R.A. The Rugged Man is a cult hip-hop hero of epic proportions. Whilst many of today’s fair-weather rap fans might not be able to recite any of his rhymes or name anything from his extensive catalogue that dates back to the early-90s, the Long Island lyricist has consistently shocked, entertained and impressed true heads the world over during a storied career that has been plagued with industry politics and controversy.
Originally signed to Jive Records under his first alias of Crustified Dibbs, R.A. recorded a debut album, ‘Night Of The Bloody Apes’, that would be consigned to the label’s vault of unreleased material after the rapper’s “violent, disgusting and irresponsible” behaviour saw him banned from the Jive offices and subsequently dropped. Stories involving R.A., guns, girls and beatdowns soon circulated throughout the rap industry, leaving many labels unwilling to work with the talented artist. But while R.A.’s reputation for trouble was keeping him out of corporate offices, his other reputation for being a formidable emcee was keeping him in the studio recording with rap royalty such as The Notorious B.I.G. and Brand Nubian’s Sadat X.
Although he didn’t release an official solo album until 2004’s ‘Die, Rugged Man, Die’ on the Nature Sounds imprint, a look back over R.A.’s career shows that he’s always remained busy, whether writing for magazines such as Vibe and Mass Appeal, working on a book documenting his love of boxing, or showcasing his passion for horror flicks by collaborating with director Frank Henenlotter on their ‘Bad Biology’ film project.
Yet hip-hop has clearly remained the Rugged one’s first priority, with R.A.’s love of the culture and encyclopaedic knowledge of its history spilling out in verses that capture the energy and creativity of golden-era rap whilst simultaneously pushing the art of rhyme forward through intricate flows and literally jaw-dropping wordplay. If you’re in any doubt about R.A.’s capabilities as an emcee then just listen to his first person account of the impact his father’s Vietnam experiences had on his family on the 2006 Jedi Mind Tricks gem ‘Uncommon Valour’ – incredible.
Currently back in the studio recording the long-awaited follow-up to his ‘Die, Rugged Man, Die’ project, R.A. latest release, ‘Legendary Classics Vol. 1’, pulls together many of his most memorable back-in-the-day bangers, such as the unforgettable ‘Every Record Label Sucks D**k’.
Here, the always opinionated Rugged Man speaks on educating the masses, pissing off Lil Wayne fans, working with Prince Paul and trying to track down Black Thought of The Roots.
What made you decide to release a best-of project like ‘Legendary Classics Vol. 1’ at this point in your career?
“Well, I’ve been meaning to put this album out for a lot of years and I just wanted to teach the kids who have no idea about me a history lesson. I also wanted to put out quality sounding mixes of all the old songs that my fans like so much that they’ve been listening to on vinyl bootlegs that were made from old dusty cassette tapes. I really wanted to put some of those old songs out the way they were originally intended to sound. Plus, I’m about ten songs into recording a new studio album, so I wanted to use ‘Legendary Classics Vol. 1’ as a way of getting the name R.A. The Rugged Man back into the limelight a bit, have cats talking again, then in about six months time we’ll drop the new album. So ‘Legendary Classics’ is basically a bunch of songs that were never released commercially and then some songs that were released that are considered to be classics. But I’ve got so many songs that there’ll definitely be a volume two coming in the future.”
When you listen back to the material on ‘Legendary Classics’ how do you feel you’ve developed as an emcee over the years?
“When you start rhyming, you’re rapping like the other dudes in your neighbourhood or the dudes you look up to and respect. So in the 80s you’d be trying to do a little Big Daddy Kane and Biz Markie, then you’d be trying a little Grand Puba flow. But then it comes to a point where you develop your own sound with all of your influences mixed together, but it sounds like you. But as you continue you have to keep advancing otherwise there’s no reason to keep doing it. So you have to keep updating your sh*t, so it’s still the same R.A. The Rugged Man, but each year you’re getting the advanced version and it’s about wanting to keep getting better as an emcee. The new album I’m working on now, that’s gonna blow anything else I ever did out the way, and if I do another album in five years, that album will blow this new one out the way.”
Was there a particular moment when you first started rhyming that you realised you weren’t just emulating artists you looked up to anymore and you’d actually found your own style?
“I think when I was about sixteen I did a couple of demo tapes. Before that I was really trying to figure out my style, but when I was around sixteen the demo tapes I was working on all of a sudden just sounded like something that I’d never really heard before and I knew I had something that I could call my own sh*t. I took that style and just kept updating it every year and that’s still really what I’m doing today, but it’s just a far more advanced version of what I originally started out with. I mean, I’ll kill any rapper today, but fifteen years ago I would’ve killed any rapper as well, it’s just all about the styles of the times. Right now, you could listen to shit I did fifteen years ago and say it sounds dated, but if you were around in the early 90s and caught me in a cipher spitting those rhymes you would’ve seen everybody getting mutilated. So I was just as good then as I am today, but the styles have advanced. I mean, I was always great at what I did. When I first started rapping around eleven-years-old, for some reason within a year or so I was better than most of the guys in the neighbourhood. It was just something that came naturally to me, and by the time I was fourteen I was one of the nicest cats on Long Island.”
