A lead member of the infamous, Wu Tan Clan, and a solo Rap artist for over 22 years, Raekwon, known as The Master Story Teller, is still finding himself . Amidst the chaos and success of over a decade and a half of music industry mayhem, Rae never loses sight of what it means to grow, as an artist, and a man.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You’ve mentioned in our past conversations that your Mother has always been an anchor for you…
RAEKWON: I come from a small family. You know, my mom raised four children. I have two other brothers including myself and my sister. I am the oldest. I grew up in New York and we moved to Staten Island when I was 10 or 11. She wanted a better life for us. She thought that Staten Island would be safer to raise the kids. A sister recommended that we come out there, so you know, we moved out there. So I would say that since I’ve been ten years old – I enjoyed Staten Island because my mom made sure we were in sports. She worked really hard to give us everything we had. I started to stray a little bit – I started to get into things that were questionable.
My Mom, she had a few abusive relationships.. yeah, she was more the victim. You know, like I said, I had the opportunity to see my mom struggle and still take care of her children. My Mom, she would drink a little, but she knew her limits. For her to come through everything she came through, without getting involved in all that stuff that takes place in the street, I applaud her. She’s the definition for a strong, single parent.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Your Mom was a creative person you said, what was her passion?
RAEKWON: She had great taste, simply put. That is an art in itself. My mom, and her sisters, always had style. One of my mom’s sisters worked for Sports Illustrated. My mom’s the youngest out of all of them. My grandmother pretty much raised them to be good kids. She had two brothers, she pretty much had a tight-knit family.
My mom was always into fashion. She loved clothes, she loved dressing up. Her and her older sister was always wanting to get dressed up, go out and party. Coming into the house with Minks on, drinking, going out, being on the phone and having fun. She was definitely into fashion and we always had good furniture.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You’re called the Master Lyricist. There is something about language that appeals to you and if you dig deeper you can see actual libraries and dictionaries of your language – your kind of fictional language. Shakespeare did it, Lewis Carroll, Anthony Burgess did it in Clockwork Orange, and Tolkien created whole languages in his work. Most of these languages came from fictional dystopian worlds, but your world was real.
RAEKWON: Yeah, mine came from just growing up in the neighborhood with a bunch of fast-talkin’ hustlers. Slick, thick, pickpocket thieves. It always related
to music because music was a part of happiness in the neighborhood. Even though we lived in poverty, it was like, music was always the way out. You know, it was the way out of feeling depressed on where you at. Growing in that environment, you tend to respond to what you know. When you come from that, you have to mention it. 9 times out of 10 hardcore rappers are rapping about things that relate to their surroundings. You know, music is about the innerness of the struggle, we talk about how to get out of there, we talk about what we’ve seen. To me, these things, is a reflection of the ghetto – of having nothing. A lot of things take place in a neighborhood, including prostitution and drugs, you now, people shooting, always. And you know, everything was going on in the neighborhood and music was kind of the thing taking the place of language in the neighborhood.
CHRISTINA LESSA: So the music was the center, the joy.
RAEKWON: It was the main joy. My mother loved music and I grew up listening to great albums. We was still listening to R&B. I grew up listening to Michael Jackson and Prince. She loved to Party, my mom but she still managed to have her priorities in place. My mom used to work at the Twin Towers, the World Trade Center.
They would have ladies night and when she started having more kids, I became the babysitter. She was young – she was only 31 – you know she was in the middle of her prime. She was just a normal person who knew how to hang out but she knew her priorities. I remember we would have times where we all would listen to music, with my cousins, and I would just sit in the back and watch them, and be like, “Woah music! The lifestyle. The money. The clothes.” and I was like, “This is what I want to be doin’.”
CHRISTINA LESSA: Was there any particular musical artist that really struck a chord?
RAEKWON: There was a lot of artists. I remember, Michael Jackson – that’s when I started to really love music. You know, there was lot of weed – the drugs back in
the day. We would wake up early and go to the store and get a newspaper and a bagel with butter on it and juice. I learned how to read the paper. Check it out: I loved to read the newspaper. Sometimes I might just be looking a certain parts, the crime that had happened around. But all of that was a part of me being more adult –this was back when I was 16 and 17.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You had desire for knowledge. Are you interested in any particular authors now?
RAEKWON: Right. I love reading, ya know, knowledge is power. I read about a lot of things about how to better myself. At one point I joined the religion of Islam because it made me better. I would rather read literature that talks about what people are going through, rather than fictional ideas or gossip.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Can you tell me about the concept for your new album.. Fly International Luxurious Art ? Does that have something to do with visual art? Or arts in general? Or is it your own art?
RAEKWON: Yeah, it’s definitely, everything all in one. It’s a vision that I capture, that I feel it gives me the opportunity to paint my murals in a way. You know, I’m like a painter and if you listen to my albums you know people call me a Street Narrator. Or they call me a person that talks about, what it is what I’ve been through. I was never afraid to say that I had sold drugs before, or smoked drugs before. I’m a person who was at their lowest and highest. I just expressed what I knew and what I experienced and ran with that.
