In anticipation of his third project in 18 months, Rae reveals why RZA "didn't really wanna co-sign" Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang, how he reunited with Nas on wax, and why he respects teen idol Justin Bieber.
While over the last 14 years Ghostface Killah has proven himself to be the most consistently impressive member of the Wu-Tang Clan with his solo output, Raekwon is currently proving himself to be the most determined of his Shaolin brethren – the one unshakably committed to maintaining his crew’s relevancy in the Rap game 18 years after the killer bees first swarmed on the scene.
After releasing just three solo albums from 1995-2009, The Chef has since slammed his foot on the gas pedal of his career and is already preparing the release of his second solo project in less than two years. Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang (due March 8th) is the official follow-up to Rae’s critically acclaimed comeback, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II (and trails his one-off trio project with fellow Clansmen Method Man and Ghostface Killah, the admittedly rushed but seemingly well-received Wu-Massacre).
But as Lex Diamond explained to HipHopDX on Tuesday (January 18th), his first formal release of 2011 (yep, just his first) will not resemble anything Rae’s released in recent years, but will rather reinstate the sonic and conceptual direction the Clan debuted with in 1993. And while a throwback album will likely have Wu fans worldwide in a state of euphoria, Rae candidly revealed during this discussion with DX that The Abbot of the Clan, RZA, is “bitter” about the Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang project.
HipHopDX’s 2009 award winner for both “Album of the Year” and “Emcee of the Year” further revealed how his online supporters influenced the construction of his back to the future disc, how he finally secured a long-discussed Nas feature, why Jim Jones “represents real Hip Hop,” and why the hardest working Wu-Tang member has no regrets about his eyebrow-raising remix with Pop star Justin Bieber.
HipHopDX: The last time we spoke, a little over a year ago, you told me Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang was going to be “a significant Wu-Tang-sounding album…it’s gonna have that Wu sound all the way to the tee. It’s gonna be different from [Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II], but it’s still gon’ be Wu.” Can you elaborate for me a little bit on how this album is different from your last official solo LP?
Raekwon: [Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. II] was me going back into my Godfather status… But this album is more constructed to be like a real, real Wu album. When you think of Wu’s early music, how we had the karate skits and the music was coinciding and sounding choppy like that karate format, this album is carved out in the same significance. I had to make sure that I upgraded too, because we dealing with a whole new sound [in Hip Hop], a whole new generation of listeners. And [so] for me, it’s still gotta feel new but still feel old, youknowhatImean? This album was definitely texturized on that level. When people listen to this album, they’re gonna appreciate the Wu sound that basically got everybody open off of us from day one. So some beats are gonna make you feel like, This shoulda been [on] a Wu album… This is for the Wu fans first and foremost. Like I always promised cats, I’m gonna definitely keep that sound [alive]. [And] this one is definitely for the Wu-Tang lovers. So, I made sure you gon’ hear more skits that coincide with the music. And for anybody who ever seen a karate flick, you know nine times outta ten it’s always beef, drama, betrayal, trust problems…
Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang, it don’t necessarily mean both of them is against each other, they’re both the same. It’s just Shaolin is more disciplined than Wu-Tang. If everybody go back to looking at the original movie of Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang, Wu-Tang got kicked out of Shaolin because of their ways: how they was being so flamboyant and running around with the broads… So they kinda lost the discipline side, and the Shaolin wasn’t having that. They wasn’t representing that. They was always militant. They was always doing what they had to do, being diligent. And stuff like that to me, that goes on in my real life.
I think that people is not gonna be stifled by this [direction], and they gon’ respect it. And they gonna know that it’s a true quality album and it definitely sits next to some of the greatest Wu albums.
DX: You spoke about the concept, based from the movie, and I just wanted to ask about that dialogue before the final verse on the title-track …
Raekwon: It’s like being in a problem wit’ ya homeboys, but y’all come from the same spot… ‘Cause you shining a little bit more, he may think that you forgot where it came from. And then next thing you know, things happen. But in all reality, we picked up from each other. We learned from each other. So it could never be one versus the next. It’s just different styles. So that’s what I definitely wanted to make sure that I get across to the fans. That’s why you hear in the middle of the song [that] it’s the same. But the other dude still got a problem wit’ it being the same. Because, it was always an infiltrator from the outside looking in that was trying to capture both of our styles: the Shaolin style and the Wu-Tang style. They was so compatible that muthafuckas had to say to theyself on the outside looking in, Damn! Both of them styles is ill. How could we make them both go at each other?
