Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon was among the hundreds of artists, writers, and industry insiders who took part in the vote that determined Rolling Stone’s all-new 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. Here, the rapper discusses the top 10 albums on his ballot, and how they informed his life and music — featuring classic LPs from his fellow Wu-Tang warriors, the Notorious B.I.G., Keith Sweat, Mary J. Blige, and more. (Go here to read the complete list of 500 Greatest Albums voters and learn more about how the current ranking was assembled.)
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
1. Ghostface Killah, Supreme Clientele (2000)
Me and Ghost, we’ve been each other’s favorite rapper since the Nineties. Ghost is a character within himself. He has a crazy charisma about him, and he took this album to the next level, lyrically. It’s Ghostface expressing himself to the masses, the way he wanted to.
I watched him go to work on this album. He did a lot of it in Miami. Ghost takes his verses like going to class; like college. He really takes his time. He doesn’t rush. He tells me all [the] time, because he knows me as being a fast writer, and he’s a slower writer. Me, I catch a vibe real quick, and it’s almost like the rhyme is there before I even write it down. But Ghost, he’s more articulate. He carries books. He writes six lines, then he leaves it alone and goes to make a sandwich. He’ll come back, and if his vibe ain’t right, he’ll wait another day. It becomes a craft. Everybody respects it. That’s how much he pays attention to his bars and what he’s spitting out.
“We in the fields with heat/You fake n—-s eat kid meals to me . . .” “Pretty little Sally sat up by the tree trunk . . .” He was just going off. “One,” “Stay True,” “Wu Banga 101,” “Saturday Nite,” “Ghost Deini”… Too many fiery records. It’s so many, man. The beats he picks sometimes, you might not think that a rapper could freak that beat. He was challenging himself with all different kinds of tracks. Soul music mixed with heavy chaos. There’s one beat on there, “Stroke of Death,” where the beat goes backwards, and he handles it! “Milk on my mustache, drop to my chinny-chin…”I don’t know if people caught that. He just knows how to flow when it comes to anything.
I tell Ghost all the time, “Yo, bro, I think we’re going a little extra hard on ourselves.” But he’s like, “But that’s what makes classics. That’s what we about.” That’s how Ghost is. On Supreme Clientele, he was killing it, and when he finished it and I looked at the album cover, I was like, “That’s Ghostface Killah in his prime — a super-sharp guy, coming off his mojo.” I love that album. Everybody does.
2. Eric B. and Rakim, Paid in Full (1987)
This is a special, special album to me. When Rakim first came out, I was about 15 years old. I saw him on the cover. He had outfits on there; they had money in their hand, jewelry. At that time, that was the way. Big gold chains and rings. Rakim was the trailblazer of that, besides guys like Just-Ice, Slick Rick, Run-DMC, Big Daddy Kane, LL. It was almost like a uniform for your favorite rappers.
The shit he was saying was just amazing. “Thinking of a master plan, ‘cause ain’t nothing but sweat inside my hand.” Everything he was saying, I felt like I was living it, I was going through it. Records like “Eric B. for President,” oh my god. When I first heard that fucking track — “I came through the door…” This is when Red Alert, Mr. Magic, and Marley Marl started to play hip-hop. You had to have the tape deck. It was clubs that was jumping. New York City was a different time, where emcees were really showing off, and Rakim came through the door killing it. He had knowledge of self, he was intelligent, and his wordplay was like, “God damn.”
Looking at the video for “I Ain’t No Joke” — the sweatsuits, the sneakers, the haircut with the part — it was almost like he was giving me a blueprint of my life and how it needed to go. I loved the fact that he was so intelligent, but still deadly on the mic. Songs like “My Melody” — tracks that you never would think a rapper could rap to — he was doing everything to it, and doing it in a way where [you thought], “Yo, this guy ain’t even cursing!”
He made you run out and go buy a radio. Back then, the biggest radio for us was the Conion Box, with two big dookie speakers on it. We used to walk up and down the street every day with it, carrying this fucking 12, 13-pound radio — and not mad carrying it up the block, either, as long as you could get those sounds out. His album was the pinnacle of that time.
