Twenty years ago, Raekwon dropped his debut LP, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (August 1995), and in one fell swoop provided the hustler’s blueprint for attaining the finer things in life. On his sixth LP, Fly International Luxurious Art, which hit stores April 28, the Chef, an now-elder statesman at 45 years old, slightly modifies his trusted recipe. F.I.L.A. is a little more melodic, more polished and more radio-ready than most Wu-Tang Clan releases.
He recently stopped by the Billboard offices to school us on his new sound, the next Wu-Tang album and the evolution of luxury rap.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. New York is a lot different; the music industry is a lot different. You were 25 years old then, so you’re a lot different too. What was your mentality like back then?
It was just more about the excitement of being accepted into the game. It’s one thing to live out hip-hop; it’s another thing to be attached to it from a business perspective and the artistry side of things. Back then, it was a little tougher to be in a business. But I guess it was different, because the energy was more free. But we created a brand and the brand has to be exposed in the greatest way. It’s a job now.
You can be involved with hip-hop now without ever leaving the house, but you come from real poverty. What was it like escaping that?
The first thing I did was I moved out of that neighborhood and moved into a better environment. That was a culture shock to me, just to be able to say, “Yo, look what my talent got me. Look what happened out of this.” We would have never thought that we would get to that level of success where you walk outside and you’re seeing nothing but green grass. And the clouds are so close to you. When you’re in the hood, you don’t feel like that. You feel like shit is super far away from you.
What was your first luxury purchase?
When Wu-Tang made Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), we were just like, “Yo, I need jewels around my neck right now, because I’m the f—ing shit like that.” So I bought some jewelry. I bought my first Rolex at 24. I went to the Rolex store and took time to learn about the watch — “Oh, this shit don’t tick.” All I just knew was the name, like, “I need a Rolex, I need a Rolex.”
But did you get buyer’s remorse?
I remember, at one point, having five cars. Acuras, all kinds of shit. I didn’t need five cars.
And then, of course, some things become luxury items even though they’re not, right?
The Polo Snow Beach jacket I wore back in the “Can It Be All So Simple” video in ’93 — I paid maybe $250 for it. But being that it was so authentic and different… That jacket is almost $7,000 now. I bought that shit in downtown Brooklyn in A&S. It was outfit day, so I had to figure out something to rock. I saw it and was like, “I need that.” It wound up being one of the top pieces that’s ever recognized in hip-hop. It seemed like that just blew everything out of the water, from jewelry to cars. A lot of people only get recognized for music, but like, I’m being recognized for a f—ing jacket. Then it made me think, “Well, what made you like Run-DMC?” Because them n—as had them Adidas suits on and them jeans and them hats.
In your 20s you rocked Tommy Hilfiger, iced-down cuban link chains and drove Acuras. How does a 45-year-old stunt on these haters?
[By] being happy, being comfortable and being able to still grow. If you take pride in who you are, you treat yourself with luxury. It doesn’t matter how old you are. It’s all about what’s in your heart.
How did working on the Wu-Tang Clan A Better Tomorrow album influence F.I.L.A.?
F.I.L.A. sounds extremely different, because I was in a different state of mind. Making an album that I really felt like today would stand the test of time wasn’t hard, but it wasn’t easy. I think it was just more trying to just see where it goes and see how the people accept it. I walked into this project, thinking, “Yo, you know, it’s a possibility that Wu fans might not feel this, because it doesn’t have that Wu energy-driven album perspective of it.”
It doesn’t sound like a Wu-Tang album.
I always tell people, “Listen, every album has its own face.” I never sat here and said, “We’re going to make twin Cuban Linx albums.” No, that was something that you all pulled out of me, because of how you all respected the first one. I love Al Pacino. I love him in all the gangster movies. But you know what? I also love him in Scent of a Woman and Serpico.
As I looked at my past 20 years, I said, “How do you stay here?” Well, you have to be connected. You have to be attached. With this album, I’m attached with the new, as well as what I know from before. I figured out a way to make it make sense and feel good for all of us; for everybody to be like, “I can take it. This shit is tough.”
“Soundboy Kill It,” with Assassin, is a different look for you.
Even though I know people love me to tell stories and do what I do, I love the fact that I was able to make this project more international and have an international West Indian reggae artist get on this album and do what he wanted to do. I’m big on reggae. A lot of people don’t know that. That was a part of our culture as well. I just really wanted to pay homage to the sound clash and music vibe that used to take place back in the ’90s.
What’s you’re favorite song on the LP?
“Heated Nights,” because it feels so close to a “C.R.E.A.M.” 2015-style. It is the same kind of energy, I guess. I wanted to make sure that that was felt on this album, as well.
What are you listening to these days?
