Interview and article by Jackson Dillard

Since the release of his 1996 debut Soul On Ice, Carson, CA rapper Ras Kass has remained one of the most underrated lyricists of all time. Weaving together complex rhyme schemes with straight forward and biting societal critiques, Ras’s style might not always be the most commercially viable, but his impact is undeniable. 23 years later, Ras has returned with a sequel that keeps the heart of his debut while also showing just how much the artist has progressed.

The inspiration for the title of both albums comes from the 1968 memoir and collection of essays by famous Black Panther leader Eldrige Cleaver. When I asked Ras why the title resonated with him so much, he told me that he valued Cleaver’s description of the duality of man in a nonlinear way and that he always hoped he could bring that same spirit to an album, even before he had ever released one. When I asked him what the phrase meant to him today he hit me with a Star Wars reference. “When I think of Soul on Ice, I think of Han Solo in carbonite. A frozen human being, still alive, but trapped.” He finds this metaphor for being a black man in America is just as applicable now as it was in 1996.

When I asked Ras what advice he would give himself if he could go back in time to before his debut, he said he would stress to his younger self the importance of financial independence. “You have to have your business together because you have to finance a revolution.

Ras Kass Soul On Ice 2

If you put yourself in a position where you’re relying on other people financially you’re never going to be able to do what you want to do. You’re never autonomous. You’re never independent.” He told me any rapper working now would be smart to grow their fanbase without a label for as long as possible, and understanding the business side of the industry is key. “I’ve always been the creative, I was never a big business person because I thought that if you work hard you get what you’re supposed to get and that is not really how it works in capitalism. That’s slavery: working really hard and never getting anything. My mother taught me ‘work hard and the money will come’ and what I realized is that she was wrong.”

While things have obviously changed since the mid-90s, Ras addresses what he views as societal stagnation on the album as well. “I don’t really see a lot differently, honestly. I think we’ve regressed as a society, especially as Americans. I think everything I was talking about then is worse now than it was.” And while both volumes of Soul On Ice focus on calling out the systemic issues Ras sees with America, namely white supremacy, the sequel definitely has a more of a theme of unification and coming together to fight the system than his debut. The song “Midnight Sun” with Cee-Lo Green feels most like a spiritual successor to Ras’s famous “Nature of the Threat,” not just thematically but also sonically, bringing together elements of rap, funk, and rock, as well as world music with a second hook in South African Xhosa.

“What if I told you that I am not black and you are not whiteThat's a societal construct created to divide usLove is the light that guides usThe devil makes spotlights to blind usSome fear the melanin inside usAnd only the better men unite us”- “Midnight Sun”

Ras Kass 2One of the major themes of Ras’s music has always been combatting miseducation when it comes to topics like genetics and history. When I asked him for book suggestions to follow up on some of the things that he mentions in his songs, he told me that encyclopedias were my best bet. “What I’m talking about isn’t ‘magical black history.’ Go take physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, history classes. All of the things I’m talking about are in those books. These aren’t ideas I got from some conspiracy theory books. These things just aren’t common knowledge because knowledge is not common.” He went on to say that most people aren’t taught how to analyze information at a young enough age. “Analytical thinking, most people have never been taught that. We go to school and learn through repetition, and that’s how you train a dog.” In addition, Ras said that most Americans lack a worldwide perspective that prevents them from considering the depth of their miseducation. “Traveling is the best teacher ever. What we think we know, you have to see it for yourself and you might end up with a whole different perspective. I don’t believe what Americans say because they don’t know shit and until you see it with your own eyes you might believe some things that are not true.”

Always one to push boundaries, Ras also accomplished one of his long-time goals of being the first person to rap over a beat with a ¾ time signature on the song “Sharkweek.” He told me that he’d had the idea since around 1998 when he proposed the idea to Dr. Dre in an early Aftermath session. “I forgot it to be perfectly honest and thankfully for me no one else did it first and got all of the credit.” He said he was excited to show his versatility while doing something no one else had ever done. “Everybody claims to be so creative and so cutting-edge and everybody’s doing the same shit claiming they’re brilliant they’re geniuses, and I was like, ‘You know what, let me do one of my old ideas and execute it.’ I wish I had the fame and the resources of these famous people because I’d show everyone some crazy shit. I wanna be Jimi Hendrix playing guitar with the left hand. But most of these rappers, they’re not that creative, they’re not that ill, and I wanna show people some ill shit. Hip hop should be growing not stagnating and getting stupider.”

