[Welcome to “Art Tavana vs. the World,” a monthly column in which L.A. Weekly's angriest (and nerdiest) music critic, Art Tavana, takes on his many nemeses in an ambitious quest to boldly go where no other critic has gone before.]
I grew up in ungentrified L.A. in the 1990s, South Glendale and Atwater, where anyone who wasn't black or Mexican didn't publicly listen to gangsta rap unless they were juvenile delinquents or, worse, wannabe gang members. Back then, wannabes were as common as hipsters are today. I even knew an Armenian kid who got “Thug Life” tattooed on his stomach. He regretted that decision in college, along with the fact that he claimed to be a Blood for about two years.
At Hoover High, during my four years, 1997 to 2001, two kids were killed as a result of gang violence. L.A. gang-life films such as Blood In, Blood Out were quoted verbatim in gym class, where teenagers wore their socks high and their shorts low, with their white boxers showing.
If any one of us was spotted by a Mexican gang member, usually members of TVR or Burbank Trece, which happened at least once a week, they would ask us the same question: “Where you from?” We always answered the same way: “Nowhere, I don't bang.” We then pulled up our baggy jeans and ran like we were being chased by cheetahs.
Because of this, I never found it interesting to examine gang life. “Poverty porn,” the obsession with ghetto culture, doesn't appeal to me. I find it personally offensive that anyone who didn't grow up in L.A. can now celebrate gangsta rap without realizing what it was like to be terrorized by actual gangs. Growing up in L.A., especially if you were poor, you either lived gang life, faked it dangerously close to the real thing or ran from it, fast.
We were all idiots in those days. So gangsta rap, which changed after 2Pac was murdered in 1996, wasn't something I ever wanted to romanticize. It made us dumb … still does.
Which why Ras Kass' Soul on Ice, which I discovered in 2000, four years after it was released, was so important in my evolution as both an intellectual and an Angeleno. Ras Kass was the first West Coast MC I heard who wasn't a cartoon thug, or claiming to be a Crip, but still managed to frighten white people. It turns out he had even more powerful weapons than a TEC-9: lyrical bombs and history books.
Ras Kass was so freakishly talented that he became my escape pod from all the stupefying gangster shit of the '90s. Once I heard Ras Kass, I felt moronic for having listened to For Dummies rap like Lil' Troy and Master P. I now realize that I was, for a good portion of my teenage years, really into cheesy gimmicks like lowriders and creased pants.
At the time, Ras Kass and a handful of other MCs, like LA Symphony, were all we had to defend our dignity in the intellectual war against the East, who portrayed the West as nothing but lowbrow entertainment rap. 1995’s The Show documents hip-hop from this perspective — where the West Coast MCs are gun-toting clowns, while the East has the poets and pioneers. The media machine in New York ignored smart West Coast rap the same way it bypassed L.A. punk in the '80s. To the media, Ras Kass was just a glitch in the system, like Darby Crash, who didn't fit into the overall narrative they were writing.
“A lot of rappers on the West Coast were forced to be the thug or the gangsta.” -Ras Kass
Today, hip-hop journalists on both coasts, who grew up at a safe distance from Compton in the '90s, lionize artists like Eazy-E because he's easy to explain and fits the gangsta-rap archetype: thug, drug dealer, outlaw, folk hero. Ras doesn't fit, a fact he himself is well aware of.
“They’re looking at the monkey from behind a cage and saying, ‘It’s fascinating! I really like Bobo! He reminds me of myself!’” Speaking on the phone with me, Ras says this in a hyper-Caucasian voice, mimicking the white hip-hop critics who have erased him from their narratives. “They have no idea. Yet they have the means to dispense misinformation. And they have to be held accountable.”
At the time of its release, Soul on Ice didn't fit. Ras feels he was punished for being too smart to be an MC from the West Coast. “We didn’t have the variety New York was allowed to have,” he says. “A lot of rappers on the West Coast were forced to be the thug or the gangsta, or this very bohemian hippie guy. I was somewhere in the middle of that.”
