I C O N OC L A S T
A LYRICAL ESPOSE 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 colours known in basic English 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. Perfect symmetry. 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 the table is covered with lyrics from, How to Kill God [RasKass and Apollo Brown]. Bars are highlighted in yellow and pink. A handwritten key on top of one piece of paper reads, “Yellow: Concerning Modern Christendom, Blue: related to secret society and pagan symbolism, Circle: aspects of Ras.”
I am focusing on this track because 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. This is impressive however, I want to understand the mind which created these lyrics about 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 chop sticks 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. Ras is calling. 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. My next impulse is to ask if he composed the entire track, instrumentals and lyrics.
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
His voice resonates within my ears. The words echo. It’s too late. I understand how Ras feels. As if he has been ‘86ed’ from certain aspects of the industry. I am still listening to him talk however the wind gusts through my hair and through the blue pads of my Beats. The vibrations hypnotize me and I am wholly submerged in my own past. My own version of the same story. Upsetting powerful people. I have always had many artistic pursuits and one of my first passions was music. I released a punk CD in 2008. An indie-folk 12in vinyl in 2010. In 2014, Warner Bros Records, invited me to headline a downtown Phoenix talent scouting event. I had engrained myself in the Phoenix art scene, at the time, and was building a decent network and fan base. This all ended in 2012. I had been dating this artist who was beloved in the community. When I broke up with her, she was heartbroken, and very upset. One of her close friends was also in the music scene and was dating the owner of a prominent local music label. This friend was quoted as saying, “Do you want me to make sure Ben never plays a show in Phoenix again?”
When I first heard of this quote I laughed and asked myself, “Who does this girl think she is?” However, over the next few years her words became a reality. People stopped associating with me on all levels. Venues would not give me the time of day any more. Local musicians would not go near me. Fans vanished. Gear was stolen from my studio. A recording engineer stole $1000 from me. Gossip followed my every move. Rumors grew into tall tales of atrocious things I ‘had’ allegedly been a part of. Local businesses refused to hire me. When I asked a former artist-peer why he would not collaborate with me anymore he responded by saying quite frankly, “It’s not good to be seen with you Ben. Someone doesn’t like you. You’re black listed man.”
Frustrated, I rented an art studio in a hundred year old building, called The Icehouse. It had originally been an ice depot, storage, and shipping center for Phoenix in the early 1900s. My art studio, ‘The Geotemple’, was an old ice storage unit built in 1910. I hid from the world and focused mainly on painting. I also set up a recording studio and continued working on music. To this day I still have not played a live show in Phoenix.
Ras’ voice echoes back into the foreground of my skull. I look down at my notes and ask him the next question.
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 onn 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 where 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 words 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.”
We end the conversation. I am listening to the track and smoking my ciggie. My Beats vibrate and Ras speaks, “They call me Iconoclastic, My head on the platter like John the Baptist. Blasphemous, heretic, conceited bastard. I just ask the questions the preacher can’t answer. Like why Christians end prayers and say “Amen.” When that’s the Egyptian Sun God, Amun-Ra. And ain’t that a sin to say? And ain’t that pagan? And ain’t pagan meanin’ Satan, and if Satan gave mankind liberation, his worship of acknowledge would tip Revelations, of Free Mason’s; ‘this is how to kill God’. Holocaust, crusades, Zionism, jihad.”