“Career MC - I ain’t never had a jobYou mumble rap - You 23 with a dad bodDamn God - Do anything to get your face seenEven floating face down in the mainstream”- “Sharkweek”

Soul On Ice 2 boasts an impressive feature list in addition to Cee Lo, with guest performances from Immortal Technique with a booming and political hook on “White Power,” Everlast from House of Pain with a fantastic verse on the homie track “The Long Way,” Styles P and Lil Fame bringing the energy on the coast crossover lead single “Guns & Roses,” and a high quality verse from Snoop Dogg on “LL Cool J” that shows just how much respect for his former label mate Snoop has and finds both in their element on a certified west coast classic.

 

Features aren’t the first thing on Ras’s mind when making an album though. “The problem with features in 2019, ever since about 2001, is that it became strictly about your brand instead of ‘oh he’s talented I want to work with him,’ like it used to be. I remember Big Pun more than once offering, ‘Yo Ras, anytime you want I’ll rhyme with you,’ because he was a fan of the skill set and now it’s really just based on who’s popular.” Despite his access to big names Ras told me straight up, “I’d rather do a song with a homeless dude than some of these really popular pieces of shit people.” When I asked him who his dream collaboration would be he told me, “I want to do a song with Duran Duran. I’m a big fan. If I was putting out a feeler that would be the one.”

Similarly, when I asked Ras who he’s inspired by among today’s artists he said he wouldn’t name any recent rappers so as not to leave anyone out, instead naming artists like Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and Prince, as well as the prolific behind the scenes songwriter Dianne Warren. He did however elaborate on some of his favorite hip hop storytellers citing, Rick Ross, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Nas, Scarface, Kool G Rap, Biggie, and Ice Cube.

In addition to his respect for other artists and their craft, Ras also told me how important the support he’s gotten from his peers his entire career has been to him when making music. “It’s just my life. To me the songs, the body of work, they’re just time capsules. There’s some things that I’ve gotten past but I can listen to that first record and see I’ve made some of the same mistakes. On the new album I say, ‘I got destructive they locked up my ass. Thank god Chino XL and Vinnie Paz screamed ‘Free Ras Kass’.’ I got the book [Soul On Ice] in jail, had some opportunities, got frustrated, and put myself back in those positions. I did it again. For me it was taking that time to reflect and be appreciative to my peers and grow from there.”

His time behind bars is something Ras is very open about and the American penal system is something he takes great issue with having experienced it from the inside. “You look at how much we spend per year to incarcerate as opposed to how much we spend to educate, and I didn’t really deal with on the first album that it’s actually slave labor. It’s in the 13th Amendment that slavey stopped except for those incarcerated. So slavery is still legal in America if you’re a prisoner. We have a hypocritical society. It presents this freedom while still denying others their freedom.” Again, these are not new issues to Ras. The disparity between how people of different races are treated in America has always been a focal point of his music and that trend continues on this record. “Things are cyclical. The issue with white radicalism is that they don’t call it that. When brown and black people do these things they’re called animals, it’s an epidemic. There’s terms, there’s loaded language meant to imply certain things, to dehumanize. Trump is good at saying it’s an infestation, like rats, roaches, or locust. It’s almost biblical. We’re invaders, but when it’s a white dude he’s one of the few. It’s an isolated incident. He has mental health issues. What I was taught is that it’s very hard to cure something if you haven’t diagnosed what the disease is. The one thing I find honest and fair about my first album is I diagnosed the disease, which was white supremacy. And it’s white male supremacy. Either I had the courage or stupidity to diagnose the disease and we’re just now starting to talk about it. It’s the 1% and it’s mostly white men who have stolen everything from people.”

Across party lines Ras sees a great hypocrisy in politicians claiming to represent the people that elect them and then working against the interests of a large number of them. “If you’re a real Christian following that book, there’s no way you’re going to shoot people. There’s no way you’d say build a wall. There’s no way you can keep a Confederate flag and not understand the impact that has on people that your great-great grandparents lynched and mutilated. And unfortunately we have a structure run by rich white men who have their accomplices. But you can ask who’s a minority: blacks, latinos, muslims, gays, women; and then you can invert the question and ask what’s a majority if everybody is a minority?”

