Raekwon Breaks Down His 25 Most Essential Songs

All the stories behind the Wu-Tang assassin's classic darts.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Raekwon the Chef has cooked up some marvelous shit during his illustrious rap career. Since he went to "war with the melting pot" on Wu-Tang Clan's first single "Protect Ya Neck" in '92, Shallah put out a string of memorable solo albums (including the classic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... series), made outstanding co-starring appearances on countless stellar Wu releases (most notably with his Co-D Ghostface Killah), and spit darts on tracks with everyone from the late Big Pun to teen twitter-throb Justin Bieber.

Yesterday he released yet another solo album, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, which sounds like some of his best work to date. So we felt it was the right time to go chop it up with the Chef to break down what we feel are the 25 most essential songs in his never ending catalog of crack. And you know Louis Rich Diamonds is always down to connect, politic, ditto. Put your shoes on.

As told to Daniel Isenberg (@stanipcus)

Wu-Tang Clan "Protect Ya Neck" (1992)

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Wu-Tang Clan "C.R.E.A.M." (1993)

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Wu-Tang Clan "Can It Be All So Simple" (1993)

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Method Man f/ Raekwon "Meth vs. Chef" (1994)

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Produced by: RZA

Raekwon: “Me and Meth loved the beat. For the world to really know, me and Meth always go back and forth. We like to argue, fuss, and fight with one another, so everybody in the clan they kinda get a kick out of us two geekin’ and lunchin’ on each other every time. But, yeah, when we did that song we definitely was on some battling shit. And I knew Meth had the bounce.

When it comes to flowin’ we always looked at him as a flow-er. Niggas looked at me as a soldier. You know, a militant. Everybody had they specific chambers and at that time it was the flow-er versus the lyricist. The guy who’s gonna come at you with the war rhymes and the straight street shit.

“I feel he won still though because his flow was just so, ‘Who lit that shit it was I, the chinky eye...’ I was just going at him with the machine gun, ‘I’m goin’ all out kid no turn backs...’ So to this day we still laugh about it and it’s still a mystery to us who really won, but in my eyes I’ll give it to him.”

Raekwon f/ Ghostface Killah "Heaven and Hell" (1994)

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Raekwon "Incarcerated Scarfaces" (1995)

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Raekwon f/ Ghostface Killah "Criminology" (1995)

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Raekwon f/ Ghostface Killah & Nas "Verbal Intercourse" (1995)

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Produced by: RZA

Raekwon: “Another one of my favorites right there. That one right there though, the beat was sick. RZA was just dominating where he wanted to take this record, and I was just right there with him all the time co-signing the beats. At that time me and Nas were real close. He would come see me at my crib. I’d come see him up in Queens. And I always told him I want him on the album.

”So one day I brought him out to Staten Island. We went to RZA’s house and he went to the basement and he was listening to the beat and I’m like, ‘Yo, this is the one I’m thinking I need to have you on.’ And we would just sit there for an hour listening to the beat. Now mind you, I didn’t even write my rhyme yet. I just knew, this beat is going on the album.

“So Nas is automatically like, ‘Yeah this is it, but I don’t know what rhyme to fucking come with.’ I’m like, ‘Fuck it. What you got?’ He got a couple lines. I’m like, ‘Fuck it, go in the booth.’ So now, I’m in the back on some A&R shit. Ghost walked in. We all just chillin’. Next thing you know, Nas is up in there trying all different kinds of rhymes. He’s my guest, so I’m definitely paying attention to what he’s doing ‘cause at the end of the day I’m gonna make sure that he does what he need to do.

”He was trying shit and I was like, ‘Nah that ain’t it right there.’ And then once he said that, ‘Through the lights, cameras, and action,’ I looked at niggas in the room. Everybody looked at me. I’m like, ‘That’s it!’ I stopped him and said, ‘Yo, that’s the verse. Do that one.’ And ever since when he did that one, it was one of the best verses in hip-hop today.

“When that came out, Nas was just really starting to be heard more. He was starting to get his buzz up now as far as being a Queensbridge representative. People were seeing that this nigga’s nice, but we helped put that credibility on it even more when that record came out. So it was definitely one that people was like, ‘Yo, I love this shit because this little nigga over in Queens is nice. Then he’s fucking wit y’all and then the record is mean.’ So, it just kinda like helped everybody’s position grow in the game at that time.”

