Interview: Raekwon on Only Built for Cuban Linx II, Auto-Tune, J Dilla, and the Future of Rap
"You've got some fans that wanna stick up for me and say, 'Rae's still got it!' And you got some that say, 'Nah he'll never beat that album!'"
In the 5000 or so days since Raekwon released Only Built for Cuban Linx, long considered one of the greatest of all solo Wu-Tang albums, the Chef has kept busy, releasing two critically chastised solo albums, a few more joints with Wu-Tang, and a whole bunch of guest appearances on records. But the one project he could never quite pop off was Cuban Linx II. Raekwon has worked on the album for four years and, from the beginning, the sequel to his masterpiece has been plagued by label mix-ups, last minute release-date changes, and erratic executive producers (both Dr. Dre and Busta Rhymes--who still appear on the album in smaller roles--were assigned, at some point, to this top position, only to drop out later on). The anticipation has grown and, well, we're still waiting. Apparently not for long, though, as the album has been tagged with another, supposedly final, release date--September 8th. Chef Raekwon, with a crew of some of the most talented names in hip-hop that includes Ghostface Killah, Jadakiss, Pete Rock, and Dr. Dre, will finally deliver Cuban Linx's follow up via Raekwon's own Ice Water Inc., in conjunction with EMI.
We'll believe it when we see it. Despite the record's impending release, the album is still about as difficult to get a hold of as a white whale. Everyone involved in the project is working overtime to prevent Cuban Linx II from leaking, but it's finished, and it can be heard--only after a great amount of ass kissing--and we did so last week (so at least we know it exists...). The sequel pulls a Godfather Part II, building on the original with a bigger, more menacing sound. There's also perhaps the most disturbing description of a blowjob ever (courtesy of Ghostface Killah of course). After weeks of persistent phone tag, meetings with managers, publicists, Raekwon's brother, the assistants of the mangaers, publicists, and Raekwon's brother, and two trips to the Fortress of Solitude that is EMI, we caught up with Raekwon on the phone to talk about the late great J Dilla, Auto-Tune, and the future of hip-hop. You, too, can listen to Raekwon wax poetic tonight at the 92Y, where he'll be appearing with HOT97's Peter Rosenberg to discuss his life, his influences, and his legacy.
It's been almost 15 years since the original Cuban Linx came out.
Ain't that some shit, right?
Yeah. What made you decide to record a sequel to that album?
Basically the fans. This is something that they've requested for so long. It just felt like time to show people that they could get what they want from me, you know? The first album that I did--it felt good to go back. I didn't know when I was gonna be able to do it and it took a lot, man. It wasn't no easy road.
Cuban Linx II has been several years in the making. You've been working on it for four years?
I would say three years 'cause I took one year to deal with the Wu-Tang project.
How did you know when it was finally finished and ready to be released? That's a long time to work on one album.
I just kinda knew. When you're used to making records and making albums, I kind of knew how many joints I wanted to have on there, but we gave the fans a little bit extra. We figured how long they waited, they needed to get something extra.
When the original came out it was heralded as a dark masterpiece. Cuban Linx II feels even darker than the original.
Yeah I can agree with that. That's good that you think that because I do feel like this is a more hardcore album. This is a more gritty album because I wanted to get back to my roots, for real. Just being an MC, just somebody that can really focus on making hip-hop. It's been a long time since we actually heard a real hip-hop album that's not a hip-hop R&B collaboration. I really wanted to go back to the basics.
It's true. Hip-hop is arguably in a much bleaker state than when the original Cuban Linx came out.
Absolutely. No matter how much commercial success is wanted right now, I could not make Cuban Linx with that kind of vibe. It wouldn't have fit with the criteria of what the album meant for me the first time and what the album is. When we made the first one, I wasn't worried about commercial success. I was more or less worried about MC respect and being able to be played by some of the hip-hop peers in the game. I knew that everyone would respect what I was about if that's how I felt about MCing. I didn't really want to take this album on a journey where it's a radio album or whatever. In my heart it wouldn't have felt like Cuban Linx II. That was the main thing, just make another classic album.
