John R. Austin II, better known to the world as Ras Kass is an emcee out of Carson, CA who started making a name for himself in the early nineties. His rap alias was inspired by the 18th Century Ethiopian Emperor, Yohannes IV, whose government name was Ras Kassa prior to him becoming ruler. In 1994 Ras Kass independently released a single called “Remain Anonymous,” which would help garner his first national attention and earn a spot in the once highly touted Hip-Hop Quotable column in The Source. My first time hearing Ras Kass rhyme was also in ‘94, when he rhymed alongside Ahmad and Saafir on the single, “Come Widdit” from the Street Fighter Soundtrack. He would go on to make more cameos (see Sway & King Tech’s “Wake Up Show Anthem ‘94” and “Riiiot” from Chino XL’s debut album) and spit impressive freestyles on several different radio station appearances, which would eventually lead to him signing a deal with Priority, where he would release his debut album (on Patchwerk/Priority), Soul On Ice.
Ras Kass would recruit relatively unknown producers to construct the music for Soul On Ice, and he as well would lend a helping hand with the production, as he’s credited with several co-production credits in the album liner notes. Soul On Ice would produce three singles and cracked the Billboard Top 200, peaking at 169, while the critics’ reviews on the album ranged from decent to great. Over the years Soul On Ice (and Ras Kass) has developed a cult like following, as many hail it as a classic.
The album title was influenced by and borrowed from the former Black Panther, Eldridge Cleaver’s classic book of conscious Black militant essays. Would Ras Kass’ Soul On Ice live up to the classicness and consciousness of its inspiration? Let’s discuss.
On Earth As It Is… – The first song of the evening finds Ras Kass paralleling God and religion with hip-hop and other earthly things: “It’s a blessing just to live another day they say, ‘cause the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, so my niggas pray five times a day, and still carry a trey-five-seven…I’ll be walking through the pearly gates with an infrared scope ten millimeter heater, ‘cause if my name ain’t in The Book of Life, I’m snuffin’ St. Peter.” Props to Ras for the unique concept, and he does get off some clever couplets, but his choppy flow and the atrocious instrumental malign what had potential to be a great record. Oh, and that terrible mishap with the drums at the beginning of the third verse is unforgivable. I can’t believe no one in his camp caught that in the mixing and mastering of the album.
Anything Goes – This was the second single released SOI. Ras and Lamont “Bird” Holdby (or “Holbdy” depending on which song credit you read in the liner notes…I’ll just call him Bird from here on out) loop up Al B. Sure’s “Oooh, This Love Is So” to create an airy melodic groove that our host uses to discuss the never ending pursuit of money, by any means necessary: “I rock beats without bakin’ soda, and money gets washed, it’s only illegal if you get caught, thought you knew, ‘cause the DEA do it too, keep separate books for the internal revenue, capitalism is pimps and hoes, in ‘96 I suppose, anything goes.” I love this instrumental. I’m pretty sure I stole the cassette single back in the day so my crew could freestyle over the instrumental. This one ends with a misogynistic but funny interlude to set up the next song…
Marinatin’ – This is another instrumental we used to freestyle over back in the day (I thought it was the B-side to the “Anything Goes” single, but I guess it wasn’t…anyhoo…). Bobcat hooks up a relaxed and smooth backdrop that sounds submerged in haunted synthesized water, as Ras Kass details a night filled with intoxicated debauchery. Oh, and don’t forget, it’s BYOB: Bring your own bud, brew and bitches. Not the most original song idea, but still enjoyable.
Reelishymn – Ras and Bird hook up a beautiful laidback instrumental that finds Ras jaded by the politics of the music industry and voicing his frustrations: “Fools be on my dick like foreskin, but what before then? Now when niggas prop me, I’m skeptical, because this rap shit is extremely unethical, and with slight notoriety, comes anxiety, Now I’m supposed to play celebrity, when nobody celebrated me at my D.O.B.? And label reps wanna play me, but I’m familiar with record company rule# 4080, fuck Luther and Sade, for takin’ food out my baby’s, mouth denying sample clearance, I’m losing my mind, outer body experience.” Gypsy adds bluesy notes on the hook to enhance the melancholic beauty of the track. This is easily one of my favorite records on SOI.
Nature Of The Threat – Ras Kass takes nearly eight minutes to breakdown the evolution of the white man and all his devilish deeds since the beginning of mankind. Our host shares some pretty interesting information (some that’s factual and some that’s debatable, but it’s all interesting), but this is way too much complex content to squeeze into one song and expect the listener to be able to digest it all in one sitting. Ras’ choppy delivery and the horrible instrumental don’t help matters, either. This would make for great text for a book or a lecture at a university, but it doesn’t translate well as a record.
Etc. – Super mid.
Sonset – Some rapper from the East Coast done pissed Ras Kass all the way off, as he uses this one to fire shots back at any New York emcee dissin’ his coast, purely off “geographic prejudice”: “So why these niggas actin’ 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.” Ras’s battle bars are sharp, but this instrumental is “watching paint dry” boring. This one ends with one of Ras’ guys spittin’ a hi-larious freestyle before the next song comes in.
