Raekwon's thoughts on storytelling in hip-hop
This Friday, Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan is teaming up with DJ Premier to celebrate 4/20 at the 420 Extravaganja this Friday, April 19, at HoodLab. This show marks the first time Raekwon and DJ Premier share a bill. We spoke with Raekwon about the prospect of performing with one of hip-hop's iconic producers, new projects in the works for the Wu and the importance of storytelling in hip-hop and poetry in general.
Westword: Last time you were here was Rock the Vote. Why do you think it's important to do shows like that?
Raekwon: I think it's important to do shows like that because I care about my country, and I care about the welfare of my country, and, you know, we have to sit there and pay attention to these things and be a part of it. And hip-hop is definitely a voice, so it is my duty and my job to be at events like this and spread the word in hip-hop and say, "Yo, it ain't just about the music, you know? It's about the culture, the politics, the energy of who we want to put in the seat as a nation."
I think that's imperative to us to talk about. So going to events like that, it can only just put me in a greater seat as far as being a responsible artist. You know, I think artists have responsibilities. And I think just being involved with social networking of what's going on in the world is important, so that's why I wanted to be a part of that.
Have you ever done a show with DJ Premier before?
Nah, I haven't, and this is one of my favorite, favorite producers and a good friend of mind, and nah, this will be the first time that we really get together and dance. But we've definitely been in places before where I've seen him in there. So this one will be a little bit different because now it's all about me and him. I have been to place where I've seen him rep out and do what he do, you know, and there have been times where we haven't done anything personally yet, but this will be the first time.
There have been mentions of a new Wu-Tang project. I was wondering if you had any details on that.
All I can say is the paperwork is still drying off, and there's a lot of creativity being thought about. I would say that everything is working itself out. It has to work itself out. As far as the creative factor, yeah, things have already started brewing up.
We did a list of the great storytellers in rap, and you and Ghostface were on it, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about storytelling as a poetic tool for you.
What I would say about storytelling -- it's definitely a part of my MC to tell stories because a real poet, he's telling the story anyway. And I think that me watching a lot of the older artists ahead of my time that did it before [I did,] I've seen a lot of versatility in it. But I've also seen a lot of them talking about what's going on in the world today, just painting pictures to put people in that situation.
So being a storyteller, for me, is being a real MC, because not only do you freestyle and you tackle certain rhymes certain ways, but you become conceptual to the world and you paint pictures. It's almost like being a filmmaker. I don't feel that my job is any different when I'm an MC, you know, wanting to touch that ground of film on wax.
I love telling stories because, you know what, even if they may not respect the song and say they can dance to it, at least they say that there was something that was interesting about it -- because some people don't dance, some people just want to listen. So you give them something that they can absorb and say, "Wow, he got creative with that." When I first heard "Children's Story" by Slick Rick, I didn't have to dance to that record to feel good about it, but it was a story, and I felt that that was a creative move.
What do you think it is about you and Ghostface together that creates such good chemistry?
I think people just understand our story and know that we're MCs from that community that everything we speak about is relatable. You know, me and Ghost, we pretty much are like brothers, and not only just brothers, but we share a lot of the things that go on in life. We like to express it in our music, you know. We like to challenge ourselves when we're writing that shit and come up with things that we talk about things, and that's just a chamber within the Wu-Tang Clan that me and him love to do.
So we'll sit there and... we'll listen to the beat, and next thing you know, whatever the first line that's being said, that'll direct us which way to go because if there's something that feels like a story, the beat'll tell us that. Me and Ghost, we have them kinda ears to know, "Alright, this is a beat you rhyme to. This is a beat you freestyle to. But this one right here; this is a story."
And that's how we made Cuban Linx be successful because it had a storyline feeling to it. It wasn't just part of the music. One thing people know the Wu-Tang for is a lot of energy, a lot of lyrics, a lot of, you know, entertainment out of it, but, more importantly, we're known for our conceptual ideas. We attack emotions, you know?
