That's a shame to Maffew Ragazino, the latest celebrated emcee emerging from Brownsville, who knows that sad fact's a common story in his Brooklyn neighborhood – the same neighborhood those names all call home. Brownsville's had its share of legendary rappers, but none have ever truly broke through to make a mark on the mainstream. If Ragazino's latest free project, Rhyme Pays, succeeds in the way he hopes, Brownsville may inch itself closer toward being rightfully respected by the world at large, and he may very well become recognized as the torchbearer he's tried to be for some time.
Living in the land of the Lo-Lifes and Decepticons and learning first-hand from the music that grew out of it from his uncle – none other than Sean Price – Ragazino gained the ability to seamlessly recount Hip Hop's storied past while somehow keeping his lines firmly rooted in the present. Through his immense pride for Brownsville, he's also learned to carry its plight in the hopes that his rhymes forever changing his 'hood's bridesmaid status.
HipHopDX spoke with Ragazino Sr. by phone late last week to find out what to look forward to on Rhyme Pays, what it means to be from Brownsville, and how he feels about the “throwback” label that some may be quick to tag him with.
HipHopDX: You were involved in the recent Madden Battle that HipHopDX was involved with, and I saw that you and Action Bronson got into a pretty heated O.T. battle. How'd you get involved with that and did you happen to meet anybody that you may work with in the future?
Maffew Ragazino: Yeah. Actually, it was a dope event aside from the madden battle itself. [NahRight.com founder] Eskay kinda pulled me into it. Shout out to Eskay and Nah Right. But yeah, I linked up with Asher Roth, who happened to be familiar and actually be a fan of my material – you know, likewise. He said he was willing to do some work in the near future. Who else . . . Gilbere Forte. We're familiar with each other's work. It was good to show my face up there and actually learn something about these guys aside from music. My man Troy Ave. took it and he doesn't even play video games like that!
I saw a lot of people that I know already and I've worked with, like Action [Bronson]. Lord Jamar – that's an O.G. right there. He's like family. I actually have a record with him too. Me and Troy Ave., we talked about doing some work. We'll see how things go in the near future. It was just a good networking event. I loved it. I definitely would love to participate in whatever the next video gaming event is or whatever the case may be – actual basketball or football, live or video games. Whatever it may be, I'm down. It's dope.
Maffew Ragazino Breaks Down His Free Rhyme Pays Album
DX: Who can we expect to find on Rhyme Pays? I know you've got the Action Bronson track, right?
Maffew Ragazino: “Jordan vs. Bird” featuring Action Bronson, produced by Digga. Yeah, that joint. He's pretty much the only rapper that's on there. I have my man Rocki Evans, R&B crooner. He's dope. He's an up-and-coming guy too. He gets super busy though. And the legendary Mad Stuntman, the guy who made the “I Like To Move It” record. That's my homie. He's on “City of God” [with] Rocki Evans.
DX: Was that your intent, that you wanted to keep the focus just on you for this project?
Maffew Ragazino: [That's] the way things started to go after I started recording a slew of records [because] Rhyme Pays is pretty much autobiographical. It's about my story and how rhyme will pay one day. Like how they say crime pays? You do enough crime that it's about to pay off? Well, [if] you do enough rhymes and you hone your craft and you practice enough, one day a rhyme gonna pay. It's just telling my story, and when I started to put the records together in sequence, it kinda came together like that on its own. It wasn't even done purposely.
DX: With collaborations being so much the norm nowadays, I didn't know if that was an active decision by you to try and get away from that and make sure the album was just about you.
Maffew Ragazino: Nah, things just fell into place like that. But like I said, a lot of these songs are about my story from some point of view, so you know most of those records are probably gonna end up being solo records when you come from a point of view like that.
DX: Yeah. Who better to tell it than you, right?
Maffew Ragazino: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I love to collaborate, but I definitely wanted to show that I can hold my own as an emcee on my first project. It's gonna be online for free so that no one has any obstacles. Everyone should have it if you're familiar with Maffew Ragazino. You've heard the name. There's no reason why you shouldn't take a chance and download it. You've seen me everywhere on your favorite sites. Maybe a best friend likes my music and he's recommended it. Whatever the case may be, there's no reason that, when this drops, you shouldn't have it, because it's a free album and it's dope. It's totally dope from top to bottom. I'm not just saying that because it's my album. It's really, really dope. I poured every ounce of myself personally into it and I just want the people to enjoy it, so therefore I'm gonna bless them with the album for free in hopes that the buzz builds, as it should.
