R.A. Thorburn, better known by his stage name, R.A. the Rugged Man, has already cemented his legacy in hip-hop — yet he’s only just begun.
The 46-year-old father of two — even after garnering compliments from the one and only Notorious B.I.G., who once said of R.A., “I thought I was the illest,” and, more recently, Logic — continues to be famously underrated.
When he’s not obliterating beats and keeping the hip-hop of the ’80s and ’90s alive, he’s making his mark in the film industry. He’s already written three screenplays as well as written and produced a critically acclaimed film Bad Biology. He’s also hosted MTV’s Film School, and now, he’s working on his directorial debut.
The Post sat down to talk with R.A. about his rap career, his contributions to film and the world of criticism, what keeps him going and what’s next for him.
The Post: Your come-up story is intriguing. Your debut album, Night of the Bloody Apes, which was supposed to be released through Jive Records, was unofficially released later and has some notable features, including Biggie Smalls. You had contract issues with Jive. You certainly overcame some adversity, but would you change anything about your journey to where you are right now?
R.A.: No, no, I wouldn’t change nothing because that’s part of life, and even if I did make certain mistakes, it’s 30 damn years later almost. Almost every one of my peers that were doing good in the ’90s or doing good when my career went crazy, they’re reaching out to me to work with them, and their careers are in a shift. So I did not everybody but a good number of them. The reason why I think my skill level stays high is because I didn’t have the 100 million records sold and all that stuff, so you stay hungry with a point to prove, and you don’t have all the access to just putting out a record, and the whole world hears it that week. Every time you drop, you have to really impress because you have to have people want to go to that link and spread that link. I’m not a celebrity. Sometimes you go, “Oh, you know, if my business was a little better established,” maybe that’s the one thing I would’ve changed — to get a better business team. Tech N9ne had (Travis O’Guin) at Strange Music, and they have a factory with all merchandise and a studio and a film studio and a recording studio, so maybe, maybe, I would have got a couple better business advisers.
The Post: Your verse in Jedi Mind Tricks’ “Uncommon Valor: A Vietnam Story” was named HipHopDX’s “Verse of the Year” in 2006. Would you say it’s the best verse you’ve ever written?
R.A.: No, it’s not the best verse ever written, but it’s one people relate to, and it’s a true story, so people like that. There’s certain things that get recognized at a time, and then people say, “Oh, that’s the one. That’s the one.” They’ll say Inspectah Deck’s best verse is this, and Cappadonna’s best verse is this and hold them to that verse forever because that verse had such an impact on people at the time. So they keep going back to that verse, but you could top the verses over and over, and they’re still stuck on that — the one verse that they remember … But, I mean, I wrote on my new album, All My Heroes Are Dead, I think I have verse after verse after verse that tops a lot of my catalogue. Throughout my career, there was a verse I wrote, “Renaissance 2.0” with Hell Razah, the same year as “Uncommon Valor,” and it was a homage to hip-hop but done in a really intricate way. And that was one of my top verses that year, but it was on a lesser-promoted project, so it didn’t get the same accolades. But the thing I love about “Uncommon Valor” is it’s a true story about my father, and my father has passed away. He passed away about four years after I wrote it, so he got to see the love it got and the whole world saying it. And I start the song off with his name, the first line “Call me Thorburn, John A.” I started off with him, and the whole world sings the song, and now he’s been dead for a decade. And wherever I go all over the planet, they’re saying my father’s name, and they know his name off of that record. Maybe that is the main thing that makes me love it a lot.
The Post: You end “Uncommon Valor” by proclaiming “God take, God give,” which is also the title of your upcoming directorial debut. It’s supposed to be based directly on your family, and, based on that song, will probably make the tears flow. Can you share anything on how the film process is going?
R.A.: Oh, well, that was actually something I started when my father was still alive, and we filmed tons of footage of my father in interviews. And the thing is, we were working on a documentary about my father and Agent Orange and the effects it had on soldiers because in the song, my brother and sister … he was born handicapped; my brother couldn’t walk or talk. He was blind, and they both died, and my sister was born healthy. Her son died, so there was three of the kids that died from Agent Orange. And I figured that, what’s the problem with America is a lot of times we don’t think anything’s bad if it’s not happening to us. ... My little brother, my little sister and my little nephew are all dead because America poisoned its own people. Look, they didn’t just do this to the “bad guys,” the Vietnamese; they did it to us.
With the movie process, the thing is, to do a whole documentary film, I thought I could do it myself. You need finances, and you need an art department, and you need a graphics department. When you’re editing a project that’s so personal, you can be skilled enough to edit, but you need someone else with other eyes to come in, and you need other hands on a project like that. Right now, since I started working on it, I had two kids. I started touring. I had to put out product. I had to edit videos. I’m a little overwhelmed with that project because I don’t have the right resources to make it really great. So it’s on hold until maybe touring comes back, and I could put some money in the bank and maybe hire some people to help me finish that.
