Words by Shirley Ju
Ras Kass will forever be recognized as a lyricist down to his bone. Hailing from Carson and Watts in California, the 45-year-old MC has been in the game for multiple decades, always bringing his A-game when it comes to his bars, flows, punchlines, storytelling, and everything in between.
The West Coast veteran reps Los Angeles down to his bone. He states, “I may not be famous, but I’m probably your favorite rapper’s on the low favorite rapper.” And that’s a fact. Growing up to the likes of Ice Cube, Rakim, Scarface, and his #1 favorite rapper KRS-One, real name John Austin IV never hesitated in spitting that real and touching on topics relevant to society and real-life experiences.
It was in 1996 he unleashed his critically-acclaimed debut album Soul On Ice, yielding standout singles “Ordo Abchao” and “Nature of the Threat.” Now 23 years later, he follows it up with his highly-anticipated sequel Soul On Ice 2. The project will undoubtedly include the same nitty-gritty bars and flows that put him on the map in the first place. Only this time, he’s reflecting on his journey in the music industry, the successes, the failures, and most importantly, the growth.
On “Grammy Speech,” he raps “how you artists without art?” calling out all the wannabe rappers that have somehow surfaced to the top in this new day in age. Regardless, he stays true to topics of racism, realism, family, the state of hip-hop, politics, and the overall justice system.
For the latest project, Ras Kass brings the same hunger and thirst that he entered the rap game with initially. On top of standout singles “Guns N Roses,” and “Grammy Speech,” audiences can expect appearances from Diamond D, Pete Rock, Snoop Dogg, Immortal Technique, Justice League, Cee-Lo Green, DJ Green Lantern, Everlast, Styles P, M.O.P.
BallerStatus caught up with Ras Kas to discuss his take on the state of hip-hop, his legacy, and the reality of growing up in Watts, and what to expect on Soul On Ice 2.
Why should people f*ck w/ you now?
I bring a different dimension. I bring wit, charm, honesty, balance, skills, and I know some cool people too. Cool producers, other rappers and singers too.
What were you seeing growing up in Watts?
Watts is Watts. I grew up in a neighborhood not far from where Jay Rock grew up. I grew up in a Crip neighborhood. I thought Watts was fine. People try to make it a little stereo-typically horrible than it really was. I actually grew up Catholic, went to a Catholic school in Watts so that was interesting. Middle of 8th grade was when I actually started going to school in Carson. Carson was middle class, a lot of first generation. For the black people there, it was the kids who got out of Compton and got out of Watts, their parents came together and made enough money to get us out of more extreme conditions. But them kids were worse than the Watts kids to be honest. [chuckles]
Carson kids are knuckleheads, but Carson is a great city. I love Carson. My mom says it was an experiment by the city. They wanted to see what would happen if you put 20% Pacific Islanders — it’s 20% everything. 20% black, 20% Latino, 20% white, 20% Filipino/Samoan/Pacific Islander or whatever mix and match of that. She said they wanted to see what would happen, would we kill each other? Then really just black and Samoan babies started popping up, Filipino and Mexican, or white and black. I love the city, it reminds me in an interesting way of New York just because people are forced to deal with each other. When you grow up together, you realize all the similarities and differences.
Were you in the streets? Like in a gang?
Yeah, regular LA boy. I didn’t bang, nuh uh. I remember being asked to join my neighborhood, I asked them how much they pay per hour and they laughed at me. I’m 12 or 13 like “how much you paying per hour?” They’re like “you stupid bro.” They called me Baby John, they didn’t say Ras. I didn’t bang. My cousins, my homies, I got family and friends who did. I’m not judgmental, do you. I got to function and do exactly what I wanted to do in my neighborhood.
I wasn’t bullied or terrorized, they didn’t force me. Honestly, I always say if you got forced to gangbang, you was a buster anyway. You never get forced. You’re asked if you want to. If you wanna seem from the hood or be from the hood and other situations, then you want to do that — ‘cause nobody’s gonna force you. The Latinos and Mexicans call it torpedo. You’re a torpedo, you’re somebody they just shooting off to explode. Go rob a bank and get shot in the head, they don’t care. That’s facts.
At what point did you realize this music thing was forreal?
I had an older homies who invested and believed in me, gave me opportunities when I didn’t even recognize it in myself. Music’s more of a creative outlet for me. Thanks to DJ Battlecat, Wino who produced all of Coolio’s music, Sway & Tech, they gave us an outlet. There used to be a hip-hop club here called Unity, Bigga B and Orlando gave us outlets. I did my first show where my name was on the flyer and they paid me. I was waiting to get booed, they don’t boo me and they gave me some money. I’m like “wow okay, I think I want to do this.” I was 18.
What does the West Coast mean to you?
I’m a first generation, me and my cousins and my sisters. My mom’s from Louisiana, my dad’s from Arkansas. At its best, LA really gave everyone the code of the streets: don’t snitch, don’t do this. Certain rules about home. For me, it’s my foundation. Most of the smart things I did here, and all of the dumb things I did here.
What made you go to New York?
