R. A. The Rugged Man Interview

R. A. Thorburn – or R. A. the Rugged Man – is a decorated veteran of hip-hop. Once known as Crustified Dibbs, R. A. has retained a downright nasty streak while boxing his way to the top division of rap. His fast-flowing lyrics can devastate but they can also give pause. They can make you laugh, cringe, and cry.

Following Night of the Bloody Apes (as Crustified Dibbs, 1994) Die, Rugged Man, Die (2004) set the tone for what has proven to be a long and illustrious career. Some might even say legendary. Just glance at R. A.’s last three records – Legendary Classics Vol. 1 (2009), Legends Never Die (2013), All My Heroes are Dead (2020) – to see just how important that word is.

And why the hell not? The Rugged Man has recorded with Timbo King, Hell Razah, Tragedy Khadafi, Ayatollah, Jedi Mind Tricks, Havoc, Kool G. Rap, Sadat X, Talib Kweli, Tech N9ne, Masta Ace, Ice-T, M.O.P., Chino XL, Immortal Technique, Onyx, Chuck D, Atmosphere, Brother Ali, the Wu-Tang Clan (Ghostface Killah, Masta Killa, Killah Priest, Inspectah Deck), and, of course, the Notorious B.I.G. And this is not a complete list. He has covered all bases. All possible eras.  

That so many of these heavyweight names appear on his latest record tells us a lot about R. A.’s philosophy. The Rugged Man isn’t interested in nostalgic rap. Don’t live off your name alone. Go hard, or go home. That’s the message we got when we spoke recently.

You can listen to the new album here.

First off, the present. How are you feeling about your new album All My Heroes Are Dead?

Well, every album I put out is gonna be better than the one I did before. If I’m not improving, and the music isn’t getting better every project then there’s no reason to continue, you know? I don’t do the ‘yeah, I’m just gonna vibe and make an album’. I make sure that we compete with the world, and obliterate people. Obliterate myself.

It’s a great listen, better than your last I think which I really enjoyed too. 22 tracks this time, with a knockout line-up of legends. I read someplace that you make a large number of tracks for a project and stick with the best ones… was that true for this record?

Well, three of them are skits so it’s really 19 songs. But, you know, I don’t put out a lot of albums. So when I do I wanna give them a lot of records. And when I pick out the songs I want on my albums, I don’t just pick out the best ones. When I commit to songs it’s because I’ve put a lot of work in, and they’re like—they become my little babies, so I like all my songs. But what I do is I think about ‘where’ on an album, you know? You want a ‘ra ra’ joint, you want a heartfelt joint, you want a smut joint, you want some knowledge dropping, you want some joints with different tempos. Like, say I had ten bangers all the same tempo, I don’t want to do that either, you know? I want to switch the style on a lot of songs. I don’t want to be predictable. So it’s not just ‘what’s my favourite’, it’s ‘how do I enter a lot of different worlds’ and make sense of it as a project.

Definitely. It’s a real craft, I imagine, to build an album so heavy-going and to keep it interesting. I suppose you come from a tradition of doing that, whereas a lot of streamers and contemporary artists often drop a lot of singles throughout the year with no album at the end.

Yeah. I understand the young artists’ mentality to just release singles. It’s more rewarding, and I’m not saying it’s wrong, because… well, it might be right, actually. I mean, the new mentality is, ‘hey, everybody has a short attention span, drop a video when you finish a song, then drop another song, and get them talking, keep them talking,’ you know? Then drop another, you know? And rather than one big drop with 18, 19 songs, you put out a song every month with a dope video, for 18 months, and it keeps it going and people keep talking. That might be the right way to do it in this day and age. It’s a different era. Being old school, and putting together a record album, that is an old-school mentality and it might not be the right one but that’s the school I came from and that’s what I do. 

‘The Slayers Club’ in particular is an absolute monster. It’s almost like a culmination of a dream, an army of killer wordsmiths. Was that the intention, to go for something extra special, or do you see this as just an extension of what you’ve always been doing?

I was trying to bring out that Posse Cut, you know. I wanted it to be an anthem. I remember tracks like ‘Self Destruction’ and these really conscious posse cuts that had to have a reason to happen, you know? Like, what’s the reason to put all these great artists together. I was like, you know what, let’s do the opposite. Let’s do an ignorant stomp-kick-punch-throw, put-a-body-in-a-grave, kill-murder-stab-type of fight anthem with a bunch of us. 

