Interview: Raekwon Ė Only the Strong Survive
20 years is a long time. I, myself wonít even turn 20 until near the end of the year, but thatís how long legendary MC Raekwon has been in the game. As you all know, the man recognized for making classics for the streets while captivating a worldwide audience as part of the iconic Wu-Tang Clan as well as a solo artist has been able to do what many have thought of and few have accomplished: Longevity, consistency and survival. Lasting 20 years in a cutthroat industry spanning over two generations of hip-hop while continuously being relevant for making new music as opposed to living off the hits in the past is something rare in this current world of music we live in. Consistency because you as you move into the future, all kinds of factors get in the way such as age, physical and mental fatigue, and an ever-growing fan base that could grow tired of something and move onto the next at any given moment. Raeís never had that problem as even though heís still making music, he launched his own ICEH20 label not too long ago hoping to supply the future of hip-hop with a few of his own in JD Era and Camoflauge. Heís certainly found a way to leave his mark. Survival? You get fed to the wolves when you enter the rap game. Only the strong survive.
I was able to get a hold of Rae over the phone for a lengthy chat while he was making his way to Upstate NY to continue the leg of his Unexpected Victory tour. The tour had also made its way around Canada, so donít be surprised when you feel that Canadian vibe throughout our chat.
Howís the touring life going so far?
Excellent, man. I mean itís wonderful, I canít even complain. Itís good seeing JD Era getting accepted. Iíve always seen it in him. Just for people to be responding right makes me feel good.
Does it ever get tiring doing all these shows on consecutive nights?
I mean itís a job. This is what we were born to do. Of course, youíll feel tired and donít want to get up in the morning or have a little hangover, but if you love your job, itíll come naturally. So nah, Iím not even tired. I think I can do another show for the next six months. [Laughs]
Did you know that this year marks your 20th year in the rap game?
Yeah, definitely. Iíve been paying attention. 20 years in the business is a long time. Just being able to look at it is a moment that has to be recognized. Wu-Tang, man. Thatís where it all came from. Everybody recognizes all of our 20 years in the business. It feels good. I get on stage and tell the fans about it all the time. I tell them, ďDo you know how long Iíve been here? Shining. Looking good. Feeling good.Ē People just start giving me encores in the crowd. Itís a good feeling. We have a lot of things lined up for next year. Itís going to be a great wave for yíall.
Whatís your greatest memory over that time?
More less be chilling with the Wu, of course. Just going through cities and playing the oldies and writing raps on the bus. Just being in the studio with them. We got a little spreaded out and everybody started doing their own division, and itís cool but theyíre still my brothers at the end of the day. Being around Olí Dirtyís crazy ass. He would do anything to keep the life of the party going. But because heís gone right now, it doesnít feel the same anymore.
You and the Wu-Tang began making their mark in the 90s, which is known as the golden era of hip-hop. As a veteran MC, whatís your vibe like towards some of the current-day hip-hop?
Iím feeling a lot of dudes. I think right now, hip-hop is about bringing energy and a trendsetting path for the new generation. Itís really evolving. You have a lot more smart kids who believe in themselves. You have the college scene where people adapt to hip-hop even more because the kids are younger. It feels good to know everybody is trendsetting and making it something exciting. I always tell everybody you have different kinds of hip-hop. You have the real hardcore, street hip-hop, the educational, the lyrical, the flossy Ėall that comes with the game. More importantly, everybodyís doing their thing. If you doing it right, Iíll watch your back whether Iím your uncle or a role model to you. I really want hip-hop to be here forever. When I see the youngsters doing their thing, itís like ďWow.Ē They came from this, or went through that. You see a lot of kids coming in and getting their respects.
And when you dropped Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, it was pretty much a street album, but sold a bunch of records. With the hip-hop era weíre in right now, do you think a street album would have any chance of commercial success?
I mean it depends. It depends on who the narrator of the album is. It has to be a solid album. Thatís whatís missing from hip-hop. A lot of cats look at the legends who came with classic albums like myself. I was trying to make a classic and to go back and try to do it, people always want to look at you for wanting to do it now. I would say it depends. It may not be a record thatís going to be commercially respected, but as far as reaching the streets or the Internet world, people will say itís a solid record and theyíll spread the word. Really, itís more about the dignity of doing it and getting it done right than looking at it from a political perspective. Every time I made a classic, I was making it for respect. Of course I was making it for money, but I was making it for respect. I was making it for the art that it was supposed to be first and foremost. I knew I would eventually make money but it had to be right first. I think every artist should think like that. Make sure your music is right. If you make a record with 12 or 13 songs that are hot, make sure they hot.
Yeah. So basically, you just focus on the art and the money and all that will come.
Yeah, of course. Thatís what music was based on. It was made to come out from the heart, and then everything comes. The money, the fame, and the wealth. Whether youíre a singer or artist, you know this is your job and this is what youíre supposed to do. You got to keep creating and coming up with different elements for your people so they can be healed by this shit. Itís for the mind. The mind needs to be healed. We just have to be creative and not come from one place. You canít go to a pharmacist and just get one drug, you got to be able to get everything. [Laughs] Word up.
Just quickly, who do you have on your top 3 list of current-day rappers right now?
I would say JD Era, and Iím feeling my man Mac Miller right now. I think heís coming from out of nowhere and doing his thing. Also, Camoflauge. Get ready for him. Thatís my secret protťgť right there. Heís starting to make his circus big, too.
Since you just listed a couple Toronto guys, what do you think of Drake?
I mean, heís alright. He is who he is. Heís doing his thing. At the end of the day, it is what it is. Thereís a bunch of cats I see doing their thing. I donít look at Toronto as one man, I look at Canada as one nation. I want to see the whole nation coming up. Thatís how I see it. Iím the ambassador right now, so I make sure they all get their shot.
