Admit it, last year before Cuban Linx II dropped you were skeptical Raekwon could deliver. I know I was. Despite the promise of several leaked songs, in mid-2009 I wasn’t convinced Rae would be able to do justice by his 1995 masterpiece. But following this interview the Chef converted me. There was no hesitation in his voice or thoughts when he explained to me why this sequel’s production, lyrical presentation, and theme would satisfy all fans of the original. Only thing missing was that “Verbal Intercourse 2” I inquired about.
The wait is nearly over. After four years of work, and fourteen years of fan anticipation, the Chef has finally confirmed an August 11 release date for Only Built for Cuban Linx II (EMI). The journey was not without much adversity. Two high-profile executive producers, Busta Rhymes and Dr.Dre, dropped out for still undisclosed reasons. And with Dre’s departure, it also marked the loss of Aftermath’s strong label support. But Raekwon persevered, and found success brokering a joint venture between his own Ice Water Records and EMI.
Now, judgment day will soon be upon us. Will Raekwon be able to capture the essence of his 1995 masterpiece, or will fans be treated to another respectable, but ultimately disappointing solo offering from the Chef?
Ismael AbduSalaam: It’s been over 10 years since the original Cuban Linx album. Of course in that span you’ve grown as a man and an artist. With those realities manifested in your current life, how did you approach the sequel as opposed to the 1995 original?
Raekwon: I just went back in there and basically visited my roots again by listening to the first album. It ain’t really no method to my madness, it’s just me still having the passion to make that kind of music. A lot of people wanted me to go back into that cocaine story, drug life world again. To me, that’s the easiest sh*t for me to do. I’m an artist who wants to constantly grow and come up with more creativeness. So for people to say they love that [Cuban Linx] vibe, style, the Chinese/karate flick sayings, the eerie sounds, I just put all that in my memory bank and really went back out there searching for that production. We came out successful with what we needed.
When we made the first Cuban Linx album, I remember having beats on there that were 4-5 years old, that I held onto like ‘I’m gripping these shits right here! I don’t give a fuck if they’re 10 years old, I’m keeping these right here!’ And that became the same journey on Cuban Linx II. People love that new “Wu Ohh,” that beat is like 4 years old, b! But it sounds so fresh and so right that it still sounds new. I guess shit happens for a reason. That showed me I was on my way to making a classic. I’m from that era that we work hard to make great music.
I took my time out to make sure I really did some soul-searching as far as the production side to really come up with making a classic. And I feel that it’s a classic off top. It ain’t no sh*t that you’ll say he tried to evolve with today’s sound. It’s what you want if you know who I am.
Ismael: Like you mentioned with “Wu Ohh,” you also have that classic RZA Wu Tang sound on “Criminology 2.” How was the chemistry with Dr. Dre on the songs you two worked on for the album?
Raekwon: Dre is a great friend. We met one time and had good chemistry. He gave me his word that he was here for me and wanted to be a part of this project. And once a man gives you his word, that’s all you can stand on. So we made some heat and that was that. As far as going into anything else [business wise], that started happening after the chemistry had been made. And when everything didn’t pan out, we didn’t let that supersede our friendship or our business ties. I just wanted to make sure the brother was on the album and had the opportunity to get in on this Cuban Linx shit.
I respect producers whether they’re a new jack, or someone who paved the way like Dre. It’s just about coming up with that proper chemistry that I feel is the truth. And that’s what happened [with Dre]. This was that classic world I wanted to be in. After I finished, I was like ‘this is some shit right here.’ People are really going to love this one.
Ismael: When the original came out, you laid a modern blueprint on how to approach a cinematic album for your contemporaries in Nas (It Was Written), Jay-Z (Reasonable Doubt), and B.I.G. (Life After Death). Although the LP helped in creating a lot of memorable music, where there any Cuban Linx inspired trends that you disliked?
Raekwon: One thing about me, I don’t really judge nobody’s shit like that. A man is going to make whenever he feels he likes. I can’t sit there and say a nigga stole anything from me. You make your shit, I make my shit. That’s why I made my tape purple. I wanted n*ggas to know the difference between they shit, and my shit! Going through hearing nigga’s shit and seeing that they may have used the terminology the way we used it, I still wouldn’t say anyone is near close to me. Just when you think you’re close to me in the race, I’m gonna fly and hit the turbo boost on you. All I can do is just worry about what the fuck I gotta do and when my time is to come.