I just feel like right now, hip-hop is at a stage where everybody just wants to party. My thing is, I like partying, but at the same time I still want to be creative and keep a legacy alive with making classic music. I think every MC should really take time out to craft his ability to be an emcee again. Everybody's not captivated by money or glamour or even the power--people want to see creativity. We've been missing that a long time. Right now it's about hip-hop, man. It's about us certain people that still aren't afraid to go to work and make beats and quality music. Just for me, I know I get tired of fucking hearing the same format from everybody. Everybody is just so captivated with commercial music because that's all we hear on the radio.
It's true. Jay-Z makes a big deal out of the fact that he's making an album without Auto-Tune on it. And it's kind of frightening that that has to be an issue at all. Cuban Linx II doesn't have any Auto-Tune on it.
Number one, I can never really see myself going all the way there like that. One thing about Wu-Tang, we're so unpredictable it would really be hard for us to ever go fully commercial or mainstream. Auto-Tune to me was something that I felt was an experiment--it works for a couple of artists, but then, everybody took that as being a new sound. It's like alright, that's what it's all about now? That's the only way you get on the radio, if you have an Auto-Tuned record? Wow, hip-hop has really changed, you know?
I really liked seeing J Dilla's name on this project as a producer.
[laughs]. Yeah J Dilla. God bless his soul man, and his family. To have him so much involved, that was just an honor. He deserves every piece of respect that he gets in the game. I'm just glad that I had the opportunity to work with him. His family and his fans know that he was definitely appreciated by Raekwon.
How did his involvement in the album come about?
He got into it because a good friend of mine in the industry, Busta Rhymes. Basically him and Busta had a great rapport with one another. And Busta knew that he had something up his sleeve for Wu-Tang. When me and Busta were able to get together he would talk highly about J Dilla and he said that, you know, he wants to work with you. I felt like that was worth checking out. Next thing you know, when I heard him I was like, wow. This is like a slipper for Cinderella. It was the perfect fit. That to me was definitely one of the highlights of making II. I felt like he deserved that shot, and I was just fortunate to be able to catch him at the right time. I was blown away. It's one thing for me to know that I got peers that kind of know what the Wu-Tang is about and what we like and our basic style of music, but I never felt that there would be a producer that would actually hit everything on the head so much.
You've worked with a lot of great producers on this album. Dr. Dre, Alchemist, Pete Rock...
I look at it like, men I respect coming together for a strong album that we all believe in. Even though it was competition at its hardest with all the producers. Everybody wanted to come in and outdo the next man. Everybody had a lot of concern about Cuban Linx II. Me being a fan of the producers that came in--I felt that that would make II even more exciting--to really challenge RZA's production from the early nineties. I mean these are some of my favorite producers in the world. You sit back and you think of legendary Marley Marl from the early eighties getting it in. You've got Pete Rock, which is a straight hip-hop legend. It's just like, wow--all these people that I looked up to when I first wanted to be in the rap business. It felt good to get that kind of support from some of these dudes.
I want to ask one more question about Cuban Linx. The cover of II is a mirror image of the original, but the stove is missing.
[laughs] He said the stove is missing! You know, you gotta wait 'til you see the album. You'd be surprised. When you're checking the inside sleeve you may get what you want. [laughs]. Really that's how you feel? You miss the stove?
Yeah that's the only thing missing.
Thank you sir. You know, I'm constantly surrounded by critics--of my work, and at the same time of everything that's going on in hip-hop. I've never seen so many people so into an album that was made 15 years ago. It just bugs me out. I listen to some of the fans' comments on the internet--which is the new marketing tool for hip-hop--I read the blogs, I see people on the street everyday, I go to different countries, and everybody is just so...wanting to see what the hell is going on with this. You've got some fans that wanna stick up for me and say, "Rae's still got it!" And you got some that say, "Nah he'll never beat that album!" It makes me laugh that people are so overwhelmed with this project. I've never seen that happen before. People really cling on to that music. This is for you guys. I'm just glad you like the food.
Raekwon is at the 92Y tonight with Peter Rosenberg, 200 Hudson Street, 8pm, $15. He plays at Mahoney Playground in Staten Island August 12 at 7 pm. Visit www.cityparksfoundation.org for more info. Cuban Linx II will surface someday if not September 8...hopefully.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.