Rejuvenated Ras Kass is back
In Etheridge Knight’s classic poem, Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital of the Criminally Insane, the heroic, pugnacious protagonist Hard Rock, after being lobotomised and shocked by prison surgeons to tame him, is watched expectantly by his fellow inmates.
After anticipating his reaction to countless provocations with no luck, the prisoners sadly give up, knowing that their “Destroyer” has finally been conquered by the system he so fearlessly destabilised.
For many who heard Ras Kass’s debut album, Soul on Ice, when it was released in 1996 and have kept up with his career since then it has often felt like reliving Hard Rock’s crushing demise.
Released at the height of Gfunk’s popularity, Kass’s debut, completed two years before, was an astounding post-adolescent autobiographical opus that detailed his coming-of-age missteps, including his incarceration for vehicular manslaughter, and gave a depiction of life on California’s lethal streets. It was equal parts testosterone-fuelled posturing and erudite political analysis.
A movement unto himself
The latter set him apart from his peers, at least in the eyes of the hip-hop media, which lavished praise on the album’s seven-minute long centrepiece, Nature of the Threat. Depending on your political inclination, the stark, chorusless rant was either a systematic breakdown of white supremacy and its continuing grip on the world or an ambitious, thinly veiled racist diatribe. Either way, Kass had become a movement unto himself and arguably created the most career-defining hit since Gil Scott Herron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
Despite his debut’s versatility, the two-year lapse before its release meant that hip-hop’s production aesthetics had changed and with them Kass’s chance of a captive audience. His second album, Rassassination, with a Dr Dre-powered lead single and juggernaut collaboration with Wu-Tang stalwart RZA, fared considerably better in the market but failed to achieve a bona fide breakthrough.
Because of a protracted war with his record label, his two subsequent albums never saw the light of day (except as bootlegs). Frequent incarceration (stemming from driving under the influence and parole violations) drove him further underground and also resulted in patchy, often unfocused work.
Going wrong to make it go right
His most recent album, a double CD called A.D.I.D.A.S (All Day I Dream about Spitting), features a rejuvenated Kass rhyming over beats by Los Angeles’s Beat Junkies crew and others. “Putting this album together was a great experience,” he says by phone from Los Angeles. “It is almost like things have had to go wrong for them to go right.”
When I ask Kass whether it is harder for lyricists to make an impact in hip-hop nowadays, he says that hip-hop is merely where the listener wants it to be.
“Although it has become a lot more regimented in terms of what a hit is—I for one stopped listening to the radio in 1997—I support what I like and I go to where I have to to get it. If you want to support the next Kweli or the next Mos Def or the next Ras Kass, we exist; you just have to decide to go and find it.”
Kass balks at the suggestion that he was a vanguard lyricist or a didactic, rhetorical orator in the mould of, say, Chuck D, and says that he was merely making commentary. “I have never felt the need to preach to anybody because I am not perfect. I have merely looked at the shit that was wrong in South Africa, the shit that was wrong in LA and spoke about it.”
Indeed, if we have held Kass to idealistic standards based on his earlier work, we would do well to remember that, alongside conspiracy-cracking tracks such as Ordo Abchao, there was libidinous and even misogynistic material, such as Marinating and Drama, that featured both Ice Cube and Coolio.
Supreme mathematics with bad habits
Kass, it seems, has forever been juggling “supreme mathematics with bad habits”. Viewed in this vein, he is perhaps more subversive than he ever would have been if he had allowed himself to be pigeonholed in some sub-genre, such as “conscious hip-hop” or “gangsta rap”.
In Kass’s world, Black Panthers, black Muslims and black gang-bangers were all victims of Cointelpro (the FBI’s counter intelligence programme) and shared the global black experience. And if he does sound a tad less venomous, then it is because hip-hop itself has just returned from the hospital of the criminally insane, where doctors “bored a hole through its head, cut out part of its brain, and shot electricity through the rest”.
Ras Kass, brought out by Kool Out Entertainment, which hosts regular international hip-hop events called Kool Out Live, will perform two shows in South Africa on April 8 (Johannesburg) and April 9 (Cape Town). Among the supporting acts are Driemanskap, League of Shadows, Archetypes, Reason and Mingus. For more information, visit www.koolout.co.za