Soul On Ice: Ras Kass Reflects On His Groundbreaking Album 20 Years Later (Video)
By all accounts, Ras Kass is one of the most gifted lyricists of all-time. For more than 20 years, Ras Kass has been seizing every opportunity to approach rapping with thoughtfulness, complexity, and message-driven content. Of course, he wasn’t the first to do so, and he credits KRS-One and Rakim as sources of inspiration in the formulation of his craft.
His debut album, Soul On Ice, arrived on October 1, 1996, and with it came not a moment of space or time wasted, an album brimming with lessons about history, politics, sociology, and more. In speaking with Ambrosia for Heads, the Carson, California MC discusses the signature characteristic of his music and much more in an in-depth reflection about Soul On Ice, 20 years later. An album whose grit made it offputting to so many is discussed, in a no frills video, with attentiveness and beauty by an artist who quite clearly will remain influential twenty years from now.
At the time of the LP’s release, says Ras Kass, he never dreamed that he would be embarking on a 20-plus year career in Hip-Hop. “I figured this wasn’t going to last long at all,” he shares, explaining that he figured he “would say some shit, they ain’t gon’ like it, so I kind of expected one album and done.”
Released by Priority Records, which at the time was home to Ice Cube, Ice-T, and Jay Z, Soul On Ice could have had a better home, Ras Kass says. “In retrospect, I don’t think it was the appropriate home. I picked the wrong home for the right reasons,” he begins before explaining his reasoning for choosing the label. “Some of the most impactful rappers ever to come out the West were signed to Priority Records, and I felt that I was an evolution of my forefathers on the mic from the West Coast, so I felt this would probably be the better home for me” (2:40). But that wasn’t his only option. As he explains, “I had a bidding war. I had opportunities. I had at least three labels that wanted to sign me. Actually, four.” He recounts his being flown out to New York City by the late Chris Lighty for a meeting at Def Jam, but he says he “picked Priority because I thought they were the foundation the evolution of West Coast Rap.” Furthermore, he says he was attracted to the size of the indie imprint, which he thought was “small enough” to prevent his being “lost in the shuffle at a big label.”
20 years later, he feels that he chose to sign with a label who had little skill in breaking independent artists, citing their short-sightedness on Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt. When “Dead Presidents” came out, Ras Kass says, “Priority felt like it was a bust” (7:18). “Those execs said ‘it didn’t perform, fuck it’ and they moved on,” which he says was a decision emblematic of the label’s tendency to “sign lots of independent artists and then, you know, put them through the system that they had, but they didn’t know how to promote a record and understand that each artist is different…you can’t promote Ras Kass like you promote Garth Brooks, you can’t just run me through a fucking assembly line.” It was Ras Kass’ self-described “cerebral bad kid” vibe that left Priority dumbfounded. “They understood Gangsta Rap, but they didn’t understand lyrical,” he says. “I don’t put on a khaki suit and crip walk while a ’64 bounces. That just wasn’t my lane, and they didn’t know how to market that” (9:40).
“On Earth As It Is” served as the first track on Soul On Ice‘s and was a fitting introduction for an artist who was (and in many ways continues to be) enigmatic. Despite being a bold, unrelenting record, Ras says he doesn’t consider it “Shock Rap,” but rather the result of wanting to write a song that questioned organized religion, and it draws its title from the Lord’s Prayer. “How literally can I relate [the phrase “on earth, as it is in heaven”] to my everyday life as a nigga, as a young Black man in L.A.?,” he says of the questions he sought to explore through the song (11:20). Two decades later and just one day after police officers killed a Black man, Reginald Thomas, in the Los Angeles suburb community of Pasadena, the relevance of his music is impossible to question.
But Soul On Ice was not only prophetic in its dissection of America’s troubling racial injustice. “Anything Goes, ” the album’s lead single, touched upon economics, itself a facet of life in which systemic oppression continues to thrive. Less than a decade removed from the Great Recession, Americans are continuing to suffer the fallout and the Wells Fargo scandal in headlines today reads like much of the lyrics to the song. “Some things just remain true because they’re true, and the world is kind of cyclical,” says Ras Kass of the song’s relevance today (13:50). “It’s such a political record…it’s all factual and it’s talkin’ about the government, what these banks do, and that, you know, basically, capitalism is pimps and hoes.” “In 2016, anything goes. It’s so relevant. There’s nothing I had to change [in the song’s remix] except [saying] ‘2016.’ Literally everything fits.”
As Heads know well, Ras Kass explores at great length themes of duality and hypocrisy within his own behavior in his music, something frequently present in work of Tupac’s, who died less than a month before Soul On Ice‘s release. “I was in awe of ‘Pac,” says Ras (24:05). Having a lot of mutual friends, he says he and ‘Pac had “one degree of separation” between them and he was immediately drawn to the late rapper’s embrace of “Pan-African shit” on ‘Pac’s 1991 debut single, “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” “His passion, and some of the stands he took were amazing, being in that position,” he says. Tupac never became “a crony that does anything for money who won’t make a stand and salute[s] the flag [to] be the good nigga to get the check.” Upon his death, Ras admits he shed tears for the slain rapper whom he admired so deeply. “He personally showed me love more than once. He was directly a cool nigga to me, and he didn’t have to be,” he reflects. Had he lived, he believes Shakur would have gotten into public service and could have become “somebody I’d rather have rallied around than [politicians] who don’t have our best interest at heart.”
“Nature of the Threat” remains one of the most talked-about records of Ras Kass’s career, due mostly to its inclusion of such densely packed encyclopedic knowledge. In discussing writing the song (38:55), he says he knew the song would be written four years before it actually came to be. “I was studying the Moors and building with the Moorish Nation and the Nation of Islam,” he says of some of the song’s points of inspiration. “I was going to college and taking all the courses really to buy the books. I was reading Behold a Pale Horse and They Came Before Columbus and taking all the information in.” All of the insatiable reading led him, he says, to realize that all of the books were “saying the same things, if you put the dates together, and that was the interesting thing. This shit is hidden in plain sight,” he says. And so, he argues, “I’m not saying anything that is unique [on ‘Nature of the Threat’].” Remarkably, he says that once all of his extensive years-long research was done, the song only took an hour to complete because “it wrote itself.”
In the nearly hour-long interview, Ras Kass drops jewels on a multitude of topics, including being fiercely independent from the jump (“I wasn’t even down with Dogg Pound. I wasn’t down with anybody)”; the current presidential election and the minority vote (“we don’t pick our own leaders, especially in the Black community. We allow them to murder our leaders”); Donald Trump (“he speaks with a forked tongue…he speaks like Satan”); what inspired the iconic album art (“self-hate and being mentally abused in America”); fatherhood (“the mothers make the ultimate sacrifice”) and much, much more.
Ras Kass’s latest album and fifth solo effort, Intellectual Property: SOI2, is now available and features Sean Price, RZA, KRS-One, and many others. Ras Kass says the album is an exercise in “asking the hard questions” such as “what did I learn 20 years after?”
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