Many students of hip-hop consider Ras Kass one of the most lyrically gifted and intellectually challenging rappers of all time. Never heard of him? Well, his career-long refusal to operate within music industry paradigms probably explains why he isn't a household name like Tupac or Snoop Dogg.
Record label executives wanted easily digestible rap for the masses, which Ras didn't deliver, leading to basically nothing in the way of support or promotion for his intended third album, Van Gogh. (It was never released.) Meanwhile, his cerebral style didn't fit the simple narrative that music journalists were creating for West Coat rap. As a result, he's flown mostly under the radar for his nearly three-decade career.
"Certain people sold that image of Los Angeles, that we drink a 40-ouncer then Crip-walk to our '64 and bounce around the neighborhood, do a drive-by, and then have a barbecue," he says. "A lot of writers enjoyed linking L.A. to one-dimensional caricatures."
Speaking with New Times ahead of his show at Churchill's Pub Saturday, April 28, Ras says his music never fell in with the party-centric rap emanating from the West Coast, though he came up in Southern California during the height of G-funk — and, in fact, recorded with Dr. Dre. While his peers were rapping about blunts and big-screen TVs, he was striving to put race relations into historical context.
For example, his first album, Soul on Ice (1996), included a track — " Nature of the Threat" — with a controversial worldview. In the first verse, Ras raps, "Roughly 20,000 years ago the first humans evolved/With the phenotypical trait, genetic recessive/Blue eyes, blonde hair, and white skin/Albinism apparently was a sin to the original man, Africans/So the mutants traveled North of the equator/Called Europeans later, the first race haters."
That song created a tense relationship between Ras and the media. "There were some writers who just did not like me and felt like I was a racist because of 'Nature of the Threat,'" he says. "They would intentionally write negative things about me, but I had no control over that. I can only be me."
Ras never pretended to be a Blood or a Crip, and he outright rejected the gangsta-rapper image adopted by many of his peers. Executives in suits pressured him to conform, though. They wanted a bankable star.
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"I didn't give them records that indicated that's what I was interested in doing, so I was very confused," he says. "I had a conversation with the owner of the company when I was working on my third album that didn't come out. I was like, 'You signed me doing seven- and eight-minute history lessons. Why do you think I'd wear a khaki suit and get braids and a neck tattoo? What the fuck is wrong with you?'
"I actually said something more extreme that," he continues, laughing. "Execs run around trying to sculpt you into what's hot or trending or relevant, these stupid terms that industry people made up. My mom loves me; I'm always relevant. Hot? I guess you can go on TV and get hot, but that doesn't make it the right thing to do."
Ras doesn't believe in the music business. Music is art; business is exploitation. They conflict in his experience. So he has relied partially on crowdfunding to record and release his forthcoming album, Soul on Ice 2, due out later this year. Just don't expect it to sound like Snoop.