Filed under: Features,Interviews,Rap Veterans,Strong Island,The 90's Files,Video Clips
Written by: Robbie Ettelson
Trying to interview R.A. The Rugged Man without treading over the well-worn ground of his expulsion from Jive Records and working with Biggie Smalls was challenge I was more than willing to meet. Having experienced the major label glory days, the independent vinyl boom and having managed to not only survive but actually thrive in the YouTube era, R.A. is a perfect example of how to adapt to the ever-changing landscape that is the Rap Game. As usual, Rugged Man was able to combine hilarious stories with serious rap trivia obsessiveness and actual facts, which is a good combination, as Pos K once told us. His new album, Legends Never Die, is out now through Nature Sounds.
Robbie: What made you start rapping?
R.A. Rugged The Man: I met my boy Bub, who was a neighborhood beat boxer – Human Beatbox Bub. He was like fifteen, sixteen and I was like eleven. He was in a shopping center and I seen this kid blowing-up a shopping center window with an M-80. He was like, “C’mere kid, watch this!”. He blew off the window and we were friends ever since. He’d say, “Yo, check out this tape! It’s Whodini ‘Escape’, it’s the best album ever!” Then there’d be firehouse dances and he’d start beatboxing and those bitches would be on his dick, and I’d be like, “Yo, I can rap and you beatbox!” I was terrible, but by the time I was thirteen, I got really good and started battling a lotta kids in the neighborhood.
Did you have another rap name when you started?
My name was R.A. because my daddy called me R.A., ‘cos it was middle name. I tried to fancy it up a little bit so I called myself “A.R.E.A”, which was corny and shit, ‘cos when you had to put book covers on your books, so I’d write it on my little book cover and people would go, “What’s ‘area’ mean?” I’m like, “Nah, that’s R.A., that’s my rap name”. The I had the worst name I ever had – it was Master Money Are-A, like “Master Money Area” by accident, ‘cos none knew it was really “R.A”. That was my rap name when I was fifteen. When I wasn’t looking, somebody wrote “U” and “Asshole” at the end, so it said “U Are-A Asshole” on my book. “Who the fuck wrote on my book?!” I never found out.
That indy vinyl era in the mid 90’s must have been great for you.
Back in them days, you could put out anything and the fuckin’ thing would sell! You didn’t even have to promote it. I put out that Sadat X / R.A. record and I think it did 23,000 copies, the other one 18,000 copies, the other one 28,000. They were doing numbers, man! Without even trying! Now you can put out an album and a rapper is lucky if it does that number. You could do no promo, press it up and there were so many record stores worldwide and vinyl was such a rare thing, so you could just make a killing back in that era. As a matter of fact, I think the white labels did better than the ones I did for Rawkus. It was great, those days. I could put out a piece of vinyl, get a nice paycheck and sit around in Long Island and not have to deal with industry for a long time. I didn’t have to deal with the business side of things and the stress of human beings and dealing with people. I could hide-out in Long Island and live my life.
So you didn’t have the problem of not getting paid by distributors?
No, because they were white labels. I would give them to this known distributor who would do all these white labels for people because he liked to make money, so he would take his 25% and cut checks.
You’ve become known for tearing up guest spots on other people’s records. Why is that so important?
When you’re an independent artist, you don’t have money to promote and shove your product down people’s throat. So what happens is, when you have affiliations with these respected artist’s who have fan bases and people working their records, you want to use that as a platform to gain fan recognition. So if I do a song with Talib Kweli, you wanna do something great, so that Talib Kweli’s fans go, “Wow, that was great! I like this guy” And they check out your other music. If you really put on your “A-game” on features, it’s really great promotion for your career. If I had a marketing budget and big money then I could concentrate on just getting my songs heard, but I don’t have that luxury.
What are your thoughts on how the music industry has changed since you had your first deal with Jive?
I like the fact that all the crooked-ass, snake music industry record execs are outta business and we can run our own shit. I like that motherfucking corporations aren’t making all the money off of us and they don’t dictate everything. They dictate commercial radio, but now rappers do whatever they want and they have ways of getting that product out to the planet earth. Back in the days, you needed to sign a deal to have somebody push you and promote you worldwide. You needed somebody to press your shit up and send it out to other countries and promote your shit. Today, you don’t need that, so it’s a good thing.
I noticed that you’ve worked with Rampage again in recent years?
He’s out in Arizona. He did a little Run-DMC tribute and I randomly saw it the fuck online and I posted it on my blog and somebody from Arizona got in contact with me and I passed on my number. When I did a show in Arizona recently, it was funny because Cappadonna was out there too. I get to the venue, and Cappadonna is on stage doing all Wu-Tang classics. “Oh shit, there’s Cap! What’s up, Cap!” Then all of a sudden Rampage shows up, so that was a good time. I’ve known Rampage since ‘93, we came up in the game together. He does the intro to “People’s Champ” on the new album.