Drama – Coolio joins Ras Kass on this pimp duet, as the two take turns painting game all over this sneaky slippery smooth musical canvas. We can also mark Tribe Degrees of Separation off for this post, thanks to Ras’ reference of The Abstract’s government name: “The bitch saw me in the Lex and didn’t know it came from Avis, now she’s on the tip like my name was John Davis.” I still can’t believe Coolio is gone…and shoutout to the short-lived Sega CD gaming system.
The Evil That Men Do – Ras Kass sounds like he’s at a therapy session sharing some of the traumatic experiences that scarred him and eventually led to him becoming a convicted felon (the baby powder incident back in ’81 was kind of crazy, though). Ras’ honest bars combined with the emotional instrumental make for a powerfully compelling song, and it’s the second consecutive song that jacks a line from an Ice Cube record for the hook (see “Color Blind” and “Who’s The Mack?” for the previous song). After all that heavy content, Ras follows it up with a lighthearted interlude to break up the tension and make you chuckle a bit.
If/Then – Ras keeps the playful energy from the previous skit alive with this one, as he spits clever bars, witty punchlines, and sounds a little like his buddy, Chino XL, when he takes heartless jabs at a few of hip-hop’s fallen soldiers (Trouble T Roy and Eazy-E) for the sake of shock value and a laugh, which I’m sure he got out of me back in my immature teenage years, so who am I to judge? For the hook, Ras puts a humorous twist on the refrain from the misogynistic masterpiece that was “Bitches Ain’t Shit” off The Chronic, and the thick hypnotic bass line, accompanied by the mystic horn loop makes for an addictively dope instrumental.
Miami Life – This was the lead single off SOI, which was originally released on The Substitute Soundtrack in April of ‘96. The track opens with beautiful harp led chords that make you feel like you’re entering heaven’s pearly gates, then your ascension is suddenly interrupted by police sirens that bring you crashing back to earth, before the beautifully breezy backdrop comes in conjuring up visions of bangin’ bathing suited bodies relaxing on South Beach in the middle of June (damn, I gotta get back to Miami soon). The Substitute was a movie starring Tom Berenger who plays a substitute teacher at a Miami High School, hence the song title, and Ras builds his rhymes around Miami pop-culture (I love his opening line: “I’m launchin’ rockets and scuds at Crockett and Tubbs,” and the bar that starts the second verse: ”Walk these streets, with more heat than Alonzo Mourning”), politics (i.e.; Senator Bob Dole and C. Delores Tucker’s “war on hip-hop”) and other random rhymes that occasionally reference the movie. I’ve always loved this song. Easily my favorite record in Ras Kass’ catalog.
Soul On Ice – This was the title track and the third single off SOI. Ras gets off more witty bars, but his offbeat delivery and the below average instrumental distract his clever rhymes from fully shining.
Ordo Abchao (Order Out Of Chaos) – Vooodu (with a co-credit going to Ras Kass) takes the listener on an airy and mysterious odyssey, while Ras weaves facts and conspiracy theories together, providing a heapin’ helpin’ of food for thought placed over great music to end the show.
They say it’s not what you say but how you say it, and that “how” might be even more important when it comes to emceeing. On Soul On Ice, Ras Kass proves to be an intelligent emcee with wit and great ideas, but at times his execution gets stifled by his unorthodox choppy delivery. Most of SOI sounds like Ras Kass laid the verses and hooks a cappella, then later placed instrumentals to fit underneath his vocals. Sometimes the instrumentals work well with Ras’ unique delivery, but a handful of them don’t and the bewildered bars morph into a bunch of words that sound like awkward spoken word poems over hip-hop beats. And things become excruciatingly hard to listen to when the instrumentals are horrible (i.e., “On Earth As It Is…” and “Nature Of The Threat”). Like fingers on chalkboard excruciating.
Soul On Ice is a decent album (I enjoyed more than half of it), but considering the anticipation and hype built around it when it came out, I was expecting more. Maybe Ras should have taken the Soul off Ice and let it thaw all the way out.
My issue with Rass Kass has always been the poor beat selection of his. I have a few of his 12″ singles but neither album. Another issue as he said was sample clearances. He released a white label of “Understandable Smooth” which couldn’t get cleared due to the Anita Baker record that was used in it. I believe another reason that hurt the ablum was that they tricked a lot of fans. With the video of Soul On Ice. Which used the Diamond D remix instead of the album version. The Diamond D remix being the superior. Had cats mad that it wasn’t included in the album. Which should’ve been. That was a common occurrence back in the 90s. They’d use the remixes for the videos. To get people excited but you’d buy the cassette or CD album and nine times out of ten. It wasn’t on it. The album version being the inferior. Examples of that were Steady B “Serious”, Funkdoobiest “Rock On”, EPMD “Give The People” videos. On a side note. The school where The Substitute was filmed at; Miami Senior HS. Was close to where I used to live. When I was still living in Miami.
Agree. Ras’ album definitely didn’t live up to the hype and the common consensus was Soul on Ice suffered from sub par beats. With Ras being from L.A. and signed to Priority, a major record label, there was no excuse to not have some fire beats! But maybe there were several sample clearance issues? Either way, he must have listened to the critique, since he enlisted Dr. Dre to oversee his sophomore effort, but only to receive similar results.
And Deedub, I had that cassette single as well. We used to rhyme over that Anything Goes beat too!
I actually liked ” nature of the threat” I remember Westwood playing it on radio one in Britain and I had to get the album..I still think I like this album maybe his best