Outside of hip-hop, what else do you listen to that may surprise people?
I listen to all kinds of music. I donít listen to just one genre. I really love my 70s music. Al Green, Temptations, Sam Cooke, that Marvin Gaye shit. A lot of old soul. Having that really helps me define what great music is all about because I listen to the greats. When I get ready to do what I do, I feel like I have that spirit in me to be the best at what I do. Those are the real legends, not the cardboard legends.
You said The Temptations. I love ďAinít Too Proud To Beg.Ē Whatís your favorite track?
Itís too many to choose from. ďAinít Too Proud To Beg,Ē ďMy Girl,Ē you know what I mean? Too many. Rest in Peace to my brother Dirty. He was happy with it. Anytime we were on the bus, we would just splash that shit. Weíd be on that bus listening to that shit all day. Singing and everything. It was a family reunion. The OíJays and all that. We were Gs. We werenít young boys. We still have our ways of having fun but more importantly, we on our grown man shit.
Do you listen to Justin Bieber? You and Kanye even have a track together.
Yeah. Thatís my little nephew. He represents motherfucking Canada, too. I see what heís doing and heís very talented. I knew that when I met him. More importantly, we got together and did something. He represents for the young generation heavy, man. When I go out on the road and see these kids, they know Iím there for them. Thatís all I want them to know.
You share a lot of similarities with Ghost and the two of you work well together, but have you guys ever got into disagreements or arguments over music-related stuff?
All the time. We have our differences but more importantly, itís good to have that kind of energy where we make different beats or whatever. Itís a part of thinking harder. We always consider ourselves as the worst critics. We would think about it too hard and the next day we would be doubting what we were thinking. Everybody around us would be thinking, ďYíall n***as bugging the fuck out.Ē Me and him always go back and forth but it happens because weíre creating. We always want work harder for people to know our shit is different, but live.
But just making sure ĖIt never got physical or anything, right?
Nah, not even like that. Just word of mouth shit. We ainít never had to take it there. [Laughs]
Do you guys still rock Cuban Link chains?
Nah. I love my jewels and all that but I donít rock that shit. Iím that guy where you can catch me with a nice watch. Something real casual. Iím more rugged ĖThat motherfucking jean jacket shitÖIíll be styling with the ring on. [Laughs]
Gold rings, right?
Gold, platinum, whatever you want. N***as have to come out with that new shit. [Laughs]
You previously said the solo careers that members in the group had hurt the Wu-Tang. Was there jealousy and big egos involved during those times?
It was always friendly competition but as the money came, of course everything came with it. At points, certain guys were feeling a certain way towards each other but it was just all about us not acting bigger than the next man. Whoeverís time it was at the time, they mightíve been up in the crowds and some of us felt a certain way. When you put grown men in the room together, things are going to get emotional at times. N***as are going to handle it as men and move on. We donít sit there and harvest it forever. We get it out real quick. You have 24 hours to get that shit out your brain and you come to work the next day and act like it never happened. Thatís how we have always been. We never took it to a physical altercation because the day we put our hands on each other is the day we probably would never be friends again. Weíre brothers but donít bring that shit with you the next day or else weíll really be on your ass. Thatís like double trouble.
Youíre from the streets, too. You know about that stuff.
Yeah I come the streets, but I also come from a loyal set. You do for your brother what you would do for yourself. I think a lot of cats are like that. They ride for their men and they want to know if their man is going to ride for them. Everybody goes through that with their family. You might have a discrepancy about something or feel like a n***a is hating on you because youíre doing this, or they donít want to see you win because he feels like you want what he got. He donít want you to win. Thatís sucker shit. Thatís the shit I donít like. I donít like people to come and use other people for greatness and then when you get a certain type of fame within yourself, you feel like youíre something different. Thatís when the bullshit comes in because you didnít stick to who youíre supposed to be. Thatís what makes people start hating. You have to watch out for that shit with motherfuckers.
Whatís happening right now with Wu-Block? Can you update us on the progress?
Executive Sheek and executive Ghostface Killah are making the project go right. I know we have a couple more things to do but check it out. Itís going to be a solid street hip-hop album. Get ready to see us on the road together. Youíre going to see us making it pop.
Like a tour?
Yeah, definitely. We in meetings back and forth talking about how weíre going to pull it off and get it out there for the fans.
I know youíre probably biased, but is Triumph the greatest music video of all time?
I would say itís one of the greatest. Itís in my top 10. Thereís more though but thatís definitely one of my favorites because I actually was one of the narrators in the concept of that video. [Laughs]
And everybody has made their voice heard about this, but do you mind giving us your thoughts about the Trayvon Martin situation?
It was sad. He got caught in a situation where I think the dude [George Zimmerman] shouldíve been more respectable on approaching him and dealing with him like a man instead of acting like [Trayvon] was an assailant running around with a gun or just caught in someoneís window or something. He shouldíve taken more caution in approaching him and now look, we lost a shorty. We lost a soldier based on profiling. Itís just so fucked up on being another color. People always look at that shit. A mother lost a child. Iím not cool with that. He ainít have to shoot him. Itís not like Trayvon came out a fucking window with a crane on him. Itís fucked up. At the end of the day, let the justice system serve and do what the fuck they get paid to do.
Follow Raekwon on Twitter
Follow ICEH20 on Twitter
**JD Eraís (Raekwonís artist) new mixtape ďNo HandoutsĒ will be available today at 4:16pm for download.
Special thanks to Cynamin Jones
Interview + Words by Michael Nguyen