In June 1995 on a sweltering hot day in New York City I interviewed Raekwon for ego trip magazine issue #5 in advance of Rae’s soon-to-be-released Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... At the time of the interview I hadn’t yet heard the album (my lone attempt to get an acquaintance at Loud Records to let me peep it having been met with words to the effect of: “You wanna hear how it sounds? How the fuck you think it sounds? It sounds fuckin’ DOPE.”). Yet based on the pre-LP singles “Heaven and Hell” and “Glaciers of Ice” (as well as Rae’s beyond hungry performances on Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers and Method Man’s “Meth vs. Chef”) I’d already easily convinced myself that the album was going to be incredible. Then again it could have sounded like Killarmy reading the Staten Island phone book and I would have probably still rode for it, my Wu-Tang Stan-dom in those days being such. I was, of course, eventually vindicated when The Purple Tape dropped on August 1st, 1995 – exactly l6-years ago – and became an instant classic.
This interview took place in the lobby of Sterling Sound mastering. It was photographer Chris Jensen and mine’s second consecutive day staked out at Sterling, hoping to catch Rae. After about an hour or so of waiting in walked the Chef flanked by Ghostface Killah (“GFK,” as he introduced himself, offering a hearty pound) and the Abbot himself, RZA (who just stared through us in that RZA way of his). Ghost and RZA proceeded to the mastering session to begin overseeing placement of the album’s film excerpt skits. Rae settled in on the arm of a sofa in the waiting area, pulled out his own cassette recorder (a regular practice, he claimed, on the off chance a verbal exchange inspired a skit) and we began the dual taping of our conversation.
I’ll be perfectly honest. I never particularly liked the final piece I wrote for the magazine (though quotes from it later wound up being prominently referenced in a story Touré wrote for the Village Voice). But the unfiltered conversation is one I’ve always recalled fondly based on the fact that it was probably one of the last times was Raekwon was interviewed pre-Cuban Linx… and there was an intriguing energy about what we were all on the cusp of experiencing even if we didn’t fully realize it at the time. I’ve interviewed Rae a few times in the years since, and he’s told more interesting stories, revealed far more detail about the making of his era-defining hip-hop hustler's chronicle than in this interview. Yet there’s an enthusiasm, even giddiness to Rae’s demeanor that so mirrors what we as Wu-Tang fanatics felt at the time hanging on each record. On this anniversary of Cuban Linx…’s release I’ve chosen to re-run the piece as a largely unedited Q&A. Yo, son, peep the fly shit...
Words: Chairman Mao | Photos: Chris Jensen
What’s the title of the album?
Raekwon: Title of the album is Only Built For Cuban Linx… , featuring Tony Starks - that’s Ghostface Killah, a/k/a.
What’s the meaning of the name change for him?
Raekwon: Tony Starks is like the Iron Man of the whole rap shit, knowumsayin’? You remember back in the days in flix, Iron Man’s name was Tony Starks. And that’s how he feel, he feel invincible. And it’s for real though, it’s been clinically proven and all that good shit. The nigga’s Iron Man of this shit.
What’s the meaning behind the name of the album?
Raekwon: Only Built For Cuban Linx…? It’s like this whole year my whole team came mad heavy. We started out as heavy weights. A lot of people respected us like that ’cause they throwin’ us up against the next niggas that was heavy weights. So I’m lookin’ at the symbolic form [of] the chain. The chain of Cuban link is heavy, and it stay shinin’. So boom - that’s how we did, if you wanna follow the trend. That’s how we came and shit. On some, yo, we shine light. We brought the industry back to its original formality again. Really takin’ it back to some ’88 on some fuck that, this is what we wanna do, knowumsayin’? And now there’s a lot of more rappers comin’ up. But it’s all good now, ’cause everybody gonna get they time to shine.
On the 36 Chambers album there’s an interlude in which you more or less predicted that people would respond to the Wu positively because you reasoned it was something you’d been waiting to hear also. How’s that make you feel now?
