"When I came on the scene, I was a shock to the system. I was the originator. They were like, 'Wait, if you come into hip-hop, you gotta be respectful. What are you doing? You’re crazy.'"
There are few rappers working in America today with the pedigree of R.A. the Rugged Man. Signed to Jive Records as a teenager during Hip-Hop's Golden Age, the Rugged Man failed to find an audience while starting out, eventually catching a sexual harassment charge and becoming blacklisted in the major label system. There's a reason R.A. got his deal in the first place, however. Dude can fucking rap. Listen to pretty much any one of his songs and you're blown away by the ninja-like control the guy has over a beat, as well as what he's talking about. When you listen to R.A. the Rugged Man, there will be blood. And tears. And knowledge. Sometimes, things will get uncomfortable. Incredibly so when he paired with the Notorious B.I.G. Through the yuck, however, there's always been a gleaming element of humanity to R.A., and that's what makes him special.
If he'd come up in the modern era, R.A.'s penchance for juvenalia, ability to wow you with his rapping ass rapping, and fiercely independent spirit might have allowed him to become wildly popular amongst the Pitchfork set. But after talking with R.A. for an hour in the VICE offices last week, something tells me R.A. the Rugged Man could give a fuck about all that shit. He's perfectly content with the lane he's created for himself, preserving his legacy in New York while milking the cult of old-school hip-hop fanatics in Europe. His new record Legends Never Die drops this Tuesday, April 30th, and it's the type of expertly-executed rap album that dedicated Hip-Hop heads will eat up and hipsters and interlopers of various stripes won't really get. But I've got a strong feeling that's exactly the way R.A. wants things.
The Rugged Man showed up to the VICE offices wearing a Gi, and we proceeded to speak at length about his legacy, his relationships with women, and what being kicked around the record industry taught him. He seemed like he wanted me to ask him weirder questions.
Noisey: How do you feel about your place in hip-hop?
R.A. the Rugged Man: Historically, man, the cats who know the history know that I’m one of the greatest. A lot of the greats in history verify that. I got approval from all my favorite rappers. I got love from Rakim and Chuck D and Kool G Rap and all the greats. And the younger generation, when you go on the Facebooks and MySpaces, I go to Europe and all the shows are sold out. I do shows here, a lot of fans are 15 year old kids. So I got approval from the old folks, and then I got the young boys, the young kids fucking with me. I got a whole bunch of different generations. So I’m happy with where I stand. I haven’t had to do nothing but rap for a lot of years, you know? I support myself and do good for myself. I’ve been blessed, so everything is beautiful. Hell yeah. But it’s VICE, so you want me to say something about, “Oh, I ate a young girl’s pussy behind stage, and ate another one and another kind.” What do you want, dirt?
Nah, that’s actually—
I’m just fuckin’ with you.
Well yeah, do you feel like sometimes people focus on the gross shit rather than your skills?
Of course that happens. The entire first ten years of my career was shock to the system. There were no Eminems, none of these crazy white boys doing the crazy, “Kill, kill.” When I came on the scene, I was a shock to the system. I was the originator. They were like, “Wait, if you come into hip-hop, you gotta be respectful. What are you doing? You’re crazy.” And then there were all these stories about the lawsuits and the sexual harassments, pulling my dick out and pissing on things and hurting people and smacking people, bloodying people, and starting riots and bringing hookers on stage. So yeah, everybody knew R.A. was a dope rapper, but I was definitely overshadowed by the folklore. “Yo, the crazy, crustified sick motherfucker.” So you know, a lot of times when they bring up my name, a lot of times, you know first thing to come up would be, “Remember the time when he did this fucked up thing? Kicked somebody in the nose and fucked his shit and blood’s coming out on stage?” It’s always like shit that didn’t even happen: “Remember when he diarrhea’d all over that SSL board at Battery, a million dollar board, the engineer pissed him off and he diarrhea’d all over the walls?” Rappers telling that I smeared shit on the walls, actual feces on the wall. If somebody’s a great rapper—take the greatest singer of all time, take somebody like Marvin Gaye. If Marvin Gaye was known to smear shit on the walls and diarrhea on things and hurt people, you would be like, “Yeah, he’s got a beautiful voice,” but that wouldn’t be what you’re talking about. You’d be like “Marvin Gaye? Remember the time he smeared shit on the walls?”
It’s like G.G. Allin.
Yeah, but G.G. Allin was really doing a lot of that shit. He had a bad temper. I’ve lost my temper a few times but I wasn’t cutting myself and smearing shit and blood and cum on things. Maybe a couple of times.