Why do you think white MC’s often seem to go for the “crazy” approach to get respect?
A lot of young black rappers came up in these really drug-infested, poverty-stricken hood areas, so for credibility I think sometimes the white rappers wants to say, “Woah, my life is tough because I’m crooked and crazy!” So they over-emphasise the fact. “Look, I’m Charlie Manson! I’m crazy! I’m crazy!” Maybe they want to show that they’re street and credible. I’m not quite sure. Or maybe I rap from experience where I came from a family with mental illness, and maybe some of these white boys are trying to be like me? [laughs]
Someone like Everlast is a good example of that, since he went from being the clean-cut Rhyme Syndicate mascot to a drunken Irish hooligan to a guitar playing cowboy. Not to disrespect him at all.
Yes he did. That’s the marketing game. When I came out, a lotta folks didn’t know I was a white guy, ‘cos my voice had the bass in it. So when I was coming out, most people thought I was a black guy. So my label, rather than go the Everlast route where they wanted to promote, “Look, it’s Irish!” – ‘cos I’m German. Who the fuck wants to promote German rappers? That’s not a marketable fuckin’ thing. We don’t have shamrocks, everybody equates German’s with Nazi’s and Hitler and shit, which isn’t exactly fair, ‘cos my mother is a great woman that loves everybody. She’s not a Nazi. My father’s Italian and Scottish. So when I first signed to Jive, and when Def Jam wanted to sign me, they all wanted to do it where nobody knew I was a white boy. They wanted me to keep the hood on my corner, because they knew I was respected amongst black folks. There was just radio, there was no YouTube clips, so everybody knew R.A. The Rugged Man, the name. but they didn’t know the face. So they said let’s not show your face on the single or the album cover. We did a promo where they reversed the picture so when they showed my face it was shown in negative.
Lyor Cohen had this idea for me: “We’ll get a couple of your songs poppin’. We won’t have you do any filmed interviews, no one will know what you look like. In the first video, we’re gonna have you running through this crazy hospital with bandages on you, and they’re gonna whirl you around and slowly the bandages are removed. Nobody knows who you are and you’re running through the fuckin’ crazy house and you’re rapping and everybody’s like, ‘Oh my god! He’s the best rapper!’ And then finally, the last shot of the video, the bandages [come off] and it’s a white face and shock the world!” I told him I didn’t really like that idea, but that’s really wanted they wanted to do. They wanted to keep the fact that I was a white man very, very far away from the culture. They wanted [everyone] to find out after I was already co-signed by everybody, because I already had this big reputation in the community for being this dope MC. They just wanted to make sure that wasn’t lost by me being a Long Island white guy.
A rapping mummy! Were you talking to Def Jam after the Jive thing fell apart?
No, no no. Before Jive I had nine record deals. I had Def Jam, Tommy Boy, Priority, Mercury, Warner Brothers – nine labels wanted to sign me. Instead of going to Def Jam I want to Jive.
Do you wish that thing had gone differently?
Everything in my career went perfect. I had a horrible, depressing and hard first half of my career. It was heartbreaking, because I knew how good I was, and when I went through all the legal issues and the sexual harassment charges and the lawsuits and they abandoned me from the record label and black-balled me and I was banned from doing shows. When all that happened, I was young. But it tends to build your character, so I’m very, very happy that nothing went differently. I like the way everything went, and the way everything happened was for a reason and my life is beautiful and perfect and I’m happy that it went the way it did, or else I’d be rhyming differently today and I’d be rhyming about different things and I might not have peace with myself.
Another thing is that a lotta dudes have this huge success, and when it goes away they can’t deal with it, mentally, and they go through a depression and they just feel defeated. That happened to me early in the game. I was an 17, 18 year-old kid at the record label getting deals, so when my career felt like it was over and I was blackballed and all that stuff, I was only 21 years-old! So I went through the whole “depression” and “the careers over” and all that dumb shit when I was young and I got all that ugly shit out early in my career.
What can you tell me about the importance of Kool G Rap?
