Just how much does the Wu-Tang Clan MC love Toronto hip-hop? Enough to buy a condo and set up his new label’s offices right here on Yonge Street.
Raekwon sits back, looking almost as though he’s been molded into a suede armchair in the street-facing office of the new headquarters for his Ice H20 Canada label. He’s flanked by a huge photograph of the Manhattan skyline that features the flatiron building, but he’s proudly sporting an all-black Blue Jays cap. It’s a bit surreal to be sitting across from one of the most prominent members of the Wu-Tang Clan—a dude who, along with fellow Wu member Ghostface Killah, practically invented the Mafioso-rap genre—especially since this second-storey space is right here in the city, on Yonge Street just north of Wellesley. The nondescript location belies the gold records on the walls, not to mention the red-leather barbershop chairs in front of mirrors shaped like the iconic Wu-Tang “W.” But this is where Raekwon is planning to put Toronto hip-hop on the map, starting with his first signees, JD Era and Gangis Kahn, the aspiring Drakes to his Lil Wayne. Here’s what the Chef had to say about his new endeavor and his new home base.
You’ve spent a bunch of time in Toronto; aside from the label HQ, you’ve now got a condo here. Where do you hang out?
I’m a down-low guy. I really like to be back and forth in the studios. But I like to walk up and down Yonge now and again. It gives me that feeling of being back home. I’ll be honest with you: It feels like 42nd Street to me. Same shit. I’ve been coming here for the last 20 years and I remember the first show and the first promoter. It’s a guy who now runs a website called Swagg News, he was the first one who brought [Wu-Tang Clan] here in ’93. He said that they loved us here, and then we saw it.
You’ve said that when Wu-Tang began, you didn’t know how far this was going to go. Twenty years on, are you in a place where you can say, “I know what I want to do”?
I wasn’t thinking that far when I first came into this business. Just: Imma keep it real. I just wanted to make a record, make a couple of dollars. Like Biggie said, “feed my baby.” The whole science behind Wu-Tang is that we wanted to come together as a group and keep that love there, and understand that we made something great for ourselves, and then go out into the world and do the things you want to do—but still come back together as that Voltron. More importantly for me, I feel like I’m a Phil Jackson. I played the sport, I’m still playing the sport, but you come to my ballclub, you’re gonna learn something. Right now I got two people, JD Era and Gangis Khan. It’s still not enough to wet my whistle yet, in terms of Canada.
So why Toronto?
Every place has its own time when it emerges. I think right now, the climate of hip-hop has evolved in so many different ways that you could be from anywhere and be nice. You’ve been seeing different places reigning—like the South, you know what I mean? The West won before that and New York won before that. I’ve seen hip-hop growing, and I’ve seen a beautiful city that’s just not being acknowledged. It’s not that you’re not respected or that you make music that’s different from us, it’s just that there’s no industry here. So without the love and support from the city, I couldn’t be feeling the way I’m feeling to invest almost six figures into something. I could invest into my own neighbourhood. But I’ve seen something here.
And what’s your role in Ice H20?
It’s like: Look at the guy in the room who’s the boss. He done paid a thousand dues. His job is to make sure you don’t have to pay all the dues that he paid. My job is to be the artist that is doing the things he’s doing at the level of my fame. [I’ve been doing this for] 20 years—you think I’m looking to do this for another 20 years? I’m not looking to be a rapper forever—I’m not saying that I’ll stop neither, ’cause I’ve still got more heat to give y’all. But I’m going through a transition within myself as an artist and saying to myself, “Hey, when you get these kinds of blessings and people that come together and trust you and put you in this great position, you’re supposed to take honour in that. And step it up and do things that are going to keep your legacy alive.”
Do you know that band Arcade Fire?
They won an award here called the Polaris Prize, which pays $30,000. And since they’re already doing pretty well, they said that they would use the money to make their studio more available to other people.
That’s smart, because it shows they’re for the people. Some artists get on get rich and then be different. That’s why I’m doing this: Because maybe it will give me some juice to want to do this shit more. Sometimes we go in and out. Sometimes the game is rigged up—it’s like someone is holding your leg with a brick and you can’t get your leg out of that shit.
You and Ghostface performed your 1995 album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx this summer. What was it like to go back to that record?
It was like visiting memory lane. When you make records, you don’t realize how they touch people. All it does for you is give you a picture of a time when you first wanted to do this shit. It’s exciting to see that. There are artists that have died and just have one classic—’cause one classic will take care of you forever. When we was making it, we knew it was the greatest thing of all time. So for me to revisit it is to see where I was then and where I am now.
So do you get recognized in the streets here?
C’mon. I’ll walk by people who say “Yo” and they lift their shirt like a flasher, and they’ve got a Wu-Tang t-shirt on. And they keep walking; they don’t stop to conversate. And then I’ve got people coming up out of the blue: Cops, little girls, grown men, teenagers, hockey players, basketball dudes, food guys in Rabba and Jamaican restaurants, in Harry Rosen and The Bay. So that’s the greatest feeling in the world. It makes me feel like I’m still here. ’Cause I do this for the fans.