I learned from nigga’s in the early 80’s, don’t get me wrong. We all learn from each other. At the same token I still got to make my path for me. I can’t really say anybody’s product is something I got to be pissed about. You Burger King, I’m McDonald’s, nigga. It is what it is.
Ismael: Your last album was in 2003 but you’ve remained extremely busy, especially over the last year and a half. In that span, you’ve worked with Doom, Ill Bill, Big Boi, The Game, and a bunch of other artists. So looking at the industry today, who are other artists you look forward to working with or have worked with for this album?
Raekwon: It’s a lot of people I’d love to work with. I’m in the zone where I got to prove to people that I can hold my own. It’s more exciting for me to work as an artist that’s in a creative zone right now. I don’t want to base my sh*t off who I’m working with. I work with people according to personality and if I respect your art. You don’t have to be a multi-platinum artist for me to be a fan of you. You can be an up and comer, but if I feel you got it I’m fucking with you.
Prime example is the cat Nipsey Hussle. He’s new, but one day his CD got inside my car. Before you know it I heard a line in his verse where he said my name on some big up shit, saluting me. And here I am saluting him as a good artist. It showed me that there are still people out there who get busy.
I want to work with some of the OGs in the game, too. I feel like paying respect to the ones who did it before us is due. You can’t forget these cats. Just looking at the some of the producers I worked with on the album like Eric Sermon and Marley Marl. These are dudes that I grew up on that I really loved what they were making. They were making heat and classical music. It’s all about respecting my origins.
Ismael: That philosophy pretty much defines why you reached out to Outkast for “Skew It on the Bar-B.” You were one of, if not the first NY emcee to really embrace the burgeoning mainstream Southern movement in Hip-Hop.
Raekwon: Yeah, I was the one that opened that door for those South kids to come through. Anybody will tell you that. When the South was down, Rae was there for them. A lot of shit that I do, it just happens. How that Outkast shit jumps off is I’m pushing through the mall in the A, and I see the kid. And its like respect, kings respect kings. And we just got in the studio, I liked the niggas as individuals, and they looked at me the same way. We made history. I don’t go after who’s gonna help me on a marketing level.
Ismael: You’ve blessed us with a “Criminology 2” that captures the aura of the original. Is there any chance of us getting a “Verbal Intercourse 2?”
Raekwon: Thank you. We did the “Criminology 2” because I felt that was a beat that I really loved. When me and Ghost did that one, we were like “we want to start fights in the club.” Not trying to promote violence, [but] you how you’ll be at a club and a fight goes down? And the music is still playing? That’s the vibe I got from “Criminology.” [The sequel] was just a bonus to let everyone know ‘yo, get ready.’ We’re still in our zone, we haven’t missed a beat.
Regarding “Verbal Intercourse 2,” Nas said he’s gonna be on the album. We’re still working on catching him. But if it’s not “Verbal Intercourse 2,” we’ll come up with some new chemistry. And I think that’s the most important thing, to revamp that and bring it back to life. These are my dudes from back in the day, like Mobb Deep, Nas, Fat Joe, and Big Pun, God bless the dead. You never know what’s going to happen. Rae’ still got to move on as a general.
Ismael: On the last Wu album (8 Diagrams), you and Ghost really didn’t care for where RZA was taking the production. When you hooked back him for your project, where there any issues with getting the sound you wanted from him? Or did everything flow like the original Cuban Linx?
Raekwon: One thing about RZA is he’s like the Wizard of Oz. He’ll give what he feels like giving you, but he has other shit that he doesn’t really admire too much because it doesn’t represent his growth and development process. I knew he already had it; it’s just hard to get him to go back into his bag of goodies because he’s so used to dealing with another bag right now.
So that was the situation with the first album. I felt like ‘yo, I want this sound.’ But he was like ‘this is going to be the new sound!’ So now it happens to be a want situation. RZA is the type where you’ll ask for this, and he’ll give you something else. But he always has what you want [laughs]. You may have to search for a little bit, do some soul searching, but you’ll find what you need. That’s why happened on Cuban Linx II. I got what I needed from him for my shit.