3. Boogie Down Productions, Criminal Minded (1987)
KRS-One was a lyrical professor and a street talker. Songs like “South Bronx” really meant a lot to us coming up in the game — and I’m talking about the street game, the hustle factor. It made me want to get up and enjoy hip-hop even more. This is when I started to hang out with my dudes, and we would go to other people’s cities and shit. “Yo, let’s go uptown. Yo, let’s go to the Bronx. Yo, let’s go to Queens.” I remember going to 42nd Street; we would have the radio with us, and KRS’ shit would be blasting through the joint: “South Bronx, South, South Bronx. South Bronx.” For us, being from Staten Island, it made us feel like we were from South Bronx, too.
KRS has always been a super-emcee in my book, a guy that has a lot of intelligence and knows how to paint pictures. Even taking it to the battle level, battling MC Shan and the Juice Crew from Queens and all of that. KRS might have been one of the first guys to start representing where he was from at a higher capacity than any other artist in the game at that time. To me, he represented hip-hop and he represented being a real emcee. We were young and we had a lot of energy. We would love to go to a party and they’d play that shit, and the whole fucking crowd would go crazy. You didn’t even have to be from South Bronx to be singing it.
4. Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)
I knew we had made a classic before the world knew it. It was a mission accomplished with that one. RZA brought a new sound to the table; he showed the world that every track doesn’t have to be regular. The stuff that he was making, combining it with karate shit and mixing it with his own twist of samples, taking pieces of beats and putting it together — nobody never did it that way. RZA came with this whole different sound that fucked the world up. He was really getting busy and bringing you mad different sounds.
Songs like “Bring Da Ruckus,” it wasn’t hard for us to write those rhymes. “Bring da ruckus, bring da motherfuckin’ ruckus…” We were in a challenging moment when it came to being emcees, because back then you had to have a sharp sword to come out in the big park and call yourself a rapper. RZA made those beats that put us in a cage, like “Yo, if you come in this cage, you liable to die, fucking with us lyrically.”
“Protect Ya Neck” was a five-minute song where it seemed like we didn’t never have to stop rhyming on it. That was our first thing that we frisbeed out to everybody, and everybody loved it. So we knew the importance of making this album: “Yo, this shit got to be what it’s supposed to be, and not what people might expect.”
I was one of the members to have the most songs on that album, that’s how much I was in the zone. I was right there when RZA was starting to feel his oats as a producer. I was his number one cheerleader and one of his number one coaches, too, when it came to criticizing and really wanting to win. Sometimes you need your guys next to you to put you in that frame of mind. That was the energy that we needed. I fucked around and went off on that album and did as much shit as I could, and it made the cut.
5. The Notorious B.I.G., Ready to Die (1994)
Ready to Die was the shit. Big was coming up around the same time we were. The whole New York scene was on fire back then. You had a lot of cats in different boroughs that were like, “Yo, it’s a guy named Biggie Smalls out there that’s killing it.” Me, I fell in love with the name, Biggie Smalls — it sounds like a gangster that really knows what he’s doing on that mic.
When he made Ready to Die, you knew this is going to be a guy that’s going to stick around for a long time. He had that rapper’s voice. He did a record with one of my brothers, Method Man [“The What”]: “Fuck the world, don’t ask me for shit/Everything you got, you got to work hard for it.” They was just bouncing. Songs like “Warning,” he was just letting it fly, and making a good representation of what New York emcees is about. We knew Biggie was a star back then, off his first album. I’m a very good ear when it comes to who I feel got it. And he definitely had it on that album.