Your 2006 appearances on Jedi Mind Tricks’ Vietnam-inspired cut ‘Uncommon Valour’ and Hell Razah’s hip-hop tribute ‘The Renaissance’ led to you having two of the most talked about verses in underground rap in recent years. What was your writing process for each of those rhymes?
“Firstly, imagine if those rhymes came out of Jay-Z’s mouth or one of these other dudes who’re supposed to be the best rapper out? People would be praising that for eternity like it’s the greatest rhyme ever written. If anybody in the mainstream said the rhymes I spit they’d be praised endlessly, but when I do it it’s like ‘Ah, it’s just that underground kid.’ But then they’re looking at some of these dudes on the TV like ‘That guy’s a lyrical genius!’ and I’m like, ‘Nah, they can’t f**k me with me, none of these cats can.’ But my whole writing process can differ depending on the song. For ‘Uncommon Valour’ I used a different process because I was writing about my father in that verse and his experiences in Vietnam. That verse took me a week or two to write because I wanted to get all the facts straight. Plus, it’s forty-four bars, so it’s longer than a standard verse. But before I wrote the verse I called my dad and was asking him where he was at in Vietnam, what was the name of his helicopter etc, then I spoke to my step-mother and asked her all the correct medical terms for the conditions my brother and sister had, and when I had all the information down on paper I just started writing the f**kin’ thing and it all came together easy because I knew the story I wanted to tell already from hearing it as a kid. The verse on ‘The Renaissance’ came super easy because I was just rapping about my favourite rappers (laughs). I love hip-hop so much and that verse is about the rappers I grew-up on like Big Daddy Kane, so that verse came together easy.”
Nowadays it seems as though a lot of newer artists are fixated on this whole ‘I-don’t-write-my-rhymes-down’ approach to making music, as if that automatically makes them dope regardless of the end result. As someone who obviously takes time perfecting their lyrics, what’s your opinion on that?
“It all depends on what’s gonna make your rhyme come out the best. If you don’t need to write your rhymes down on paper and your rhymes come out better doing it that way, then do it. But if you’re gonna end up with a better rhyme from writing the sh*t down, then you should do it that way. People always talk about how this guy and that guy never write their rhymes down, like Biggie, but both times I worked with Big I saw him write with a pad and paper, I didn’t seen him doing it off the head. People say he did, but the two particular times he worked with me he didn’t. I mean, Jay-Z is the person who kinda made that style of not writing your rhymes down famous, but if you listen to something like ‘22 Twos’, which is one of his better rhymes, I bet that wasn’t done off his head because it’s so precise.”
You recently completed a series of outspoken online video blogs to promote the ‘Legendary Classics’ project – were you surprised by the reaction they received or was it what you were expecting?
“I felt stupid doing the blogs, but the f**kin’ label said this is the era where people watch videos online more than they’ll listen to f**kin’ music, so they thought the video blogs would be a good idea. When I’m filming them I feel like a f**kin’ asshole, but when they’re done I look at them and say ‘Okay, they’re funny, that’s cool.’ I like them when they’re done, I just feel stupid while I’m doing them. But the response has pretty much been what I expected. People say ‘He’s right! He’s great!’ and then other people will say ‘He’s a piece of sh*t! He’s a bum! He sucks d**k!’ Then people will come back with ‘He’s a legend!’ I’ve offended a lot of people by calling out certain pop rapper names who people seem to think are the best ever, but you just have to laugh at some of the people who comment on the internet because they have no idea about the culture of hip-hop and don’t know there’s a whole other world out there they know nothing about. The blog that pissed a lot of people off, and made a lot of people happy, was when I said I thought a lot of dudes in my neighbourhood could rap better than Lil Wayne. People got really offended by that, but I really believe that if Lil Wayne came to my neighbourhood, we could find many rappers who could beat him in a battle. Why is that offensive? That’s just my opinion and what I believe. I live in New York City and I believe that there are kids rhyming in the streets who’re nicer that the dudes you see on television. It’s not me trying to be shocking or offensive, it’s just my opinion.”
It’s crazy that people can be so close-minded to what else is out there as back in the day, regardless of how much you might’ve liked a Rakim or a KRS-One, if someone told you they’d heard someone who was nicer than them you’d want to hear that other emcee in-case it was true, not just immediately dismiss them.
“The general public are mainly sheep, so when you’re dealing with a public full of uncultured people, you can’t expect them to know the difference. I mean, you could give them the best verse you ever spat in your life and the wackest verse and they wouldn’t know the difference. A lot of these people didn’t grow-up on this culture, they have no idea about the culture, so they have to go by who a particular TV channel is saying is the best rapper. Meanwhile, dudes that understand the art form can listen for themselves and say ‘You know what? That dude everyone’s talking about is nice, he’s okay, but I think this other dude is better.’ It’s all about having your own opinions and knowing the history of the culture. I mean, we just recently lost Mr. Magic and so many people came up on him, but there’s so many people out there who only know his name because Biggie said it in ‘Juicy’.”
