Raekwon leaves his own distinct mark on everything he does.
After first shaking up the rap game as part of the Wu-Tang Clan, he dropped Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... in 1995, forever changing hip-hop. The landmark debut is credited with igniting the Mafioso rap style of the mid-'90s, spawning street classics such as "Criminology" and "Incarcerated Scarfaces." It was also the first Wu-Tang project with a feature from a non-Wu-Tang member—the Nas-assisted "Verbal Intercourse."
Another part of the album's legend is the appearance of the original cassette tape, which was purple. The album earned the nickname "The Purple Tape," a handle that's lasted for nearly two decades.
The Chef enjoyed moderate success during the remainder of the '90s and early Aughts before dropping the Purple Tape's critically-acclaimed sequel, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. ll in 2009. Since then, he's dropped Wu Massacre, a collaborative album with Ghostface Killah and Method Man, and another solo project, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang.
In the meantime, Rae has been touring and prepping his next release, F.I.L.A (Fly International Luxurious Art). We caught up with him to talk about the history of The Purple Tape, his work with Kanye West, and his dreams of being an actual chef, among other things.
Interview by Julian Kimble (@JRK316)
I’ve always been amazed by your rhyme schemes. They're different—like, off—but not in a bad way. How’d you come up with it?
I came up under the team of people that was from the mid-'80s: Rakim, Kane, Biz Markie, Kool G Rap, Slick Rick, you know what I mean? Just them names! It’s just being schooled by the shit that was before you, but I was definitely a big Rakim fan, so I always felt like when he was throwing lyrics in the air, it was like “Listen, it ain’t about the singles or none of that,” it was about the dart, like “Oh shit! What the fuck he said?!” We would ride around in our cars at that time, playing that strong shit. You drivin’ around in something strong, you need strong content. That’s the type of shit I grew up under; that era of sound, and it made me more lyrical. And then my crew, Wu-Tang; you sit there and you see all these men got different styles so you forced to learn how to hold your own. So to me, it’s natural; it’s like hittin’ the bag, B.
When you put the Purple Tape out, did you think it would have the impact on hip-hop that it’s had?
When I put it out, I believed in it a lot. When we made it, it was my turn in the Clan to do my thing and I was like “Fuck that, Meth and them niggas got heaters. They got classic albums,” so I needed one under my belt. I took everyone into my world on that album. Everybody always looked at that gangster type of street hustle rap as my chamber. I just came in with the shit that I grew up around and was just talking the tales of the streets. RZA said “Your shit is so…to the other side, but it’s needed.” He just said “Yo, stay in your box,” so I would just talk about the shit that I related to. Keys, jewelry, drugs, bitches, whores and whatever. That’s what I brought to the table.
I took everyone into my world on that album. Everybody always looked at that gangster type of street hustle rap as my chamber.
Whose idea was it to make the actual tape purple?
It was mine. It was my thing because at the end of the day, I felt like that was my baby. I wanted to make sure that the average cat that would listen to it had something special in his cassette deck. Like, out of all of his tapes, my shit was private; my shit was for special people. Like you had to be somebody to rock that, so I wanted to separate that from everybody else’s. At first I was gonna do it green, ‘cause green is my favorite color; I like olive green, but they couldn’t do that color. Next thing you know, they was like “Blah, blah, blah, blah and purple” and I was like “A lot of niggas might think purple is for girls” but I liked the color because it stood out, so I was like “Fuck it, let’s go with purple.” Next thing you know, everybody gave it a name of its own, because you didn’t have to name the album no more, it was like “Yo, listen to this. I don’t know what the fuck the purple tape is, but get that shit.” And that’s how it came to be. It built its own name.
You and Ghost were almost your own group back then. How did you develop the type of working relationship that you have?
It’s just brotherhood. Me and him relate to a lot of things. Our projects is right down the block from each other, because Ghost not from my project—his project hated my project and my project hated his. At the end of the day, we was just two niggas caught up on different sides but we respected one another. When RZA put us together and joined forces—we knew each other, but he wasn’t my nigga because he was from down the block, you know how that go [laughs]. We got real close, had a lot of good conversation and we would respond to things alike, so we did a lot of work together and I guess niggas started seeing the separation between us and the rest of the Clan. It wasn’t really no separation, it was just that we was cool and we started to hang out. You know how you catch that dude on your team that you’re like “Yo, I love all them niggas but I fuck with him heavy.”
I’ve heard you say that when you and Nas recorded “Verbal Intercourse,” he didn’t know which rhyme to use. How’d you know the verse that you eventually settled on was “the one”?
I have an ear; I had an ear back then. For me it was like “Yo, I just want my nigga to rep.” I wrote my rhyme in ten minutes, and I wrote my rhyme happy that he threw his shit down. So I just needed to come up with some shit to just make him feel appreciative of being there. You know how it is when you invite a nigga to your house and you’re like “Yo, get on. Do you,” and that’s what it was. He was doing him, and he was spittin’ so many different kinds of rhymes that he didn’t know which one he wanted to do. So I was like “Fuck it, just let me hear what you got,” you know what I mean? So now I’m on some A&R shit, not like we needed that, but I was like “Yo, he gettin’ ready to get on my shit so let me make sure I’m happy with his shit.” You know what I mean?
Then he started spittin’ joints and he spit that “Through the lights cameras and action…” When he did that shit, I looked at RZA and he looked at me; I looked at Ghost and he looked at me; we looked at Nas like “That’s it! That’s it!” Everybody started jumpin’ up and he was like “That’s it?” We pressed the button down because he was in the booth and we were all like “That’s it, nigga! We want that!” I’m a big fan of Nas, so when he killed that over that RZA track, it was like “Oh, shit!” I was like “He got it, he got it.” And at the same time, he respected our ear and we was off to the races after that.
