements my music today.
Right, you did the song “I Got Money” with A$AP Rocky. What was that like?
It’s like looking at yourself all over again, when you were doing your thing. One thing I respect is when you’re able to build your own fan base. I’m impressed with that ability to build your brand at a young age, and the movement. They saw what Wu-Tang done and they saw that everything is supposed to be about family. I look up to dudes that got a movement going.
Then you have a brick to the face track like “Nautilus”…
That’s definitely one of them records that take me back to my bloodthirsty days of being on the mic and rhyming. I just wanted to give people a taste of the salad and that record had some spices on it. I wanted to make that spicier because you can’t have a Raekwon album and Rae don’t go hard. I’m still gonna give you that pistol whipping music. That shit that got a n*** locked away in a cell. We got something for the females, too. That record with Estelle (“All About You”) was a flashback record for when you with your lady, y’all dressed up, you on your way to take her out, the car is cleaned up and y’all gliding through.
This album feels like when Ghost did the Wizard of Poetry record a little bit. Is that a fair comparison?
To a degree yeah, because at the end of the day we’re always trying to find ways to satisfy all our fans, all our consumers. Every fan ain’t necessarily a hardcore individual. At the end of the day it’s about rounding it off. That’s what makes a great album. You can go here and there and still make it sound cohesive. If this album was a clock you lookin’ at, every three hours it was something different that I gave you within those three hours. That’s the thing with making an album. You think about how important it is to serve everybody and not put yourself on one side. With CL2 that chamber had nothing to do with the FILA chamber. This is a lifestyle piece. Rae is international and this is luxury art. Making the title of the album was so basic because that’s where I am as a person. I’m always going to be rich in the spirit but more importantly I’m having fun in a quality way and that’s what makes this album some fly shit.
You let that be known from the jump. This album cover is like something out of a Kemetic syllabus. What inspired it?
It’s just looking at your brother as a monumental piece in the game. I couldn’t be nothing else at this point but a Griffin due to the fact of my experiences in the business and just surviving. You don’t get a lot of artists that can stand the test of time after 20 years. Everybody knows a griffin is a good luck piece, it represents overseeing what’s going on. The Lion side is always there because I’m in the jungle. The industry is a jungle. But you got to be able to walk through there and have that respect that’s required of you. And the wings are the wings of life, like we always told you with Wu-Tang. So if I’m putting up the eagle, the W, you know my wings have sprouted so much that that’s how they look now. I’ve flown over many, many different places and left my mark. That’s where the wings come in and that’s me. I’m a figurine in the game. I just wanted to come with something different and I got a powerful young artist named John Newsom, a very good friend of mine and he’s so full of great energy that it went perfectly. When I first put it out people were in awe because they didn’t understand but now they get it. They love it.
The documentary for Cuban Linx is coming this year, but do you have any other film projects coming up?
I do have a taste for acting. I did it back in ’99 premiering in a movie called Black and White and I did an independent called The Coalition. I know how it goes. I just want to make sure it’s the right time to move on it.
We were just talking about the Coalition scene when they killed you.
[Laughs] You remember that shit, huh? It was crazy because that was my first time me having such a long role and when they told me I was gonna die at the end I was like ‘why I gotta die?” But you know I respected it because we was bullies in the flick. It was crazy them putting the fake blood on me, telling me how to react “oh shit, he shot me.” Acting is fun. It’s all what you make it and jumping into that character.
Speaking of characters we just celebrated one of your more famous roles, as “The Watch.” What do you remember about making that song?
We were just having fund and being creative. We them dudes that like to get into the studio and write. When we do it it keeps us feeling good about writing. When we hear a beat we do what we feel would be fun to that beat. The watch is a concept. It’s talking to us and tell him where he’s at in his life and his career. That’s what makes great MCs great MCs. When you hear some Barry White shit you wanna go off and brag but we said why not take it here and do something different with it. I happened to be the watch and to me it was just a dope concept song and that’s how Wu-tang dudes do. We’re unpredictable.
You’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of Only Built this year and performed it at Coachella wearing the sick Linx Beach jacket. How did you get that made?
That was a retro piece of the Snow Beach that I wore back in the days in the “Can It Be All So Simple” video. That jacket picked up a lot of traction and a lot of people requested that I do another one and I got with this company who pulled it together for me. And it’s 100% quality. That jacket will stay like that forever. You pass that down to your kids like females pass pocketbooks down to their daughters. It’s got a purple hood in it just to take you back to the CL chamber. People will be able to order them soon. It’s worth everything they asking for.
It seems fitting that you were literally wearing some luxury art with this album coming.
It’s a colorful album. This is just a taste of where I’m at today. I respect all criticism but get the album and enjoy it. Also, tell my fans I’m on that social media heavy. I love to hear what peoples comments are. I’m listening but this is an album that everybody will love. This is not a Cuban Linx album. I’m gonna get to y’all in a minute. I want you to see a young artist take it where he need to take it. And when I say young I mean young in the mind. My mind is still growing.