R.A. the Rugged Man (real name R.A. Thorburn) is a veteran emcee who, although not a mega-selling pop sellout household name like your favorite bullshit radio artists, is one of the most highly-respected lyricists in underground hip-hop. R.A., a.k.a. “Crustified Dibbs,” inked his first recording contract with Jive Records in 1992, but his debut album Night of the Bloody Apes was never released. (Despite this, the album has been heavily bootlegged and the Notorious B.I.G. team-up banger he recorded, “Cunt Renaissance,” is on YouTube.) R.A. then signed to Capitol Records, where he recorded a second unreleased album, American Lowlife. While it’s unclear why exactly those albums were never released, there is a video (also on YouTube) featuring the Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man stating that R.A. was blacklisted by the major labels.
Despite these setbacks, R.A. continued to shine, further making a name for himself with standout cuts on all three of Rawkus Records’ classic Soundbombing compilation albums. R.A. eventually released his now-classic official debut album, Die, Rugged Man, Die, in 2004 on the independent label Nature Sounds.
In 2008, he produced and co-wrote the Frank Henenlotter-helmed horror film Bad Biology. This might seem like a departure for R.A., but anyone who’s paid close attention to his lyrics knows that he’s a huge movie buff who has been incorporating movie references into his rhymes from day one. (Even the title of his unreleased album, Night of the Bloody Apes comes directly from a 1969 Mexican horror film.) For a while there was talk of R.A. directing a documentary about the life of his Vietnam veteran father. R.A. has directed a number of music videos, and he appears as an actor in Michael Shershenovich’s 2010 horror film Skid Row (which also features Frank Stallone and hip-hop legend Schoolly D).
In 2009, R.A. released a compilation of unreleased and rare cuts titled Legendary Classics Volume One. In 2013, he dropped his second officially-released album, Legends Never Die, on which he showed tremendous growth and unexpected range. He then waited another seven years to drop his third album, All My Heroes Are Dead, which, per the usual, is another impressive album that touches on a wide variety of topics and features such legendary guest emcees as Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, Kool G. Rap, Ice-T, Chuck D., Brand Nubian, M.O.P., Onyx, and more.
I first interviewed R.A. a decade ago for my 2011 book I Am Hip-Hop: Conversations on the Music and Culture. As R.A. was making the rounds promoting All My Heroes Are Dead, I thought it might be fun to sit down and talk with him about his favorite films, working with Frank Henenlotter, his aspirations of directing a feature, and of course his new album. Just as he had been a decade before, R.A. proved to be a fun and insightful interview and was even gracious enough to record a short message for my stepson, Julian, who is (as am I) a fan of his music.
You’ve established yourself as quite a film buff over the years. What are some of your earliest film memories?
My earliest film memory was the first R-rated movie I ever saw theatrically, which was Conan the Barbarian. I was in Germany with my mother’s family, and the scene where Conan has sex with the witch… She turns into a witch and scratches his back and then he throws her into the fire. In that moment in life I thought there was no possible way that any piece of film could possibly be greater than that. It was the greatest cinematic moment for me at that point. But then, before that, the first R-rated movie I had ever watched was on cable. It was before I saw Conan theatrically. It was called The Beast Within. That was another brutal one. You know, the opening scene where the newlyweds have car trouble and a monster comes out of the woods and brutally rapes the woman. Then years later, puberty happens to their son and it turns out that he’s a monster. [Laughs]
On one of the videos that you’ve posted online—one that you recorded of you talking in your house—I saw a poster for The Evil That Men Do hanging in the background. Are you a Charles Bronson fan?
Oh, yeah! Bronson! Everybody gotta love Bronson! And J. Lee Thompson. He’s one of the greats. He did Cape Fear—the original one, not the Scorsese one. The remake? Come on! J. Lee Thompson bodied Scorsese. You couldn’t compete with J. Lee Thompson on that. J. Lee Thompson was great because he was a fantastic filmmaker making great, great movies like Guns of the Navarone, Cape Fear. But then when the Eighties happened, he was going for that paycheck. He was doing slasher films like Happy Birthday to Me and really sleazy, horrible, disgusting Bronson movies like 10 to Midnight and The Evil That Men Do. Nothing could top the Bronson/J. Lee Thompson combination, you know? [Laughs]
In your songs you reference a wide variety of films from Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary III to Night of the Bloody Apes to Eyes Wide Shut. Are there any certain kinds of films you find yourself gravitating toward as a viewer?