[On 8 Diagrams], whatever else he wanted to grow on, we weren’t crazy over it. And that’s the whole thing people took out of context. No one tried to take anything away from RZA as a producer. It was more or less you can’t be selfish, and have to work with everybody’s ears and eyes on something. Him being the dude that he is with mad platinum albums, some niggas be super cocky. ‘I don’t wanna hear nothing, I got this.’ That’s what happened in that situation.
Ismael: I talked with Funkmaster Flex last year, and we discussed how in 1995 you, Nas, and B.I.G. were viewed as the top artists out of NYC. And of course around this time is when the mythical “King of New York” title began to take on a tangible form. But out of the three, you were the only one that never really fed into that competition. Why did that race never really appeal to you?
Raekwon: All that right there my nigga is just egos jumping off the curb. If you’re a king, you’re a king. I never really jumped into that world because I didn’t have anything to prove at that time. My music was speaking for itself. Everybody wants to be on top, when they’re on top. I want to still be able to walk amongst the people, instead of being looked at as ‘yo, you can’t touch me.’ I always like to be in the mix. You got some dudes that feel like they’re so high; they can’t come back down to reality. I didn’t want to fall in that position, because I’m really a street nigga. I really come from this and live it. Everything you hear, see, or witness from me, it’s because of my struggle. I never let myself get super-ego’d up just because I had a hot fucking album out. I’m always going to be grounded and respecting people who helped my career and life.
But I am a silent king. I don’t do a lot of bragging and boasting. It’s like when you come into a club and see a nigga flashing all this money, just to show a bitch he got money. Some bitches don’t like that shit. They’re like ‘real niggas don’t show shit.’ That’s the same motto I have in regards to being a successful artist. I don’t have to be in the flyest V, you might catch me in a rental, b. I’m still live, though. I can have one chain on and the nigga next to me can have 1,000 chains on. The most important thing is to be you and stay grounded.
I love the fly shit. But that don’t make me.
Ismael: There comes a time for everyone when they realize their generation’s culture has become a thing of the past. When you look at Hip-Hop in 2009, have you felt or are starting to feel that when you analyze today’s Hip-Hop culture?
Raekwon: Hip-Hop is about us showing each other growth and creativity. I don’t really get that too much anymore. There are so many fans out there; they’re not even fans anymore. They’re rappers! Me and my people had a discussion about how sales are so important to fans right now. ‘Oh, this dude only did 100,000. This guy only did 40,000 or 130,000.’ When the fuck did fans start paying attention to that shit?! Does it make a difference? Let’s talk about the music, man! The fuck niggas is worried about everything else for? That’s the shit that makes me weary with the game right now. It’s just a hot mess.
Every generation goes through its own trends and shit. All that shit is not important. It’s about making good and authentic music. You can’t base an artist’s merit on sales. Everyone is not going to be a 5 million seller. When I came in the game, I didn’t give a fuck about none of that shit. I was coming to get my respect. I wanted to hear people say ‘he gets busy, he puts it down, he can rhyme.’ But now, these artists they get big headed because they sell millions. It makes you a fortunate cat, but it doesn’t make you that nigga. I’m just old-fashioned, I want niggas to really earn it.
It’s just like how boxing is fucked up right now because we ain’t got no real live heavyweights. Who’s an [American] heavyweight right now? We ain’t even fucking got one! It’s fucked up to me. That’s the shit we got to pay attention to [in Hip-Hop]. The art is special. When you get a golden child you want to feel like he paid his dues. Not like he got help for another artist to blow up.
Ismael: No matter what, the great music will stand the test of time, regardless of sales.
Raekwon: Exactly! I think that’s the most important thing. You can make a good album, but will it stand the test of time? Will a motherucker pop it in 10 years from now? Same thing with Cuban Linx. When I made that album, I didn’t think people would still want me to come with a part 2. There are about 2 rappers out of 2,000 that people want a sequel to one of his classics. That’s incredible. I feel honored to be in that box. People really paid attention to what I’ve done. That’s what it’s all about. The people are saying ‘We know [Rae] has it in him to do it again, and we know he’ll do it.’