The Post: You’ve worked as a boxing commentator and film critic. What drew you to those fields?
R.A.: Well, there’s only three things in the world I know anything about: it’s hip-hop music and boxing and film. I’m a super film nerd. I’m a super boxing historian, and I’m a hip-hop historian. Many people know more about the culture of hip-hop than me. There was some people that were there in 1973 in the parks, 1975, ’70. I wasn’t there, so those people noticed a lot of stuff I don’t know, but I’m just talking about the whole scale of the whole history. Since I was 11 years old, I studied every aspect of it, and I do that with everything I get obsessed about. So boxing, I knew the whole, entire history of it, so when boxing professional fighters and world champions wanted to get press, they knew that I was the hip, cool, go-to guy. I got a lot of world champions and Vibe Magazine, (The) Source Magazine, XXL Rides and all these rides magazines. And then Ring Magazine had me writing, which is the biggest boxing magazine in history and existed for over 100 years. It was basically the publicists of the world champions, from Bernard Hopkins, Floyd Mayweather, to whoever was popping at the time … So when I was doing the boxing stuff, then magazines would hit me up about movies because they knew, “Oh, he’s a movie psycho, too.” So I was writing cover stories for Complex Magazine. I don’t know how it happened. I guess when there’s a knowledgeable guy to go — and plus, I’m not just a knowledgeable nerdy type; I write hip-hop style — they go, “Oh, he’s kind of cool, too, and edgy,” so they were coming to me for that. … They were having me do a lot of great interviews with a lot of legends. I just got into that, but then it’s like everything else, like the documentary. It’s very time-consuming. So you go, “Do you concentrate on your music career, or do you write for all these magazines?” It’s taken so much time that I couldn’t focus on music as much, so I stopped doing it.
The Post: If you weren’t in hip-hop, do you think you’d be making even bigger waves in film and criticism or doing something completely different?
R.A.: If I wasn’t doing hip-hop, I would be making movies. When the COVID happened, you’re not doing shows anymore. That’s tough for artists. My main love for hip-hop is doing live shows and rocking the stage. That’s why I do it. Even when I record albums, I make the songs for call and response and for aggression. I know what song is going to work where during a live concert, so now, you take the live concert out, and it takes the fun out of it. It’s like, damn. So now I’m thinking, “OK, we’re in COVID world. Shows are postponed until next year. Maybe I go and do a couple low budget features.” I have this — I don’t want to give it away because it’s a simple idea, and it’s not my “be all, end all” fantasy — idea to do for a movie, but I thought of a one-location, two-or-three-actor type script that I think I might want to shoot during COVID just because I could do it for no money. It’s not my ideal fantasy project. But I’m thinking, “What’s something I could shoot for no money or next to no money, for cheap?” I guess if I wasn’t doing hip-hop, I would have put all my time and efforts into filmmaking, I’m sure. All my music videos, a lot of them are produced, written, directed, edited all by me. A lot of the film historian and knowledge I know goes into the music videos.
The Post: Each of your three studio albums mention death in some way in the title. The last two, Legends Never Die and All My Heroes Are Dead, seem to juxtapose each other. Is this your way of saying everyone you look up to isn’t legendary, or did you change your mind within those few years and decide even the most memorable people fade away in memory?
R.A.: I think the last part of your sentence. Legends Never Die was after my father died. That was like a legend never died; you’re with us forever. It was coming after the Die, Rugged Man, Die. It was a follow-up to that, so it’s like, “You can’t kill me, motherf------. ‘Die, Rugged Man, die,’ I’m still here; legends never die.” It was a braggadocious-type title, but at the same time was a homage to my father and all the greats that we had lost in hip-hop and all that stuff. Time goes by, and you’ll see it as you get older: everybody dies. … Every time you put on the damn Twitter, somebody else you thought was legendary or loved or thought was dope is dead. Then your era of hip-hop where skill was what mattered and live rocking, and if you wasn’t good enough to rock the show, if you wasn’t good enough to compete, you wasn’t taken serious in hip-hop. That mindset and that era is dead. That’s not where we live anymore. Now, it’s about vibes. It’s about clicks. It’s about a popularity contest. Hip-hop culture, it lives on the underground. The era of 1988 is dead to the masses, so my album is like, “Hey, all my heroes are dead.” I’m coming out of the ground, trying to resurrect what I loved, what I came up loving in the world and the era that I came from. I’m digging it up and showing the world. It’s multiple meanings, and there’s a lot of depth on this album, too.
The Post: You get right to it in the intro of your latest album, All My Heroes Are Dead. You and your fans have saved each other, so is it safe to say you’re not leaving music anytime soon?