If you put Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. lll out, do you feel like a Nas feature is a must?
I would do it for the fans. It’s always good to have a Nas track to me because that’s my nigga; he’s a true lyricist in the game. So for me to continue that legacy of having him on it, I would do it more for the fans, because the fans love what we’ve done. But me having to carry on own legacy, I gotta do what I gotta do. I can’t wait for a nigga to complete my mission; I gotta complete it on my own. It’s always love, but me, I go solo dolo; whenever, whatever. The Wu taught me that. When we came in this shit, we knew we had departments to fulfill, so everything that came with Chef that helped it was just a plus, but I’m my own band, B.
It’s important for us to know that when you do collaborations with some of your friends in the game, you don’t always have to do it right away. You let it come out of nowhere when the people least expect it and it’s made creatively.
Every now and then it’s important for us to know that when you do collaborations with some of your friends in the game, you don’t always have to do it right away. You let it come out of nowhere when the people least expect it and it’s made creatively, so it don’t feel like we boxed in to do it. But I would never turn him down, because he was there on the first one. What would I look like if he said he wanted in on that? That’s like friendly extortion to me; I gotta let him in. He was a part of that movement, so that’s a flipped quarter. Of course I would want to, but if he don’t want to, then what—the show ain’t gonna be the show? It’s still the Raekwon show. But that’s one of my favorite rappers in the game.
Do you ever wish that you put Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. ll out sooner? Like, maybe in ’99 instead of ’09?
Nah, I didn’t know when it was coming. It’s hard to do things over; when we made that shit the first time, we wasn’t thinkin’ about doing it over. It was just for that time. Only built for Cuban linx niggas—that’s how we felt. We were rockin’ the Cubans; we called them pythons though, that chain that you can’t pop. You gotta put your foot in a nigga’s chest to take that shit off. It was just about the bond, but when we made it, we wasn’t thinking about part two because that was the foundation for me as a solo artist. So I just wanted to do my job and come with a great record.
How’d you link up with Kanye and G.O.O.D Music?
Kanye reached out. He knows one of my friends, and he was like “Yo Chef, I need you.” I’m lovin’ it because I love what he’s doing. At least he’s being creative and his production is crazy—nobody can front on it. He reached out, and the next thing you know, it was like “Meet me here.” We met, we kicked it and he was a big fan. He was praising my family, and was very respectful and I was excited to work with the brother because he’s a talented guy. So we just got it in; he played some tracks and the next thing you know, I was like “I like that.” He already knew what I would sound good on and I wound up picking what he liked too.
The nigga is a producer still. No matter how much everybody see him as a rapper, his passion is still that production. So we made it happen, and it was a service to a good friend.
What new artists, if any, do you listen to today?
To keep it one hundred, I listen to everything that’s on the radio because it’s on the radio, but putting a nigga’s shit in my car? It’s tough. I like certain rap. I think it’s a lot of talented niggas out there, but certain shit I like to ride with. See, that’s the difference—you got niggas who listen to music to ride around with and you got niggas that listen to it for the club factor. I’m more of the car nigga. I’m more into hearing something by myself; maybe smoke a blunt and get set. Everything is calculated already.
Kanye reached out. He knows one of my friends, and he was like “Yo Chef, I need you.” I’m lovin’ it because I love what he’s doing.
You got a lot of niggas doing they thing, but to get to my tape deck, I gotta really feel like niggas are making albums. Albums—not just one or two joints. I want to play something that’s gonna last the whole blunt and keep me going. It’s hard, and I’m not lying to you. It’s fucked up though, right? Because niggas support me and I don’t really be supporting like that? But it ain’t like I don’t be supporting—I love everybody’s shit. A lot of niggas is sizzlin’, but I’m on some other shit. That’s all. I’m just a different kind of rap nigga.
Everyone knows you as “The Chef,” but I’ve seen the YouTube videos—you’re actually nice in the kitchen. If you had the opportunity to do your own cooking show, or start a restaurant or food truck, would you consider it?
Definitely, I want to be cookin’ in there and everything, B. But I want real food, like Soul Food; turkey wings with a lot of meat on them and all that. Probably a halal spot where you can get halal spaghetti and all of that. Wheat spaghetti—that it’d be ill, right? I’m gonna do a lot of things, but right now, I’m just enjoying this music thing. When it gets to the next level, it’s gonna get to the next level. But you know me; I like to eat, so you might see that later on. You might be able to come to a Chef restaurant and get you a little turkey wrap or something, with some extra shit on it. Some $1,000 dressing or something. It’s just that the food business is tough because you gotta keep everything fresh—you can’t play with food. People get sick from food and it’s fucked up. You’re goin’ down.
What’s up with your next project?
Yeah, Fly International Luxurious Art. Let me say this real quick: I like doing collaborations and all of that; I love it, but when you’re doing your own album sometimes, you really don’t want too many [features] on there. You gon’ see some new shit on here. You gon’ see some good shit though; some shit that you would’ve never expected. I’ve really been trying to focus on keeping it creative; whoever’s on there is on there, but you might not see a lot of rappers on it. You might see some other people from all different genres of music, because this is a lifestyle project.
When you think of “fly International,” you gotta think of me involving myself with the world on this one. I can’t sprinkle everything out there yet, but you’re gonna get it. It’s some shit on there, though. It’s a nice, spicy salmon right now. That’s what you gotta call this whole conversation—spicy salmon.