One of my favorites is “Party and Bullshit” [Biggie’s non-album single from 1993] — that takes me back to rec-room parties and having fun and wearing Polo gooses, and just doing stupid shit. Jumping on trains with 40 ounces, drinking, hanging, riding bikes on the back of the bus. All type of shit we used to do, and he painted that whole shit in one fucking verse on that song. That’s what we used to do: We used to party and bullshit. Bullshit was just fucking around in the neighborhood. We might go down to the liquor store and go fucking swindle three bottles of fucking Carlo Rossi or whatever we wanted at that time. Ballantine Ale, we used to steal beer and all that shit, go get drunk, go hang out in the staircase and drink. Songs like that, I can relate to.
6. Mary J. Blige, My Life (1994)
When I think of My Life, I think of all the hoodlum, crazy-ass motherfuckers out there, finally settling down and wanting a relationship, wanting to respect their woman on a level like, “Yo, you a queen.” Mary spoke for females all across the world that were going through something, either in a relationship or a marriage. Her album had thugs on the corner on the phone talking to their girls like, “Yo, baby, I love you.”
You got to remember, we were young. We were 24, 25-year-old cats that were just starting to settle down and figure out where our relationships were going to be for the future. She made dudes in the hood be like, “Yo, I’m rolling with my shorty. I trust her. I fuck with my shorty. I listen to my shorty. My shorty, she understands what I’m going through, but I understand fully what she’s going through.”
The production that she was working with was so phenomenal. It took me back to records that I knew that was classics. Like, “Oh shit, she flipped the Mary Jane Girls beat. Oh shit, she went off on the ‘Games People Play’ beat,” on a song called “I Love You.”
So when you think that a guy’s sitting in the car listening to rap — nah, we wasn’t in the car listening to rap that day, we was in the car listening to Mary. She was balancing us out, giving us that hip-hop shit along with that R&B shit, along with that understanding what a true woman is about.
You can’t fuck with that album. I know dudes in prison that was like, “Yo, that album and Wu-Tang Clan’s album and your album got me through this whole prison term.” I’m talking about guys who went away and really did some time. That’s important, man. Music is supposed to touch souls and make you think about shit, and that album, My Life, was definitely one of those albums, for sure.
7. Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995)
Cuban Linx was the godfather album of the streets. I wasn’t worried about making an album that people could dance to — and back then, a lot of people might have expected that from me, but I went the other way. I wanted to give people a walk into my world. When we finished this album and I first heard it, I said, “Yo, this is the most abstract, fly, lavish, grimy, cinematical, suspenseful album that anybody’s ever going to hear.”
We were just trying to do something that was so different that it would draw attention. We talked about survival, we talked about shoes. We talked about females of different colors, “Ice Cream.” We had a song, “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” which was dedicated to every prisoner that had a cut on his face. I wanted to express myself to the underworld. “Verbal Intercourse,” with my man Nas featuring on it. I knew he was one of us, we were one of him. Golden children playing in the recording studio. “Glaciers of Ice,” you hear a girl in the back screaming. She ain’t even singing, she’s screaming. We were doing things that were very rare, very clever.
I was on a mission for nothing but the best beats. Me and Ghost were like, “We want the best shit RZA got. We’re going to find it.” I already had a couple tracks already, beats like “Knowledge God,” beats like “Criminology” — those beats were already picked, but then you had those other ones, “Wisdom Body,” “Wu-Gambinos,” “Ice Cream.” RZA was playing with a pocket full of samples, and he was chopping them up like thin onions and shit and making that savor come out of the beat, that made us be like, “That’s the shit.” “Rainy Dayz,” the beat ain’t even a fast beat — the beat is slow as fuck, but it’s just something about it. Me and Ghost telling RZA to put rain over the beat: “I want to hear fucking birds in the back, as if you wake up 6 a.m. in the morning and you hear birds chirping.”
We were giving [RZA] all this fuel to create the engine that we wanted in this vehicle that we making. At the same token, he was in a great spot when it came to his ear. He was making a lot of dope shit. I was picking beats for the album that I didn’t even know that I really knew how to flow to all the way yet, like “North Star.” I just liked the sound of it.