Raekwon f/ Ghostface Killah, Method Man, & Cappadonna "Ice Cream" (1995)

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Mobb Deep f/ Nas & Raekwon "Eye For An Eye" (1995)

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Produced by: Havoc

Raekwon: “It was payback time. It was payback for the friendship and the love that Queensbridge and Shaolin had together. They’re building up their Queensbridge medals and shining ‘em up, and they called me in to get on that record. All I did was come in the studio and hang out with them. We was gettin’ bent and all that. But that beat, everybody’s head just kept knockin’.

”So that beat was just freshly made once we all got into the studio together. I remember P was up in there first settin’ it off, and Havoc came behind him. And me and Nas was over there in the corner writing. Like, one thing about me, I think I was more excited just chillin’ with niggas than writing. Like, I was always the type of nigga like, ‘Aight, you go. Gimme like ten minutes.’ So a lot of my rhymes are wrote quick. Like, that’s what cats always say about me like, ‘Yo Chef you write so fuckin’ fast.’ I’m like, ‘‘Cause I get open quick.’ If I get open off of something then it makes me write like that.

“I’m a big fan of Mobb and Nas. Queens rappers excite me more than Brooklyn rappers for some reason. I don’t know. I like Queens rappers. I like how they rhyme. I like the beats they be picking. And, at that time Havoc was young, but nice. So you know I’m always for the young thoroughbred. Anybody that’s just feeling to me like they on some young G shit. Yeah, I wanted to fuck with them.

”Him and P, they already had their potions and me and Nas were just in the back like, ‘This is it.’ The next thing you know we just went in and did what we did. Honestly, I wasn’t even writing that hard, I wrote something just to participate and it wound up being a classic.”

Jodeci f/ Raekwon and Ghostface Killah "Freak N You (Remix)" (1995)

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Produced by: Mr. Dalvin

Raekwon: “That right there was when we really started to look at making a transition for our careers, and when we made that record what was going through my mind was that maybe I could still be hardcore and still do these kinds of records too. But RZA wouldn't let me go there.

”When we made that record and it started taking off, I kinda just wanted to start making music like that. I wanted to try to open up that R&B world because like I said I'm the Chef. I'm versatile. You can't just put me in one box.

“Jodeci gave us a call. I remember me and Ghost up in the studio with them niggas ‘cause we was the only ones that went to go get at ‘em that day ‘cause they called specifically for us. And, them niggas was pissy, pissy, pissy, pissy drunk. We was in New York City, somewhere up in the city. I remember we was all just up in the studio having fun. Them niggas was singing their verses. Next thing you know, we was just pacing as it go on and while they was up in there doing their thing, I'm over there trying to write my first line like, ‘What the fuck am I gonna say to set off this rhyme?!’ It wasn't easy for me, so I think it may have took me like an hour and a half to just come up with the first line.

“I caught a lot of female love on that. So that's why I was trying to get my little female shine on. Now I wanna be a sex symbol like Meth. Meth is a sex symbol, and that record was allowing me to be a sex symbol to a degree. So I'm like, ‘Yeah, I need to start making more records like this!’ [Laughs.]

”RZA was like, ‘Man, listen here, you gonna stay right over here. Stay in your chamber.’ I was really one of the dudes back then that was just so amped up to do whatever I can. I believed in myself like that. Confidence got the Chef where he at today.”

Fat Joe f/ Raekwon, Big Pun, & Armageddon "Firewater" (1996)

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Produced by: Born Lords

Raekwon: “Pun was definitely a good friend of mine and that record “Firewater” was Pun’s first record on-air. The first look. And it's so crazy that, I don't know, brothers sometimes look at me as a fortune teller or a genie or a psychic, but I remember Joe coming up to me, ‘cause you know Joe invited me up to the studio to get on a record with him. So you know me I'm a New York kid, I'm going everywhere, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, and Staten.

”Wind up in the Bronx with Joe that night and Joe is like, ‘Yo, I wanna introduce you to somebody.’ And then he introduced me to Pun. He was like, ‘Yo, this my mans from the street.’ So I'm like, ‘Aight man, whassup man how you doing?’ He's like, ‘Yo, yo, I'm a big fan of you. Love your style man.’ Like, his personality just really made me like him more. Joe came to me personally and asked me, ‘Yo, I want you to hear my man real quick.’