I’ve heard stories of you getting reduced beat prices by…
Oh those are true stories. That I used to bring women up to the studios and make them fuck all the producers and my lawyers and rappers, that I used to have a stable? Yeah, that’s all true stories. I had women, Long Island women, that I used to bring around andfuck everybody. “Go fuck so and so and he’ll make me a beat,” or “Go fuck so and so and he’ll work with me on my merchandise. Sure. I used to have a lot of those girls. It was wild days back then. But I don’t really pimp women for beats and lawyer fees anymore, I kinda grew out of that. I can still make it happen if I wanted to, but I’m a grown ass man. Right now I’m on some romance shit, I like to wine and dine em, and treat them a little bit like ladies sometimes.
Where are you living these days?
I live uptown, I’m on 145th street, Harlem. I love Harlem. I used to live on 138th. I been in Harlem since ’05. Before that I lived on the lower East Side. I moved out of Long Island in like ’98, but I say Long Island Suffolk county so much in my records that even my publicist last night was like, “don’t you still live in Long Island?” But I don’t like when rappers move out of Long Island and start repping another hood. Yo, you’re Long Island.
When you’re dating somebody, do they know what they’re getting into with you?
You know what, they do at first. They think they do, but then I’m so sweet to the women, and I treat them very good, very nice, and they see all this sick twisted shit so they know I’m a fuckup, but then they fall in love. All women fall in love with me, I don’t know what it is. I’m ugly as shit, but any woman I date falls ridiculously, psychotically in love with me. They all turn into Fatal Attraction. They go crazy. They all wanna sit in the shower with a fuckin' knife. My last girl that was staying with me bit me in the fuckin’ leg. They fall in love, you know.
Why did she bite you in the leg?
It’s rarely a short story when another human bites you in the leg.
I guess you’re right.
What’s the craziest thing a girl has ever done?
To me? They’re all crazy. That’s what my father told me. “All women are fuckin’ crazy, find the one that’s the least crazy and settle down with that one.” So he found a couple that were least crazy. My mother was a little crazy, not as crazy as others. My stepmother was not as crazy as the others, too. That’s what you gotta do, find the least crazy. But I always find the most crazy ones. Chasing taxi cabs barefoot and driving fuckin’ 200 miles away in a cab, spending $500 on a taxi, showing up at my house with weapons. Destroying a whole fuckin’ apartment and breaking glass and cutting themselves up and calling the cops all bloodied acting like I did something to them. There’s a long list of crazy shit. I always think they’re normal first, like “Yeah, I think I found an almost normal one.”
Have you ever thought it might just be you?
Of course you think that.
What’s the closest you’ve come to death?
On tour you’ll slide out on ice and end up in a fucking ditch for six hours, that happened twice. Sometimes you’re in the rap world, and you get set up and maybe 20 dudes hit you from behind with fuckin’ chairs and bottles, and you’re getting jumped by crews of people. One time I was in a hotel, dudes came in with pistols in my face. There was a lot of times like that. Even when I was a kid, I’d go to rap house parties and dudes would shoot at the ceiling. They weren’t gonna kill me, but when you’re young you’re like “Oh shit, people are shooting.” There’s a lot of times where I could’ve almost died. If you gave me like an hour I could probably write a little list for you.
What about one in particular?
Didn’t I just say like four or five?
Yeah, but I want a story, with an arc.
You never really explained how you extricated yourself from those situations.
Oh man, I’m a fuckin’ warrior. That’s why I wear the Gi. I’ll get out of any situation, I’ll survive anything. I always thought I’d be dead by 30. That sounds like a cliché but it’s true. There’s no way, there’s nothing for me after 30, I’m dead. And when I hit 30 I was like “Oh shit, I’ma live forever.” So now I know I’ll live forever. There’s no one to stop me. No one could kill me. I’m good forever. I’m alive forever.
Who’s your favorite rapper of all time?
I got a lot of them. The whole Juice Crew. Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, MC Shan, Masta Ace, Tragedy Khadafi, Roxanne Shante. The whole Juice Crew. Marley Marl, he’s not a rapper but he’s part of that. The whole Juice Crew. Of course, you got the Rakims. You got Whodini. Redman. Slick Rick. Slick Rick the Ruler. Doug E. Fresh. That’s my era, those are the dudes I looked up to. Kool Mo Dee. LL Cool J. “Accidental Racist.”
What is your take on that song?
