Cooking With Gas

Originally published in the Stool Pigeon

Among the countless online images of Raekwon hunched Scarface-like over mountains of cocaine (presumably fake), or spelling his name out with fist-sized buds of hydroponic weed (presumably real), is an enigmatic snap of the Wu-Tang heavyweight signing the guest wall at the Facebook offices in Palo Alto, California. Dig a little deeper and you’ll uncover a video of the gruff rapper being given a tour of the oppressively cheerful open-plan workspace and thanking bemused employees for making it all happen. “Communication,” he says sincerely, “that’s what it’s all about.”

It seems unusual behaviour from one of the less visible members of the world’s most famous rap family. While his peers were popping up in major and minor film and TV roles – an unconvincing turn from Method Man as drug baron Cheese in The Wire; a brilliant pairing of RZA and GZA with Bill Murray for one of the surreal vignettes comprising Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee And Cigarettes – Raekwon has largely avoided amalgamation into the mainstream, keeping his head down and his heart firmly in the hardcore hip hop camp. Yet the Facebook thing isn’t quite as anomalous as it might appear: Raekwon has wholeheartedly embraced the social network revolution, and makes it his business to stay in direct contact with his 200,000-odd followers on Twitter.

“It’s a great marketing weapon,” he says. “It means that you don’t have to rely on labels to put your voice across. And when you’re in closer touch with the fans, you’re closer to their reactions to things that you do, good and bad. I think criticism is important when you’re an artist. Not all of it I agree with, but sometimes you hear things that you know you should pay heed to, and you have to take that shit and apply it to yourself.”

Such measured sentiments seem fitting for a rapper who has ridden waves of fortune as fierce as those assailing the crime syndicate bosses on which he modelled his musical persona. Raekwon had already established himself as a central character on the Wu’s early releases when he dropped what many see as the most layered and intoxicating of the clan’s solo albums, 1995’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Produced by RZA and heavily indebted to the lyrical mastery of his cohort Ghostface Killah, Cuban Linx confirmed the arrival of Raekwon as a unique voice in hip hop, his abstract flow a blast of ice-cold poetry in an arena stymied by macho posturing and sweaty block politics.

The original master Chef

Yet subsequent years were less kind to Raekwon. His follow up albums Immobilarity (1999) and The Lex Diamond Story (2003) were met with widespread public indifference and occasional patches of disdain, something widely attributed to RZA’s absence from the mixing desk, though Raekwon himself claimed it was a lack of promotion by his label.

There then followed a public spat between Raekwon and RZA, the former suggesting in an interview that the Wu’s resident producer was sullying the clan’s reputation with his work on 8 Diagrams (2007), their enormously popular but jarringly commercial fifth studio album – a record featuring John Frusciante and Dhani Harrison exchanging guitar riffs on The Heart Gently Weeps, a bloated reinvention of the mood standard by the latter’s father George. The reason for Raekwon’s complaint was simple: he was about to drop what he knew was going to be his comeback record, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II, and he didn’t want his core fans thinking he’d sold out in advance.

“We did 8 Diagrams out of respect for RZA being the chairman of our crew and a man who had helped our lives in so many ways, but it felt as though he was being a little selfish in what he wanted from us. I’d come into the studio and motherfuckers would be miserable, and I knew it had a lot to do with the production: the music wasn’t making us rock in the way we wanted to rock. The reason I ended up as spokesperson for everybody was because I knew my project was coming next. I didn’t want people worrying that they were going to get the same sort of shit from my record that they did from 8 Diagrams, because I knew I was sitting on a classic.”

Raekwon had every reason to be excited. Four years in the making, Cuban Linx II returned him to the hot seat with all the flourish of a rejuvenated movie mobster back on top of the world. Comparisons with The Godfather: Part II abounded, appropriate given the number of mafia references on an album truly cinematic in scope and totally in keeping with the sound of the original thanks to plentiful appearances by Ghostface, and despite only limited production by RZA. The album also marked a long-overdue return of lyrical artistry to the frontline of a genre too long dragged down by the hook-based hip hop of artists like Soulja Boy and Yung Joc: respected rap site HipHopDX awarded it album of the year and Raekwon MC of the year in 2009, while MTV voted him the tenth hottest rapper in the world.

But for Raekwon, the true reward was renewed admiration from fans of real hip hop the world over, and it’s with them in mind that he returns this year with Shaolin Vs Wu-Tang, an album that remains faithful to the tried-and-trusted fusion of martial arts samples and break-neck beats, and which confirms the return of lyrical swordplay as a genuine art form.

“There are a lot of divisions in hip hop these days, but the hip hop we grew up with was a universal language. As far back as 92 we were educating people about using emotions and images and ideas in their lyrics. My records have always been about taking listeners on a visual journey, and this album is definitely cinematic in my eyes. I don’t think hip hop is just about being hardcore and coming off like a gangster in every track. Hip hop is about art, about opening your mind to different ways of expression.”