About 18 months ago, Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon dropped "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … Pt II," a sequel to his seminal 1995 debut. It was a bit of a comeback, akin to David Duval winning this year's Masters or Tracy McGrady averaging 25-8-8 for a playoff squad.
As a self-proclaimed sports head ("I always got my TV on ESPN, fam"), Rae took some time to talk music and sports shop.
The Life: It was always amazing how, as a collective, you and your Wu brothers were able to function so well as a team. Everyone was, in effect, a solo artist suspending some of their ego for the team. But with your solo projects, you really get a chance, it seems, to do you, so to speak. Talk about the different approaches.
Raekwon: The solo project is all about the dream of that artist, the chance to do exactly what he loves at the highest level. Do whatever it is that you visualize. It's a different approach with The Clan because there are so many minds. Nine times out of 10, I might just have to follow orders. When I do my own thing, I can make music how I want it. I don't have to pass the ball, I can call my own plays. But it's important to have a team. They help motivate you, help you with questions you can't answer, help you win.
The Life: So you had this nine-man team, right? But your first solo album was almost like one long duet with you and (fellow Wu-Tang member) Ghostface. Then his first solo album ("Ironman") was like another combo-album between the two of you, sort of running the pick-n-roll and throwing lobs to each other. What made you and Ghostface naturally branch off and form the duo? Why did you two, in particular, form that chemistry?
Raekwon: When we first started, we kind of became the black sheep of the team. We cared more about getting fresh, cared more about the respect factor, respect from the streets, other rappers, boxers, whoever. The rest of the group was always like, "Y'all two, y'all two. It's always y'all two that got something to say." Fans picked up on that and respected it, too.
The Life: So then, what were the roles? For instance, in sports, that's usually easily identifiable with, like, Montana and Rice or "Stockton-to-Malone." How'd that break down for you two?
Raekwon: I always looked at it like I was the thinker and Ghost was the backup, the muscle. But I kinda had the vision. He always says, ya know, "I just want to thank you for teaching me this style of rhyming." He felt like I kinda gave him his rhyme style and then he ran with it. And together we did that for a lot of cats.
The Life: When you two get together, it's almost like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, because you're both stars in your own right. What do you think about them partnering up?
Raekwon: Man, that's been the talk of the town, been the talk in my house, in the clubhouse -- everywhere. At the end of the day, although LeBron is a great player and Wade is a great player, it's like they needed each other. One thing you gotta remember is that to win it all, you have to have a team of confident men. If you know the man next to you is as confident as you are, that's going to add to your confidence, too. I think they both realized they needed another element and that adding that element would be ill.
The Life: Like Rae and Ghost?
Raekwon: (Laughs) Exactly. Every great team has a Rae and Ghost. Magic and Kareem. Carmelo and Stoudemire. Some teams have more than one Rae and Ghost. Boston got all them guys over there. But look at (Rajon) Rondo. That's what playing with confident men does. Two or three years ago he wasn't nothing. Now he's that dude.
The Life: Growing up in New York, are you an NFL fan?
Raekwon: Of course. But to tell you the truth, that's recent in terms of watching the games. I always played more football than I watched. When I was coming up, though, I wanted to be a baseball player. You know why? Because them baseball players are the ones making all that paper. (Laughs)
The Life: Right. Like Albert Pujols possibly getting a $300 million contract, right? Or A-Rod's deal with the Yankees.
Raekwon: Exactly. They weren't making as much back when I was coming up, but they were still getting paper. And they play longer.
The Life: It's been said before that rap is like a competitive sport. You want to have the hottest album out, the best verse on a song, stuff like that. That's not how it is with other music genres. Is that how it really is hip hop, though? Do you look at hip hop like a sport?
Raekwon: Most definitely. It's always competitive, even if you're on the same song or team, so to speak. It's like an all-star game, you know, but always a battle. On a lot of the great records that I made, I ain't even really stretch my legs, though, ya know? (Laughs) I'm like a great assist man. I don't mind passing the ball, like, "Here, you go slam it." And I always tell the new jacks, too, like, "Yo, if you get on a record with me, you better try to whoop me."
The Life: Like a rookie going hard at a star veteran. … You have a ton of guests on your new album -- Nas, Rick Ross, Busta Rhymes, Lloyd Banks, Black Thought, plus some your fellow Clan members. That's a lot of talent. Did the competition come into play in terms of not wanting to get outplayed or outshined by your guests?
Raekwon: Not really. On this album I was more like the coach or the quarterback. I'd tell this man to run this route or that guest to run another route. And it worked out lovely, like hearing a guy like Ross in between me and Ghost. I know people were wondering how he'd sound on a Clan record, like how one player might do in a certain system. It was up to me to make sure everything worked right.
The Life: I know you've heard teammates of athletes like Barry Bonds, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or Barry Sanders say that the star would do something so incredible that it was almost hard to keep playing because they were so in awe. Have you ever been in the studio and that happened.
Raekwon: Yeah. Absolutely. Take my first album, for instance, and the joint we did with Nas. [Note: Nas' guest verse on the song "Verbal Intercourse" is considered a landmark performance akin to, say, "The Drive" or "The Flu Game"] When Nas came in to spit his verse, he came with about 100 rhymes, but he didn't know which one to shoot. He had spit two verses, then he spit that one that everyone's heard. But when he first spit it, I was just like, "Stop the music -- that's the one." I had to stop the music because of what I just heard. It was incredible. I was a fan, too. So I was the one that actually chose that verse. And that's what makes a team great. I didn't care if he was going to outdo me or none of that. You gotta help everybody play the best game they can.
Vincent Thomas is a SLAM magazine columnist and a frequent contributing columnist and commentator for ESPN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @vincecathomas on Twitter.