I kind of gravitate towards films that are interesting plot-wise. I want it to be a little bit disturbing, but I want the story to make me give a fuck. A lot of movies have an idea and then they just throw a lot of special effects and CGI into it. You know, I can’t watch another superhero movie. I know that old debate between Scorsese and Marvel, but I stopped watching those six or eight years ago. Maybe ten years ago. Anytime I’m on a plane I try to watch the new cool superhero movie, but I just get through ten minutes of it and then I have to put on something where I actually care about the characters and the plot and what the fuck is gonna happen next. So I gravitate towards that, and I like it to be a little disturbing.
Last night I watched a movie that had gotten under my radar. I don’t know how it did, but it was Sidney Lumet and Sean Connery and it was called The Offence. It was so fucking creepy because the cop goes and finds kids that were raped and murdered. He’s been experiencing this for twenty years, so he snaps and kills the guy he suspects is a child rapist. And you’re like, “Okay, yeah, fuck it, let him do it,” you know? Then, as the movie goes on, you see his character is a little fucking unhinged and it’s a lot deeper than just that. I thought it was pretty great. It was like a three-act play with a couple of scenes in the interrogation room, a scene with him at the house, not too many locations.
I think you’re roughly my age, and you’re a New York City guy. Did you go to many movies in Times Square back in the day?
No, I didn’t. You know Frank Henenlotter? He was there in the pinnacle—the golden era. He got to see the whole evolution of Times Square and what it got turned into. I was a little too young. When I started coming up as a little kid, it was still one movie theater in the suburb, and there would be lines around the block. They didn’t really have multiplexes yet. It was right before the multiplex, so Empire Strikes Back would come out. The Fox Theater was up the block and literally everybody would just have to wait in a line around the fucking theater for like six hours, until it was their time two, three screenings later. That was a nightmare. [Laughs.] But then a few years later came the multiplexes where they put six or eight movies in the same theater. If a movie was popular they’d put it on two screens. And all of a sudden the movie experience became a little more fun for me.
Especially when you could sneak out of one theater and into another. [Laughs]
That was the main thing. And also, since it wasn’t just one movie you could buy the ticket to E.T. and then go watch C.H.U.D. or something like that, you know? [Laughs]
You mentioned Frank Henenlotter. Since there was an image from Basket Case on the cover of your single “Till My Heart Stops,” I’m assuming you were a fan of his before you later collaborated with him on Bad Biology. Is that right?
That was a bootleg. We wasn’t allowed to use that artwork. But I had collaborated with Henenlotter before that. When I was on Jive Records, I was a teenager, and he was one of my favorite filmmakers. So I said, “Can we somehow find this guy and maybe have him work on a music video with me?” And we found Frank. I went to his house, and we’ve been friends ever since.
How did Bad Biology come about?
There were some scripts that we wrote that Fangoria wanted to finance. I think they were talking about $1.3 million. So Frank put all these monsters in it and all this stuff, and then when they were becoming serious about it I think they said, “Oh, we’ll do it for 800,000.” Then it was, “It’s a psychological story, so maybe we take a lot of the creatures out.” And Frank said, “The whole reason I want to make a movie is for monsters! What the fuck do you mean we’re gonna take the monster part out? I’m not doing that!” So it got to the point where everything that he wanted to do, people put their two cents into it. So finally I said, “I’ll go do a tour and I’ll get the money from friends and we’ll just make whatever you want. Let’s do something over-the-top and go a little crazy with it.” So it was a self-financed movie with no crew really. We had Frank, the DP… I think Frank had two or three guys with him. One was an assistant at a film school that I found. Another was his friend. Everybody who worked on the film were just people I found. I did a show and I had a Basket Case shirt on, and a fan was like, “R.A., I love Basket Case!” I said, “Okay, you wanna work on a movie with us? Here’s your shot.”
[Laughs] That’s great!
Yeah, he was a film school student, so the crew was just like kids we met on the street. It was like super no-budget, but we shot it on 35mm.
That’s the old Roger Corman method where you get film school students and people who just want to make a film. So, you’ve done a little bit of acting. Is that something you would like to do more of?
