"Are you an MC? Do you rap? What the fuck do you know about rap? Are you an MC?"
I'm sitting onstage, judging a rap battle at 12th & Porter, and there's some Lockup-looking motherfucker screaming at me — all neck veins and animalistic fury. It's a rare moment of tension and flared tempers in what has lately been a very lovey-dovey Nashville hip-hop scene. He's pissed that the other judges and I voted down his boy, as if our decision to vote his buddy off the metaphorical island was a personal slight rather than a professional decision based on, you know, standards and expectations and whatnot. He seems extra-pissed that the killing vote came from the least hip-hop-looking motherfucker in the room.
"What in the fuck does the dude with the thick-framed glasses and boat shoes, the pants that fit and the London Fog jacket know about hip-hop?" seemed to be what he was trying to articulate. "What gives this bookstore-looking nerd the right to criticize my boy?" appeared to be the question behind the questions. And he was right — I am not an MC, I don't battle, I don't rap. I could not and would not get on the stage and compete in a rap battle. On the other hand, I spent the 12 hours preceding the battle trying to listen to every track Wu-Tang Clan MC and all-around rap legend Raekwon ever recorded, and if that doesn't give you a solid frame of reference for what an MC should be, nothing will.
In the nearly two decades between Raekwon's first verse on Wu-Tang's first single "Protect Ya Neck" and his latest solo album Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, The Chef has proven time and time again what it takes to make a great MC. It's not about grabbing your dick and screaming louder than the next guy. It's not about using tired clichés to support the claim that you're tougher than the rest. It's not about one hot punch line or one hot verse, or about recycling gags from old stand-up routines or reusing the same metaphors eight times in 16 bars. It's about firing off one heater after another, after another, after another. As Method Man so eloquently put it, Raekwon is "cooking up some marvelous shit to get your mouth watering." Your average MC is just heating up gas-station cheeseburgers in a malfunctioning microwave.
And while unequivocally deciding who's the best Wu-Tang MC is a frustrating and ultimately futile endeavor — it's something I've been trying to do for over 15 years — there's no question that Raekwon is one of the greatest MCs in the entire genre. On the entire globe. For all time, forever and always. If I had a dollar for every wack rapper who tried to cop his cadence and failed, I'd have enough money to pay those wack rappers to take a long walk off a short pier. If I had a dollar for every party at which I've heard Raekwon's 1995 release Only Built 4 Cuban Linx ... I could buy a small college and send all these fools to school. If I had a dollar for every time I've listened to "Crane Style" — his new single featuring Busta Rhymes — since I started writing this article, I could get myself some oxtail — or, as Busta says, "Ox-TAIL!" — and a ginger beer over at Jamaicaway.
There's a reason Raekwon has the closing verse on Wu-Tang's "Triumph." You can't close out the Wu's most epic and definitive statement with anything less than next-level shit. I'd like to think that I know a thing or two about stringing together seemingly random words (see above), but The Chef's verse on that song — a song that is possibly the grandest vision of hip-hop as fine art to ever hit the pop charts — takes free association to new levels and linguistic abstraction into new dimensions, hitherto unseen by mere mortals. It's pure wordplay, transcending the fundamentals of language and the strictures of lyricism to create a verse that's still impeccable, no matter how many times you've listened to it. (In this instance, that would be a veritable shit-ton of times.) It would easily make the short list of all-time great rap verses, if that list was decided entirely by me. Or rather, it's on a list that I made because I'm a nerd and like to make lists. Which is all to say, yes, my Lockup-looking friend, I am qualified to decide whether or not your friend can rap, even if I am not — as you asked — an MC. I've done a little research on what makes a dope MC. You can borrow the list if you want to.
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