Can you tell us more about working with Slug? We’re big fans of Atmosphere and loving your single with him. How did that come about?

Well, I worked with Atmosphere for a movie soundtrack years ago but the soundtrack didn’t come out. And then I reached out to [Slug] again on my last album and I said ‘Yo, I got this beat, this song that I’m doing with Masta Ace about different generations.’ So, Masta Ace is my OG, and then there’s me, and then Brother Ali. I wanted three different camps. So I asked him to hook me up with Brother Ali and he said ‘yeah, sure,’ and that’s how we made ‘The Dangerous Three’. And then I said ‘yeah, we gotta do a record together, when we figure out the right record.’ So I waited for the right moment and then we figured it out, and we made something special, you know? We made a really special song. It’s not like anything Slug ever did before, it’s not like anything I ever did before. It’s a really dope record. 

Yeah, definitely. I meant to mention actually that it was on the soundtrack for Tony Hawks Underground that I first heard you, on ‘King of the Underground’. And then Atmosphere were on T.H.U.G. 2 with ‘Trying to Find a Balance’. A nice connection I wanted to bring up.

Yeah, a lot of people hear you for the first time in the strangest places. A lot of people heard me first on WWF… I’m like ‘really? The first time you heard me was on a PG, WWF west coast soundtrack? OK that’s cool.’ And sometimes it tells you when a person found hip-hop. Sometimes they’re pulling out your really old records from when you were a teenager, and you’re like ‘Oh shit, you know that song?’ And with others it’s like ‘OK that person started to listen to rap around… the backpack era,’ you know.’ All different eras. And a lot of people found me through the Source Quotable on ‘Uncommon Valor’. It all depends.

Immortal Technique mentioned ‘Uncommon Valor’ was one of the first times he’d heard you, if not the first.

You know, I think Tech is mistaken about that. He might be right, but I believe that his record with ‘Bin Laden’ [Revolutionary Volume 2, 2003], he put that out with Nature Sounds, too, you know, so I was up at the office and I’d see Tech up there and he’d be talking about doing his distribution or whatever. So we actually used to connect before ‘Uncommon Valor’. But, you know, we’re talking about years ago so you don’t remember everything perfectly clear.  

There’s a long list of things that you’ve been asked about many times, maybe too many times, but I couldn’t not get into it on ‘Uncommon Valor’. You’ve given plenty detail and background elsewhere, but I was particularly taken by the fact you initially wrote a Rambo-like scatter gun verse, going off a beat that Stoupe later retracted. What made you change it up and go for that verse about your dad?

Yeah, I started kicking the Rambo-life shit and then I was like ‘yeah, it’s corny anyway, I’m glad he changed the beat, let me write something different.’ But then I was like ‘how should I do Vietnam’ and then, like ‘Oh! Daddy’s story.’ It was easy. But sometimes something that’s easy and obvious isn’t always obvious at first, and then when you realise it’s like ‘Oh course!’

For more on the backstory of Thorburn, why not read this.

It feels like I’m still treading common ground to ask you about Biggie. Maybe on ‘Shoot Me in the Head’ or the Bottom Feeders track it gets close, but is ‘Cunt Renaissance’ the most deliberately filthy song you made?

Yeah, there were times when I wanted to piss off the label and make something really fucking horrible and disgusting. In the 80s there was Tipper Gore and all these people, and in the early 90s they wanted to ban music and put censorship on it. In England people were doing these Video Nasties and you weren’t allowed to see these horrible movies. So, when you write you think, ‘OK, what is something offensive, vile, and horrible that will piss off these fucking people and slap them in the fucking face?’ You say all this horrible shit when you’re young, you’re writing all this crazy shit and that’s your way of rebelling against society. And as you get older you educate yourself and you rebel against society in a more educated way. You can keep it ignorant, but you do it with more awareness and it doesn’t have to be a cheap shock. It can be a knowledge shock. You shock them with the truth.  

You’ve touched on this concept of ‘truth’. One of my favourite tracks of yours is ‘Learn Truth’ with Talib Kweli. The beat, the message, everything. It seems you really pride yourself on ‘Truth’. I mean, you’ve lived an incredible life, not just in terms of hip-hop, the people you’ve met, but your back story, mental health, family life. Have you ever found it problematic, to just pour your life into the music like that?

