By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
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.
"All the rappers and producers were like, 'This kid is incredible!' " he remembers, perhaps a bit incredibly, adding that labels quickly began courting him. "They were flying me all over the world. I was a broke-ass, trashy white kid, and they were licking and kissing my balls."
Signed to Jive for a six-figure advance in 1992, he began doing what any 18-year-old kid from Long Island would do: riding around in limos, eating fancy softshell-crab dinners, and taking photos of his balls and placing them around the office. Before long, female employees were complaining about him, and he was forced to take meetings with studio executives at local eateries. Along the way, he befriended another up-and-coming MC, Notorious B.I.G., and they took to playing demos for each other.
"Let's make something to offend motherfuckers," R.A. recalls proposing, whereupon Big smoked a blunt and spent an hour writing his verse for "Cunt Renaissance." If you're a fan of grimy, depraved rap, you can't do much better than that track—the chorus involves vaginas and spoons—and R.A. more than holds his own, his affected, lispy flow in contrast to the assured, methodical one he would later perfect.
After his stillborn debut, Night of the Bloody Apes was shelved (at his own request, he says) and he was finally let go from Jive, he again began sleeping in the streets, occasionally pressing up 12-inch bootlegs of his Jive songs and selling them for cash. He was signed to Priority in 1998, but after the label was bought out by Capitol and his new benefactors demanded "radio songs," R.A. again split. After interviewing him for Vice magazine, Devin Horwitz eventually signed him to his fledgling Nature Sounds label. And so it went that the man behind the song "Every Record Label Sucks Dick" was once again hitched to one; R.A. was given ownership of his masters and complete creative control. "If I want to smack my cock against the speaker for 13 songs, I could do that," he says.
"I certainly wouldn't tell him how to make music," puts in Horwitz, purporting not to understand why so many studio executives were turned off by him. "R.A. is one of the most forthcoming and straight-up guys I've ever met. I think he has come to realize that he can control his own destiny, be successful, and make money."
R.A. says that independent recording and Internet promotion have helped him find his place in the rap universe, and that he has found happiness as a result. Legendary Classics, Vol. 1 will be followed by a studio album next spring; in the meantime, he's working on a collaboration with Prince Paul and a book on boxing for Testify Books. He has finally secured distribution for Bad Biology, a horror comedy about a boy with a giant dick and a girl with seven clitorises that he made with Basket Case director Frank Henenlotter. Finally, there's a biopic about his father, which, in part, humorously details his escape from a mental hospital 30 years ago—a scheme that apparently required him to beat down the doctors who stood in his way.
The rapper concludes that he can't account for the veracity of all of his father's stories, but nonetheless insists that absolutely everything he himself raps about is true. Which makes one wonder just exactly how many sexually transmitted diseases he is walking around with these days. "Everything's real but those parts, ladies," he retorts, before pausing for a beat. "Fellas, it's real." In reality, he confesses that he is sometimes not sure himself, which is just as well. Not knowing has often worked as a coping mechanism in R.A.'s life, which itself is panning out as something of a horror comedy with a happy ending.