Raekwon: I always think about that jewel too, ’cause a lot of people tell me that like, “You said you waitin’ too.” I really is waitin’ ’cause we make hits a-day man. I ain’t always there when niggas make a hit. But [my feedback] gon’ be there. And I got eight other thinkers that’s thinking the same thing as me. That’s how we make classics. Like we told the industry before, we ain’t trying to be the new artists, we trying to be the new industry. Just like with the music, as you catch each volume. Like you caught Meth volume, then you caught Dirty volume, then you [got] my volume, then you already caught Wu volume. There might be fifteen volumes before the world end. But that’s what we tryin’ to do, man. We scientists. We ain’t just in it to be rhymin’ and alla that, man. There’s better things to look for in life, knowumsayin’? As far as tryin’ to get from where we was at. To get to be able to eat and bring out peoples, and let whoever’s next be the same way, knowumsayin’?
How would you describe your volume as opposed to Meth’s or Ol’ Dirty’s?
Raekwon: Yo, kid, my tape is like it’s no different as far as styles and all that good shit. You’re just gonna see my way of thinking. You done ran through Dirty’s mentality, Meth’s mentality, now you gon’ see where I’m at. Basically, it’s a big boy tape. You gonna respect it either way – on some I like the music, or I like the lyrics. And it’s worth the money. Nowadays you just really wanna pay for what you think is worth it, knowumsayin’? You don’t wanna pay for no bullshit. You gotta know ahead of time [what’s] bullshit. So you can know what you wanna do. I just want my niggas, I want all my consumers to respect me on some, “Yo, them niggas is live.” And they gonna be behind me on my next joint. So that’s all I ask for, all over the globe. And this is how the album is built.
It’s like… I got tracks on there that sound like I was in Europe. Japan. Whatever.
How do you mean?
Raekwon: ’Cause it’s the feelings, it’s the vibe. I deal with emotions and I know my music put chills on my body and that’s for a reason. It means that, yo, I’m playin’ my part to the fullest capacity. You know how you get amped up in a crowd. ’Cause you wanna hear that shit! Once you hear that shit, it’s like that’s it. It’s all good now.
Tell me a little bit about your relationship with the gentleman in the next room.
Raekwon: Who, Tony Starks?
Raekwon: Ghostface Killah?
Raekwon: That’s my heart right there, knowumsayin’? He’s from a project that’s like ten minutes away from my project, knowumsayin’? And you know how that be from every angle, but you know, our peoples was always going at it back in the days as far as the older crews. Older crews always goin’ to war with each other and we was the ones watching. So we knew of each other, but we really started getting busy on some mic-fight shit, when this man set it. When Razor set it. When he set it, he brung the whole shit together. And like I said I always have respect for him because he knew my style, I knew his style. But we both was idolizing the man that made everything happen. We learned to be around each other, and we think so much alike. Like I’ll say something and he’ll be like, “Yo, I was just gettin’ ready to say that, son.” So, I know, yo, there’s more to it than just the rhymin’ thing. It’s blood, man, physically and mentally.
How many years you go back?
Raekwon: Kid, man... I’m talking about ’85, ’86 man when we was runnin’ around smokin’ crack and weed and all that shit, we goin’ back that far. To where I know he can say, “Yo, I know you lived yours.” And he know I know he lived his. So it’s like when he and together, man, I’d rather be around someone I knew all my life, than be around someone I just met a year ago on some rap shit. ’Cause now that’s the politics comin’ in there. I’m tryin’ to be around somebody I know from the heart. Who I can trust, knowumsayin? You can’t [trust] anybody, man. And like I said, we all grew up from little kids into grown men.
Right now, I feel like I’m grown, G. Whatever I’m doing now is based on the dollar and based on the eat, man. ’Cause I know it feels not to have shit. I been through that, man knowumsayin’? Where I gotta go out there and hit somebody up on the head for some little bit of something, that ain’t even gonna last for the next few days. So I learned and my peoples around me lived the same life and they learned. So now we here for a cause – that’s to keep teaching the truth, knowumsayin’? And just to eat. I ain’t tryin’ to be the richest executive nigga, man. Them is the ones that get hit faster. I wanna be the one in the cut. But I’m happy, though, man. I got a team, and the team is generating enough loot where we all can eat for the rest of our lives, man. And our babies is aight, man.