“Anybody can be a rapper, but to be a star, you have to work.- Raekwon”
IFood and alcohol decorated the popular Engine Room Audio. Sprinkled between plaques that shined gold and platinum, were pockets of people that were as anxious as they were excited to be present. Chatter was frequent as the latest rap debate sparked in almost every corner. “He’ll be here soon” a voice bellowed behind me as I waited with “I Got Money” playing in my head. Almost instantly, the room that was just buzzing got quiet as we spotted the man of the hour behind the glass of the studio.
“It’s like he glows or something right? Wow.” said a journalist in the room.
Donning a two-piece sweatsuit with one pant leg rolled up, Raekwon walked confidently into the room of fans and press; welcomed with thunderous applause. His signature low cut ceaser with the swoop was sharp and he smiled- knowing he was a walking hip hop classic. We were there to listen to his seventh solo album The Wild (released on March 24th). “Thank you for coming” he said. “I just wanna continue being the timepiece yall n*ggas know“
As the engineer pressed play on “This Is What It Comes Too”- the first song on the project- heads bopped in sync to the nostalgic beat. It felt like the nineties. For 40 minutes we were lost in the composite of mafioso lyrics that are as gritty as they as they are complex. Despite the sonic blast from the past, the project doesn’t feel dated. Managing to balance old-school synths with evergreen topics, Raekwon cooked up a masterpiece. He did what enthusiasts said couldn’t be done, and arguably produced the only solo rival to his 21-year-old classic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.
Soak my bullets in cyanide/ So when they touch it, that’s a case closed.
Credited with being one of the masters of braggadocio rap, Raekwon has successfully flexed and rhymed his way through over two decades in hip hop. As Wu Tang’s most vivid storyteller, The Chef has painted wax with colorful street tales spanning far beyond the group’s Staten Island stomping grounds. He’s as universal as hip hop itself, with a pen that taps into every genre of music curating final projects dubbed legendary.
“My first rhyme might’ve just been me freestyling and bugging out.” says Raekwon. “The freestyle section of being an MC was fun for me. I was always the dude that tagged team with other dudes that knew how to rhyme. I come from a group of men that enjoyed it because that [music] was our way out the ghetto. We would go listen to Cheryl Lynn, Earth Wind and Fire… Keith Sweat. People don’t consider that hip hop- but we were rhyming to sh*t like that. It made us feel good, we emulated what we saw and it became a hobby. That’s what made us love it. It was refreshing.”
That “hobby” netted Wu Tang an international franchise and a cemented slot as hip hop royalty.
Despite countless accolades, Raekwon humbly credits his tenure and commitment to music to the artists he studied before his own legendary reign. Putting record sales on the back burner and artistry first, he serves as proof that content is still king in a myriad of one note releases.
When you heard Rakim for the first time it was refreshing. Salt n Pepa refreshing. Naughty by Nature it was refreshing. You don’t get an opportunity to get those kind of gems no more. We need those gems. We gotta stay in tune with our culture.
“All the G’s before us taught us the importance…Queen Latifah, Will Smith. I just met Jazzy Jeff for the 1st time. These are dudes that are masters, that paved the way for us. They gave us inspiration so we have to continue that legacy. We can’t think that it’s about sales all the time, who gives a f**k? You care about sales but at the end of the day..you should care about being great. You wanna graduate to that legend box. You wanna be remembered for something great.”
As hip hop changes spheres and sounds for the umpteenth time, it’s imaginable that MC’s of Raekwon’s era would shy away from the music that doesn’t fit the sound they helped create. Music consumers are fickle, and while we celebrate a new generation of artists changing the frequency in hip hop, it’s not farfetched to think that older contributors would remain cloaked and revel in their own history. Raekwon however, has done the opposite and consistently releases music almost every two years, embracing the new artists that dominate the airwaves.
On The Wild especially, we see The Chef’s quest for something new as he taps on G-Eazy, Lil Wayne and more for features on the 16-song LP. He chose carefully, as the featured rappers on the project all balance his vision of hip hop preservation with new school appeal. Seemingly, his mission is to pass the torch to a new generation of emerging talent that is deserving because of skill, not chart placement. The most memorable feature on the album comes from Rae’s newest protege P.U.R.E., who attacks the track “M&N” with an alliterative performance crafting bars of only words with M’s and N’s.
Make a mistake and get mauled by this mamba/ Movement with the mobsters are monitored/When I mingle in the midnight moments are muggy.- P.U.R.E.
According to The Chef, P.U.R.E. is the one person he believes is adding the missing flavor to hip hop as it currently stands, the way he once did.
“He has a dope voice, he’s creative and I compliment him on that. He’s clever. I always tell everybody from my school of MC’s that he’s like the newest of my era. Of my sound, but with an integrated sound of today. I haven’t met anybody that can fill that void. So I gave him a shot at being on a record and I wanted to test his skill level right away with something different. I want to challenge him and be a great coach.” he says. “A song with M’s and N’s? Did y’all even catch that?”
“Everybody else [on the album] is basically a scholar in my book. Even G-Eazy, whose cracked the code of making the great music that he makes that the other side of the world loves. When I make these albums they’re designed to touch countries. S**t that you could feel good going to France and hearing on the radio for the first time with an artist from there.”
There are few new, chart-topping artists that can boast having a track with a Hip-Hop legend, yet Rae is sure to keep emerging artists and producers alike on his radar. Ignoring popularity for artistry at it’s truest form, he’s developing careers of rhymers and producers that keep him fresh, motivated and on his toes.
“When you’re dealing with me it aint about being equal to what’s going on [on the radio]. It’s about me seeing the longevity in you. Giving you an opportunity for you to be creative enough to earn a record with the chef. If I feel like you’re a potential climber and you appreciate music the way I appreciate it you might score. And that might lead to something else because everybody has to have something to motivate them. I have producers tell me ‘yo Rae when I’m around you I feel like I gotta step it up’ and that’s good. I want that. Because really that’s reciprocal- I need to feed off of that [energy] too.
As the 11pm hour approached, exhaustion took over The Chef’s face. His smile remained, but you could tell that lyrical mastermind was in need of a break. Still, he thanked me for being present as I reminded him that it’s really been over 20 years of his inderible storytelling. “Wow…” he said reflectively. It was as if for one moment he was back with Wu Tang spitting that first freestyle and not prepping to release his newest classic.
Me: You’ve been consistent, you’ve earned time off. Any chances of retirement soon?
Raekwon: NAH. I got a lot more….alot more. Geniuses keep growing.
It really is WuTang forever.