Even geographically, he's in “the middle of that” — from Carson, nestled between Long Beach and Compton. Hip-hop tourists don't go to Carson. In other words, he's from nowhere.
Read: 5 Classic West Coast Hip-Hop Albums Turning 20 in 2016
Now that hip-hop journalism has moved online, Ras Kass is still mostly ignored. He's too militant to be clickable. His lyrics are too offensive — not N-word offensive, but worldview-challenging offensive — to share. Nobody wants rap lyrics that hold up a mirror and show their ugly, pale reflection staring back at them. So Ras Kass is too threatening to premiere; too indigestible for an album rating. (L.A. Weekly is just as guilty of ignoring him; the closest we've come to profiling him was a retrospective piece on Golden State Project, his short-lived supergroup with Xzibit and Saafir.) He isn’t appealing to politically correct millennials because he's too uncomfortable to bump, bitter at times, filled with unpopular viewpoints, like feminism in hip-hop.
“But how could man be first when it’s the woman giving birth?” Ras Kass said in a conversation with God and the Devil on the track “Interview With a Vampire.” He's saying Judeo-Christians are misogynists, by definition. But nobody wants to go there, expect Ras Kass.
In a gentrified indie-verse where Vice sends bespectacled white boys to report on black gangs because it’s ironic, or a little funny, Ras Kass is humorless and austere. He’s, like, exhausting. You can’t even turn him into a BuzzFeed quiz or GIF, because he doesn't dance or brand himself a cannabis enthusiast.
A story of a West Coast MC who isn’t a Blood or Crip doesn’t connect with critics who study N.W.A like zoologists. “You took the words right outta my mouth, zoologist, yes,” says Ras Kass, who’s currently working on a song specifically about music critics. “It’s coming. That’s all I’m gonna say for now,” he says. “Intellectual Property is up next.” He's talking about his next album, due out in June, a prequel to Soul on Ice 2, which he's currently crowd-funding on Indiegogo so he can self-release it. “Downward Spiral” is the first leaked track off IP.
“My goal is to expose these people for what they are,” he says, referring to those who've neglected to write about his contributions to the evolution of West Coast rap. “Let somebody who’s qualified write about this shit, someone who loves it — not some 25-year-old hipster who grew up in Brooklyn. I don’t want your fucking opinion. You’re about as qualified as my mother.”
This isn’t exactly unexplored territory for Ras Kass. Unreleased tracks like “Van Gogh” addressed the “groupies” in the media. But with IP and Soul on Ice 2, he may have the platform to really wage war on his critics. And he's doing it on a budget, like a guerrilla fighter. “I’m financing my own revolution.”
A track he's currently mastering is titled “White Power,” a collaboration with Immortal Technique, which is going to be his latest lyrical bomb. It's his most destructive work since “How to Kill God,” released in 2014 (written in 2005) and ignored by indie music critics because it's an MC committing blasphemy on the mic.
If any one track sums up why Ras Kass is so brilliant and so hard for hip-hop journalists to swallow, it's Soul on Ice's “Nature of the Threat,” which gave white America a hardcore history lesson that required an encyclopedia or Will Durant book to decipher. It was too scary to bump. It was also a masterpiece. It was also the beginning and the end of his career:
Roughly 20,000 years ago the first humans evolved [church bell echoes]
With the phenotypical trait, genetic recessive
Blue eyes, blond hair and white skin
Albinism apparently was a sin to the original man, Africans [snare teases a beat]
So the mutants traveled North of the equator [beat comes in]
Called Europeans later, the first race haters [white people got offended]
Priority Records, his label at the time of Soul on Ice, who notably mishandled Jay Z’s career, wanted Ras Kass to throw gang signs and simplify his lyrics — not rewrite history in “Nature of the Threat.” You also couldn't really fact-check Ras Kass in 1996. This was before Google, so you couldn’t search, for example, “Was Jesus' name really Yeshua Ben Yosef?” It sounds obvious now, but back then, Ras Kass' historical raps were indigestible for the pre-Wikipedia generation, a hard sell to kids educated by textbooks that never told the story of Africa beyond a PG-13 retelling of slavery. Listening to Ras Kass, for me, was like reading A People's History of the United States for the first time and feeling betrayed by my own country.
