Raekwon Is The Elder Statesman Hip-Hop Still Needs
It's a late afternoon in mid-June, and Raekwon is sitting on a couch on the second floor of an apartment building next door to Frank's Chop Shop, the renowned barbershop on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The apartment—owned, I'm told, by an artist friend of his—is so steeped in history that it's almost suffocating: sketches and portraits line the walls; every surface holds another antique candelabra or lamp; the front door is plastered with postcards from Rome, Sydney, Cairo, San Francisco. And in one corner of it all sits the resident Mafia Don of the Wu-Tang Clan, one of the most distinctive voices hip-hop has heard in the past 20 years, and an irrefutable cornerstone in its history.
But Raekwon isn't here to talk about the potentially-upcoming sixth Wu-Tang album, A Better Tomorrow, nor is he here to talk about the Clan's one-of-a-kind secret LP that will reportedly be auctioned for millions. He's not here to talk about what he does on his off days—as one interviewer tried to find out—and he's definitely not here to talk about his recent issues with The RZA. Also off the table is the newborn baby hoax that Rae was fooled by after seeing a post on the Internet the week before, and the former Wu-Tang affiliate who cut off his penis earlier in the year (though it's unclear if anyone had the, well, balls, to ask about that one). Raekwon is here to talk about two things: his headlining performance at next month's Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival, and his own upcoming sixth solo album, F.I.L.A. (Fly International Luxurious Art), due out September 16.
Which is fair enough; most people would say that a hip-hop OG with more than 20 years under his belt and multiple classics on his resume has earned the right to be choosy about what he speaks on. But Raekwon has always held himself differently from the rest of his Shaolin brethren; whereas Method Man can be aloof, Ghostface impossible to track down, RZA unbelievably busy and GZA too caught up in his pet projects, Rae has always been the most accessible of the Wu's high-profile Gambinos (with all due respect to Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa, of course). And now, with F.I.L.A. slated for this Fall and a new generation born after 1993's Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers had already left its mark making their own waves in the game, he's begun looking towards collaborating with those on the come up rather than eyeing up the competition of his peers.
"I'm a coach, you know what I mean? I used to be a player, and now I'm a coach, but a coach that still plays," he says of his influence on the younger generation, sipping from a tumbler of Hennessy and re-lighting a blunt. "I think, being in the game as long as we've been in it, I wanna see some of my favorites today last as long [as we have]. So even when we rapping and we getting our music, you can bet your ass that we're talking about real life shit. We don't just talk about music, we talk about life, we talk about direction, we talk about you getting your blessing, and I think that's why a lot of the time a lot of these cats, they love me, because they say, 'Yo, he don't change. If there's something he like, he gonna tell you, if there's something he ain't feeling, he gonna tell you, too.'"
And Raekwon doesn't just talk the talk behind the scenes; in the past year, he's lent verses to the likes of Rapsody, Troy Ave, Action Bronson, ScHoolboy Q and Mack Wilds, to name a handful. He's been leading by example, something that few of his age and stature—Bun B and Scarface excluded—have done with any real consistency. And it's paid back in small gestures; Jay Electronica turned down the headlining slot at the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival this year in order to go on before Raekwon, an offering of respect to a man who paved the way for an entire sub-genre of hip-hop to thrive and flourish.
"I ain't even know he said that," Raekwon says when I bring it up. "For me, it don't matter who goes first and who goes last; they coming to see us. Of course I think the same way he thinks, too—I couldn't see myself going into an arena with a big giant and not even thinking like that—but I respect him enough for him to even look at it like that."