I just think LL’s a great, great rapper. One of the greatest ever. But the thing is, he was a child when he got famous and ever since he was 15, 16, he’s been in this kinda—he hasn’t been in the real world. He’s been in glamorous celebrity Hollywood world. As talented and great as he is, I think he lost sight of society and the way real people think. So I think when he tried to make a conscious statement, it misfired, cause that’s not how the real world thinks or sees things. So it backfired, but I don’t take nothing away from his career, his accomplishments, because of that song.
How do you feel like being signed and having all this money thrown at you at such a young age changed you?
Well, here’s the thing. I got lucky. Some people call it unlucky. I got all my record deals when I was a teenager, I got my first deal at 17, signed my first one at 18. And I got tons of money. I was broke my whole life. My daddy was broke, my mother was struggling, and then all of a sudden I had hundreds of thousands of dollars thrown at me. I think if I didn’t get hit hard, didn’t catch the sexual harassment charges and the lawsuits, lost everything, I’m glad—that was luck to me, I’m glad it happened, cause I got smacked in the face and put in the real world. And it was devastating. It was like “Yo, can I survive this? What the fuck do I do with my life?” It was devastating, but it woke me the fuck up and put me in the real world with real people again. Because if I was 17, 18 and never got to see the real world again, and was on this big giant cloud that “I am the great R.A. I deserve everything I got,” I would be one of these disgusting Hollywood pieces of garbage celebrities. So I feel blessed that God smacked me in the face and woke me up and said, “Hey motherfucker, POW POW, you don’t have shit now.” Because then I had to work from the bottom again to become successful. And it helped ground me to be a real person in the real world.
What were labels expecting when they signed you? Were they thinking Vanilla Ice?
No, no, no. They expected crazy white boy. Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen wanted to market me as a white Redman. The Jive said, “Oh we could do a white Onyx, like horrorcore, blood and guts and bloody axes.” And everybody had their own way to market something. They didn’t do the whole—like House of Pain had the whole “We’re Irish!” thing, so they marketed that whole thing. But I was a German, nobody was really gonna be like “Yeah! The German rap! Let’s do that! Fuckin’ Oktoberfest rap!” So they never hit me with that angle. They’d always try to get different whiteboy angles and it was corny.
Tell me exactly about the sexual harassment charge. What was that?
I caught a sexual harassment charge from a woman that worked for the label. I was innocent, but they paid her 30 grand out of my money and I fuckin’ lost my mind and started riots and made bad things happen and lost my temper a lot and made a lot of enemies, ended up getting blackballed after.
Was that before or after “Every Record Label Sucks Dick”?
I recorded “Every Record Label Sucks Dick” while that whole thing was happening, while I was getting my lawsuit, while I was fighting the label. So what happened was, Jive Records had a showcase, that’s where the song premiered and I started a 700 man riot. The first song when I came out was “Every Record Label Sucks Dick,” it was this big expensive Jive ceremony with Funkmaster Flex DJing. They were like, “What the fuck is coming out at our event? Every Record Label Sucks Dick?” Every other rapper was like, “Wow, that was historical.” But that was before, you couldn’t do nothing independently, you didn’t have no internet, and so you had to collaborate with labels to have your music heard, you needed money to back you, and that’s when everybody was like, “He shot himself in the foot, oh he destroyed his career.” But, you know, God likes me. He likes me a lot. He’s been good to me. He’s like “R.A.’s my man.” So, he looks out for me. And he put the smack on them other devils, them industry cats, he smacks them around and lets me succeed.
Were you homeless for a while?
My father was a strict man and I broke a window once, and I came home like, “Oh you see this stuff? This box? Put your stuff in it.” I was like “Okay daddy.” My dad was scary, he knew how to fight, he was a tough Vietnam Veteran, and he was my father so I was scared. So I put my stuff in the box, I’m outta here. I was sleeping around in the neighborhood and shit like that. There wasn’t cell phones at the time, beepers were just getting started, but I had a little pay phone, with quarters. I used to rap for the kids for change for the phone. It was some funny times.
Did you sell bootlegs of your own records.
Oh, yeah. That was when the blackball was going on and I realized that the labels were full of shit. They’ll bootleg your shit, so I go, “Wait, before they bootleg my shit, let me bootleg my shit. I’ll make all the money.” That was me being smarter than them, that wasn’t me being desperate. So I said “Okay, you wanna fuck with me, I’ll fuck you first, and make the money.” So I bootlegged a lot of my own shit.
Drew Millard is pretty ambivalent about record labels on the whole. He's on Twitter - @drewmillard