By Steve Weinstein
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As the story goes, R.A. the Rugged Man really wanted to get dropped from Jive Records. An employee of the label had sued him for sexual harassment, for one thing; R.A. says they paid her off out of his budget. (Jive had no comment.) So he decided to take matters into his own hands. At a 1994 showcase for such labelmates as Keith Murray and Fu-Schnickens, R.A. took to the stage and performed songs called "Every Record Label Sucks Dick" and "Cunt Renaissance."
As MTV's cameras rolled, he brought out a duct-taped, handcuffed streetwalker he'd just picked up outside to carouse with him onstage, whereupon attendees became visibly unsettled. Things got even more out of control when R.A.'s pals began taunting Murray's crew and throwing speakers at the crowd, eventually inciting a mini-riot. "I figured, let me do whatever the fuck I want to do and go nuts," R.A. tells me recently over a turkey club and cheese fries at a diner near his Harlem apartment. "But it backfired on me because they held a grudge." Instead of dropping him, Jive wouldn't let him out of his contract for years, he says, despite other labels' interest.
Like this one, most of the Long Island–bred rapper's stories feature comedy, tragedy, debauchery, obscenity, and self-sabotage. And hookers. They often have hookers. "I used to have a little stable of women back in the day," he says. "Say I wanted to negotiate beat prices with a known producer. I'd be like, 'Homegirl, go take homeboy in the back room, have sex with him and a couple of his friends.' All of a sudden, it's like, 'What beats do you need, R.A.?' "
After the Jive incident, he says he was blackballed from venues around the country. Eventually deal-less, show-less, and homeless, his self-esteem was in the dumps. But he started to feel better around the time he realized everyone else was crazy and he was perfectly sane.
And so, thanks to his freight-train delivery, compellingly profane rhymes, and borderline sociopathic refusal to compromise, R.A. is nowadays a fairly well-known rap veteran. He rhymes, writes books, produces films, and pals around with members of the Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep. All of this despite having put out only one proper studio album.
Stories about R.A. Thorburn often sound apocryphal, like the one about how he took a dump on a mixing board. But there are certain things you can be sure of. Yes, the white MC did drop an N-bomb on his Nature Sounds 2004 debut, Die, Rugged Man, Die. Yes, he was a hardcore McCain/Palin advocate in the 2008 election. (He has called Obama "the world's greatest used-car salesman.") And, yes, he is one of the most underrated and well-connected underground MCs in hip-hop.
The proof can be found on his new collection, Legendary Classics, Vol. 1, a greatest-hits disc that somehow doubles as an anthology of rarities and unreleased tracks. Highlights include, of course, "Cunt Renaissance," featuring Notorious B.I.G., who famously complimented R.A. by telling Ego Trip magazine, "I thought I was the illest." There's a track from Rawkus Records' Soundbombing II compilation, and collaborations with Havoc from Mobb Deep, Kool G Rap, and Sadat X. The star attraction spends much of the record bragging about being broke, ugly, and spreading STDs to fat women, but his compassion often runs as deep as his misogyny. Consider "Uncommon Valor: A Vietnam Story," in which he spits some 40 straight stanzas about the Vietnam odyssey of his father, a Staff Sergeant who was shot and infected with Agent Orange, which R.A. believes is responsible for the death of two of his siblings and his nephew.
When I arrive at the rapper's apartment, he is just emerging from the shower, his balding head and acre of back hair still wet. The tiny studio has no furniture to speak of other than a bed plopped down exactly in the middle, surrounded by clothes and trash, with stacks of DVDs covering almost an entire wall. He puts an American flag doo-rag on his head and swears everything in his rhymes is factual. As for the rumors? They're not far off, either. "All that stuff you heard about me/It's probably true," he raps on Classics track "Give It Up." "Heard I got the AIDS virus?/I probably do."
Raised poor in Suffolk County, R.A.—he says it's his real name but won't divulge what the initials stand for; the Internet suggests "Reginald Arbuckle"—was shooting target practice with his father before his hands were big enough to fit around the handle of a gun. His school, meanwhile, placed him in the "retarded classes," as he recalls. "They wrote a letter to my mother that said I must be handicapped," he says. "It was mainly because of behavior."
During R.A.'s high school years, after his dad kicked him out of the house, he says he found himself sleeping in shopping centers and friends' homes. He also traveled to parties in outer boroughs, battle-rapping anyone he could, and eventually built a cadre of up-and-coming friends. At Chung King Studios, one day in 1991, with his associates Yaggfu Front, R.A. took his boombox from room to room where people like the Trackmasters and Busta Rhymes were recording. Asking them if they wanted to hear the greatest MC out, he played a tape of himself performing songs about . . . how he was the greatest MC out.