Listen: Ras Kass' last EP was titled Lyrical Hiphop Is Dead. For good reason.
When Ras Kass was addressing the black struggle 20 years ago, or the origin of the species, or talking to God, nobody wanted a black MC from the West Coast to be philosophical. Today, it’s more accepted. Ras Kass was born both on the wrong coast and in the wrong decade.
He also suffered from being more of a thinker, like Wozniak, than a promoter, like Jobs. He was too young and radicalized in '96 to understand how to soften his image. Miles Davis, not Louis Armstrong. Malcolm X, not MLK. (“Like Malcolm X said, if you hit me, I have the permission to hit you back.”) He was just 22, a former juvenile delinquent who at 15 was given Eldridge Cleaver’s memoir Soul on Ice by his mother. “It forced me to think about what I stood for,” he says of the book after which he named his debut album.
Ras Kass never had a mentor to guide his career, like Dr. Dre, or a street gang protecting his neck, like 2Pac. So he became a victim of both his own stubborn disinterest in being more street, and the decline of hip-hop in the 2000s. The genre was on death row then, like Suge Knight’s once-invincible record label, which declared bankruptcy in 2006 and 2009. So Ras Kass' career was iced.
It also was rumored that Eminem, Jay Z and Lil Wayne recycled Ras Kass' lyrics without crediting the MC. When I talk to him about Billboard’s best rappers list from last year, he takes a not-so-subtle jab at Lil Wayne, who was No. 10 on the list. “Wayne don’t even write raps,” he says with such confidence that I believe him, even though ghostwriting raps, recycled lines and metaphors are just part of the game.
Ras Kass — who didn’t have a very Yo! MTV Raps–friendly gimmick, who had to deal with the politics of Priority Records and couldn’t even get his best work properly released (listen to “Golden Chyld,” produced by DJ Premier) — couldn’t break through, not then, not when music critics didn't pay attention to the West Coast unless it was 50 Cent “In Da Club” or The Game claiming to be a Blood — more hip-hop gospel that Ras disputes.
“He’s not what he says he is,” he says. “Game was a male stripper. But when you get the money behind you, you can create that narrative. And people will kill to protect it.” (50 Cent and The Game were why most of the people I grew up with stopped listening to rap. P. Diddy, too.)
Ras Kass’ greatest crime wasn't his numerous DUI arrests, which kept him away from the mic, or his violation of parole after flying to the 2007 BET Awards, or his twisted take on world history. His greatest crime was that he wasn't gangsta enough then, or hipster enough now, when Kendrick Lamar and Odd Future have made it sexy to be from the West Coast again.
Ras Kass didn’t suffer from weak beats like Canibus (OK, maybe just a little). No, Ras Kass suffered because he wasn’t willing to be Machiavellian like 2Pac and simplify his message for the masses. Unlike 2Pac, he didn't have Death Row, or Suge Knight, or an entire army helping him invade the castle walls. (Ras prefers to talk about Tupac's Pan-African roots in his Digital Underground years, as opposed to anything he did on Death Row.)
“[Priority Records] would’t let me go because they didn’t want me to be another Jay Z. That’s literally what I was told. ‘We'd rather destroy you than have another Jay Z.’”
Ras Kass doesn’t have a record label today. He releases his music on Bandcamp like some DIY MC building a following. He’s crowdfunding Soul on Ice 2 because he doesn't have a label.
When I email him, he wants to talk. He wants to be vindicated and get that “championship ring” he rhymed about on “Van Gogh.” Or, perhaps like the Dutch painter, Ras Kass needs to be buried in order to be venerated. But posthumous fame isn't something you can plan on. So by any means necessary, Ras Kass, at 42, is now fighting for his legacy.
“I want this to be my opus,” he says, referring to Soul on Ice 2. “Never again can they act like I don’t exist.”