[Cuban Linx] was like a raw diamond. It was like me bringing a diamond back from Sierra Leone, the big joint. Like, “Yo, this shit is this fucking big. We got to take it to the fucking scales and let them polish it out real good and then bring it back.” That’s how we looked at that album. We knew we were on the road to making a classic, but we didn’t know that the masses would pick up the way that they did. It cemented me as being one of the top emcees in the game, and that’s something that the people chose. I didn’t choose that. I just wanted to represent.
8. Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
Lauryn went off on that album. You could listen to that album today and it still sounds like yesterday. It’s one of those albums that you listen to from beginning to end. I remember songs like “To Zion,” playing it for the first time, I’m like, “Yo, the beat is so crazy.” One thing about us, back in the Nineties, it was important for an artist to keep making each song be banging, and that’s what she was doing. Wall-to-wall bangers on that shit.
When it hit the masses, I think we all felt the same way about it. It just spoke to people. She had that soul about her. You could tell that she had a lot of influence from singers from back in the days. Her voice alone, how she was doing those hooks and, next thing you know, rhyming on them and killing the rhyme. You didn’t have too many females out there back then that knew how to sing and rap at the same time. She was mastering both chambers to the fullest level. When you think of the great female artists, you have to mention Lauryn, because she was part of paving the way for a lot of females to come up today and want to rap, and want to sing, and want to express themselves on tracks.
9. Keith Sweat, Make It Last Forever (1987)
At that time, when that record came out, I was about 18. We was big partiers. We used to jump on the train. We used to throw on silk shirts and get haircuts and go try to be grown and hang out where the big boys hang out. Keith Sweat made us do that. Keith was a fly motherfucker. He had the haircut, he had the flat-top back then.
Songs like “I Want Her,” you heard that in the club, you see people dancing. It brought people together. It made us put down the negative energy for a minute. It’s like, “Yo, fuck that, man, we ain’t gotta go in the store and steal no fucking juices or…” I don’t give a fuck what it was. We could have been going up in Macy’s to try to buy a Polo sweater for $60. You had this in your headphones, getting on the train, listening to Keith Sweat, you’re feeling good about your day.
Keith was part of the hip-hop community, and I’m sure he knew that. He was a manipulator when it came to making females fall in love. We were those kinds of dudes, as well. Slick talkers. I remember playing Keith Sweat when we started getting rental cars and traveling to the next state, traveling to the next borough. You got your rental car, you throw in your Keith Sweat tape. Keith was therapeutic to us back then.
Keith knew how to make love songs, too. He was flipping it — he was giving you that dancing shit, and then he’d give you that other shit, too, that love song shit. That was the roaring Eighties, the late Eighties. Music was staring to grow, and you had all these talented people coming from different places, and when Keith Sweat came he made a mark. Big up, Keith Sweat. One of my favorites.
10. Michael Jackson, Thriller (1983)
Thriller takes me back to being a kid again. I remember sitting up watching videos, Hot Tracks, seeing “Beat It” for the first time. That’s when I started to pay attention to Michael Jackson even more. Off the Wall was my mother’s shit — my mother used to play that all the time. She’d go to work and come home every week with a different album in her bag. Thriller was different to me. I listened to it, I hear “Beat It,” I hear “Billie Jean,” I’m like, “Who the fuck is this kid?” Seeing him on awards shows. He did the moonwalk. He had the fucking jacket, the glove, the shoes. I fell in love with that album, man.
Around that time, Studio 54 was the shit for the older crowd, and we used to hear about it, because our family and cousins and friends used to go to that shit. That was the place to be for them. So we would hear these stories, and when they come back late at night, we’d be up all night looking at videos, and Thriller was always on repeat for me. Even though my mom didn’t want me playing with her records, because I scratched a couple of them. I didn’t have that steady hand. She’d be like, “Just be careful with it.” She’d go out and get that suede cleaner for the records: “If you’re going to listen to it, put that on it.”
Mike was in his prime. He was fully in control of what he wanted to make, what he wanted the world to see, how he wanted to paint his picture. He set that trend for other artists to explore working with other producers. Him working with Quincy Jones, they made a motherfucking classic.