Seventeen years after Biggie’s ‘Life After Death’ and with Rick Ross still at the height of his career, it feels like rap has always had a Mafioso air about it. Likewise post-Slim Shady and with Tyler, The Creator aka Wolf Haley, Tron Cat, Young N*gga, Dr. TC and Thurnis Haley (to name but a few) leading a generation of young rap listeners, it feels like rappers’ multiple alter-egos have always been switched on and off like a light bulb.
But this wasn’t the case until Raekwon’s 1994 solo album ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…', a bona-fide rap classic that introduced the music to organised crime and saw the Wu-Tang Clan appearing under Gambino aliases such as Lou Diamond, Tony Starks, Maximillian, Noodles and Rollie Fingers.
However, like many rappers who hit their debut out of the park, Rae’s output, while undeniably consistent and high quality, has struggled to have the same impact since he first made a solo impression. His name is often left out of conversations that he should undoubtedly be part of with regards to the greatest MCs of all time. To put it bluntly, Raekwon The Chef is underrated.
And yet, we haven’t reached a point where Rae feels like a legacy artist, by any means. His last two albums, both independently released, have been as relevant as any other rap releases in the years of their respective releases.
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‘All About You’, feat. Estelle, from ‘F.I.L.A.’
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2009 saw him demonstrating how to pull off a classic sequel with ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Part II’, a far cry from the usually abysmal follow-up albums that clench at classic status to win over a few extra sales. ‘Cuban Linx II’ was absolutely a classic in its own right. And 2011’s ‘Shaolin Vs Wu-Tang’ saw him stripping back the Wu-Tang philosophy to deliver a hard-hitting street album straight from the slums of Shaolin, one that had him working with a wider range of guests including Nas, Black Thought, Rick Ross, Lloyd Banks, Jim Jones, Estelle and Raheem DeVaughn.
“I still feel new, I still feel fresh,” Raekwon says ahead of his recent show at London’s Brooklyn Bowl. “But I’m a 20-year veteran. So everything that I do, I want the whole world to be able to capture it.” He is talking about his highly anticipated sixth solo album ‘F.I.L.A.’ – an acronym for ‘Fly International Luxurious Art’ – which aims to further cement his reputation by delivering a set that can be enjoyed by the masses without compromise or trend-chasing.
“On this album there is something for everyone. Of course I’m still catering for my audience that have been supporting me for the longest, I’ve gotta make sure I feed them, but then you’ve got other people that respect me just growing with the music.
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‘Heaven & Hell’, from ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…’
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“When you’ve been in the business for 20 years it’s all about growing and expanding, and I think this album has given me that opportunity to show people that side of me. If I wanted to go in and make another dark album and keep it 100% underground that’s easy, but then that’s not me growing at the level that I want to grow. I want people to understand that as an artist you’re supposed to indulge in many different sides of your music, many different productions. And that’s why I had to go out there and get the best people to be involved with it, to make this come true.”
He hopes that ‘F.I.L.A.’ will allow him to connect with music fans in general, opening himself up to the live sector. “If I was to go do a festival or something like that, I would be able to have a rounded album that could satisfy everyone,” he says. “I wanted this album to have a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Definitely from a worldwide perspective of music. You’ll be hearing stadium-sounding music – the music is bigger now, it’s more worldwide.”
To help him create this sound he has enlisted the help of Jerry “Wonder” Duplessis, the producer and composer best known for his work with The Fugees on ‘The Score’, a 1996 album that certainly cut loose from hip-hop audiences and infiltrated the masses without compromise.
“He came on board to help me make a solid album,” says Rae. “So I definitely want to shout him out, because he had a lot to do with it as well.” When questioned further about the sonics of the record, he expands: “Oh it’s definitely a colourful album. I’ve got this kid named Scoop DeVille, Swizz Beats, Scram Jones, a couple of colourful cats. S1 (Symbolyc One), he did a lot of work with Kanye before – strong producers man, strong producers.”
