Jack Nicholson had nothing on Ras Kass. At least not by 1996, the year the screen legend starred in Mars Attacks while the Watts- and Carson-raised “waterproof MC” unleashed his classic debut, Soul on Ice. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this fall, the album court-martialed rap clones, offering a mace-swinging condemnation of everything, from the New World Order and pale devils to the education system and Bob Costas.
The title track’s hook rewrote Nicholson’s infamous “you can’t handle the truth” monologue from A Few Good Men. No one actually remembers what the actor said to Tom Cruise next, but any serious West Coast rap fan can recite the entire chorus of “Soul on Ice,” especially the Diamond D remix.
That’s timelessness, and testament to the singularity of the cerebral artist who named himself after an Ethiopian emperor and explained why his “secular metaphysical theory” was fatal from his first bars. After a canonized debut single (“Remain Anonymous”), rap bible The Source hailed the Banning High grad as the West Coast’s answer to Nas. But Soul on Ice barely charted and no singles earned significant radio play.
Trapped between underground and mainstream, on a label (Priority) on the verge of selling out, in a West Coast climate that offered little oxygen to artists outside of the G-funk mold, Ras Kass suffered from the industry politics that ensnared many of his peers.
“Labels aren’t there to be creative. They don’t want you to re-create the wheel, they just want the same tire everyone likes, slightly improved each year,” Ras Kass says now. He dropped two albums for Priority and spent the next eight years stuck in limbo, trying to extricate himself from a labyrinth of exploitive contracts.
“Art wants to be creative and free,” Ras Kass says. “There’s no such thing as ‘the music business,’ there’s the business of selling music.”
He’s sharply dressed in a black sweater and designer jeans, looking barely older than he did on the cover of Soul on Ice — which he just re-released in a 20th-anniversary edition with remixes and unreleased tracks. Earlier this fall, he dropped its sequel, Intellectual Property: SOI2.
Over the last two decades, his influence has seeped into everyone from Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul to Canibus and Lupe Fiasco. But in the wake of the political chaos of the last several months, his debut feels as pertinent as at any time since it first dropped — especially “Nature of the Threat,” which one dreams of being used to torture the alt-right’s neo-Nazi buffoons.
A lacerating polemic against white supremacy, “Nature of the Threat” is the rap analog to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. The hyperbolic attack is supported by obscure historical truths absorbed by a kid who read the Encyclopedia Britannica cover to cover. In Trump’s America, it still feels like required listening, no matter how uncomfortable it can be to hear.
“The thesis of ‘Nature of the Threat’ is that white people are potential predators, and the rest is just me doing numbers to prove that,” Ras Kass says.
We talk briefly about his latest song, a postelection attack on Trump that plays out like an unofficial sequel to “Nature.” I ask what the wiser, more mature Ras Kass would say to the impassioned kid who wrote the original.
“You know,” Ras Kass says, sighing and taking a deep breath. “I don’t want to say it, but doing the numbers on this election and looking at what’s happening in America and all over the world, I have to admit … it seems like that angry kid who wrote that song was right all along.”