“Hate crimes multiply - Christians in red hatsZero tolerance - Jesus never said thatJesús got deported though - Another orphan in the barrio.”- “Silver Anniversary”

As a long-standing member of the underground rap scene, pushing against the mainstream has always been a part of Ras’s legacy. One of the things that he takes issue with several times on Soul On Ice 2 is rappers wearing dresses or carrying purses. When I pressed him on it he boiled his position down to this: “If you’re not Scottish wearing a kilt what the hell are you doing? The only guy allowed to wear high heels is Prince.” I mentioned that there could be some artistic value to challenging traditional ideas about masculinity through fashion and he responded, “They’re not being artistic. A lot of people start doing things because everybody’s doing it and that makes you a fucking clown. The problem is too many followers and not enough leaders. And when I’m saying leader I don’t mean a bunch of people, I mean yourself and a lot of people aren’t being true to themselves they’re just doing things because society wants a bunch of confused ass black men and men of color running around out here.” He also added historical context to his stance saying, “The biggest thing they did, especially in the black community in the South, is break the black men. Think about all of the black women and men that got raped during slavery under threat of death. They broke the spirit of black men and we need to stop taking a secondary position in our journey.”

Another major issue in rap, especially in recent years, has been the frequency of drug overdoses among popular rappers, and the glamorization of opiates like percocet in the mainstream. Ras takes issue with the way that this plays out in the media on the song “Opioid Crisis” with the disparity between the reactions towards black and white drug addiction. He also told me that he sees it as an issue that is kept in motion by the industry at large. “People perpetuate this system where corporate pushes a button to finance and promote people who don’t even do these drugs and people are getting played. If you hear something 15 times on BET and you see so and so up there and they’re saying, ‘I’m hanging out with Mr. Lean and Lil Xanax,’ then those are the guys who everyone wants to be like and people emulate what they think is successful, but people are dying.” Ras acknowledged that drugs have always been a big part of rap music’s identity but see a difference in how it’s dealt with today. “This is my thing, at least with people like Scarface and Jay Z, they were more drug dealers than users and now we’ve popularized being a drug addict. And they’re cocktailing! You can’t drink lean and Hennessy, smoke a blunt, sniff a line, and take a percocet. Your heart is gonna give out. And then you pop off, so you’re doing it every day with mad bitches and you’ve gotta put on the same way, you’re going to die bro.”

“Black drug addiction: we get jailed for our vicesThey cry for treatment when it happened to the white kids"War on Drugs" or "Opioid Crisis"Big Pharm kills more Americans than ISISThe FDA is El ChapoThey the drug dealers -Drug Stores on every block yoWalmart, Rite Aid, Walgreens, Duane Reade…Heroin in your mainstream”- “Opioid Crisis”

Closing the album is the bonus track, “Ghosted,” that has what will no doubt be the most talked about verse on the entire record, where Ras discusses his opinion on the #MeToo movement. “My feeling was I wrote it purposely to create a dialogue. Personally I’ve been raped and that person procreated off that and I’ve had to deal with that. That verse is actually what happened to me.” Ras made clear that he supports the goals of the #MeToo movement but takes issue with the lack of representation for men and hypocritical leadership from figures like Asia Argento. “Men don’t talk about this and it doesn’t get examined enough. I’m here to change those narratives. And it’s something I didn’t want to share with anybody. I almost didn’t share it on the album but I know there are other people who have been through this and it should be talked about. If I’m not going to talk about it who is.”

Despite the seriousness of many of the topics and themes Soul On Ice 2 is still a thoroughly enjoyable album and one that will hopefully start more open dialogues about the future of our country. Whether you’re a die hard fan or new to the California native’s discography, there’s a little something for everyone. In Ras’s own words, “It’s going to be a little more intelligent, it’s not going to be as party-centric every time. But it’s going to be good music. You can drink to it, you can smoke to it. It’s going to be reflective and it’s going to make you question society, question yourself. It’s a wide array of human experience. There’s doubt, there’s confusion, there’s anger, there’s love, there’s lust. It’s the spectrum.”

For new fans looking for a place in his long discography to start, according to Ras, “I would say start at Blasphemy or Rassassination, just because people are more familiar with Dr. Dre. Rassassination is Soul On Ice except it’s a higher end record sonically. There’s a few more digestible records on there, Ghetto Fabulous, Get Your Grind On, Conceited Bastard, It Is What It Is. I’m thinking of 20 year old girls and what records they would like because that’s the market.”

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