How’s the ‘God Take, God Give’ film project you’re making about your father’s experiences in Vietnam coming along?
“It’s going a little slow because I ran out of money and I’m financing it myself. I don’t want to bring an investor in because I want to own it and I want one hundred percent freedom to do what the hell I want to do. I’m touring through October and November so I’ll have some money for it and should be able to continue. Also, my father, who’s in the film, he’s a little up and down and is sick sometimes so shoots that I have planned can get put on hold. But we will get it done.”
Is the film business something you’d like to become more involved in?
“Well, I’m never going to stop doing the rhyming, that’s always going to be my top priority, being the best rhymer I can be. But there are different avenues to take and you can do more than one thing in the world, so I am going to try and venture out more into film and just have fun doing it. The music is my entire life, so to me hip-hop will always be that one bitch that you love and always come home to even if you do f**k other pu**y (laughs).”
There’s been talk on the internet recently of you working on an album with Prince Paul – is that actually happening?
“He’s making me be top secret about everything to do with the project but we have already started work on it. It’s me, Prince Paul and another legendary emcee.”
Is it a concept album like some of Prince Paul’s previous work?
“There is a concept to it and the title of the group is kinda strange and having me involved with the project might be a little dangerous (laughs). But Paul and the other cat are very into the idea of doing it, but you’ll see what I mean when you hear the name of the group, you’ll be like ‘What the f**k?!!’”
Can you give any hints as to who the other emcee involved is? Is he an old-school artist? A 90s artist?
“He’s been around for a lot of years, let’s put it that way. I hate being secretive like this as I’m like a truth machine when people ask me questions, I just tell them sh*t. But Paul and the other cat wanted to keep it on the low until we have about ten songs done and then we’ll put it out there. I mean, I might’ve talked too much already (laughs).”
What can people expect from the new solo album you’re working on?
“Well I had a bit of a budget this time around so I’m getting in the studio to record twelve to fifteen brand new songs. Doing the ‘Die, Rugged Man, Die’ album I didn’t really have any budget, so some of those songs were recorded in 1999, 2000 and 2002 and the album didn’t come out until 2004. But this new album is all brand new songs so they’re all fuckin’ bangers. Every joint on the album is crazy lyrically and I’ve been working with producers like Lil’ Fame, Marco Polo and Ayatollah.”
Any artist collaborations to look out for?
“I’ve got this one beat that Lil’ Fame did and I’ve put one verse to it and I’m gonna put an ill hook on it, but I’ve been trying to get at Black Thought but I’m having a hard time getting in touch. Rumour has it that those Strong Arm Steady dudes were up at Nature Sounds and they were saying they were with Black Thought and when they said they fuck with Nature Sounds, Black Thought was like ‘R.A. The Rugged Man is an incredible emcee.’ But that’s hearsay so I’m can’t say that’s exactly what happened, but that’s what Strong Arm Steady were telling Nature Sounds. Black Thought is a respected lyricist to a lot of people so I’d really like to make that collaboration happen.”
You often seem to collaborate with artists who could quite easily put a lesser emcee in the shade, like Biggie and Kool G. Rap for example. Is that degree of pressure something you look for when you decide who you want to work with?
“I want somebody who has a chance of being competitive with me or maybe even edging me out. I’d like to see that happen, because so far it never has (laughs).”
Has it ever nearly happened?
“I don’t know if I’ve said this in an interview before, but the only time I ever felt like ‘Oh sh*t, this dude’s getting me’ was when I was about thirteen or fourteen and I was battling seven kids at the same time. I was at a house party and I was already known around the neighbourhood for being nasty, so this one emcee got up, I splattered him, another kid got up, splattered him, so I was getting cocky like ‘Who’s next? Who’s next?’ By the time the seventh dude got up to rhyme against me, he was spitting fire and I was like ‘Oh sh*t, this dude’s about to get me’ and then in the middle of his rhyme I realised what I was hearing and I was like, ‘Nah motherf**ker, that’s ‘Men At Work’ from Kool G. Rap!’ So that’s the only time I’ve ever felt like someone was getting the better of me and it wasn’t even with their own rhymes (laughs). I think they just thought that because I was a white kid I wouldn’t know the rhymes they were using (laughs). I remember a couple of times in the 80s cats tried to battle me with other artist’s rhymes.”
So as a closing question and a nod to one of your earlier legendary classics, does every record label still suck d**k?
“Oh yeah, of course. But the great thing about that is that I said that back when you weren’t allowed to say it, and then what’s happened now is that a lot of these labels sucked d**k so bad that they’re all shutting down. So I’m in my glory seeing my enemies all laying down defeated while I’m still standing. It’s like a scene from one of those old bad movies where I’m standing there at the end surrounded by all these bloodied dead bodies and I survived the sh*t. I’m just glad the cards fell the way they did because I like being here and laughing at my enemies.”