But that strife is nothing new to Ruslan, who moved to the United States with his family from Azerbaijan when he was six years old. As a white kid in a predominately black community in San Diego, he lived as an outsider. Now he’s sharing his experiences about his journey from humble beginnings to owning his own record label on his new album, Americana, which dropped Friday (September 30).
“Americana is my contribution to American culture from the perspective of someone who doesn’t belong in American culture necessarily,” he says in an exclusive interview with HipHopDX. “So I’m an immigrant. I’m from another country. I wasn’t born here. When I came here, I didn’t fit in ‘cause I didn’t speak the language. Then on top of that, I’m a white guy who makes Hip Hop music, who’s married to a black woman, has a mixed kid. So I have a very unique vantage point. All my closest friends are black. And I think in the context of everything that’s going on nationally, it’s just me adding my perspective as someone that loves America and is as American as apple pie, but at the same time I feel very disconnected and not, I don’t fit in a box.”
As a child, his first impressions of the United States consisted solely of Michael Jackson and American Ninja. Once he got to the Land of the Free, he was quickly confronted with the fact that things weren’t all pop stars and Kung Fu movies.
“Americans and Russians had this beef that I didn’t even know about,” the Dream Junkies rapper says. “I wasn’t even aware. So I was surprised, as a kid, I remember being greeted with like a little bit of hostility. Like, ‘Oh, your people are Commies.’ I’m like, ‘What’s a Commie?’ This is grown-ups talking to a six, seven-year-old kid about this stuff. So that was my first impression was just the lack of awareness that I had for it and the tension that there was from Americans towards foreigners, or my situation, someone from the Soviet Union.”
But Ruslan found a sense of belonging in Hip Hop. And even that wasn’t easy as he was the white kid, but it was still better than the ridicule from being a “Commie.”
“I fell in love with Hip Hop music and Hip Hop culture,” he says, “and how it brought people together and how even though I wasn’t black, I was still accepted in the context of music and the breakdancing and the graffiti art, all that kind of stuff, it was still all encompassing.”
Ruslan Shares Lessons Learned From Tupac & Basketball
Being on the West Coast, he, like many of his friends, saw Tupac as his role model. Ruslan credits Makaveli with helping him form his voice as he raps about his family, social issues and relationship with God.
“Especially being 6th, 7th, 8th grade in the peak of all that East Coast – West Coast [beef], Tupac was the one who gave us a voice,” he says. “We felt like we had a voice. Obviously Snoop and Dre and that whole era, but when Tupac came out of jail and he signed to Death Row, it was a moment. It was a moment in Hip Hop history. So for me, Tupac provided a socially conscious message while still being able to relate to the average person.”
“It’s the guys that can provide message, encouragement, purpose, context, content, but at the same time, they can do just relatable stuff,” Ruslan continues. “So there’s a little bit of a dichotomy there. There’s a little bit of contradiction there. There’s a little of, ‘Aw, what is he ultimately saying?’”
Ruslan especially appreciates Tupac for transcending time. He says how he has been able to appreciate what the legend says as he’s matured and been able to apply his words to his own experiences.
“It was confusing as a kid, but at the same time, it was that moment and I think reflecting on it as an adult, a lot of my worldview and my values got formed because of Tupac,” he says. “Everything from loyalty, to friendship, to God to all these different things he talked about were very formative as a 6th, 7th, 8th grader listening to that and being so emerged in West Coast Hip Hop.”
Something else that formed Ruslan’s work ethic and drive is the lessons he learned from playing basketball. He fell in love with the sport as soon as he saw it at a local park and like any young man growing up in urban America, he dreamed of being Michael Jordan when he grew up.
“Basketball just has so much swag and so much flavor to it,” he says. “It’s similar to Hip Hop in that there’s a level of charisma, there’s a level of bravado that you carry on the basketball court. You don’t really see that in tennis or in hockey or in other sports, at least not from my vantage point, not to say I’m super deep in it. Or soccer, you grow up playing soccer as a kid, then you’re exposed to basketball and you’re like, this just has soul. This just has so much more soul.”
Ruslan was cut from his sophomore junior varsity team in high school, right around the time he started really taking music seriously. He still enjoys watching the NBA and got especially excited for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to win the Championship last year, but will always cherish his own journey in the sport, no matter how short it was.
