From the moment we all heard those kung fu effects on “Protect Ya Neck,” the world was hooked. Smitten by the rugged wordplay and seemingly endless lineup of furiously spitting rappers, the Wu Tang Clan was like nothing any rap consumer had ever heard before. But on their second single, “C.R.E.A.M.,” the bragging, violent rhymes were replaced by somber, heart-wrenching verses about the hardships of growing up on the crime side – one particular emcee with a penchant for vivid, creative slang introduced listeners to a world few knew existed. Raekwon the Chef quickly became a Wu favorite; his 1995 solo debut, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, is still regarded by many as the finest individual Wu effort in a crowded field, and might get more than a few votes for the best hip-hop album of all time.
After 1997’s Wu Tang Forever, however, things got a little funny. Excepting Ghostface and maybe Method Man, the rest of the clan didn’t garner the same attention as it did during the early and mid ’90s. Through the last decade, Raekwon released work sporadically to lukewarm critical reviews and wildly varied public opinions. After the release of the Clan’s 2007 effort 8 Diagrams, Rae voiced dissatisfaction with ringleader RZA’s beat selection and vowed to put out more work on a more consistent schedule. 2009’s Only Built for Cuban Linx II . . . Part II was quickly followed by Meth, Rae, and Ghost’s Wu Massacre; his latest solo effort, Shaolin vs. Wu Tang, came out last week. Rae is clearly getting his third wind: Walk with Lex Diamonds as he revisits his childhood, and discusses his redoubled efforts to stay both inspired and relevant.
How’d you maintain relevance through all these years?
It’s a lot of reasons. I influenced and inspired a lot of people to rap in the first place. Plus, how I move, I managed to never lose credibility. More importantly, I’m constantly around. Rappers fall off when they disappear off the scene. You know, out of sight out of mind. I get saluted like I put an album out yesterday. It’s a real blessing. The love from the fans just keeps me in the mix.
You’ve put out more albums in the last two years than in the previous ten. Feeling more inspired these days?
Yeah, definitely. It’s just me coming to a moment in my life where I wanted to get back in the swing of things. And I impressed the masses with the Cuban Linx II joint, so now it’s all about staying in shape, staying conditioned, so that I’ll keep releasing these joints. That second wind — third wind, really — was a godsend. I’m reinvigorated like Carlito. I don’t plan on letting too much time pass anymore without some irons in the fire.
You stay rapping about some crime. How do you get inspired to pen those kinds of rhymes with NYC being so benign?
My past is what I draw the crime-inspired things from. Just growing up when we grew up and how we grew up and of course where we grew up . . . I seen enough to keep me inspired for decades, man. Coming up in the 1980s and just rocking through the whole drug era taught me to walk and talk a certain way. Can’t unlearn that shit.
What do you recall most clearly about those days?
Not having a lot but still having fun. Shit was hectic, of course. Shootings, stabbings, drugs . . . I come from a hood that had no YMCA, no youth organizations or foundations . . . it was tough. For me, I always wanted to be a baseball player. I was mad nice in baseball. But I was so poor that dream didn’t even matter. The main thing was to escape poverty. I never had a father, so I also remember there was just a lot of unanswered things in my life. But they say when you don’t have shit, you have the most fun. Once you get it, shit gets aggravating. You have to deal with a lot — you know, more money more problems and all that.
How’d the rapping come about?
Of course at first we did rap for sport, you know, just for the hell of it. Then once RZA put me on and the shit started to roll, it was just like a big relief. Like, “I’m gonna be legit now, I don’t have to worry ’bout posting up in front of this same building everyday to make my li’l stacks or whatever.” It was just a blessing. And the crazy shit is I think about it daily, like, “I could’ve been somewhere else doing who the fuck knows what.”
So I peeped you on the remix of Curren$y’s “Michael Knight.” How are you feeling about the new crop of MCs?
My main thing is this . . . I respect passion. If the young artists, MCs in training, are passionate about their craft, then I’m fucking with you. You got to love this shit like I love this shit. But also I base it on personality, too. I’m the type of person that if I don’t like you, I can’t fake it and work with you. I just try to keep in mind that I was a new cat at one point. I was looking to the OGs for their recognition. Now these young boys, they recognize. Curren$y is dope because he’s humble, he’s respectful, so I like him. Same with Yelawolf. But if you’re not that way, chances are I can’t work with you
Speaking of working together, have you and RZA smoothed things over since 8 Diagrams?
Everything is on point. It was something that we, the Clan, all felt as a whole. You gotta be your brother’s keeper at times. We all get a little gassed and think that we’re invincible. RZA was just in a different chamber than the rest of us. So I’m like, “Whatever you’re thinking, stop it. Get on the same page as the rest of us.” It’s all in the past now anyway. It wasn’t ever that serious anyway. Just words, just men arguing and debating. I respect RZA. I respect his work and opinion, and I respect him for just getting me this opportunity to rock and to show my skills. That’s still my brother. He’s still one of the most powerful producers ever. It was just tough love.
In closing, what has changed most in how you make music and market yourself?
Technology. I’m more connected to the public through Twitter and Facebook. I’m always willing to lend an ear and answer their questions. Plus it works both ways. Today my fans are my A&Rs.