”This was before the record so I'm like, ‘Yeah, aight cool.’ Next thing you know the nigga just started goin’ in and I'm just looking at this nigga, looked at Joe, looked at Joe again like... [Laughs.] Next thing you know Joe asked me like, ‘Yo, you think this nigga got it?’ I looked at him and said, ‘What?! Where you find him from?’ He said, ‘Nah, this my man from the hood.’ So I'm like, ‘Yo, you gonna put him on right?’ So automatically he was like, ‘You think he got it?’ I was like, ‘Do he got it!?’ I was like, ‘Fuck with him.’ He was like, ‘Yo, I wanna put him on this record.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, let's fuck with him.’ And that's when ‘Firewater’ was born.”

Ghostface Killah f/ Raekwon and Cappadonna "Camay" (1996)

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Produced by: RZA

Raekwon: “We started to respect that at a lot of our shows we would see females going crazy for us. We was pulling a lot a ladies back then. Tryin’ to be the ladies man. You know if you got the money, you got the power, you got the bitches. You know how that go. So yeah we always wanted to have something for the women.

”So boom, Ghost came up with the title ‘Camay.’ We felt like, ‘Oh, nice title. Perfect.’ You know you think of cosmetics, ‘Camay.’ It's just a nice name. All I did was just follow the vibe of the beat and come up with some slick lines.

“All me and him and Cappa did was just sit down and write something dedicated to the women. This right here was strictly for the ladies of the world because we knew that we had started to get a female fan base. We wanted to definitely seal the girls up. It's almost like having a ‘Ice Cream’ again, but now it's an ‘Ice Cream’ for Ghost's album.”

Ghostface Killah f/ Raekwon and Cappadonna "Daytona 500" (1996)

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Wu-Tang Clan "Duck Seazon" (1997)

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Produced by: RZA

Raekwon: “It was real long to me. That was a record that RZA really wanted to be on the album. And you know me, I'm just running with it and having fun. It definitely wasn't one of my favorites though, but it was a hot record. I was just flowin’.

”RZA really needed my voice on it. When he comes at me and says shit like that, I know that's because he’s getting ready to tear it up. That's when he was just goin’ crazy on it.

”I guess I just had two rhymes though probably at that time. And RZA probably appreciated both of them. Because that's how I was writing too back then. Like, I may write one and then be like, ‘Hold up, lemme try it again.’ Come in with another one and then later on when I hear the record he got both verses on it.”

Outkast f/ Raekwon "Skew It On The Bar-B" (1998)

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Cocoa Brovaz f/ Raekwon "Black Trump" (1998)

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Raekwon "Live From New York" (1999)

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Slick Rick f/ Raekwon "Frozen" (1999)

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Raekwon "Uncle" (2003)

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Produced by: Zephlon

Raekwon: “That record was made just for fun. Just giving love to all my uncles. When you coming up a lot of those that's looking out for you be your uncles. Being a kid you always become to close to one of them. You know your mother's brothers or your mother’s nephew. You call him your uncle because he acts like he's your uncle.

”I don't even remember who made the beat, but I remember the rhyme, and I was just telling a great story about an uncle. How he used to come scoop me and hang out with me, but I never put it on an album [Ed.—’Uncle’ appears as the B-Side on ‘The Smith Bros’ 12”]. This is me just having fun on the mic.

”A lot of times when I go out and I wind up being in somebody’s studio, I might leave with like three to four tracks. So if I'm dealing with five or six studios, and I'm running in there, I'm dropping a lot of shit off and not even coming back to ‘em because we’re just having fun.

”That particular song, it always stuck in my head and I'm like, ‘Yo, you know what? I gotta let somebody hear this shit because I like this.’ Just the bounce of the beat was different. I think I just gave it to Kay Slay. This is back before he was the Drama King. This is Kay Slay when he was on some Street Sweeper mix tape thing up in Harlem. Kay Slay is one of the realest DJ slash mixtape cats slash producers that you will ever meet. Crazy cool dude.”

Raekwon “State of Grace” (2005)

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Produced by: RZA

Raekwon: “Me and Ghost was living in Miami together for like a year working on some albums together. I think we were working on, if I'm not mistaken, Bulletproof Wallets. I was gonna be doing R.A.G.U. and we were gonna be chillin’ together getting both of them done, and we ended up doing Bulletproof Wallets faster because he had to get his shit done on time.

These beats used to be sitting down playing in our house because we had rented a villa in Miami for about five months. RZA was out there for like a couple of days hanging out with us. Break out, drop off some beats. But, me and Ghost would basically sit up in our villa and just write to beats all day. That was our mission. And that beat happened to be one of the beats that was in the files of everything that we were making. I just remembered the beat. Like, I'm saying to myself, ‘Whatever happened to that fuckin beat?’