I would definitely want people to really look into this album, and even go back and check out the Shaw Brothers movie… Big up to Shaw Brothers too, because they’re incredible at what they do.
DX: On that “Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang” song you went all “Broken Language” on that last verse.
Raekwon: That’s where I got influenced from. I got influenced from Trigga Tha [Gambler] and Smoothe [Da Hustler]. These are good friends of mine. And they rhyme game was impeccable. And yeah, I definitely took a little bit of notes from them and tried to come up wit’ something crazy…
DX: Now…I’ve interviewed you like four times in the last few years, and [there’s] a RZA question in every interview. But let me just ask it [this time] like this: Y’all obviously dealt with any disagreements that arose with 8 Diagrams, so with the sound of Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang being back on that 36 Chambers tip, why not go to the architect of that sound for some new sonic designs?
Raekwon: Well the architect, he didn’t really wanna co-sign this because he felt like the whole energy of this album being made came to…you know, challenge him as being one of the Grandmasters. I respect where he coming from. I mean, one thing everybody gotta realize is the Clan, it’s a lot of us, man. And every now and then we have difficulties in communicating wit’ one another. And as far as this album is concerned, the last thing he knew we was trying to make this album to make him step his shit up, as far as what we needed and not the shit that he wanted to come wit’. So, when he kinda knew that I was still moving forward with this project, he was definitely bitter. We gon’ keep it a hunnid. And at the end of the day, I respect it, because he is the owner and the President of Wu-Tang Clan. So anything that sound like it’s going against Wu-Tang, and he’s the owner and the maker of that, of course he’s gonna be a little bit to the left wit’ it. But at the end of the day, he respects what I do. He know I’m a General. He know I make great decisions. And he know it’s not personal.
To me, this is a album for the Wu-Tang lovers, man. I’m always gonna represent my family the best way I [can], whether it’s me for dolo, or whether it’s me with nine individuals. Nobody’s never gonna say Rae left Wu-Tang on a foul note. If anything niggas gonna say Rae left Wu-Tang wit’ that muthafuckin’ flag in the air…
But, as far as [RZA] not participating, it wasn’t nothin’ personal. I already knew where his heart was at. And at the end of the day, it’s cool. Because, I’m a Grandmaster too. I went through all my training with the whole family to do what I do [and] to know how to come wit’ the right product and the right music to keep our legacy alive. And [that has] already been proven when I did Cuban Linx II.
So now, I just wanted to end the shit wit’ doing another great album for the Wu-Tang lovers, because these are the ones that keep my lights on. I’m always gonna cater to them first.
DX: Yeah, I knew things between y’all was on the right path when I saw that you stepped into RZA’s chamber for that Travis Barker song, that “Carry It” with Tom Morello. I was like, For real, Rae on a Rock track? But I see that you’re trying to bridge that divide.
Raekwon: Yeah, and at the same time, it’s definitely about evolving for me. I don’t never wanna be classified as one of them artists that just sit in one box like, This is all he know how to do. I’m a fly nigga too, and I’m a lyrical nigga. So, I kinda like carry both torches. And even since ’95, when we was making records like the Jodeci record, [“Freek’n You Remix”], the SWV record, [“Anything Remix”], we [established that we] can make them kind of records. But at the end of the day, everybody knows us for what we came in the game wit’. And to me I feel like it’s not being fully fair when you don’t give a artist an opportunity to progress and show you his versatility. I always been an emcee from the streets first. I guess that’s the Shaolin side of me is that I’m always gonna be that street emcee. No matter how much I’m down wit’ Wu-Tang Clan - I love the Wu; I love the style of the Wu; I love the music we make; I’m in love wit’ it – I do have more to offer. And I’m The Chef. So if I give you lasagna today, nigga, don’t act like the next three days you supposed to be keep getting lasagna ‘cause that’s good. Hey, try this muthafuckin’ lemon fish right here, man. This baked fish. Hey, try this other dish… I’m always gonna give you the great foods. And I think that’s why my crew named me The Chef because they knew that I always had more than one flavor in my pot.