It wasn’t really the streets of Los Angeles, but sometimes our corporate music business has a box. If you don’t have a jerry curl and look like a gang member, you can’t make music here. I was almost too lyrical, I’m talking about a time before Kendrick. It’s just really hard, I’m a lyricist. Even to this day, they do these West Coast tours and forget about me. I’m born and raised here. Sometimes bro ain’t even from here, he’s from somewhere else. Put on a khaki suit, gets to parade around and act like…
Who are you talking about?
Just people, I’m just saying.
Nah, I don’t know where Blueface is from. I think Blueface is hilarious. I know his manager Wack. Good for him, I’m not mad at Blueface. I’m just saying there are some people, at the end of the day I’m just as West Coast, if not even more. I don’t like the stigma that you have to be one way to be from LA. New York because I’m a lyric-driven MC, always had a receptive arm. To quote Ice Cube, “I push rhymes like weight.” I gotta sell my dope where people are buying my dope.
Bring us back to your debut Soul on Ice 23 years ago. What was your mindstate then?
Angry, frustrated, and philosophical. [chuckles] I felt like I had something to prove. I wanted a vinyl to get to my mom because she always supported and believed in me. I wanted to make my homies proud ‘cause they invested in me. I had a perception of how the world worked and that’s what I tried to do. Philosophy: really Descartes and the duality of man. Dealing with my personality defects along with my aspirations and how I perceive the world.
What made you create follow-up 2 decades later?
Because rappers die pretty fast unfortunately, especially the younger ones. I’m just blessed to be alive. If nothing else, music has always been therapeutic to me. I didn’t do this because I thought I’d get a billion dollars and be the most famous rapper, that was never what I was interested in. I want money but being the most popular dude, I’ve known those guys every once in a while and they seem pretty not fun after a certain point. For me, it was being able to celebrate. Think about it, people like Nipsey and Lil Peep are not here to celebrate. In a very short period of time, their careers, they had great success and probably would have gone on to do more amazing things — but they’re not here to do that. Definitely gonna celebrate. I’m gonna celebrate every 10 years after a certain point, if I’m blessed to be on this planet that long. You ain’t guaranteed nothing, so you gotta make a milestone. The world won’t celebrate you, I’m gonna celebrate myself. My mama love me, so I’m the sh*t.
Did you know Nipsey?
Yeah, Nipsey’s younger than me so I always watched him grow. We got mutual homies. It was always good, it was love. I probably had an influence on him. I’m not OG but I’m older. I got a record label before. I’m the legendary lyricist. I did a song with K Dot before he was Kendrick Lamar.
During that period. Ab-Soul on his new album, he’s from my city. He did “Threatening Nature,” which is an ode to my song called “Nature of the Threat.” I signed to Priority Records so at the same time, my labelmates were Snoop Dogg, Westside Connection, Master P, Jay Z, Boot Camp Clik. Early ‘96 is when I signed, and my record came out in September of that year.
How do you feel hip-hop has evolved since?
There’s always going to be good music. There’s always going to be something popular whether it’s gangster rap — there was a time when gangster rap was the most popular, marketable version of rap. It didn’t mean the other stuff was bad or not marketable, companies just knew that worked. People were trained to do that, at a time I tend to like boom bap. Lo-fi is the new term for it. If I have a preference, it doesn’t mean my preference is less than or better than. The state of hip-hop is always going to be like that. Some form becomes popular, it’s up to you aesthetically if you like it or not.
On “Grammy Speech,” you say “how you artists without art.” Who were you getting at?
There’s a low-hanging fruit, you know a lot of these people don’t write their raps. This is the thing, Michael Jackson, Madonna, they never claimed to be the baddest with the pen. This is rap. They can sing, perform, and entertain. This is literally called rap music. If you don’t write the rap, what are you doing? It’s not like we have the same notes as Mariah Carey and Shatterglass. Then there are the ones who say “I’m a genius, I’m the best.” You didn’t do anything, it’s a sock puppet. Look, it’s no disrespect. I’m not a hater. I hate 2019 where if you don’t agree with everyone, you’re the hater. But what if everyone else is just dickriding? Would you jump off a bridge if everyone else jumps off the bridge? I hope I wouldn’t.
If Kanye doesn’t write his raps then Kanye can’t be the greatest rapper. You’re not a lyricist, you’re not the top 10. You don’t qualify because you didn’t do it. I always get the same analogy: if Lebron went out during the game and then a little Mexican n*gga named Pedro jumped out of his shoe and did all the dunks — I don’t want to see Lebron. I want to see Pedro because Pedro’s doing the hard work, he’s the one with the talent. This is the brand but that’s the dude with the skillset. I’m representing the skillset because that’s what I’m about. I’m not the average person who wants to be entertained because this brand is cool. ‘Cause they gave her a boob job, lip job, tummy tuck, weave and rap, that she’s the hottest chick moving. I’m about the bars. For me, the smoking mirrors don’t affect me because the only thing I want to know is are you as good as you say you are? Can you write that? Truth of the matter is I knew Eminem (and he’s older than me) before you guys heard him. He opened up for me in Detroit. I came out before him, I got an opportunity before him. I was younger than him when I got my opportunity.
