musicians on their own music

Raekwon Picks His 10 Best Songs

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Since 2015 is shaping up to be a year full of Wu-Tang Clan solo joints (Ghostface Killah has already released Sour Soul, while Method Man, GZA, and Inspectah Deck will come out with theirs later in the year), can you think of a better time for Raekwon to release his first album in five years? Titled Fly International Luxurious Art (F.I.L.A. for short), the mafioso rap progenitor does his thing alongside such guest stars as Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, 2 Chainz, A$AP Rocky, and, yes, Ghostface Killah. As his latest album drops today (and with the 20th anniversary of his landmark debut Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … coming later this year), we asked the 45-year-old Staten Island–bred hip-hop veteran about the best tracks he’s done so far in his career.

 “Eye for a Eye (Your Beef Is Mines)” by Mobb Deep feat. Nas & Raekwon, from The Infamous (1995)
“This was the early stage of my career. I happen to have a good relationship with these guys, Mobb Deep. At that time, there was a Queens and Shaolin thing going on. Nas was my good friend as well, and we was chilling one night. You know, we always at the peak of our careers when we was making moves. And we got together and made that record, you know, we already knew it was a stylish song. Everybody came with what they came with — which was the heat. And my thing was that record was just so special because I wrote it on the spot with them. It didn’t take me that long to write it, maybe 35 minutes, because I was already in tune with everybody else [and] what they were doing. The energy was in the room.”

 “Glaciers of Ice” feat. Ghostface Killah, Masta Killa, 60 Second Assassin, and Blue Raspberry, from Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … (1995)
“‘Glaciers of Ice’ was one of the first records that we did that came out of making this album, Cuban Linx. And I just love how the beat, the beat was changing. It was a different kind of sound. And when I wrote that, I was feeling like I was standing in the middle of my project, and it just took me back to that hustling stage of my life. It felt good writing it, you know: Standing on the block, Reebok gun cocked.’ That was the attitude when we was on the block, you know. We was just them type of kids. And it was just strong lyrics on there. Ghost was on there as well, and Masta Killa — they did their thing, you know what I’m sayin’. But it was just one of my rhymes that I really appreciated because it was one of the first records off the Cuban Linx album that we done.”

“Incarcerated Scarfaces” by Raekwon, from Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … (1995)
“That was also one of my bangers because I wrote that real fast. Sometimes, as an artist, you can come in the studio and hear a beat, and automatically, you relate to it. And that’s how it was with that record. I came over to RZA’s house. He was in the basement. He was playing the beat. I happened to walk in to hear it, and I tell him automatically I love it. Then I just started writing to it, and he knew I was writing to it. And at the end of the day, right before he was able to really just finish the beat, I already told him I had my bars ready. And I have three strong verses in less than 15 minutes, and the hook just came naturally because I was having fun and just quoting the hook in my mind. And he’s like, ‘Yo, you ready to lay it?’ and I was like, ‘Definitely.’ And some of my greatest songs was always done fast.”

“Box in Hand” by Ghostface Killah feat. Method Man and Raekwon, from Ironman (1996)
When we was doing it, we always felt like we was at our best lyrically. And if you listen to that beat, the beat has like a water sound in there. Like somebody’s pouring water, like a lake or something. And it was a smooth-sounding beat, but it was still hard. I liked the way I just jumped on it, you know what I mean: ‘Blend wine, who want to win mine.’ Like, to all the people that know I’m winning, who want this? You know, it was just some words that I was saying that I was really still showing off a little bit, but also still giving you skills, you know what I mean. … Who want to win mine … Flintstone Style’ — yeah, I was bragging. I was in a bragging mood, so I was feeling good that night.”

“John Blaze” by Fat Joe feat. Big Pun, Jadakiss, Nas, and Raekwon, from Don Cartagena (1998)
“To me, that was a dream team. I remember Joe single-handedly calling all of us to get on that record. And that record was a different beat before, but they had switched the beat. They had switched the melodies of the record up. And when they sent us the track, it was like, ‘Yo, we ripped it.’ It was just one of those favorite combination songs that I always loved, you know what I mean. Shit like, ‘The flicker blocker, wicked sneaker rocker footwear’ — you know what I mean, I was just really using my incredible skills. My wordplay, it was just bouncing on the track. So, it was good. Shit like, ‘Start the wind up, we John Blazin’, Don up in the lineup.’ With the power players of the game, though, there was a lot of lyrical swordsmen on that.”