DX: Yeah, I don’t know why you got crucified for the Kanye West/Justin Bieber shit when Ludacris was on the kid’s first official single, [“Baby” ]. I think it’s just ‘cause people view you that one way and they won’t let you escape that box.
Raekwon: Exactly. But at the end of the day, it’s all about making great music. If it sounds great, you can’t front on it. If Lady Gaga and Akon get together and make a great record, you can’t front on it. Regardless of her genre of music, if it’s a nice song and it captures the audience of both worlds – which everybody is working for – [you can’t front on it]. Once I made that record with Justin Bieber, it was a lot of street cats was coming at me like, “Yo, I like shorty…Shorty’s voice is nice.” But I always knew he was nice from when I seen him on TV singing [during] one of [the] Michael Jackson tributes when Mike had passed away. So I already knew that shorty was gonna come to the table and bring something real creative. And to be able to get on one of his remixes and do what we did, it fit perfect. We gave him a platform, as well as me getting a platform from him with the new generation…
DX: I wanna go back to the sound of Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang real quick. Scram Jones, Erick Sermon, Alchemist, Mathematics, they all contributed to [Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II as well as] this project… Were these tracks you’ve had stashed since the recording of OB4CL2?
Raekwon: Not at all. Everything right here was definitely revised and really put to the test as far as making the album we wanted to… The records that I got on Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang, I’m so happy wit’ the selections that we were able to come wit’ because it all still sounds like one producer [did the whole album]. That took a lot of work. The same way how when we made Cuban Linx II [we did that]. RZA wasn’t the only one that was there to do his part. It took everybody to come in, and it took me to be the General, the five-star General, to tell my Captains and my Lieutenants on how to play they position the right way with this project. And everybody did a great job.
I got [DJ] Khalil on the new album. He got a track on there that kinda upgrades my sound, to another sound and it still has that hardcore shit that y’all know me to bring… It still capitalizes off of both worlds. [Allah] Mathematics definitely – By having Mathematics it’s like also having RZA. So I wanted to have Math involved because his sound has always been revolving around the Wu-Tang chamber. Like I said, I just wanted to come wit’ something that I felt was so close to what we had done in the early ‘90s and at the same time I wanted to evolve and show people that, yo, we can still have a new sound [for] today and still be as powerful as we were back in the early ‘90s.
DX: Yeah, Bronze Nazareth, I gotta give it up to him, he brought it straight to ’93 wit’ that “Butter Knives” joint.
Raekwon: Ya hear me! And I think that at the end of the day people don’t care about who’s the producer. I think it’s other people who try to ridicule you because they don’t hear this one or they don’t hear that one because of whatever they preference is. Everybody has they favoritism, and I can’t take that away from nobody. My thing is, if it’s a great album [and] you can listen to the whole shit without touching it, you can never be mad at the artist for doing what he do.
…I get mad at hearing the same shit. I keep hearing cats say the same rhymes all over, and come wit’ the same fuckin’ hooks and come wit’ the same shit. Give me something creative. Give me something that I could say, Ayo, my man was really working hard; he gave us a quality record. Especially in these days and times, because the Hip Hop is so fucked up that now you got the fans really looking at albums like, Okay, I’ll buy it only if I appreciate it. Not I’ll buy it because of the artist, I’ll buy it if I appreciate the artist for doing what he do. So when I get on the ‘Net and I listen to many different opinions and cats being opinionated, it makes me understand how important that criticism is when you making your project. If I didn’t have that opportunity to have that [for] Cuban Linx II when I was making it, who knows if Cuban Linx II woulda been such a success… I had to go out there and hear different people’s opinions and ideas and what they thought. When you listen to Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang, one of the fans on the Twitter had hit me and was like, “Yo, you need to incorporate this.” But he didn’t know that I had already incorporated it. So I had to laugh about it and be like, Wow, muthafuckas is really on the same page with me. That taught me a lesson; that let me know that criticism is a must. And if people want great work, they have to complain and get great work.
DX: I gotta ask about the Nas collabo, “Rich And Black.” When and how did that finally happen? ‘Cause I know you wanted Esco for a “Verbal Intercourse 2” on OB4CL2, but that didn’t happen. And then he told MTV while he was promoting his album with Damian Marley that he regretted not coming through for OB4CL2. So did Nas reach out to you after that interview or - ?
