In the digital age, it's hard to go unnoticed. Message boards and social platforms will obsess over and pick the meat entirely off of every niche movement or scene, especially when it comes to music. Yet in a genre and style that's so prominent in today's social climate, rapper Ras Kass (real name John Austin IV) is one of the most underrated.
The 43-year-old's 1996 debut Soul on Ice — its title a reference to the essay collection that Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver wrote in prison — is heralded by true hip-hop heads as the West Coast rap album. Like Cleaver's book, Soul on Ice offers an outspoken, intelligent voice in the ongoing discourse on American race relations; it's a cultural and political document that could just as easily have been released today.
2014's Blasphemy saw Ras Kass paired with virtuoso producer Apollo Brown; it's an album that showcases Ras' evisceration of American politics and organized religion. In one verse on the track "Deliver Us from Evil," he's able to dismantle the nobility of English royalty through their Germanic roots, proclaim his identity as a Black Hebrew Israelite, castigate the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians and argue that Jesus Christ was, indeed, black. At a time when Run the Jewels' Killer Mike is a frequent guest on CNN and Bill Maher panels, perhaps Ras Kass remains unbooked out of fear.
His sophomore album, 1998's Rasassination, offered a who's-who of '90s rap luminaries, with guest features from Dr. Dre, RZA, Xzibit, Kurupt, Mack 10 and Twista. The album saw him hit No. 63 on the Billboard charts, but for as many "right place at the right time" breakout stories, there are just as many (if not more) divergent tales. The rapper faced classic industry disputes, with his first label, Priority Records, getting bought out by Capitol. His third album, Van Gogh, was left hanging after the merger, with bootleggers distributing the near-finished album before any singles could be officially released. He's since moved on to flourish as an independent artist.
Perhaps the lack of respect and notoriety is rooted in the fact that Ras Kass, the self-proclaimed "Kendrick before Kendrick," is technically a relic in today's hip-hop landscape. Maybe it's the radio play and fanfare for mumbling rappers who have displaced bar-spitters like Ras Kass. But don't pigeonhole the MC as just old hip-hop: Look up the single "Another Pint," featuring grindcore act (and fellow Volume performers) Rot Monger. Not exactly the boom-bap you think of with old-school rap. ♦
Ras Kass plays Fri, June 2 at 10:25 pm on The Pin! Main Stage.