A lot of people always say I need to be an actor. “You gotta be an actor!” A lot of famous people. “How the fuck are you not an actor? You’ve got this personality and you got this look!” I don’t know. I’m not an actor. Maybe if I tried, maybe if I took lessons or some shit. But I’m a second guessing myself kind of guy. I second guess my shit, so to put myself in a scene…if I played myself…you know, when a rapper is in a movie and he just plays himself? I could do that all day. If you cast me to play R.A., I could play R.A. But when you give me depth and character study? I don’t know if I could do all that. But you know, half the actors out there can’t do it. I guess I hold myself to a higher standard. If I’m gonna do it, I’d like to be nice at it.
A lot of rappers have acted. Who do you consider some of the best rappers-turned-actors?
Mos Def, when he was acting, was good in almost everything he did. Mos Def was a top tier actor when he was acting. I was really impressed with a lot of his stuff. The only performance where I was like, “Eh, what the fuck was that, Mos?” was when he did that Richard Donner movie 16 Blocks. I really thought that was a bad performance. But everything else Mos did, I always thought was pretty great.
There are a lot of good rapper/actors. Who am I forgetting? Hmm. Oh, Will Smith, of course. He’s the king of it. He’s one of the biggest box office stars of all time.
Name some rapper actors and I’ll tell you what I think.
Tupac was pretty great in Juice. I didn’t think he was as good in some of his other films, but he was great in that.
Yeah, Pac was good in Juice.
You know who distracts me in movies? And this is no disrespect at all, but Common. When Common is in a movie, every time he’s onscreen I just feel like, “Oh, Common just showed up!” [Laughs] I never feel like it’s an actor. I just feel like it’s a music video all of a sudden and it’s not a movie anymore. Not as bad, but kind of like this… Mos Def did great in Monster’s Ball, but when Puffy showed up and played the father or whatever? Ah, Puffy was terrible! As soon as they showed him I was like, “Oh, they ruinin’ this. Now I don’t believe anything about this movie for the next thirty minutes!” [Laughs] But Halle Berry and Billy Bob [Thornton], they’re great actors. They kind of tried to pick it up after that.
Sometimes when rappers act, fans and other rappers try to question their street cred because of the roles that they take. Things like Ice-T playing a cop on Law and Order SVU or Will Smith kissing a man in Six Degrees of Separation. What do you think? Do you think criticisms like that are valid?
No, they’re not valid. They’re stupid. You know, I see the hustler. From day one I think I’m a hustler. Ice-T is there to do his work and get his check. He’s doing good work and bringing a check home to his family. He’s a hustler. And the flip side is that it’s acting. If Ice is an informant to the pigs and snitching on his peers, okay, then he’s a piece of shit. But he’s not doing that. He’s playing a fake phony part, you know? People play rapists in movies. People play murderers in movies. “How dare they play a rapist?” It means they’re a rapist? No. These guys are fucking idiots.
I remember being a kid. My father was a Vietnam vet and there were vets in the neighborhood. And when Rambo became a big fuckin’ thing I remember my friend’s father saying, “Ah! Stallone was never in the Army! Stallone was never a soldier!” And at the time I thought, “Oh, that’s fucked up,” because I didn’t know any better. And the guy’s father’s telling me that like it mattered. But then a couple of years later I’m like, “What the fuck? It’s a fuckin’ movie!” [Laughs] Who cares if Stallone was in the Army if he’s making a movie? It’s stupid. Just stupidity.
You mentioned your father. I remember you were working on a documentary about his life a few years back. Whatever happened with that?
I wanted to take the approach of Bad Biology and do it myself, and I couldn’t really do my father justice that way. If I really ever did that project, I’d want to do it right and get funding and a good team behind it with graphics editors and script consultants. I need to do it big. I want to do my father justice. I don’t want to give him a low-budget “R.A.-did-everything-on-his-own” type of thing, you know? I kind of tapped out, like, “Daddy, I’m not doing you justice here.”
Now we’re working on a graphic novel instead. We just decided that yesterday. I’m working with an artist, and I found an old drawing. He wanted me to do it around the same time I was working on the documentary. Yesterday was my dad’s birthday and I was looking at some photos of him, and I saw this amazing artwork. I said, “What the fuck? Why didn’t I do that comic?” But I think it’s the same thing that happened with the documentary; I just got overwhelmed with life. I was trying to do so many things at the same time and I wasn’t getting enough music out there. I just got overwhelmed by it, and I didn’t know how to write the story at the time. I wanted to do justice by him so badly, and I didn’t know how to do it. But now, with a little time and space, it’s easier. I should have gotten into it sooner.