Raekwon: Yeah, we was able to get in contact wit’ one another. And me and Nas, we always been friends since the beginning of our careers, so… We happened to meet up. We was in…if I’m not mistaken, probably Germany. And, we always have our little conversations on the side about the respect that we have for one another’s craft, and the respect for one another’s brotherhood. And I knew he was going through a lot, so I didn’t take it to the length that he wasn’t there [for me]. I just told him that we can’t be putting our fans in the situation to where [they] feel like me and you have a problem. So he understood it, and he respected it. And he knew that I was working on the next project, and by Allah’s hand, he put it together for us. He made it happen. Nas sent something to one of my people’s and was like, “Yo, this is for Rae. If Rae wanna do it, let’s do it.” And you know me, automatically I’m thinking for the respect, I’m thinking for the fans, I’m thinking for guys like yourself that always wanted to see this shit happen [that it’s great that] we was able to make it happen, man. All praises due to Allah. He put us together to give it to y’all.
DX: So “Rich And Black,” he sent the whole track; that was his concept?
Raekwon: Nah, actually it was a mixture; it was a collaboration thing. And we just went in there and hammered it the way we knew how to hammer it. He definitely had a lot of input on it, and I just followed suit.
DX: Black Thought and Nas on back-to-back tracks has got the heads salivating. But you also got the Internet goin’ nuts about some of the remaining guest lineup for Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang. So let me just ask the question our readers wanna know the answer to: Why Jim Jones but no GZA?
Raekwon: Well, you can’t say it ain’t a GZA [appearance on the album] because I have done a record wit’ GZA for this album, but I had gave it to iTunes as a [exclusive bonus track]. So GZA did appear. Also, Killah Priest [is featured on the song]. So let’s not say we X’d out that situation. I did have a record wit’ GZA but I chose to put it on the iTunes [version of the album] because I felt like iTunes is important to me…as being a businessman. So what I was able to do was use that for what it is and [still] have one of my Wu-Tang [brothers] be involved [in the album], because I know how important that is to the world.
My nigga Jim Jones, I respect Jim. Jim is like one of the faces of New York. He represents real Hip Hop. And I felt that this particular track that I had, [“Rock N Roll”], fit him like a muthafuckin’ glove… These [guests on the album] are cats that I’m a fan of as well. And I wanted to incorporate some of my friends and some of my peers in the game on this album. It’s like telling a nigga, Yo, come into my house… Like, I want you to get on something that comes from my camp, but it still fits you. And that’s what we did.
The same thing with Black Thought. Black Thought is one of the greatest emcees in the game, in my eyes. And for me to have put him on that track, “Masters Of Our Fate,” it fit perfect. And that’s what it’s all about when you a artist. You sit down and you say to yourself, Yo, who fits this shit? Who gon’ compliment this muthafucka? Who gon’ [do] something that the fans can be like, Oh shit! I didn’t even know that these niggas was gonna do it like this. And Black Thought he [went] in. He’s a philosopher. He’s a great emcee. He’s versatile. He’s somebody who I felt was needed for that track. And he did exactly what I knew he was gonna do.
And it’s the same wit’ my man Jones. He did what he was supposed to do. We call the track “Rock N Roll” because this Rap shit to us is [like] Rock N Roll. It’s really sex, money and murder, and drugs... I’m a Rock & Roll nigga. I’m a real life Rock & Roll cat because I grew up on Queen and all of that. And Led Zeppelin and all these different groups. I went to school wit’ these white cats that they was a fan of that, and they made us understand what it was.
I’m just being creative. And I’m doing what I wanna do too. ‘Cause I can only satisfy the fans but so much. I gotta satisfy myself too. And I felt like I was moving in the right space. I felt like I was bringing people into my world. A lot of people that’s in the game, they love Wu-Tang for what Wu-Tang done, [and so] they don’t mind getting on something that feels like Wu-Tang because they love it. And I love them for stepping up for me and stepping into my zone.
DX: Can I get the title of that GZA joint, the iTunes bonus joint?