As a got older and wiser, I started to realize, yo, being an artist is about displaying your art. That’s why this latest album is called, Fly International luxurious Art. Because my music is fly. You know what I mean, which is another form of being great, grown, sophisticated, sexy, being rugged, being aggy, being everything – all of that was a part of my fly. International: I had to travel the world probably five times.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Not everyone can say that. Now that you’ve traveled the world five times, what is your perspective? How does that relate to your American experience as a songwriter?
RAEKWON: All of that travel experience, It’s something I never believed that could happen. Obviously I’m American but I wouldn’t label it. I was gifted with it. As long as you know that you got passion for something, that’s an art-form in itself. As far as my song writing now, manifesting all of my experiences and ideas and sharing them with the people that really love me, that’s what I’m about now. Now I have to speak for all nationalities. I have to speak for all ages of people, because that’s what they expect and deserve from me, and my words of wisdom and experience. It’s my poetry for the world.
CHRISTINA LESSA: From a purely economic perspective, how do you think the music scene has changed since you started?
RAEKWON: The music scene has changed drastically. Of course, it’s still growing but when we came in it, it wasn’t financially big as it is now. Like, when we was first in it, a lot of people said it wouldn’t last. It won’t last. It’s nonsense. Makes no sense. We changed people’s attitudes about it, we proved that there was a much bigger population of listeners that could relate to our lyrics, 25 years later its even larger.
Run DMC, Grandmaster Flash and all of them, they showed us something that we loved and we tried to carry the torch after that. And a lot of people doubted that hip hop would be one of the biggest brands ever. There may not be as many album sales, but music still sells because record companies are still making money. What’s different now is that record companies have used their relationships to better their companies profit instead of investing in the talent. Back then it was about talent. If you had talent, it didn’t matter if you didn’t bring money in, now it only matter about: who’s backing you up, how much money they’re putting into you, how you got to feel that the DJ is feeling comfortable. Back then, the DJ’s was excited to get something new and fresh and now you got DJ”s that just play the biggest celebrities, they aren’t discovering the new talent and promoting them. Dudes at the record labels, aren’t nurturing them. You have to be smart and say, “Yeah, we can market ourselves.”
Of course, it’s a business but the way it’s rigged up it’s not actually sincere no more, the way it’s created. Of course everyone’s here to make money, but more importantly you wanna give every artist an opportunity. Now, the record companies only focus on bringing in who has money. When we was coming up, it was about skill, the request, the people’s choice.
This had a big impact on me. I try to share my knowledge with people coming up.
CHRISTINA LESSA: So do you mentor?
RAEKWON: Absolutely. What I give back is knowledge. Maybe every now and then I might put something in the air financially but I learned that you can keep giving someone money and have them only ever feel like that’s all that is. I mentor my kids. You know I feel as I am supposed to give them as much knowledge as possible. I mentor a lot. I mentor my mother. You know, she’s at an age where, now, it’s time for me to think for you. I mean she can think for herself but it’s time for me to be like, “No, mom. This is what we’re gonna do.” Or, “Hold up, I like where you’re going with that, but this and this…” It’s all about knowledge. One thing I was taught as a kid is that knowledge is everything. You’r never gonna give up knowledge. You break down the word knowledge. The “know” and the “ledge:” the “ledge” is where we’re trying to secure ourselves of being, how do I say, like, being aware. Knowing what you’re dealing with when you’re dealing with it That’s that, “ledge.” You don’t know that ledge, what’s gonna happen? You’re gonna fall off. My mom was my mentor.it was tough times with us two but I made it.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What did she think when you finally made it?
RAEKWON: My mom was always like, “You’re gonna do something.” And I had to give her the benefit of the doubt because I was laid out. I told her that I didn’t know if it was because of where I’m from, but I don’t know if it’s the attire, a speech impediment, I could not get a job. What else was I supposed to do? And I admit, I like nice things. She was excited and she was impressed. You know, at first, she thought it was another one of my conversations to get out of doing the life thing, so when I told her, she said, is that a job? She said, “Okay, we’ll see.” She was still young, she was only in her early 40s when this all happened. I had a limo pick her up and her girlfriends and I said you’re gonna meet me at the (TK arena in Jersey) and there was 30,000 people there…that’s when she knew that her son was into something. She was like, “I believe you now.”
CHRISTINA LESSA: At Flatt we really believe art is able to produce change in the world.
RAEKWON: Me too, art is a reflection of everything…art is the representation of a dynamic creation that you want to be; in terms of bettering yourself and the situation around you. I think it creates change in the world because it allows people to see who you are, your reflection. Look at Picasso, his art changed the way people saw everything because he wasn’t afraid to create that change and own it. Then people wanted to be like him -creating a wave of progressive I guess you call it, ideas, everybody wants to emulate what’s great. That’s how you make change.