When you get a record like "All [That] I Got is You," that kind of beat -- you heard that beat? It was the perfect beat for Ghost and them to do at that time was to create a song about the struggle and family being close and "all I got is you." So it's always about the vision of the producer that's making us going into the story world, but we love telling stories. We love it.
What do you think has changed about being a rapper since 36 Chambers. Is is easier or harder or just different?
I mean, it hasn't really changed, really, as far as with me, but the politics, you know what I mean? But, far as being an artist...I'm down with the hip-hop thing, you know. Hip-hop, to me, is that culture, that way of life that made me feel like how I feel about music. Rap is more like -- you can rap it up and make anyone be an artist or successful, too, because all it takes is one good record. There's a difference there for me, you know?...
I could teach you how to rap if I had twenty minutes of your time. I could make you understand that, "Oh, okay, I Could do a little bit of rapping here." You know what I mean? But when you're embedded in hip-hop, it's really hip-hop music that I live for. Rap: I live for what I hear today, too, because there's a lot of people that make great music, but it may not be hip-hop. You get what I'm saying?
Everything ain't hip-hop. So I guess, you know, you got some rappers that make stuff that ain't hip-hop; make them a rapper, but when you got a hip-hop dude, he's gonna make sure that you already know he's a hip-hopper, and you already know he's a rapper automatically because it's hip-hop that's first. You gotta know what you put first.
And I'm assuming you feel like there's probably been a dominance over hip-hop in the last ten...
Absolutely, absolutely, and I guess it's like that because, you know, people want to make sure that the music is still fun, and it's supposed to be fun. Don't get me wrong. But it could be simple fun. It could...have no originally to it, but if it's fun, it makes sense. And there's nothing wrong with that. I'm not nobody to sit here -- because I love partying to music, too -- but I also want to hear a collage of everything.
Because my hip-hop that I grew up on, they didn't worry about a certain amount of record being hooks or worry about this wasn't an underground beat. We listened to everything consecutively, and that's what made the culture even bigger. Now you got records that, you know, it wasn't because of the format, it wasn't because of the concept.
You might've had the prettiest bitches in this video, or whatever. You might've had a big car. He might've had all the money, and, oh, because it's that person, it makes that record a smasher, you know what I mean? It's like, you know, great records are great records, though, but I think that the creative factor...still has to be challenged and it's not being challenged properly.
With music spreading so fast on the internet, you're seeing a decentralization of local style. For instance, you've got a local guy like A$AP Rocky, who's super Houston influenced, and you've got people all over the country who are influenced by New York rap. I was wondering if you thought that was good for hip-hop, or if you thought it was really important for cities like New York and Los Angeles to maintain a strong identity.
I think when it comes to hip-hop worldwide and people honoring certain states or certain places that they feel, you know, these guys are the meccas of where the music resided from, I think that's cool. But at the same time, I think that hip-hop is all over, you know what I mean? You can go to Canada and hear some great hip-hop, too, and great music in general.
So I think it's a stereotype that we all live in that we think, at the end of the day, it has to start from New York. It started in New York, you know what I mean? It started there, but it don't necessarily just live there, and it don't necessarily start from just, "Oh, okay, if I'm even living in New York, my music is going to be better." No, it starts from wherever you're at.
Shit, we always thought Rakim was from Brooklyn, but he was from Long Island. And that's still a part of New York, but it don't matter. It ain't where you're from; it's where you're at. As long as you know that in your mind, and as long as you know that there's talented people around, that's where it starts. It starts from the talent, man.
But it's almost like, with kids today, they have instant access to East Coast rap and West Coast rap and Southern rap, and it's like they have all this exposure thrown at them from all directions at once, and it's so hard to keep that identity where you can have this certain style that's unique to Los Angeles or whatever. I was wondering if you thought we were losing something by losing that distinctive style, you know, for a certain place?
You got places that have different kinds of sound like you got people that eat different kinds of food. Everybody picks and chooses what they want to taste or what they like. For me, I might not have been big on the South music, but I respect it. It's like they have their own taste to it, and that's what it is. It's just that everybody is given a piece of their taste.
