Behind the Lyricist
John Austin IV (born September 26, 1973), better known by his stage name Ras Kass, is an American rapper. He returned as a member of the hip hop supergroup The HRSMN along with Canibus, Killah Priest, and Kurupt in 2014. Ras is a member of the group Golden State Warriors with Xzibit and Saafir. Editors of About.com ranked him #30 on their list of the Top 50 MCs of Our Time (1987–2007). Pitchfork Media called him “one of the best rappers of all time.” [Wikipedia x]
“I was taught that no matter how fast you go, you still haven’t gotten anywhere. Society keeps repeating itself, history keeps repeating itself, ’cause we haven’t learned the basic lesson of respect, love, equality, so society will keep doing it so people will always get shitted on. Somebody’s going to be the loser, especially capitalism, any “ism” actually.”-Ras Kass
Interviewer and Editor: Mingjie Zhai; Videographers: Sherman Wellons and Mingjie Zhai; Special Thanks to: Shambhala Studios
What are some patterns are you repeating? Why? Are you ready to create a new pattern?
I C O N OC L A S T
A LYRICAL EXPOSE CONCERNING WEST COAST LEGEND RAS KASS
BY BENJAMIN VILLANUEVA
The Phoenician sky is fragmented light bending at the frequencies which produce, within the human retina, the colors known as yellow, red, orange, blue, purple, fuchsia, and green. I look at said sky from the outside bar of Squid Ink. A bottle is covered in condensation. A sushi roll lays uneaten. Golden geometry.
I text RasKass, “Twenty min early. U ready?”
I am waiting to call and interview Ras. We had originally set the interview for seven. He is in LA a week after his Vegas show. He texts back, “K. Give me five min.”
In front of me, on the table, the paper is covered with lyrics from “How to Kill God”
Yellow: Concerning Modern Christendom,
Blue: related to secret society and pagan symbolism,
Circle: aspects of Ras.
The instrumentals vibe like a Kanye joint and verse is lyrical like a Nas song. The lyrics show a certain depth of understanding concerning the history of ancient symbols within religious, political, and other organized societies.
The words resonate with my decade long study of this very subject.
Any basic Google search concerning this MCs’ history reveals the time wrought credentials behind his unofficial underground moniker ‘West Coast Legend’. In the past, he has worked with RZA, Xzibit, Dr. Dre, Nas, Ice T, Talib Kweli, and Kendrick Lamar to name a few.
However, I want to understand the mind which created these lyrics behind the religious history and transliteration.
I take a bite of the sushi. A neo-Japanese-American style sushi roll called, “The Ultimate Philly”, drizzled in a spicy aioli. The cold firm white rice blends into my teeth. One bite is proper technique. Hands are kosher; it is a Japanese finger food so chopsticks are optional. Instead of devouring the entire roll, I stare at it. My pupils trace the geometry of the ingredients. Rice. Fish. Aioli. Vegetable, soy sauce, wasabi, ceramic, wood. I take a drink of my Tiger beer. My i6s bings. Just when my thoughts trace back to his track, Sushi, Ras calls.
I pull a cigarette out of my yellow pack and place it behind my ear. I tuck it into my beanie. My finger slides across the glass. My Beats are plugged in. They block the noise of the wind which has suddenly picked up and is moving in circular twists across the cement.
I ask him about his Vegas show. His voice sounds tired. I imagine the sun setting in the LA sky that he might be looking at.
RK: “No. I wrote the lyrics in 2005. I write to no music. This was a concept I had in 1999. I had a five-to-six album contract. I had recently been incarcerated. I actually started writing in jail. I was feeling the imposition of adverse people, powerful people. Power exists when you give it authority over you. Very rarely do I allow that to happen.”
BV: “Why this profession? Why this art?”
RK: “I didn’t pick it. It picked me. I went down a path and looked up and didn’t have to go to school, and could focus on my talents.”
BV: “These lyrics really strike me because some of the content is almost dangerously taboo for an artist to represent. Isn’t your work as an iconoclast dangerous? For your career? Your physical safety?”
RK: “Too late. [he laughs] Yes I feel slightly sabotaged. I don’t regret it. The art was the act itself. I mean, sometimes I feel too smart for my own good. Some people have said they wanted to destroy me. More or less, powerful people have said that before.”2
BV: “Considering the advent of tech which is currently rendering many facets of the music industry useless and which is available on a more universal level than before, how will this new tech affect the system adopted by the Majors [labels]? What have you noticed to be a result of said available tech?”
RK: “The Macbookpro saved my career. Without it, I would not have been able to escape the former part of my career. Have you seen Jared Letos’ doc about his band 30 seconds to Mars?”
BV: “Yes. Loved it.”
RK: “Well he’s my label mate, and like the doc exposed, the era of the CD could have destroyed a lot of us near the end of it. Now we have the tech to record at home with the same quality as a five hundred thousand dollar recording studio. That’s three hundred thousand dollars eliminated from the labels budget or from the independent artists’ pocket.”
Ras is completely right to say this. I myself have recorded an entire album on an iphone 4s. Currently, I am recording an album on my iphone 6s.
BV: “How do you promote your underground career?”
RK: “I really don’t have the answer. I network. D.I.Y. People help. I’m not the only person and the pay isn’t that great. I do a lot of hands on work. PR. Marketing. Promotion. I’m trying to wake the hip-hop community up, to support.”
BV: “Why is this new tech so relevant?”
RK: “There weren’t any home studios in the day, unless you were Quincy Jones, and it cost three to five thousand dollars for twelve hours of studio time and this is all before manufacturing and distributing costs. I really never could have bounced back in my career without this new technology. It doesn’t change the reality that the Majors still own the industry. So in a sense, they control the most relevant video streaming sites and social media sites. They pay the most and gain the most visibility. They pay for followers and buy good spots.”
BV: “You mention in your lyrics, …’Christians end prayers and say Amen, When that’s the Egyptian Sun God Amun-Ra.’ This is a type of historical symbology conjured through the use of words. Understanding a word’s etymology can expose more depth to its meaning. How powerful is symbology in your opinion?”
RK: “It has a lot to do with psychological warfare. Religious symbology changed drastically after the dark ages. It changed with the renaissance. “
Few people realize that the popular modern Christian symbol, the cross, was borrowed from the Egyptian Ankh symbol, by the Roman Catholic Church, six-hundred years after the alleged crucifixion of Christ.
BV: “Now that the music industry is reevaluating its function and utilizing new tech, what does the future hold for this industry?”
RK: “The content the people are looking for, especially the majors, is anything with an emphasis on stupidity, sex, violence. That is not my angle. It is harder to sell them on common sense and re-think our society as a whole (sic). My music is against the grain so why pay attention? What happened in the music industry is a symptom of a bigger disease.
I realized, as I went through this journey that it is essentially, like, who is an asset for their goals? Lets’ utilize that person, but we (they) still own everything. It becomes easier to ‘go-with-the-flow’ and sometimes I wouldn’t. At one point I was told I was black-balled, I was off limits, it wasn’t good to be seen talking to me. People have still helped me, but it’s like, why am I not verified, with one hundred thousand followers, when a friend with nine hundred followers gets verified? They out-spend you. No one is really innocent or exactly culpable. Just like the German structure created within Nazism. Whatever you did, you were a part of it. It all goes downhill and we all become a microcosm. These issues may not bother them as much. I am not Dr.Dre and he is not me.”
BV: “I know you play LA and Vegas all the time, do you ever play Phoenix?”
RK: “I have played in Arizona many times. I have a show in Phoenix in six months.”
BV: “Let me know.”