[Laughs] Your boy is still stuck listening to a lot of old soul music. I’m in the car, I’m listening to Marvin Gaye. I’m listening to Keith Sweat, Stevie Wonder, the Manhattans, Carl Thomas, Faith [Evans] [and] Mary J. Blige. I’m just still there, because that music, it was like having something in the water, man. I could name some great albums [today], but I wouldn’t call them classics. But back in my time, classics were nothing to make for a lot of artists. Everybody was just so good, because they didn’t care about trying to be a follower. Now, today, everybody wants to follow who they feel is at the top of the food chain, whether you want to dress like them or look like them or whatever. Back then, it was more about authenticity.
Switching gears, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, the The Wu-Tang album that is getting auctioned off — it doesn’t seem like all the members are on the same page with what’s going on. When you cut the records for that, did you know it was going to be this album that was going to be auctioned off? Or, was it something that you had done unknowingly? Because you know how it is nowadays: You might cut a thousand records and you don’t know where anything is going.
RZA has students across the world. And this guy [Cilvaringz], actually, we worked with him before. He had a relationship with all of us. He made beats and he considered himself one of the Wu-Tang dudes. We accepted that, because he did put in a lot of work. But this album was brought to the table by him. He brought that album to RZA and said, “Hey, look what I got. This is my philosophy. This is what I think we should do with this.” He made sure he got in contact with all of us, out of respect, without just throwing it out. But this was just something that was vintage, that was done in his area, of his career, at that time. He knew that he couldn’t make this worth anything without having us attached to it. We did the records for him and we respected him. He was that kind of guy, like, “Yo, if I can’t pay you, or whatever, I do tracks.” He’s a dope dude.
So he’d give you a beat as a tradeoff?
[Nods in agreement] You know what I mean? That’s what we did, just out of fun. It wasn’t like it was a project at first. And then when he was sitting on it and sitting on it and realizing that he has a goldmine on his hands, he sat there and said, “This album needs to be recognized for artistic form and not just for somebody’s personal pleasure no more.” They need to recognize that, our music, in general — hip-hop — is art. And so we have to show the world something so it makes sense, so they can get it. And he came and we had a conversation. I thought it was brilliant to be able to express it in that way, have something that we know that back in the day meant a lot to us — which were these particular records — because, at the end of the day, dudes were still in their prime when these records right here were being made.
How long ago were they made?
I’d say they were made at least over 10 years [ago]. Probably even more. He wasn’t playing anything for anybody. He wasn’t letting anyone hear it. So whoever is the winner, I’ll be like, “Yo, coming to your house. I need to hear the shit.” I always knew it was dope though, because I knew the era we was in at that time.
It seemed like nobody in Wu-Tang really supported A Better Tomorrow.
A lot of press wasn’t done on that album, and at the end of the day, the guys did have mixed feelings about it. It wasn’t really understood what was going to be the outcome of it. We just felt like, “You know what? RZA, we’re going to listen to you for this final time on this one. We’re going to give you the benefit of the doubt.” Because you cannot shoot down the man who made us all successful from production and [allowed us to] be here today. It’s like having to look at your brother and he’s like, “Yo, I promise you!” And you’re like, “Yeah, well, man, I don’t really know. But you’re my brother. F— it. All right, we’re going. Hit or miss.” And that’s just what the situation was. But we can’t move like that when you’re legendary. It has to be solid. ALL. THE. TIME. That’s the only way I want to do things. It has to be solid.
Were you happy with A Better Tomorrow?
No. I mean, I wasn’t, because I needed a few more elements up there. Like, “Yo, we need hot sauce, man. Where’s the hot sauce on this f—ing sandwich? You know we eat with hot sauce, mother—-er.” I’m just being honest. I love all the records [and] the philosophy of it. [But] the music was… it was too calm. The sweat was there, the tears were there. The blood wasn’t there, though. The desire to really want to kill it wasn’t there.
Will A Better Tomorrow be the last Wu-Tang album?
No, I don’t think so. Wu-Tang, like we always told you, it’s going to be forever. We’re going to look to see what happens though, but I doubt it. All the members don’t feel like “It’s over, it’s over.” I think dudes just want to make sure that our business is perfect and we can go on and still do what we love to do. Wu-Tang will make another f—ing dope album again. I have no doubts and no questions about that.
And you’re all still real friends too, right?
The brotherhood is still there. For us, it’s the heart that keeps this shit something; that keeps this old Wu-Tang family circulating. If it was just about business, trust me, we would have been out of here. There would have been no more Wu-Tang Clan. But we still share a common cause and respect with each other, because of us remembering how our past was with each other, and what it took to get here today. So as long as we think like that, we’re going to overcome any obstacle.