“It took a long time to get decent at it,” he says of learning to play as a kid. “I had a late start ‘cause we didn’t play basketball in the Soviet Union. So seven, eight, nine years old attempting to dribble … I was walking past John Adams Park in Southeast San Diego and I saw it. I saw people playing basketball and I walked up and there was coaches and I was like, ‘Hey, can I play?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah.’ It was like a free rec league and I was awful. They let me be on the team. I didn’t play. Basketball in a lot of ways became that metaphor for life for me. You put in the hard work, you put in the dedication, you may not be Kobe Bryant, you may not be Michael Jordan, you may not be Magic Johnson, but you can become decent enough to hold your own on the court and have fun and enjoy the game.”
Americana explores Ruslan’s love for hoops, but being cut from the high school team was far from the most traumatic experience he experienced growing up. On “Wildest Dreams,” he discusses being abused as a child. He explains why it was important to him to be so vulnerable.
“I think more people relate to it than not,” he says. “I think when you look at how many people grew up with abuse, how many people grew up with trauma, I think a lot of our issues with abuse, substance abuse, addiction, mental illness are a byproduct of experiencing trauma as a kid. And growing up thinking it’s normal. Then you get to a certain place in your life and you’re like, oh well, something’s off, I’m just gonna medicate. I’m gonna self-medicate. I’m gonna self-release. I’m gonna fix this thing whether it’s with substances or whether it’s, whatever that thing is.”
Ruslan says that taking a self-help class led him to face the trauma and gain more perspective on life and what it means to walk with God.
“I walked away with a deeper level of self-awareness,” he says. “I’m like dude, God has been great and I’ve lived a fantastic life, but I have some junk. I’m a pretty messed up person and that when I learned why I am in the trauma and tracing it back, I just thought it would be appropriate to share with other people and encourage people and I know people would relate to it and connect with it on a deeper level than just rapping about surface Hip Hop stuff. Just rapping about rapping or rapping about just whatever. So I think for me, that needed to be said. I needed to explain that. And again, I think people really end up struggling and relating to a lot of these things that we don’t talk about. We don’t talk about abuse. We don’t talk about trauma. We don’t talk about all these things, but they’re so real unfortunately. One out of every four girls are molested. One out of every six guys are molested. Then we wonder why there’s so much substance abuse, why there’s so much depression, why there’s so much self-medication whether they’re taking pills or doing drugs. There’s so much of that today I think because we live in a jacked up world.”
Ruslan Wants To Bring Listeners Hope
He hopes to share a message with hope for his audience which, according to the statistics he shares, very likely might have dealt with the same trauma.
“Never let your pain go to waste, that the very things that were intended to harm us and to kill us and destroy us, we can take those same things, flip ‘em on their head and use them to empower us and fuel us to make a change, make a difference, live out the life that we want to live out, walk in our dreams,” he says. “That really is that simple. Had all of that stuff not happened to me, maybe I wouldn’t have been as tenacious and as ambitious and as driven without the bad things that happen to me. So people say all things happen for a reason and I know that’s cliche, but for me, my life in hindsight has, it’s just worked out. I’m in a place where I’m really content and I’m really happy. I’m not the richest guy, I don’t have a Bentley or whatever, but I’m in a really happy place. I’m married. I have an amazing son. My life is great and if I could reflect and share the deepest, darkest moments, maybe that’ll help someone else know that it’s going to be ok and you can use that to fuel whatever it is you’re going through, have that chip on your shoulder.
Becoming a basketball star or a chart-topping rapper is the epitome of the American Dream, which Ruslan describes on “I’m That Guy” as a potential “nightmare” of “Cash in on my white privilege / 401k to the limit / Picture perfect family with 2.5 kids and so much debt I ain’t even paid the dog off yet.” On “Cuz It Failed,” he shares his story of losing both dreams of hoop and rap icon status.
Through his journey, Ruslan has changed his perspective of success from the American Dream to what he calls the “King’s Dream,” which spawned the name of his label, King’s Dream Entertainment. The company houses the other two Dream Junkies — Beleaf and John Givez — as well as a roster of very talented producers, including DJ Rek, Anthony Cruz and Erik Kingsley. Americana is a celebration of not only Ruslan’s life, but the team vision.
“King’s Dream really just stands for us being addicted to God’s dream, us wanting God’s dream,” he says. “Dream Junkies is a collective being addicted to God’s dream. We get wrapped up in the wrong things and we can because of trauma or because of boredom, we get addicted to the wrong things. What if we flipped that and said, you know what, we’re gonna be addicted to God’s dream for our lives? We’re gonna do our life in a way that glorifies God and in a way that we lead our families, we love our friends, we serve our communities, we do our part and we do the change that we wanna see in the world.’ I think that is the vision of King’s Dream is totally is like flipping the whole like American Dream and instead of it being about gratifying and self, let me flip that and how can I add value and use my voice and walk in my purpose to help other people?”