Back in 1994, a rapper named Ras Kass made a little buzz in the underground. With his contribution to the group Western HemisFear, his verse on the “Wake Up Show Anthem”, and his single “Remain Anonymous”/“Won’t Catch Me Runnin’”, he became known for his anti-mainstream sentiments and his intelligent, sometimes complex, yet witty lyrics. In the mid-nineties, a lyrical rapper from the West Coast (who wasn’t afraid to use typical East Coast sounds) was a refreshing change from all the G-Funk being produced by other Californian rappers, and Ras’ unique aesthetic had everybody yearning for a full-length LP.
Ras Kass’ début album titled “Soul On Ice” dropped two years later in 1996 and thankfully Ras kept the lyrical style that was present in his underground singles and appearances. But that being said, “Soul On Ice” did contain some more conventional content and when the album was first released there were many people who slagged off the production, which for me was a little harsh. Some critics didn’t just call out certain tracks, they said that the entire album contained poor-quality beats which I staunchly disagree with to this day.
The album for me contains numerous cases of decent mid-nineties production, there’s “Anything Goes” and “Marinatin’” which are both smooth and mellow, and since these two songs feature a slightly “mainstream” sound it’s strange that they weren’t more popular. Something like “Miami Life” could also have been more successful had it been marketed better, the sound of this song is surely “acceptable” for a Pop fan and there’s even drug-based lyrics which are usually popular with corrupt radio and TV stations.
Aside from a few potential radio-friendly tracks, the aesthetic of this album switches between “East” and “West Coast” sounds; “Marinatin’” in particular is a smooth, typical West Coast track, whereas “Etc.” has a distinctly East Coast vibe especially with the sample (“pen predator et cetera”) from Black Moon’s “How Many MC’s”. And that brings me to the whole East Vs. West beef which was brewing during the time of this album’s creation, and Ras Kass’ song “Sonset” gives a great response. The title of this song I assume refers to Jeru Da Damaja’s “The Sun Rises In The East” and certain lines also reference a few East Coast songs such as De La Soul and Biz Markie’s “Lovely How I Let My Mind Float” and Das EFX’s “They Want EFX”. In that respect, “Sonset” doesn’t diss all of the East and respects Hip-Hop’s foundations in the Bronx, however with some regional prejudice bubbling in the genre, it was nice to hear a well thought out argument from someone from the left coast (rather than making music videos kicking over Manhattan buildings… Dogg …ahem… Pound). This line from “Sonset” says it all; “So why these niggas acting like, since they live in the state that rap originates, they automatically all time greats? It takes classic material to make phat shit, not proof of New York residence and an accent”.
Since Ras Kass is known for his complex rhymes and scholarly themes, there are of course some great lyricism on tracks like the aforementioned “Sonset”, “The Evil That Men Do”, “Nature Of The Threat, and “Ordo Abchao”. The topics waver greatly however, from “On Earth As It Is…” which is jam-packed with biblical metaphors, “Marinatin’” which focusses on legal and illegal money making, “Nature Of The Threat” which is about racism, and “Ordo Abchao” which tackles the New World Order. There’s also brilliant lines like “Existence is a life sentence” from “Reelishym”, humorous similes like “Eazy cum, Eazy go like Eric Wright” from “If/Then”, and comments about Hip-Hop music – “Make a radio hit, heads criticise it; Underground classic, nobody buys it” also from “Reelishym” (which as it turned out perfectly described “Soul On Ice”).
There are of course some issues with this album, and it isn’t all down to the lo-fi, sometimes amateurish production. The worst parts of the album for me are; the unneeded outro to “Anything Goes” (the pointless farting, “Human Nature”, cheesecake skit), a few unfortunate homophobic references to RuPaul (in “Marinatin’ and “Etc.”), and the lacklustre song “If/Then” with Ras going off-beat to the point it feels jarring. “Drama” which sounds like a song by Skee-Lo isn’t needed at all, this is the most Pop-sounding song especially with Coolio on the hook and the overly sexist lyrics which ruin Ras Kass’ other more “enlightened” tracks. “Soul On Ice” contains some introspective, poetic, and sometimes high-brow content but unfortunately there’s also immature and contrived stuff on there too. But with one single, brazen, unashamedly non-mainstream track, everything that may be sub-par is pretty much forgiven, and that song is “Nature Of The Threat”.
Easily one of the stand-out tracks on the album, “Nature Of The Threat” is a seven minute long song that takes the form of a chronological history lesson of Caucasian supremacy and racism. This track has outlived so many other songs from the same period, not to mention other joints from Ras Kass himself. The lyrics from this song are spoken about even to this day on Afrocentric, white supremacist, conspiracy theory, and historical forums. The reaction to the song is even evident in the comment section of my review of Ras Kass’ other album “Intellectual Property” where a few people took issue with a song that didn’t even appear on the album in question. But this type of criticism regarding accurate or mainstream history to me is very blinkered – every time film and television tells lies about the past (such as constantly showing the public a Caucasian Jesus) white mainstream revisionism never really gets questioned, but one black musician makes a song with suppressed or alternative history and everybody’s up in arms. That’s pretty racist to me.
The debate “Nature Of The Threat” sparked may not have been intentional but his unorthodox opinion must have affected Ras Kass’ standing within the greater entertainment business – we can’t have a minority having an anti-white racist opinion, but white musicians can get all the way to the top even when they’ve made blatantly racist songs and statements – another contradictory and racist state of affairs. Surely an MC with such an original song should be spoken about more often when it comes to discussing the all-time great rappers, but sadly outside of underground Hip-Hop, the majority of people have no idea about this album or this song.