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As ‘F.I.L.A.’’s October release date moves closer, Raekwon is keeping his name in circulation online with a new series of SoundCloud-released tracks collected under the Throwback Thursdays banner. The concept is simple: Rae selects his favourite throwback soul and R&B tracks, spits over them and posts one each Thursday.
“I’m giving people the opportunity to see an MC have fun and do stuff that we all grew up on,” he says, quickly remembering his younger fans. “Some of us may not have grew up on it, even! It’s fun to go back and listen to some of my favourite records, even if they wasn’t hip-hop, they was great music to me. I’m paying homage to all the throwback music that paved the way in my life. These records I grew up on, they’re special to me as well as to the fans; I’m sure they probably can remember some of them. It’s just having fun down memory lane and giving you another side of Rae until the album drop.”
Having taken on tracks by The Isley Brothers, Rose Royce, The Spinners and Teena Marie, Rae isn’t worried about finding heavy drum samples that can be flipped – he’s just taking the tracks head on.
“And that goes back to me telling you that, the way I’m looking at music, I’m looking at going back to being an MC as well as an artist,” he explains. “MCs, we can rhyme over anything. If you’re a real MC and you love something, you challenge it, whether it’s R&B, whether it’s hip-hop, whether it’s slow jams, you bring your skills to the table. I figure I’ll make people smile with records that they can relate to, like the Teena Marie record – you never really heard an MC rap over something like that, and I’m a big Teena Marie fan. You’ll hear me rhyme Ron Isley, somebody who I look up to in the music business as a great artist, a great songwriter, a great singer. I just wanted to indulge with his production as well.”
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I love my brothers and business is business. Now I got my business together, I can go into it with a happy smile on my face…
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He pauses before jumping back into promo mode for ‘Flyest International’: “Now when the album drops, that is when you’ll go back to saying, ‘Okay, now Rae is back to business, He’s preparing us to hear what he’s been working on the past two years.’”
Having cleverly utilised online platforms to keep his name on the end of people’s tongues (or at least on the end of their fingertips), Rae hopes that people will still go out and buy physical copies of the album, as opposed to downloading it.
“I understand the digital side of things, I understand business, and I know the most important thing right now is to let your music be internationally heard. And that’s where the digital world comes in. But I want to be able to capture that world and still make people go out there and buy albums. I think we’re missing that in hip-hop.”
Rae isn’t referring to the old argument about illegal downloads though – he’s interested in fans enjoying the experiential side of buying a physical album. “I love to go out and get an album that I know is going to be solid, I can read the credits while I’m listening to it and check out the pictures, little stuff like that makes it fun for the artist to give to the world,” he says.
“It just shows all the hard work you’ve put in, that’s what I want to do. I don’t want people to feel like, ‘I can download it,’ or whatever. You can do that if you have to, but at the same time why not be able to go get up and go jump in your car, jump on the train, stop in the record store and pow, there goes Raekwon’s new album, let me pay attention to that. That’s important to me.”
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‘New Wu’, from ‘Only Built for Cuban Linx… Part II’
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His name has also been in the media recently for his dispute with the RZA, which almost saw him cut from the forthcoming Wu-Tang Clan album, ‘A Better Tomorrow’, which Raekwon claims he didn’t even know about until the release was announced publicly.
“We finally reached some kind of great agreement, me and RZA,” he states, a sigh of relief for Wu-Tang fans. “And, yeah, everything is starting to happen, it’s starting to make sense. I can’t really give you too much ballistics on that, but as far as me being on board to do what I’m supposed to do, my team is telling me that it’s going to be a great situation.”
He pauses before opening up more. “I’m excited. Of course, things are already starting to heat up and all I can tell you is just you gotta get ready for it. I love my brothers and business is business. I’m glad everybody else had they business together. Now I got my business together, I can go into it with a happy smile on my face, instead of feeling like I’m being taken advantage of. I don’t think nobody needs to be taken advantage of. I’m just excited man, I’m excited to work. That’s what I’m here for, I’m here to do my job.”
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Words: Grant Brydon (Twitter)
Raekwon online. 'F.I.L.A.' is due out in September.