R.A.: COVID turns you. We’re all halfway Schizo as it is. You contradict your own thoughts every day. You think something one day; you think something different the other day, and COVID will turn you a little Schizo. So you start thinking, “Hey, my whole career, I’m never gonna leave. I’m here forever.” And then when you can’t do shows and you’re trying to do everything you can to get your music out there and trying to get the world to hear what you did and share it with the world, and then you get smacked around. You go, “Hey, maybe this will be the last one.” Your mind tells you different things. That’s the thing, they hold rappers, I don’t know, too high in regard to where — I’ve seen it happen my whole childhood — if you say something on a record and then you say something different a year later, they’ll go, “Oh, he’s a hypocrite or a contradiction.” It’s like, the human mind is a f------ work of contradiction. You think something two years ago, and two years later, you don’t think that no more. You go day by day in life, and you figure out where you want to go next each day. But I think I’m gonna stick around. I think I could get past this COVID and give the fans some more.
The Post: All My Heroes Are Dead is your first album as a father. Specifically, there’s a track called “First Born” dedicated to your daughter, and you promise you’ll be there for her no matter what. How does being a father change your music?
R.A.: Well, when your music is honest, any big experience in your life changes it. Your thoughts are different; the way you view the world is different. When I lost my father, everything changed from there. When you gain a daughter and you gain a son, it all changes, just your world view, but let me tell you something. A lot of people feel like, “Oh, you had a daughter. Now, are you ashamed of all the fucked up things you said in music?” It’s like, no, hell no, my daughter is smart. She’s not an idiot. And she’s not gonna be like, “Oh, daddy said bad words.” I’m still going to say my foul shit. I’m still going to be me, and my daughter’s smart enough. I’m not going to raise her like a nun. She’s going to be smart enough to understand daddy’s wild. It’s not like “Oh, I gotta do it, and I gotta hush and make sure I don’t offend nobody.” That part of it didn’t change me. When you have a kid, there’s this extreme love that you never ever even imagined you could ever feel, so stronger than anything. You get a little more emo. You start crying at things, and you’re like, “What the hell am I crying for? What the hell is this?” You hit your 40s, and you have a daughter. You turn into a soft pile of gush.
The Post: The music video for “All Systems Go,” which premiered July 29, already has over 350,000 views. It looks and feels like a mind trip. What was your vision for this video?
R.A.: On that particular video, there’s a director called Jonas Govaerts, and Jaak De Digitale and they’re these psychotic, insane Belgian guys, and Jack does tons of drugs. He does all these drugs and does this acid trip visuals. The director directed it, put it all together, and then Jack did tons of drugs and turned that into what it is. I’m not a drug guy, really, but the acid trip is real. That was all what was in Jack’s damn brain. A lot of my older videos, I would help write; I’d help put them together. But that particular video, I just showed up, and they put me in a freezing cold pool and put some things on my head. If you watch 2001, which obviously is a better film than my video, it starts off with the famous shot of Neanderthals. They throw the bone up into the spaceship. I like to keep it in a Kubrick-2001-on-crack type of world, with very little money. The thing with Kubrick’s film, it wasn’t a big hit right away, and then the hippies started doing drugs. It was the ’60s, and everybody would just get f------ high, and they went to see 2001, and then years later now, it’s a masterpiece. Everyone understands his brilliance. First when it came out, Kubrick was too smart for people, so not everybody got it right away. Not saying that my video’s 2001, either, just a low budget, rapper-influenced version of a masterpiece.
The Post: Let’s say someone opened whatever streaming service they use and saw your album. They’re deciding between giving it a listen or not. If you could become the voice in their head, what would you say to persuade them to click play?
R.A.: Listen, we orchestrated a cinematic journey into the psyche, man. Blood, sweat and a bit of a hip-hop masterpiece. Don’t f--- and f--- yourself over by not hitting that play button. What? Where do you live? I’m going to come to your house and force you to listen to it now. I’m just kidding. It’s something that we put a lot of work into. I have the best DJs on the planet involved: DJ Jazzy Jeff, DJ Diamond Jay, all the legendary DJs. I have the greatest rappers that ever lived on the album: Kool G Rap, Ice-T, Ghostface Killah, Immortal Technique, Chuck D. Chris Conway, one of the greatest hip-hop engineers that ever lived, and it’s a lot of the greatest people that have existed in hip-hop came together to help me on my project. You’d be really missing out if you didn’t hit that play button. We just have so many amazing musical contributors to this project. I’m not so bad at rapping, either.
The Post: What can fans expect from you next?
R.A.: Right now, I’m planning a duet album with another artist, but I don’t want to say who it is in case something doesn’t go down. I’m gonna wait until it becomes real to announce it. What I was going to do is tour of this album and then make a movie as well. Touring is dead right now, so I’m not sure if I’m going to have that extra funding for a film project at the moment.
The Post: Is there anything you want to add?
R.A.: Shoutout to everybody in Ohio. You guys are the future, going to college, trying to educate yourselves. We’re getting old. We need you guys to come save the country.