Okay, switching gears here, what do you believe is the best hip-hop-themed movie of all time, and why?
House Party. I know that’s a left field answer. It’s not Wild Style, where it had all the O.G. stuff and was a documentation of the time, but… Tougher Than Leather had just come out and it was a piece of shit, but it was a big deal going to the movie theater to see that. And it had Run-DMC in it, and it had Rick Rubin. It was like, “Holy shit, I’m in a movie theater watching Run-DMC on a big-ass screen!” It was a big deal. They had Krush Groove before that, but…
House Party was just a well-made movie and it was a time capsule piece. I’m not saying it’s the best of them all, but all the jokes worked, all the scenarios worked, all the dance numbers worked. I just think it worked well as a film. Then the Hudlins went on to do bigger budget movies, and Reginald Hudlin went on to do Boomerang. I think he was also a producer on Django Unchained. But House Party is still one of my favorite hip-hop films. The rap battle scenes, the girls wearing the gear from that era. I don’t know. Plus, your age always has something to do with it. When that came out, I was like eleven or twelve watching House Party on the big screen. It was like a special event.
And it had Full Force in it.
Full Force were legendary. And they’re up there on the big screen in this big successful movie. I think House Party actually went number one at the box office for a week if I’m not mistaken.
I’ve got one more movie question before I ask about your new album.
I like movie questions. I hate talking about music. [Laughs]
There has been some talk about you directing things at different times. What’s the current status of that? Is that going to happen?
Now that Covid happened, I think it kind of put my director hat on a little more. When I put my last album out before this one [Legends Never Die], the shows just kept coming in and coming in and coming in. So then you’re doing features with other people, you’re touring the planet and doing five hundred shows. You’re focused on music. You think, “I’ve got to do an album.” You’ve got to work on features, you’ve got to work on your routine at your live show. It was what was bringing in money. We were doing shows every night, so there was always money coming in. This is my bread here, you know? So I put movies to the side. I’d think, “I’d love to do that, but I don’t have a year of my life to put to the side to stop the momentum to do a movie. I just don’t have that right now.” But now Covid shows you that the whole world stops. [Laughs]
I have one script that I really like, and I’m thinking about shooting that in Belgium. But then I just thought of another idea about a week ago that could be shot even cheaper. I’ve got an idea for just one location, a couple of characters. Something really just disgusting and creepy but just needs some great actors and a great cinematographer and an interesting location. I think I can shoot that film. But then it’s still a lot of time. You’ve got to edit, produce the thing, put it together… So, it will take away from my music career. That’s the only downfall. But you know, Covid took away from everybody’s career, so it kind of made me go, “Hey, does it really hurt you that bad to step away from your career for a minute?”
Okay, to the music… I really enjoy your new album, but then I’ve always enjoyed your albums. But you’ve never been one of those guys who release a new album every year or two. You always have long gaps between them. I’m assuming a lot of this time is to make sure the albums are as good as they can possibly be. Is that right?
Yeah. Writing rhymes? I can write rhymes in my sleep. And I can make songs in my sleep, but an album is something that they’ll be with until they’re dead. So for money…if I just took ten beats and rapped over them, I could make an album every week if I wanted to. But an album is something different to me. It’s something where I kind of want to be documented by it. This is forever, so I want it to be something I’m proud of after I’m dead. I want to be able to perform those songs for twenty or thirty years down the line. I don’t want to do disposable art. Disposable art will get you rich releasing songs every six months, but I kind of only want to release albums if they’re an improvement on the album before it. I’m always out to top my last album and make it my best work. And I’m going to touch a lot of different worlds and topics with it, you know? Also, when I drop an album it’s a lot of hard work to promote it and get it heard and get it out there. I shoot ten videos for every album and I direct and edit some of them. I market them online when they come out, do contests to get the songs out there. It’s so much work to promote my shit because I don’t have a real budget. It’s a lot of work.
You spoke some about the construction and crafting of albums as an art form. With digital technology being what it is and the primary focus now being on individual singles rather than albums, there seems to be less appreciation for traditional album construction. Does that concern you?