If you're constantly living in the South, or you're listening to the South music, automatically, you're going to be influenced by that because you're constantly listening to it, you know? It's almost like we can know a beat, and know, "Oh, that's a this kind of beat. That's a South beat," or whatever.
One thing about us as hip-hoppers, as people who love music, we're too critical of everybody. There's a hundred million artists. When has it ever been a hundred million? That's a lot. So everybody has a word about looking at it in their own way, which there's nothing wrong with it, but instead, just absorb.
You're supposed to absorb the music. You got people looking at people's SoundScans and looking at how many records they sold, and you judge an artist off of that. It's the same thing with the music. You gotta let the music be created, and hopefully people will pick they lane, which they feel is the music they love.
A few years ago, you went to Sierra Leone for the Bling documentary, and I remember you had some trouble coming face to face with all the terrible things that had happened. I was wondering if you could talk about that experience.
It's so crazy talking about it because I was talking two days ago about that experience of going to Africa and really seeing the struggle factor out there. It was definitely mind-boggling, and I couldn't understand a lot of things, you know, why things was the way they were. I was just trying to get a mental perspective of why things are like that, and why do people do what they do....
All I can say is, yo, man, we just gotta pray for strong people in Africa, man, that have to deal with certain things, you know? And that's what it taught me is really just to respect the Motherland a little bit more than I already respected it. We're from America, so if you ask me, I think America is the most free place in the world that you would ever want to be in, and I'm just happy that I'm here.
But the real kings and queens, they live in these parts, in Africa because being a king and queen is [being] able to deal with these societies of things and still be happy. That's what I've seen out there: Even though people was struggling, they still was happy. They came out to party. They got dressed up. They may not have come out a house that was a big fuckin' house; they came out of a little fuckin' spot, and they came out and walked out with integrity and dignity...
That's what I loved about Africa is the fact that under these times, they still ain't lettin' they happiness fall to the ground. That was important. So it was a journey for me, man. It was like Monday, Tuesday, I be having fun, and then Wednesday, it's like a lot of things on my mind, and then Thursday, I'm crying, you know what I mean? It's like, why is this shit going on? So it was a mental roller coaster for me. It was a really serious situation for me, and I think I'm gonna always, always remember this story about going to Sierra Leone. It was really touching.
One of the Wu-Tang projects that I've been really excited for is GZA's Dark Matter. I was wondering if you had heard anything about it and what it was sounding like.
Let me tell you something, this guy right here is just awesome with wordplay, intelligence. He's a scientist, you know. You see everything he's doing. GZA is always getting creative, and, like I said, he is definitely a top-tier guy in the Wu when it comes to making projects because he's not just going to give you anything, you know, like, that's the same with me. I'm not just going to give you an album, I'm going to give you something that's special.
Any time you see some dudes like that getting together and making a record, you know that this is gonna be bigger than a record; it's gonna actually be an album. But he's working hard, man, and it's coming out solid. It's the GZA....He's gonna come with that intricate wordplay. He's gonna come with that production that's still great but still his sound.
For me, you know, I'm on a Fly International Luxurious Art album. That's the name of my album. So I'm thinking bright. I'm thinking colorful. I'm thinking global. I'm thinking my music could, you know, touch everybody, now. You know, I think I have already proven my strengths when it comes to a certain kind of sound.
Now, this project right here, Fly International Luxurious Art, this is gonna open up the door for me to embrace the world. That's how I feel about it....We shootin' for a September release. I thought I would have been able to be prepared by June, but we have other engagements of stuff we gotta work on, and I just wanna make sure that I promote it in a great way where people can be ready.
Anything else you want to say?
Just tell my people from the town I'll be out there, and, you know, we gon' get it poppin'. I'm excited to be a part of that Cannabis Cup, you know? This is my first time even going to one. And shout out to all my weed smokers, [laughs], shout out my pot puffers....More importantly, shout out to the fans, and I just want y'all to come out and celebrate with us.