Raekwon: It’s called “Wu Crime.” And it’s featuring me, GZA and Killah Priest. I went and grabbed up Killah Priest because I feel like he’s definitely one of the disciples of the Clan…
DX: …I gotta ask, what’s the concept behind your collabo with Lloyd Banks, “Last Train To Scotland”?
Raekwon: Aw man, that one right there is just a storytelling piece of glass. When you think of joints that represent Cuban Linx, this probably coulda been one of them joints that I coulda stuck up there. And, nobody never really heard my man Lloyd Banks tell a story before. So to me, that was interesting. It was legendary. I look at him as being one of the great emcees out there too that I know that lyrically I’m not gon’ have a problem wit’ him doing what he do. So, we just wanted to come up wit’ something that [displayed] vivid storytelling imagination. And when you think about the karate flicks, you see cats team up wit’ other real niggas and they go out there and go do they thing. If you listen to the story, we was going to do something and – it’s the same watching a karate flick and you see these two niggas going to get busy. Prime example: [in the film] Five Deadly Venoms it was one of the dudes that wasn’t a venom that actually came in and got busy. And he followed the plan all the way out. So, that’s how I look at that track wit’ me and Lloyd. I never heard him do stories before, but his rhyming skills is so impeccable that I knew that this [Scram Jones] track would fit him, as far as his voice, as far as the way his raspy sound is. I just thought he ate the track alive. He ate it alive.
DX: The title that’s got me most excited – I think got most everybody the most excited – is “Dart School.” And, I don’t wanna impose, but would you mind kickin’ a few bars from “Dart School” to give the DX readers a small sampling of that dart throwing?
Raekwon: [Laughs] Yeah, well you know, “Dart School” is definitely dart school. That’s how we look at Wu-Tang Clan anyway. It’s like, you just get a bunch of darts, anytime you want ‘em. But, yeah, I was saying shit like, “You know just keepin’ it street / So much ice on my” – I forgot! I’m rhyming so fuckin’ fast that I can’t even really quote ‘em… I was just goin’ in, man. That’s all I can say. I was rhymin’ according to the sound of the beat. I wanted to keep it street. I wanted to show people that I still love emceeing as well. [This is one of] the records that may be the Shaolin side of [the album]. That’s up to the fans to go into [to figure out] though.
DX: Does the “Molasses” joint you got wit’ Rick Ross, does that in any way compare to y’all’s last collaboration, “Audio Meth”?
Raekwon: Not at all… We chopped up the “4th Chamber” record and made it kinda like a swing beat. [And] automatically he knew the “4th Chamber” beat from the GZA album, Liquid Swords… He’s a big fan of Raekwon and Ghostface, and he was excited to be involved. And he knew that the beat was definitely a Wu-sounding track. And he went in! Like I said, I do have great friends in great places that [are] gonna support me. And [Rick] Ross has been supporting me since my Icewater album that we had dropped called Polluted Water. He came up for air for me then. So I kinda already knew he was on the rise. And like I said, we gave him the track [and] he just…he went in! He did what he was supposed to do. And he still called me back like, “Yo, if you don’t like it, hit me back, I’ll do something else.”
DX: Now, I don’t wanna get ahead of Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang, but I know you gotta have the next move already mapped out to follow this project…
Raekwon: [Laughs mischievously] Yeah, definitely, we thinking ahead of time. It’s too early for me to announce anything. But yeah, we definitely moving ahead of time. I did announce that I’m dropping two albums this year, so you already know one is already here. So yeah, get ready. This [next album] will probably be a new style again. This one I’ll probably open up more to the whole genre of music right now. I think I have done enough Wu-Tang shit in the last year-and-a-half to show cats that you know what? We know what y’all want. Now I need y’all to explore wit’ me. So this next album, I got a couple of titles that I feel may fit it – it’s too early to go into conversation ‘cause you gonna get me in trouble if I start poppin’ shit [Laughs]. But yeah, we’re like 45% into the makings of the next one as well. And this is something that I really was planning for awhile.
I may be one of the hardest working cats at the level of being in the game as long as I been. I may be one of the only ones that you may say, This nigga don’t stop! But, always remember, I love this shit, man. I love it. Not only [does it help] me support my family…but I love rhyming. I love emceeing. So, I plan on never ever being in the situation to where my fans don’t hear from me for years again. I’m not doing that.