DX: With Rhyme Pays coming out, is Rare Gems 2 still happening in the future?
Maffew Ragazino: Everything is about work these days, so while I was working on Rhyme Pays, that was what I had on my plate in the front of my mind, but there's a strong potential [that] the records that didn't make it to Rhyme Pays may see the light of day on Rare Gems 2. That's definitely still in progress.
DX: What would you say sets those projects apart from one another?
Maffew Ragazino: Rhyme Pays is more of an album. If I had to compare it to anything, I would probably say it's me playing in the NBA. It's more focused toward one goal, which is telling my story. [With] Rare Gems, that'll be like “Okay, the NBA season is over now, [but] I love the sport so much that I'm gonna play in the Olympics, so I'm gonna go play Rucker Park just to have fun.” It's pretty random [and] experimental in certain ways. Still dope material, but it's like a circus minus the clowns – a lot of different things going on. You might see somebody over here taming a lion. You might see somebody over there on a tight rope, walking across it. Then you got the other guy with the alligator. You know, it's a bunch of stuff going on.
Maffew Ragazino Speaks About Influence From Golden-Era Emcees
DX: I wanted to touch upon your style. There's a real interesting dynamic present in your work: you do a great job of shouting out and giving credit to the past, but your lyrics are also really rooted in the present. Is that dynamic something that you regularly try to channel, or does that just naturally happen when you put pen to paper?
Maffew Ragazino: I try to be as honest as possible. It's God-given. I thank the Lord for the talent. I mean, I've honed my skills for so long [that] it pretty much comes second nature now, but I think a lot of it has to do more with the fact that I'm just being honest about how I feel. When I say things, it may sound obnoxious sometimes, but it's just how I feel, and it may be in regards to something going on that's current. At the same time, I am very versed about the past for a guy in [his] mid-twenties. I grew up in Hip Hop from the beginning, so it's not like I had to do research when I found that I wanted to do music. I grew up in it since I was like six years old, you know?
If I had to date back to maybe one song that made me realize that I wanted to definitely do music, it's probably Brand Nubian's “Slow Down” record. I heard that when I was with my uncle [Poppadop360], listening to it late night on Stretch & Bobbito [show on WKCR]. I was just amazed. I don't know what it was about that record. There was just something special about it that kind of drove me, as well as the fact that I was around my uncle all the time, who was an aspiring deejay and artist as well, who had his little situation going on with a crew in the neighborhood, a few local guys that inspired me. I grew up in the music, so everything is kind of second nature now. It's Godly. Like I said, I thank God for the talent. I don't know where a lot of it comes from sometimes.
Maffew Ragazino Talks About The Street Gangs Of Brownsville, Brooklyn
DX: One of your references that I've come across a few times is you shouting out the Lo-Lifes. I love the reference because that particular story has such a rich history that's firmly rooted in Hip Hop culture. How important is it for you to keep shouting out Hip Hop's past like that and keeping the story alive for newer generations, who may not even be aware of them? Is it important to you to tell those stories?
Maffew Ragazino: Yeah. You definitely have to stay grounded in your past as well as part of the culture and music. I'm from Brownsville, and that was the home, and is still the home, of a lot of Lo-Lifes, right there on Marcus Garvey [Boulevard]. Shout out to Thirstin Howl III. That's my homie right there.
It's crazy because I grew up around all of that, the [Decepticons] and everything. That whole “Where I'm From” record, that was everything from past to present with my neighborhood as far as I can date back with my memory and my experiences and my folks' experiences around me that I know personally. As an artist, you have to know where you come from in order to know where you're gonna go, and I like to definitely shed light on the past, which is sometimes forgotten about, because I feel that it's necessary. I wouldn't be doing the culture any justice if I didn't do things like that. I mean that from the bottom of my heart.
But even doing records with some of the guys that inspired me, it's so surreal but it's necessary. A lot of people think “How come you're always doing records with the emcees that are our forefathers?” It's like “Because those are the guys that pretty much raised me. It's only right.” No matter how many new records I do with any new artists or my peers coming up, that's necessary to me. I've got records with Lord Jamar, Sadat X, Masta Ace, Sean Price . . . I mean, the list goes on. It's crazy, but I love my past as far as the Hip Hop goes as well as the present and the future, you know?