“When RZA came out to Miami and made that beat he made about five beats. We wasn't blown away with all of them, but he definitely had a few, and that beat just got overlooked. So when I killed it and brung it back to him like, ‘Yo, this is what I need you to be doing. I had to find this in your old dirty treasure chest. We need this shit right here.’ He was like, ‘Oh you like that shit? Yo that's a loop. Boom, boom, boom, boom, sample.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know that, but it's hard though. This is what I'm talking about, this is Cuban Linx II material right here.’ And he like, ‘Yo, you like it, take it. Do what you do.’ Next thing you know we put that shit back out on the market. Shit was hot right there. A lot of people loved it.

“It was a leak record and what I thought at that time, when I would've been ready to have Cuban Linx II done, it wasn't the time. It was taking me a lot more time, and I like that record but once we thrown it out there to the world and people started to play it, it was starting to become like, ‘It's hot, it's hot, but I don't think I wanna ride with it on the album like that.’

”I like the vibe of it, but once it started getting beasted in New York, I just felt like it was old after a while. So I let it be though. But, it was definitely the sound that we were trying to get to because when I picked it I knew this was the sound that would make everybody reminisce about Cuban Linx because it has that kind of feel to it.”

Raekwon "Surgical Gloves" (2009)

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Raekwon f/ Lyfe Jennings "Catalina" (2009)

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Raekwon "Alphabet Soup" (2010)

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Produced by: BT

Raekwon: “That's one of my favorites. That's one of those records that I don't really think got a lot of exposure, but I was using it for a mixtape thing. And I'm glad that you acknowledge the mixtape records, because sometimes I really be feeling like a lot of them songs had the opportunity to be great songs on the albums and all that, but that one was specifically made for the mixtapes.

“My man made that. It's produced by this young white kid named BT. This is also one of my protégés that helped me design Cuban Linx II. He was an engineer/producer/critic/‘Get the fuck out of the room ‘cause you’re pissin me off ‘cause you got so much to say,’ but at the same time became my best friend.

”He did ‘Penitentiary’ [on OBFCL2]. He would sit there and co-produce a couple of things with me, and we would go back and forth, but he wound up being a real good honest critic that I needed to have around me at that time.

“‘Alphabet Soup’ wound up being a beat that he made for me, and I picked it ‘cause I was like, ‘I like that beat.’ I didn't know which way to go with it. So one day I just came up with something like, ‘Maybe I'll do the alphabet. Let me get my Papoose on.’ Papoose did something like that before.

“That shit ain't easy neither. I just kinda wanted to create a nice little bounce to it and I just felt like it was working for the song. I didn't feel that it was a story beat. I didn't feel that it was a freestyle beat. I felt like you had to have a certain concept. Something. And I came up with the alphabet. And it's crazy because I still be listening to that shit. I listened to that shit yesterday.”

Justin Bieber f/ Kanye West and Raekwon "Runaway Love (Remix)" (2010)

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Produced by: Kanye West

Raekwon: “That record right there was a record where I knew we wasn't gonna go out there looking like idiots together, us three. When I look at the accomplishments Justin Bieber has in his career, and I look at ‘Ye's career, and I look at mine, I'm saying to myself, ‘At the end of the day it's gonna be hot.’ I don't know what everybody's all nervous about, but I could expect it only because shorty has a different kind of music that he makes.

”So it was more or less like your nephew coming to your uncle for some love. Come hang out with your uncles today. That's how I kinda felt overall through it. But, yeah, once I knew that Kanye was gonna make his magic happen I was confident. I knew it was a strong remix. I heard him when he sung his other remix, and I thought he had a great voice for his age and his size.

“When we made it [Justin] wasn't there. Kanye was there. Me and Kanye was in the studio. Bieber was on the road I guess doing some things. We was rhyming to it and I was just having fun. Just gliding to it. I kept asking myself like, ‘Damn, should you go hard on it? Nah, you can't go hard we got the younger audience.’ So now I find myself curbing my sound structure to not make it rated R because you can't come rated R, but still fly shit. But that's what I came out with, and I wanted really to dumb it down, just not be so difficult with it. I just went in there and smashed two verses and ‘Ye went in there and did his thing afterwards and it was a wrap after that.

“It was more to support him and his generation of music and at the same time also get his generation to acknowledge me. I know that Kanye was definitely the admiral of the ship to be like ‘Yo, this is what I wanna do.’ And we just did it. We made it hot.”

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