Art releases suffering and pain and gets you through shit, you know? Pick up the paper, you tell the world a story. Also it helps other people sometimes. People can relate to it, like ‘Yo, I’ve been through that – this happened to me.’ So you put it out there and if it helps other people then great. It does nothing but good for me.

Is Kool G Rap still your favourite of all-time? Is that ever going to change, do you think?

Well, it will change if somebody else does a thirty-something-year reign of being able to be a top-tier lyricist. His longevity is so untouchable. No-one compares to Kool G Rap’s longevity and high level of skill. Some of the greatest that ever lived were never top-tier all-time-greats every year, you know? They were living off their name. The only thing I sometimes put above that is the show-stopping emcees. Big Daddy Kane, for example, could put on a great live show. There’s a lot of different aspects to emceeing, so Kane is up there too because year after year he was able to body everyone on the stage. But with Kool G Rap again, he was in that era with Kane and Rakim, and was still arguably better than them, in that era, and then in the 90s when there was Nas and Pun and all those guys he was still bodying everybody! [Laughs]. In the 2000s nobody could compete with him and now, today—look at the shit he did on my album. The guy’s tremendous. Tremendous. Tremendous.

Yeah. Sometimes with some of my all-time favourites I’m bracing myself for when they release new material. It’s like, I’m afraid they’re going to just do ‘nostalgia rap.’

Yeah, I hate nostalgia rap. You don’t even have to be great, you just have to appear and were all gonna love it because we loved that rapper at one point in their life. No. We don’t love them because they were great thirty years ago and then stayed stagnant, we love them because they’re doper than ever, they can murder their bars, and scare the shit out of other rappers.

You’re on the new Four Owls album Nocturnal Instinct. I want to ask you about your take on the UK hip-hop scene. As a veteran of the birthplace of the genre, how do you rate hip-hop from here?

Oh, yeah. Well, Slick Rick is from the UK. And Monie Love is originally from England. But the current scene… I like Lady Leshurr. I watched her videos with my kids, and I did a show with her in Greece.

Your grandfather was Scottish, right?

Yeah. Thorburn is a Scottish name. He was from Glasgow. My grandmother was from Sicily and the Sicilians didn’t like Scottish people, so she got thrown out of the family for marrying a Scottish guy [laughs].   

Long-term thinking now. In the commentary to Legendary Classics v. 1 you talk about not wanting the world to measure your abilities on songs like ‘Stanley Kubrick.’ So, what do you want the world to measure you on?

I should have never said that.

[Laughs]

I learnt this later in life. You make a moment, you record something that people love and relate to. In your mind you’re like ‘Oh, it could’ve been different, I could have did it better.’ And then you’re destroying the song for other people that really love it. Because they’re not looking at your flaws. They might just love the record. When you’re dismissing your own work, it’s stupid. That record, we made it in like 30 minutes. I wrote a little bit, freestyled like half of it. We knocked it out at like 3 in the morning and then the whole world got to hear it. So, I’m like ‘damn, I got all this material that I worked so hard on, and it’s really great’ but they get to hear this quick-flowing record. But who am I to tell people it’s not good enough because I was insecure about it, you know?

I almost forgot to ask you about boxing. What’s your take on Tyson Fury?

I always told people how incredibly skilled the guy was. Always. Remember when people starting hating on people Fury after he beat Klitschko? He said a couple things in interviews and people started turning on him. But I always said he was at the highest level of skill in the heavyweight division. When he won the World Championship, again, I was like ‘there you go.’ But you know who proved me wrong? Wylder. When I first seen him I was like ‘this guy’s terrible.’ I thought he had no shot. But I definitely got him wrong.  

Last question for you, it’s about A Tribe Called Quest. At Southsiders we like to close out interviews by asking you to choose between two classic albums. We’ve had arguments about OutKast and Wu so far. Right now we’re—

Oh, yeah, I give it to Low End Theory over Midnight Marauders.

[laughs] Yeah, you’re going for Low End?

Yup. That’s what you were gonna ask me, right?

That is exactly what I was going to ask you.

You know who disagrees with me? Just Blaze. We actually went back and forth on Twitter one night. I swear it’s Low End Theory he swears it’s Midnight Marauders.

Brilliant. Thank you. Well, congratulations on the album, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Thanks man. You know, I was supposed to come to Glasgow before this whole shit happened.

Yeah, next time though. We’ll see you in Glasgow soon.

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