Bringing it Back
The Raekwon interview

Mafioso rap pioneer Raekwon discusses revisiting his Wu-Tang Clan roots and admits a surprising admiration for Justin Bieber.

Raekwon has never been short of confidence and maybe he has earned the right to be a little cocky. Staten Island’s rap veteran has been the Wu-Tang Clan’s heaviest member, in more ways than one, since the very beginning and is largely (oops!) responsible for pioneering the Mafioso rap sub genre that influenced the output of The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z and Nas. His latest album, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang sees Raekwon return to the original sound of early Wu-Tang Clan productions, something he believes has been missing in recent years.

Shaolin vs. Wu Tang, Raekwon’s third album in 18 months, references Gordon Liu’s 1985 film Shaolin and Wu-Tang, a kung fu classic that was heavily sampled on Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Wu-Tang have not released an album in over five years so  Raekwon, real name Corey Woods, sees this as his way of keeping his group’s legacy alive.

“I feel like there are a lot of fans out there that really want that Wu-Tang sound back, so this album represents the true essence of where that Wu-Tang sound came from. When you listen to the tracks, you will know for a fact that this is one of the hottest albums we have made in a while.”

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, Raekwon’s 1995 debut solo album, is widely regarded as one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time due to Raekwon’s ability to create a cinematic narrative where he presents himself as the protagonist, documenting the crack cocaine epidemic that took over many major US cities in the ‘80s. It has been credited as the album that pioneered Mafioso Rap, with its constant references to the Italian Mafia and organised crime. His follow up, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II, was met with even more critical acclaim and won album of the year at the HipHopDX Awards in 2009. Despite past successes, Raekwon does not feel under any pressure to burden himself with comparisons to his previous work and looks at each project as an opportunity to develop as a rapper

“At the end of the day, nothing is here to compete with nothing, know what I mean? Everything is about growth and development when it comes to me. It’s like going to school. When you in the first grade you wanna get into the second grade. I feel like I’ve paid my dues through the years to become a stronger, greater artist. I’m in my college course right now when it comes to being a great artist.”

Fellow Wu-Tang Clan member and close friend, Ghostface Killah, appeared on over half of the tracks on Raekwon’s debut and the pair have regularly featured on each other’s albums since. Ghostface, real name Dennis Coles, makes frequent appearances on latest release Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang. Raekwon believes they are the two members of the Clan most dedicated to preserving the sound their group pioneered on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) back in 1993.

“We value our flag when it comes to Wu-Tang Clan. He (Ghostface) is constantly out there doing his thing. The guy is almost nine albums deep. It just shows you that he is really trying his best to keep that legacy that we created back in the early ‘90s. We work great together. He’s my guy. “

As a member of the Wu-Tang Clan and a solo performer, Raekwon has been recording albums and performing for over 19 years and observes that a worrying transformation has occurred throughout hip hop since he first emerged on the scene in the early ‘90s. He claims the strength of a rapper’s lyrical ability is no longer enough to make them successful and record companies are to blame for manufacturing chart-topping acts in order to ensure high record sales.

“The art has been abducted by record companies. When I was growing up it was about explaining why you were a great MC and shining through – it was all about skill. It wasn’t the label that made you hot. It wasn’t the label that made the choices on the records that were being made. Back then, it was the artist that was making a lot of these decisions. The record companies was only just there for marketing. Now they are trying to dictate what they feel is hot. They see an artist that is hot and they want you to mimic that individual. I don’t understand it.”

As record labels struggle to find ways to make money from album sales in spite of the seemingly-unstoppable force of illegal downloading, Raekwon claims that a lot of it down to the fact that most rappers these days are simply not releasing albums that make people want to part ways with their hard-earned cash.

“I think the MC side of things has faded away. It’s not that there aren’t any great MCs, it’s that they are not working as hard as I would expect. There are people making great singles and great videos but when it comes time to make a great album, no one really delivers. The fans will tell you. There have been a lot of disappointments and that is why they download music, because they say it’s not worth buying.”

Over the years, Raekwon has developed a reputation for being quite confrontational, openly criticising fellow rappers that he believes do not inhabit what it takes to be a real MC. The Notorious B.I.G. and G-Unit have both felt the wrath of Raekwon in the past. Even fellow Wu-Tang members are not safe from criticism, as RZA found out in 2007 when he came under fire for his production style on Wu-Tang Clan’s last album, 8 Diagrams. However, in 2009 Raekwon converted to Islam and it seems to have mellowed him out a little. When asked for his opinion on the current crop of recording artists, Raekwon is full of praise for his contemporaries and has a surprising level of respect for a certain teenage pop sensation.

“There are a lot of cats out there doing their thing. One of my friends, Tech N9ne, is a great underground artist. I feel that he is about to take off. Black Thought is one of the most incredible artists in the game right now. Shout out to The Roots and Kanye West for doing their thing. Justin Bieber has done phenomenal things for his age and his generation of music.”

In a recent interview, Ice Cube claimed that the hip hop culture constantly pushes older artists out of the industry and denies the pioneers the respect they deserve for laying the genre’s foundations. Raekwon disagrees. He believes that as long as rappers stay on top of their game and continue to produce relevant, innovative music, fans will continue to support them.

“Hip hop has really helped a lot of people’s lives. It has brought out the best in a lot of cats but it also ruins cats too. People look at hip hop as being a universal language. It reaches a lot of urban, suburban and old people. You can be 45, you be 55. If you love hip hop you always going to adapt to it. They key thing is, how long can you stick around until the fans say, ‘No more. You can’t do it no more?’ I refuse to make the fans look the other way and say, ‘Rae doesn’t have it any more.’ It’s not in my book of options.”

Words: David McNamara     Illustration: Alice Devine



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