DX: Let's talk Brownsville for a second. It's your home and it's always present in your music. It's even come up already in this interview. You always show pride for it in your videos with the Brownsville fitted on. Is that just native to Brownsville, having that kind of pride, or does that come from you really wanting to be the torchbearer for your 'hood?
Maffew Ragazino: It's definitely a natural thing. Even when you say that you're from New York, there's like a certain presence that a person has when they say they're from New York or when they say they're from Brooklyn, so it's a natural thing being from Brownsville, but I just feel like we've been forgotten about. A lot of influences have come from my neighborhood in the past in the Hip Hop culture, and it's like those pages were forgotten about and skipped over in history. I definitely feel like I have to go even harder than I normally would representing [Brownsville] so that people know what it is, because we have a lot of talent out here and some opportunities need to be brought to my neighborhood.
It's about time that we shed that light the same way that other regions did, [like] St. Louis. Nelly dropped and then they were checking for St. Louis artists. I definitely want to be a voice and torchbearer for Brownsville, and I'm gonna keep championing the neighborhood until people realize what's going on over there.
DX: What sets Brownsville apart from other Brooklyn neighborhoods and the other boroughs? What does it mean when you say “I'm from Brownsville” instead of “I'm from New York”?
Maffew Ragazino: It's the home of some of the most notorious street gangs and crews coming up. You've got your Decepts, the infamous Lo-Lifes, The Tomahawks too, I believe. It's a tucked-away section in Brooklyn that, even while gentrification is going on, still remains untouched. There's something so different about the neighborhood. It's a war out here. It's the City of God. [Laughs] It's like I explained on the “City of God” record – it's so crazy out here.
I mean, a lot of neighborhoods are like it, but as far as Brooklyn and as far as New York, we're some of the only people that don't have a representative that – you know, no disrespect to anybody else – but just like took it to that next, next, next, next level, and I think the industry is afraid of us a little bit. I just want to be the representative for a neighborhood that's been forgotten about. That's all I'm here to do. It's a really bad neighborhood. The crime rate is sky-high. There's cameras everywhere, police trailers everywhere and none of that matters. You're still not safe. It's a really, really, really bad neighborhood. Crime riddled. Drug riddled. You name it, everything bad goes down there.
DX: With your label, Cash In Cash Out Records, operating out of Brownsville, is it important for you to keep the Cash In Cash Out focus on trying to mine talent out of your 'hood?
Maffew Ragazino: Definitely to do that, but just to [also] bring good talent out period so that the good music can continue to live on, [and] so that good Hip Hop can continue to live on. That's our main goal, just to provide the people with great music with variety. If you're tired of hearing the same thing over and over, tired of seeing the same thing over and over, definitely pay attention to what's going on over here. It's about time that the tides change in the Hip Hop culture again, for good.
I love the climate right now because we have a voice and we can change things independently. It's not like it used to be back in the day. We have the Internet on our side, so it's definitely a realm where an indie artist can propel to the sky.
DX: All it really takes is that work ethic and, hopefully, once you get that good look, you keep going from there.
Maffew Ragazino: And [our] work ethic is monstrous, so no worries on that. You're not gonna not ever hear from me. [Laughs] It's gonna be something that's in circulation at all times. This is the calm before the storm right here. Trust me, there will be no period where you don't hear from me.
DX: How do you feel when people describe your music as a throwback? Do you take it as a compliment or do you feel that just labeling you as a throwback is kind of missing the whole picture you're painting?
Maffew Ragazino: I mean, to have my music even paid attention to, no matter what the response is, I love it, because there's so much out here. They don't have to listen to me. There's so much other stuff that they can listen to. They can call my music whatever they want. It is what it is, but you're missing the picture if you think it's a “throwback.” It's just good music – I do what I like to do. It's bigger than that.
That old feeling that you used to have? I want to bring that back, when you'd open up your album and you haven't heard it yet, but you know that it's gonna be some fire. I wanna bring that feeling back for the city, for the new guys in the city. I definitely want to be that, especially for my neighborhood. Especially for Brownsville, man. They need it.
If you're saying I'm a '90s rapper out there, you're missing the whole point. You're not listening. You're skimming through it and you're not really seeing the big picture, and maybe it ain't for you to see, but more power to you. Peace and love if you're listening to the music, whether you like it or not.
You can download Ragazino's latest, Rhyme Pays, here.