What I’ve Learnt: Raekwon The Chef

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Raekwon the Chef is a founding member of Wu-Tang Clan. Since breaking out of Staten Island in the early 90s as part of the legendary rap group, he’s cooked up a classic solo album, started his own record label and launched a wine brand. Raekwon gave Tobias Gourlay some lessons in life – and business.

When I was coming up, a lot of people were getting addicted to crack. In Staten Island in the 80s, dealing was something that was going on in the neighbourhood and it was just a way to make some kind of money, to feed yourself and help your family. 

I came from the bottom so those early days were just about trying to survive. Anybody could have been in my situation and would have been in the same state of mind. There are certain places where you don’t get opportunities, just because of where you’re from. They know your neighbourhood is a drug zone, or whatever you want to call it, and that makes it hard to get a job. That took me from wanting to do something positive to, like, damn, I tried this sh*t. I kept trying to go that way, I kept getting denied. When you’re bullied by politics, and you’re not allowed to be great, it’s only a matter of time before you lose patience. Selling drugs just happens, as a kid growing up in that situation.

The other way to escape the poverty was music. Music was a lifestyle for us, all part of growing up – carrying a radio, wanting to get fresh, going to other boroughs to go to clubs and house parties.

But you couldn’t just go down the end of the block and get a record deal. When we started to realise we were good at music, we didn’t know how to get into that world. There wasn’t any social media, so you had to figure it out – and you had to know somebody.

Luckily I got to know the RZA and it really happened overnight. I give all the credit to RZA because right from the door he loved to produce, loved to rap, loved to freestyle all these different things. And this made us want to do it – because he was dope and it was something fun to be involved with. I remember hanging out with RZA and him telling me I had a voice. He really steered me towards doing all of this primetime.

When you’re bullied by politics, and you’re not allowed to be great, it’s only a matter of time before you lose patience. Selling drugs just happens, as a kid growing up in that situation.

Things have changed a lot. Kids today, they don’t have to kick in the door because the door’s already kicked in for them – to a certain degree. They also know the difference between right and wrong, so it’s a question of how much they want to take control of their life and do what they really want to do. It was different before. You didn’t have an opportunity then, but now you have options. If you want to be a hustler and stay on the streets, you can do that. But there also so many platforms that can catapult you into different situations. I think kids get that – they’re using the social media ride to get themselves a platform to do other sh*t – but sometimes it's all about patience.

Confidence is what helped me take it to the next level. I had to say to myself: have the confidence. That confidence comes from being dedicated. You have to perfect your craft. Whatever you do, you’ve got to be like an athlete. If I’m a basketballer, I know I need a jump shot and a lay-up, and that’s what I’ve got to continue to work on in order to be great. That was my energy back then: I knew that I could do it, but I knew I had to come right. And in order to come right, you have to keep practising.

I tell my children the same thing. Don’t think life is some easy thing that lets you just do what you want to do. You’ve got to work hard to get what you want. Work like a slave to eat like a king. Be ready to do whatever it takes to make a body of work or to get on stage and represent, and to make that fan – or that business person – say, damn! He’s passionate.

You’ve got to be passionate about what you do. That passion will open the doors to the things you love. When I made my solo album Only Built For Cuban Linx back in the day, I had bottles of wine on the cover. Now I sit here today as a wine seller. I always liked getting fresh, wearing colourful stuff. Now I sit here today as a merchandiser as well – I have a retail store in Toronto. I used my music as a vessel to get to the other dreams I had. It’s about never giving up, never settling, and staying dedicated and confident.

Surround yourself with educated people. This was the first thing I did – and the thing I continue to do. You need people who are dedicated to their craft. If you’re in business, surround yourself with a solid team, so you can turn to them for things and everyone else can turn to you for things. I look at all my co-workers and employees as bosses because they bring different things. That’s a proper team effort – that’s the energy that makes everything brighter. Surround yourself with great people and great things will happen.

Work like a slave to eat like a king. Be ready to do whatever it takes to make a body of work or to get on stage and represent, and to make that fan – or that business person – say, damn! He’s passionate.

I don’t want to sit here taking credit as the guy who’s just helping other people. Other people are helping me as well. Remember that saying, show me your friends, I’ll show you your future? I understand that clearly now because that’s how it was in the Wu-Tang. I could never be a great artist or a great member of the Wu without accepting that they taught me and we learnt from each other. That dynamic multiplied everything. Each one, teach one. That’s what Wu-Tang taught me – and taught the world. And that’s still how I move.

I love the culture of music and business and what they have done for me. Right now I’m jumping back into this fountain of youth where I’ve got this passion for music again and – at the same time – a passion to open up other doors. I want to be a film director one day and I’ve got other ventures I want to explore.

When you have a dope career, it just makes you want to keep going. When you sit here with a track record like I have, that’s motivation right there. But it’s really the fans who give me the hope and will to be even greater.

I’m so proud of the guys who come from my school and are still here doing their thing and being great. That’s another motivation. My school paved the way for so many people today, but we have to remember there were people who opened the door for us. It’s important to know your past and your future. Know where you came from; know where you’re going.

The music will always be the vessel. I’m always going to be a dope MC. I’m always going to be a dope artist. I’ve still got that swag and I’m still young with it. When I get on that mic, it’s almost like I’m 22 again. That’s a fun part of my life that I love to keep doing, but at the same time I think I’ve grown to be a more responsible man, a family man and a father. Those things are important to me as well. I’m not only living for myself now. I’m living for my children.

Whatever you do, be great at it – and don’t give up. Master your craft. Be passionate about it. Be the first one up in the morning. Don’t think it’s just going to happen. If you think you’ve found a business that’s going to make you some money, believe in yourself, go out there and do it – but also do some research! And surround yourself with the right team.

Raekwon’s excellent book, From Staircase to Stage: The Story of Raekwon and the Wu-Tang Clan, is out now. Buy it here.

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