Yes, “Nature Of The Threat” is overtly anti-white and somewhat racist, but as long as someone is oppressed in their country I think they deserve a free pass to vehemently comment about their situation, and if that brings out some racism then so be it – that’s reparations for a prejudice society. If a Palestinian made a similar track about Israelis or an Aboriginal Australian wrote something like this about white Australians I would be okay with that too. Hell, if a woman wrote a similar song about men or a disabled person wrote this type of track about able-bodied people, I’m sure the same people that feel so offended by Ras’ lyrics would feel very differently. You can only take so much from an unbalanced and unfair society until you air your opinion, when you’re the minority (be it sexual, ethnic, or religious) if your demographic is being oppressed daily, then a little song is the least of your oppressor’s worries. Sometimes what’s needed is a big “fuck you!” to the powers that be, and in this case the target was the white European-American… big deal.
That’s not to say that Ras Kass as an artist should be immune to criticism, in fact it’s downright wrong that over the years he’s become somewhat of a mythic figure who everybody seems to think is 100% underground, political, conscious, and free from reproach. The conventional criticisms regarding reverse racism and bad production however are unfounded in my opinion, if you’re going to criticise Ras Kass there are a few other aspects that should be pointed out about the MC. Like if he’s supposedly anti-Illuminati as he’s stated in “Ordo Abchao” and “How To Kill God” (among others) then why do the contrived “covering one eye” on the “A.D.I.D.A.S.” album cover? Secondly, with crossover-blips like “Drama” and “If/Then” on his début LP, it was obvious that Ras wouldn’t be a full-time political rapper like Immortal Technique for instance. It was pretty evident early on that he would eventually try to be more “mainstream”, songs such as “Ghetto Fabulous” featuring Dr. Dre and Mack 10 (from his second LP “Rassassination”) showed that even the mighty “Endangered Lyricist” Razzy Kazzy would attempt to crossover and appeal to the masses. Ras Kass hasn’t stopped there, for every “Interview With A Vampire” he’s released a “Get Yo’ Money Right” and he’s also made a handful of horribly cheap, contrived, and forgettable songs like “A Game”, “Pop Life” and “Since U Been Gone” (from “Quarterly”) or “On Top” (from “A.D.I.D.A.S.”). He’s also back-tracked with his anti-white and anti-American sentiments – on “Hip Hop Now” for example he rapped… “What do you stand for? We stand for what’s true. The homies that’s red, some white, and some blue…. What do you stand for? American colours; black, brown, white, yellow American brothers” …a lyric that’s not only the antithesis of “Nature Of The Threat” it’s also vomit-inducing and corny.
People always say that this type of stylistic change is an artist “evolving” but to me it lessens the impact of all the good that’s come before. Let’s face it, a rapper changing their style to sell to a bigger section of the buying public isn’t something to be admired, it is if anything a business-move to make more money – it’s hardly a hardcore artistic statement to switch your style to something that’s more popular, it’s simple profit making. Ras Kass aside from “Blasphemy” has made numerous albums and countless songs that almost refute and discredit his début album, and that to me is very disappointing and worthy of criticism. Sure, someone can change their opinion, but in Ras Kass’ case this greatly undermines his magnum opus “Soul On Ice”, and whereas his later albums are all but forgotten, his début LP is still spoken about 20 years later. With the majority of Hip-Hop music and many Hip-Hop musicians succumbing to prevailing sounds and trends, it would be great if a rapper for once stuck to their guns. If Ras Kass can make his upcoming “Soul On Ice 2” without being a post-millennial, pro-American, moralistic, pop-culture referencing, cross-over-wannabe, then he’ll not only rightly be heralded as one of the greats, but the Hip-Hop genre might finally be offered something other than the ordinary.
Back to “Soul On Ice”, I would have preferred if “Drama” and “If/Then” were removed from the album and “Soul On Ice Remix”, “Remain Anonymous”, “Jack Frost”, and the brilliant “Won’t Catch Me Runnin’” were added. If Ras had made these omissions and additions, this album would have easily been a 9/10 especially if the tracklisting was reordered with “Nature Of The Threat” closer to the end of the album. I know that most of these problems were due to issues with Priority Records, and if these elements were fixed in 1995 when the LP was originally set to be released, this would have been a completely different album indeed. Apparently The Source magazine wanted to give this album 6 Mics (5 Mics were the maximum rating) and with these aforementioned tweaks “Soul On Ice” might have been worthy of such an accolade…
The constant criticism of “Soul On Ice” regarding the production is slightly overblown in my opinion, since these days someone like Kendrick Lamar is applauded when he makes a disjointed album. If “To Pimp A Butterfly” and even “Untitled Unmastered” can get overrated by the masses then why can’t an album like this go without heavy criticism? Regardless of your opinion of the beats, or your point of view on racism, you can’t deny that a LP with this much lyricism, this much unique content, this much individuality (and of course the classic song “Nature Of The Threat”) is a classic album in every way. With the majority of rap being dumbed-down and contrived these days, “Soul On Ice” is like a breath of fresh air if you play it today. What this genre needs is an unconventional opinion and some lyrical skill – club-focussed Hip-Hop has its place but every now and again rap fans need to wake up and hear what’s really going on. The issues tackled in “Soul On Ice” haven’t gone away, so where is the next generation’s equivalent commentary on society and politics?
Hip-Hop On Ice.