As Raekwon told Red Bull Academy Radio in an interview earlier this year, his latest release, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang (named after Gordon Liu’s 1981 martial arts flick), addresses the longtime infighting between himself and his group, Wu-Tang Clan. Metaphorically, the “hip-hopera” pits the group’s collaborative roots against ever-present conflicts that disjointed the clan. But, musically, it seems Raekwon’s making peace with himself and, hopefully, his fellow Wu-mates.
“It’s almost like ‘disciplined versus egotistical,’ ” Raekwon says of the album’s concept during a phone interview from his tour stop in Seattle.
In Raekwon’s analogy, “Shaolin” represents Staten Island, N.Y., where Wu originated in 1992, and the disciplined outlook the group used to embody. According to Rae, the nine-member crew began with nothing but a drive to convince people “to believe in what they believed in,” as they promoted Wu’s music heavily throughout New York’s boroughs from their car trunks.
Conversely, the “vs. Wu-Tang” represents ego taking over, possibly after selling gold and platinum records or, possibly, from members falling out with producer RZA over artistic differences, caustic words spouted off in interviews and money supposedly coming up short after 2007’s Rock the Bells tour.
“(The movie) Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang … was about these two kids that came from the same school; one was a bit more arrogant, a bit more mischievous, getting into things, and the other one was a straight Shaolin monk,” Rae explains. “They became best friends, but got caught up in different things from people trying to put them in a box where they’d have to challenge one another. They always loved each other (because) they realized they was the same.”
But the philosophical conflict Raekwon speaks of is also internal, where he says his point of view switches to “dealing with today’s music” versus being a participant in an ongoing cipher of confusion.
From his album, it’s unclear if anyone (like RZA, for instance) represents the untrained master of both styles, as depicted by the movie’s character, Qing Lord.
“I’m kinda challenging myself; being a ‘Shaolin monk’ and at the same time being a ‘Wu-Tang assassin,’” Raekwon explains. “It’s like (both sides are) just not understanding one another right now.”
Before the ’90s ended, Wu-Tang Clan’s anti-pop Rap was emblematic of NY’s hard scrapple, independent social culture, inside and outside of Hip Hop. De-marginalizing street Rap with seminal releases like 1993’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and 1997’s Grammy-nominated, Wu-Tang Forever, and solo work like Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, the Wu’s storyboard-styled flow ciphers revolutionized the way people listened to Rap.
When asked if he thought Wu-Tang Clan would’ve been initially successful anywhere other than New York, Raekwon didn’t hesitate to answer.
“Yeah, I think (we) would … and I believe that,” Raekwon says. “I’m not gonna say there’s another Wu-Tang out there, but I know it’s a group out there that can really carry that same kind of sword because we all have different stories in our life that we can relate to. And it’s all about being a great poet. I’m a great poet. I think that if we wasn’t from (New York) we would still get the same recognition, because talent is talent.”
For Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang — released on his multimedia imprint under EMI, Ice H2O — in lieu of RZA, Raekwon incorporated skilled, hungry producers Bronze Nazareth and Scram Jones, of whom he says, “They get my style.”
“Bronze, he did the ‘Butter Knives’ track,” Raekwon says. “And what’s so crazy is that the ‘Butter Knives’ track is something that I really felt was definitely ‘vintage Wu’ sounding. I knew that was going to be a track that people definitely was gonna like.”
Raekwon’s focus these days is working as independently as possible, and he advises up and coming artists to think the same way.
“You’ll gain more respect from the labels in the future because they’ll say, ‘Yo. We see what you’re doing; we respect where your work ethics are at,’ ” Raekwon says. “I just think it’s important for people to do for their self before they can sit there and let a slave trade company (do the work) — and I’m only calling it ‘slave trade’ because you know (labels) make way more money than us.”
“By the time I go platinum and I make a little bit of money, you’d be surprised at what they made, but it’s all about trading. It’s a slave trading business, but in a great way because it gives you a platform. At the same time, it takes so many perks away from you, that if you’re able to build your brand up, you may not need them in the future to do business. You can do it yourself. I guess from being in the business for 18 years, that’s what I’ve learned and that’s how I look at it.”
RAEKWON headlines Live Loud Industries’ Tri-State Hip Hop Fest May 20 at Covington’s Mad Hatter with guests Trademark Aaron, Vincent Vega, Juice Jones, Travis Touchdown and many others. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.