There was once a time when R.A. the Rugged man was banned from entering the offices of at least one major record label. That wasn’t a ban in the hyperbolic, “Banned From TV” sense, but a literal, standing order not to be within a specified distance of the label’s headquarters. Luckily, things have changed.
“And, you know, I was young, crazy and had issues in my mind back then,” R.A. explains almost wistfully. “So they were scared of me. You get a little older, you calm down, and now everybody says, ‘Oh, R.A.’s the nice guy. We like him. Let him in the house, and let him have dinner with the kids.’”
There’s no standing dinner date. But on a typically sunny day, R.A. does appear at HipHopDX’s Hollywood office with a friend for an interview. There’s playful banter back and forth, and a hilarious story about performing in the boonies of East Tennessee with Cappadonna (who somehow ended up doing “The Twist”)—none of which should lull you into believing R.A. isn’t still intensely passionate about his craft.
He’s still liable to get kicked off of a commercial flight for wearing a shirt emblazoned with the phrase “Every Record Label Sucks Dick.” These days a faux pas by this particular site or an inconsistent review of his new album is laughed off, but not before he calls bullshit. At a time when rappers are pre-screening interview questions as if they’re vetting a potential political candidate, his candor is becoming increasingly rare.
“You can just let the cameras roll and ask be a bunch of random shit,” he offered. Naturally, we obliged.
HipHopDX: The Kool Herc reference at the end of “Still Diggin Wit Buck” probably made a lot of people unfamiliar with your work think you weren’t in tune with newer artists. It was surprising to see Hopsin on “Underground Hits”...were you familiar with Hopsin’s earlier stuff before you two collaborated?
R.A. the Rugged Man: No. You know what? I didn’t know Hopsin’s hustle, but I started hearing kids talking about Hopsin. They said, “Yo, this kid Hopsin…you should do a record with him.” And people were posting things on my site saying I should work with Hopsin. And I’m like, “Who the fuck is Hopsin?” I didn’t really pay attention, and then Dame from Funk Volume hit me up saying, “Hey, we’re trying to get all the credible, underground cats together. You, Hopsin…we should all talk.”
So Funk Volume reached out to me a couple years back. That’s when I took notice of Hopsin, like, “Oh, let me check the kid out.” He had that record “Pans In The Kitcken,” and the video had him in the special ed class and with the fat, white girl. It was a lot of stuff from the Crustified Dibbs era where I saw a lot of similarities between us and our lyricism. A lot of kids don’t see the connection I can have with a brother like that, but the “Pans In The Kitcken” one was the first one that got me. I said, “Wow. That’s some real interesting shit he’s doing.” I liked it.
R.A. the Rugged Man On Media Coverage Of Hip Hop
DX: Another track from Legends Never Die, “Learned Truth” hits pretty close to home in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. You obviously had no knowledge that would happen when you and Kweli recorded the song. But what are your thoughts on TMZ and other outlets highlighting the fact that one of the suspects was listening to Hip Hop?
R.A. the Rugged Man: I’m pretty confident that the Boston kids fuckin’ know who I am and all that shit, because they had the Heavy Metal Kings in their iPod. I was in the Heavy Metal Kings video, and they’re fans of Vinnie Paz. I’m like, “Goddamn, that shit is crazy!”
Of course the fucking bombers listen to Rap—they’re young kids, with the mentality of, “Oh yeah, I listen to Hip Hop.” But that never has nothing to do with shit. I’m sure Timothy McVeigh liked Goodfellas by [Martin] Scorsese. Adolf Hitler was a fan of John Ford westerns. That doesn’t have shit to do with, “Oh, you know what? I listened to Vinnie Paz, now I’m gonna go bomb the fucking marathon.” So they can try to put it on Hip Hop, but that’s a weak argument.
DX: Why does the media always do that…even if it’s not Hip Hop?
R.A. the Rugged Man: The media likes to sensationalize anything. It doesn’t matter what the fuck it is, and they’ll always look for the negative. If anybody’s listening to a Rap song, they won’t say, “Oh, this person’s trying to help the kids.” They’ll say, “Wait, this guy talked about selling crack.” That’s what they do. And it’s not just Rap. Look at religions. If it’s one bad thing that a Muslim did, they’ll blame the Muslim religion. If one person in the Catholic Church did something offensive, then it’s, “Oh the whole Catholic religion and the Pope is the devil!” They take the negativity and sensationalize it no matter what the subject is.
And they’ll never show you the real facts; they’ll just make it for like first graders. It’s all black and white with either this extreme of goodness or this extreme of badness. They’ll say, “Obama’s a god…he’s a savior!” Meanwhile, come on. Or they’ll say, “This guy’s the devil. He’s the worst.” It’s no human beings with reality and a happy medium.
DX: On both of your albums, there’s an element of controlling your own narrative, whether you’re talking about “A Star Is Born,” “Lessons,” or “The People’s Champ.” Why is that so important?
R.A. the Rugged Man: I think it’s an important thing as an artist where when you listen to their music you can kind of feel who the person is through the music. When you put out material and it sounds like a generic ass song, you don’t have a long shelf life if you’re that artist. That’s why even today, you can relate to someone like Marvin Gaye or Bob Marley. People know the personality of the person by just listening to the music. Listen to Wise Intelligent from the Poor Righteous Teachers. You know who he is just by listening to the music.