Yeah, there is concern. But I’m almost thinking I might take a lot of time to do another album. I might do the new school route. I might just do what the young kids are doing right now and release mad joints without an album. Because what happens is, if you release a joint and it’s a new song, everybody goes to check that new song out. If you release twenty songs at the same time, everybody goes and checks all of those songs out at the same time, and then they’re done. When I release a song early off my album, like a month or so before the album is dropping, then that gets way more views than all the other songs on the album. You do that and just keep them coming and put out a brand new visual every month, boom, boom, boom for two years. So instead of giving them twenty-four songs at one time, you give them twenty-four songs over two years. I think the way they’re doing it is keeping their name going and getting more views and getting their SoundCloud numbers up because everyone’s going to those particular songs. I think I understand that method, because it is a new era. I’m not a business guy, I just like to make music. But I see a lot of my peers succeeding doing it the way that they’re doing it now where you just keep pushing it out instead of sitting on it and putting it out once the album is done.
You have a lot of great features on the new album. You’ve got Wu-Tang Clan, M.O.P., Kool G. Rap, Onyx, Ice-T… Eamon has become a regular collaborator now. What thought process goes into selecting the artists you want to feature on an album?
When you’re working on an album you say, “You know what kind of song I would need here…” And you go, “I need a stomp you out, punch you in your face, get the crowd going song.” When I do a live show, I want a riot at this moment, so who do I need on this? And then you say, “M.O.P.!” Or you think, “Who else? Onyx!” Then you go, “I’ve never done a joint with Ice-T. Fuck that, I want Ice-T!” [Laughs] Then you’ve got the posse cut. A lot of people are calling it the posse cut of the year, you know?
The hip-hop scene has changed since you were first coming up in the Nineties in that the more artistic, lyrical stuff isn’t what’s playing on the radio. You’ve got to dig for the more artistic stuff, so a lot of people—outsiders—hear what’s on the radio and think that’s all there is, that that’s the total sum of hip-hop now. What are your thoughts on that?
In the information age, it’s kind of the same thing. If you go to turn on the news to get your factual data, you probably won’t get it there. You’ve gotta dig, you’ve gotta read books. You’ve gotta just dig and kind of do your own research. So I think with music it’s the same thing. You can’t just let them feed you information. You’ve got to get your information from other places. You can go follow some of your favorite rappers on Twitter, and they might be talking about a new album that’s out. Or go look up albums dropping that week and see what the hell you come up with so you can find the independent and underrated work. Go to YouTube and look up underground hip-hop. You’ve just got to search for things and get lucky. Sometimes you just go to a page and someone posts something you’ve never heard of, and you go, “Yo, this rapper’s crazy.” I just follow a lot of dope rappers, and a lot of times dope rappers post about other dope rappers. For instance, Mad Squablz, who’s this super dope Philly rapper… The other day he tweeted Che Noir. So I went to her page, like, “Okay, why’s he posting about Che Noir?” He’s a dope kid rapper, so let’s see what she’s about. So I go and I hear this girl, and she just did an album with Apollo Brown. Now I know about another dope emcee. A lot of people don’t know about Ransom, but I saw guys like Terminology and Vinnie Paz talking about him. That’s how I learned about him.
What does the future hold for you? If you live to be a hundred years old, will we still be seeing new R.A. joints?
Well, I’m not sure I’ll be alive. [Laughs]
Too much hard living?
I don’t know. Life is a little crazy. We’ll see how long we all last.
The way we’re going, maybe none of us will be here! [Laughs]
The world is crazy right now. You know what’s crazy? My mentality was always “overcome every obstacle, just keep being the best. Keep doing it, killing everybody. Be one of the best. Let the world know.” But you know, this Covid shit…not the virus, but the effect it’s had on society; everybody losing their jobs, nobody going to shows, everybody hating each other… It’s kind of to the point where I’m like, “Do I want to put in the work here to do another album when who the fuck knows if I can even tour off of it or where the world will be?” I don’t know. Who the fuck knows? But you go through that, where you have self-doubt. But then it comes back and you get bitten by the bug and you go fifteen times harder again. But right now I’m just bitten by the beaten up bug [laughs] like a lot of people in the world. So we’ll just have to see.