“Skew It on the Bar-B” by Outkast feat. Raekwon, from Aquemini (1998)
“This was back in the ’90s, in our early times, when I was actually living in Atlanta. I bumped into Big Boi, and back then, the South music and New York music wasn’t really clashing. It wasn’t like it was any animosity or nothing. It’s just that they had they thing, we had our thing. And believe it or not, this record that we did together actually bridged the culture of southern artists and New York artists merging together to do records — like, we were the first trailblazers of that. And I remember going into the studio and hearing the beat, and they knew that I could flow. They say, ‘Yo, we know that you like to rhyme off-tempo.’ They always used to say to me, ‘Yo, you can rhyme anything.’ But when I heard the beat, it was just so ill, it brought a style out of me. So while they were having fun, I just gave them something that was ill, but I was still saying shit that they could relate to, you know what I mean. I was saying shit like, ‘Deliver this through your audio …’ They was loving the fact that it’s wordplay and that I was able to bring my New York style of hip-hop to the track. And like I said, I was just saying all kinds of shit, but still using a flow that basically had a little style on it. It was a dope track.”

“100 Rounds” by Raekwon, from Immobilarity (1999)
“‘100 Rounds’ was a dope record because I’ve always wanted to tell everybody, if my rap skills is a gun, I would have a hundred rounds in my clip automatically. I really took my time and wrote to that verse. I felt like the combination of the rhymes and where I was at was just making sure to let everybody know I’m a lyrical machine that spit hard-core lyrics. I shot a video for that. Back then, in ’99, I had Floyd Mayweather in it, boxing, doing a fight-night scene. And who would ever know that one of the guys I had in my video would wind up being the highest-paid athlete in the world.”

“Casablanca” by Raekwon, from Immobilarity (1999)
“‘Casablanca’ was a different style of song I wanted to write. It was a more visual story that I wanted to paint on that. It reminded me of being on the beach somewhere, just that elegant lifestyle in Miami. I pictured myself in the portrait where I had on Cuban hats, the Kangols. It just made me tell a visual story about guys going for the next level in their careers and they’re doing this type of shit now, you know. I was saying some fly shit that really was telling the story of [a] real strong businessman, almost like an Al Capone type of story.” 

“Let My Niggas Live” by Wu-Tang Clan feat. Nas, from The W (2000)
“Oooh, that beat right there was a growling, hungry, hard-core hip-hop track. It comes off real energetic and real street. I love that track, you know what I mean. Me and Nas — a lot of people remember our flows in the same bracket — we both loved the track and shit. I just like how I started it, when I said ‘millionaire feet,’ meaning I’m one of those runners that’s a million-dollar beast right there. It was a lot of strong content, lyrics, and a lot of fly-metaphor shit that we was saying on the track. That’s definitely one of my top lyrics in a long time, because I was going in, you know what I mean. And the hook was saying, ‘Let my niggas live / We show and prove get paper.’ So that’s always been our lifestyle, anyway — just go out there and make a dialogue the best way we know how.”

“Fire Water” by Big Pun feat. Armageddon, Fat Joe, and Raekwon, from Endangered Species (2001)
“It was just more like a record that was actually done out of fun. Joe’s a good friend of mine, and he had called me to come up to the Bronx. I loved the beat; it was just straight hard-core-type shit. And when I stepped on the mic, I felt like I was still at my best — I was still growing as an artist. And when I came on and said, ‘Yo, control this rap like Napoleon,’ that’s how I felt, you know what I mean. I have this ego, this mind-set that I’m the illest when it comes to getting on that mic, and I control the game now because I’m a rap Napoleon. ‘Half-Mongolian, hold it, you owe me in / Rock ’em like linoneum’ — like, I just put so much into them four lines that it was like anybody automatically was like, ‘Yo, Rae, you gotta set the record off.’ And it was a dope track, you know what I mean. I was at it again. Fat Joe and Big Pun — they were some of my favorite lyricists in the game. They really get it in, too. And that was Pun’s actual first debut professionally on wax, with me and Fat Joe. It was really the more special moment, because we wanted him to shine. And he went on there and killed it and did what he was supposed to do. It’s a dope-ass record.”

Raekwon Picks His 10 Best Songs