Look at Drake. I’m not a Drake fan; I don’t like his lyrics. But he’s that sensitive, girlie type of dude. I understand who he is, and that’s why he has his fans. Even though my people ain’t his fans, he gets his fans because you understand who this fuckin’ Drake guy is by listening to his music. He might not be a person who we relate to, but the little sensitive people might relate to that.
The Evolution Of R.A. the Rugged Man
DX: With any artist—not just rappers—you have to decide how much of your personal life you’re gonna put into your work. How did you get to that point where you’re telling us about yourself, your dad, your siblings, your nephew…everybody?
R.A. the Rugged Man: [Laughs] Yeah, if you’re in my circle, you’re fucked up. You’re getting called out…even my goddamn niece, my dead nephew, my father. My rhyme book is almost like a diary. I don’t know why the fuck I’m giving it to you guys, but…I don’t know. I’m very personal with my lyricism. I try to spill it all, and I give it to the world. I don’t know why I do that, but if you listen to my music, you basically know my life. Sometimes, it ain’t personal. I get fun and I’ll smack you in the face with my dick…it’s two sides to R.A.
DX: Have you always been like that?
R.A. the Rugged Man: No, it’s funny. When I was a teenager, it was, “I’m the best. I’m the best. I’m the best.” But I still do that today. I still got the braggadocious, “Hip Hop ya’ don’t stop, I could rock the mic better than you,” style. But even at 15, I wrote a song called, “Everybody’s A Critic,” and it was talking about criticisms. In the ‘80s there was that whole Glam Rock shit, so I wrote a song called, “Rock Died Out.” It was like, “You ain’t a mister / You look more like my sister,” just talking about all the Glam Rock, fag-looking Rock stars. I didn’t experience a lot when I was 15, so that was the stuff I experienced—like, “How can they criticize me? Fuck these gay looking rock guys! They look like girls and they wear lipstick.” So even as a kid, I would go at whatever the fuck pissed me off.
I was dirty even as a 15-year-old. I did a talent show, and on the night of the rehersal I did my clean rhyme. But then, on the night of the show, I came out with a big ass Flavor Flav clock on. People were like, “What the fuck is wrong with this guy?” Then I came out on stage, and I was saying raps like, “Yo your bitch is getting wetter ‘cause of me!” I pissed off everybody at school, and I got in trouble. But even back then, I was saying, “I’m not gonna censor myself.” Even as a teenager I was doing that dumb shit.
DX: So anyone at Jive that had the privilege of seeing that should’ve seen the handwriting on the wall…
R.A. the Rugged Man: Oh, Jive knew what they were signing. But that’s what happens though. If corporations see a bunch of other people interested, they think, “Oh, we’ll make so much money off of it. The controversy will work for us.” But then, when they had the fuckin’ young, rugged demon in the office, it was, “Oh, we’re scared of him. He’s a scary guy…we can’t go in elevators with him.” And, you know, I was young, crazy and had issues in my mind back then. So they were scared of me. You get a little older, you calm down, and now everybody says, “Oh, R.A.’s the nice guy. We like him. Let him in the house, and let him have dinner with the kids.” But it took me 20 years to come in people’s houses and have them not be scared.
R.A. the Rugged Man Talks Inconsistency In Hip Hop Censorship
DX: It feels like we’ve been desensitized to a lot of stuff in those 20 years. A lot of things that were once taboo seem kind of passé…
R.A. the Rugged Man: Oh, I think it’s opposite now. I think in the early ‘90s, we were allowed to say a lot more shit. Maybe the white rappers weren’t. When I was at Jive, I asked them, “How are you gonna have a problem with my lyrics when you have Too Short talking about Nancy Reagan sucking dick like corn on the cob?” They’d say, “You mean what you say. Too Short doesn’t. He’s a nice guy.” Are you fucking kidding me? That’s the shit I got. So they saw the crazy, uncontrollable white guy that hates women. But Too Short could say it, and Redman could say, “I’m down with O.P.P. / Best part about it, I got AIDS bitch!” [on “Rated R]. On Def Jam, Onyx was talkin’ about the “Black Vagina Finder.” Snoop Dogg was on a big pop record saying, “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks.” So I think you were allowed to be a little bit more offensive in that era.
I think today, if you say the wrong thing you’re going to be told you need to make an apology. There’s all these publicists making all their artists apologize for everything. I would never, ever, ever apologize for nothin’ I ever say on a record, because I said it on the fuckin’ record. I meant it when I said it, and I’m not gonna apologize. But they force the artists to go, “Oh I’m sorry I said that; I didn’t mean it.” And then they lie and say people took the lyric wrong. Nobody took the lyric wrong, you said it motherfucker. Don’t apologize for the shit you said. But that’s the game right now.
Tyler the Creator gets away with the rape stuff. Odd Future gets away with a lot of stuff, and nobody gives them a problem. Good for them. They’re like, “Fuck it.” I think that kid Earl [Sweatshirt] is interesting lyrically.