Did he get booed then?
No! He was Eminiem and he’s dope. So was Proof. There are dope people all over the world. My point is I can never take from him what God gave him, which was his talent. When he was brown-haired brown-eyed Marshall Matters Eminem who nobody heard of except for in Detroit, I came across him as somebody like “dude that’s Eminem and he’s dope.” You see the little white boy with the little hat, he’s dope. I can’t take from him what God gave him. Whether the world recognizes that and makes you a million billion dollars, still doesn’t change whether you’re good at what you do or not. I can’t take from you what God gave you, nobody can take from me what God gave me. I’ll burn your favorite n*gga down. Especially if he don’t write his rhymes, he don’t even count.
Any artist could be more popular than me, but let’s judge strictly on the skillset. Not about who had the best chain, who’s dating the Kardashian, it ain’t got sh*t to do with the price of rice in China. The only thing that matters is can you do the thing we asked you to do? Whether that’s running with a football, throwing the football, hitting the ball with a bat, hitting the ball with a golf club, swimming, playing guitar. If you say you shred and you can’t play the guitar, then you can’t shred. Once again, I want to really emphasize if the only thing we ask you to do in this thing is rap and you can’t write your thoughts — ‘cause I wanna hear you swag out and tell me how you feel, how much dope you sold, how many bitches you get, or how much Gucci you got and your Ferrari. If you can’t write that part of it, why are you here? That’s the only skillset involved. I’m not mad at listening to people entertain me, but don’t act like you playing the same sport as me. That’s all. [chuckles]
What is it you want fans to get from your story?
That it never stops. It only stops if you quit. Sometimes it doesn’t even stop when you die, but the goal is to live, create a narrative and enjoy the journey.
What are some goals yourself as an artist at this point of your career?
I hate when the popular guys — people start doing these Top 10, Top 50 lists. They start ignoring people who literally… Royce 5’9″ once said this (well more than once): “we bought Soul and Ice, me and Eminem rapped like Rass Kass for a year.” It’s facts, I know that. Don’t sweep people under the rug because they didn’t get popular. I don’t know what my journey is. The ironic part: some people get popular, a bunch of things happen and they’re the ones that end up dead. Success is not as pretty as it always looks. I’ve seen some pretty horrible things happen to people: you get too much money then you do too many drugs. You get too much money and you lose your brain, you start telling Donald Trump he’s your daddy and wearing red hats.
Be careful what you ask for. For me, I want 5 million liquid (without the cars and houses). I’ve worked for that much equity. I know it can be done, my peers have retained it. I want my credit where it’s due as one of the greatest lyricists ever. Not West Coast, but in hip-hop. Unfortunately with industry cats, the funny bunny dudes who might do the podcast and some sites where they do straight politics, they don’t do honest reporting. It ends up being fake rap news. [chuckles] Fake news of hip-hop. I just want my credit, bar for bar, who’s one of the greatest writers ‘cause MCs can tell you that. The nicest thing is when Charlamagne or Joe Budden gets on and says “what about Ras Kass? Stop picking the popular people talking about they’re the best.” They may be the most popular, successful and great at what they do, but Pharoahe Monch is one of the greatest MCs ever and people try to overlook him.
Ironically, all lyricists know that Black Thought is one of the greatest lyricists but because he’s with such an amazing band, people overlook him. Then he smoked everyone on Funkmaster Flex, all of a sudden “ooh he’s dope.” Shut up stupid, you know he was dope. I can’t take from him what God gave him, and vice versa. We should acknowledge each other because when they write this story called hip-hop, what we don’t want is the same thing that happened to jazz music and rock n roll — it becomes Elvis made it. That’s really what’s happening to hip-hop now, they’re wiping the black kids out of the story. Rap would be a trap record, some kid who wasn’t quite the best but he’s the thing they can pin to it. That’s not fair. It’s not fair to the narrative or the people who created rock and roll (the Chuck Berry’s), to say Elvis was the king when he stole songs from people. He didn’t always have the nicest thing to say about the people he stole those records from, and I don’t want that to happen to hip-hop. It’s happened to jazz and rock, hip-hop is slowly turning into the same prostitute those things turned into.
[Ras Kass taking the blunt from Snoop]
Do you smoke cannabis?
I don’t, my friends do. I’m cannabis friendly.
Talk about your appreciation for CBD.
CBD. I was actually just in the Bay with Berner and Twista shooting this video. It was a man-made lake in San Mateo, it looked like Miami. It looked crazy. I did on the low — I sniffed a cookie because I like the way weed smells. They should make air fresheners that smell bomb. If I smoke, I just want to eat snacks I don’t normally eat. Onion rings, funions and sh*t, I get weird. Random food I don’t ever eat. Xzibit has those Brass Knuckles wax pens. Technically, Xzibit’s my best friend. I always said I should have been rich just selling weed to Xzibit and Snoop, but I didn’t sell weed. I’m mad at myself because I would’ve gotten rich so easily.