If it wasn’t for Kool G Rap, I believe that emceeing would be 100% different. He’s influenced every fucking rapper after him. Even his peers! Kane influenced him, but at the same time he was influencing Kane. He influenced the Big Pun’s and the Nas’ and every rapper that came after him. Anyone that wanted to splatter you lyrically was Kool G Rap. The visualizing and the painting of pictures, and also how he could take one or two bars and paint five or six pictures! Making every syllable count. Without Kool G Rap in the game, the level of rhyming would be five or ten steps back. He’s so ahead of his time in so many ways. I look at Kool G Rap like Bernard Hopkins. Bernard Hopkins was the best of the era, but he wasn’t the fanciest, he wasn’t the best looking, he wasn’t flashy or the flossiest – he was just a lyrical monster. People talked about the Roy Jones’ and the Oscar De La Hoya’s and the other fighters from his era, but Bernard Hopkins – like Kool G Rap – they stayed humble and down-to-earth, but wanted to be the best, so they maintained. People talk about Rakim and Kane before they talk about Kool G Rap in that era. Kool G Rap is like the third or fourth tier, even though some people in the hood were like, “G Rap’s better than anybody!” The masses were like they were for Roy Jones and De La Hoya, meanwhile Bernard Hopkins was the longevity creature that could just keep winning and winning and winning. G Rap today is like Hopkins – he was great in his 20’s and great in his 40’s.
Just-Ice is another underrated MC from that era.
He’s very underrated, and so is Mantronik, who produced all that shit! Mantronik was crazy on the boards. Just-Ice was also feared, because he was a big, scary dude. I heard a story that Biz Markie had him pissed-off for some reason and Just-Ice came for him and Biz Markie had to lock himself in the bathroom to escape. Shante had to save him, like, “Just-Ice! Chill! Chill!” I can’t verify that story but that was a story I used to hear. Just-Ice started in The Bronx but he spent a lot of time in Long Island, later in his career.
You’ve shown yourself to be a student of the game with your magazine work and YouTube videos focusing on classic hip-hop. How important do you think that is to maintain?
It’s the same thing with sites like yourself, there are still people who just wanna nerd-out and know about the culture. Somebody at the label once said, “R.A. talked about Slick Rick yesterday and the day before he talked about Pharoahe Monch. People don’t care about that stuff. They want something that’s relevant today”. I don’t listen to that stuff, man. I love the history of hip-hop. I like history, period. Let’s hear about Jesse James, let’s hear about Crazy Horse. Let’s hear about a filmmaker from the silent era, let’s hear about a musician from the 50’s. I learned a lot about history by listening to Rakim and Chuck D. I think it’s very important to have people who pay homage to the greats in hip-hop and in history. If all you wanna do is talk about what’s kinda cool at the moment, then society’s fucked.
What is it about Long Island that produces so much great rap?
Everybody was about “Brooklyn! Harlem! BX, baby!” so Long Island figured we had to go harder and be more creative than everybody to show that we’re part of the culture. That’s why you had dudes like Rakim coming out and reinvented the whole game. Even the De La Soul’s and the Public Enemy’s – all of them changed the game so much when they came out and reinvented shit. Prince Paul was one of the creative masterminds, and EPMD? These were groups that changed everything! We live far away. If we wanna be heard in Harlem and Queens and the Boogie Down – where it started – we’ve gotta make the most noise possible, in the best way.
So the distance helps provide a little more creative freedom? I can’t imagine a De La Soul coming out of Brooklyn.
Yeah, De La Soul coulda never came outta Brooklyn. Long Island people, period, are just a little bit weirder than everywhere else. We’ve got the Eddie Murphy’s and the fuckin’ Andy Kaufman’s and the Howard Stern’s and the fuckin’ weirdo Lindsay Lohan’s. Anybody that’s got a name, that’s weird? So many of those fuckers came from Long Island. That’s why you get the Flavor Flav’s and the De La Soul types – the mentality’s a little off out there.
Eddie Murphy used to tell jokes over beats when the Shocklee brothers did parties too.
Remember Eddie Murphy’s little brother had the rap group that was signed to Arista Records? K-9 Posse. They didn’t want to be known for that. Kinda like Scott Caan, when he was in the Whooligans, didn’t want to be known as James Caan’s son. “My daddy didn’t get me to where I’m at!” But yo, you are Scott Khan. Like K-9 Posse – you are Eddie’s brother. You can’t hide that! [laughs]
You’ve had an unusual career in that you seem to be improving as time goes on, which is not usually the case.
Maybe because I never got rich, I stay hungry. My pen is the same pen as a hungry youngster, because I’ve seen a lot of my peers buy incredible houses and become multi-millionaires and become celebrated at big levels. You say, “You know what, man? I’m still chopping the board”. I’m still hungry and chopping that wood and still living to have that title. I want that title every year. I don’t want no one to take my title.
R.A. The Rugged Man – “The People’s Champ”
Hell Razah feat. R.A. The Rugged Man – “Return Of The Renaissance”
R.A. The Rugged Man feat. Sadat X – “50,000 Heads” [Bonus Mix]
R.A. The Rugged Man feat. Sadat X – “Stanley Kubrick”
Crustified Dibbs – “Bloodshed Hua Hoo”
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