After Eminem said those homophobic lyrics, he’s holding hands with Elton John. That’s what they do so you can comfort these different fan bases. It’s smart because they’re business people. Don’t cut off a whole community or cut off a whole fan base. So I understand why they’re doing it. I’m not even saying they’re wrong for doing it. That’s just not me. I can’t go, “Oh, let me go hold hands with Elton John.”
Rick Ross said, “Oh, Reebok it was great working with you.” I would have been like, “Suck my dick, Reebok.” That’s the difference. That might be why I’m underground for life, because I’m not gonna take nothin’ back. Ever.
DX: Going back to your Too Short example, that seems like something that’s still playing out. Someone basically says, “If Tyler or Eminem rape someone in a song it’s just fiction. But Ross really meant it…”
R.A. the Rugged Man: That’s what I heard someone say as an argument! They’ll say, “Oh it was realistic the way that Rick Ross said it.” What the fuck does that mean? You’re the critic who’s gonna how real it is or how unreal it is? Eminem could rape a woman in the pussy with an umbrella, Jay-Z could rape and pillage kids, and Biggie could have his boy fuck kids in the ass and throw them off a bridge. But Rick’s is really real? It’s not that his is really real, it’s that you don’t like Rick. You don’t like his music; you don’t think he’s a real artist. So the mentality is, “Fuck that guy. We hate him, so he’s the bad guy.” Meanwhile, all your rappers said the same bullshit.
The funny thing is, people came at me like, “How dare you defend him.” I’m not even a fan of Rick Ross’ music; it’s not even like that. What it is, is I’m a fan of freedom of speech. I’m a fan of not being a hypocrite and crucifying one artist when you’re not crucifying the other artist for the exact same shit.
The 20 Year Span Of Crustified Dibbs & R.A. the Rugged Man
DX: This is a little off from my line of questions, but what the hell is a Crustified Dibbs?
R.A. the Rugged Man: [Laughs] Crustified Dibbs is a bad idea. In the ‘90s, the name R.A. the Rugged Man just sounded so ‘90s. There were groups coming up making noise with names like Cypress Hill—they had cool names. Crustified Dibbs wasn’t a cool name, but I was 18 and I said, “I don’t wanna be R.A. the Rugged Man; I wanna be Crustified Dibbs.” I was dirty, crusty and nasty…it just sounded like some shit. I was hanging out and said, “Crustified Dibbs.” It don’t really have no meaning. I like the fact that Crustified Dibbs exists, and I’m proud of it now. They begged me to be R.A. the Rugged Man. And it just didn’t feel big like so-and-so’s group. I was young—18-years old—and you always try to think of something fresh at that age. Sometimes you over-think things, and they’re not always the move.
DX: True. We were kind of talking about it earlier off camera. But how has your fan base changed in the 20 years since you started?
R.A. the Rugged Man: What’s crazy is that my fan base is beautiful, because a lot of people from my era only have fan bases of 35 and over. Only the old folks go out to their shows. For some reason, if you go to my Facebook, there’s all these 15-18-year olds and 20-to-24-year-olds…it’s all the young kids. I always had the 35 and older set, but every year I get brand new fans. All my idols like Rakim and Chuck D say how good I am at what I do, and that feels good. But then, on the flip side, it feels good when a little 15-year-old is singing, “Every Record Label Sucks Dick” when I’ve been doing it for this long.
DX: So what’s the entry point to your catalogue for a 15-year-old?
R.A. the Rugged Man: I have a long, illustrious career. So you kind of know the age of my fans by the songs they say. You know it’s an old head if they go, “Yo, I liked when you said, ‘Every record label sucks dick’ or when you did that ‘Bloody Axe’ joint.” I figure they must be 40. If someone is talking about Soundbombing on Rawkus, they must be about 32. Whereas if someone talking about me and Jedi Mind Tricks, I’ll say, “Oh, you must be about 26.” When you’re around that long, certain age groups make certain parts of your career the classic moment of your career.
I got a lot of sections of my career, kind of like Bernard Hopkins. You can go back t his middleweight reign, and people will say, “Oh remember when he defended the title 20 times?” There’s so many parts of his career that you can break down to understand why this dude had longevity. I hope people can look at my career the same way as B-Hop.
DX: One of your biggest assets is being a hustler, and not in the corny sense. But you’ve created all these revenue streams from writing, film and owning your material where you’re not dependent on a label check. Where does that come from?
R.A. the Rugged Man: I’m a German. My mother’s work ethic—she’s a German lady. My father was Scottish, Sicilian…he’s from America; he’s from Hell’s Kitchen. He was the street dude. But my mother’s this non-stop working ass, German lady. She’s 66 now, and she’s still working non-stop. She works for Lancome cosmetics, and she travels and everything. I definitely got my hustle from my mother. Writing for magazines, stealing money out of Jive, hustling money out of Capitol, getting money out of Rawkus and non-stop working and touring, directing videos—the non-stop movement comes from my mother.
The personality and the humor—if you think I’m funny—that comes from my daddy. A lot of my character comes from my daddy. But the work ethic comes from mommy.