Most musicians and record labels are like, 'Yo, the masses are stupid,'" says New York rhymer C-Rayz Walz. "But I've got more love than that. I've got more love than that for humanity, and people who buy hip-hop. I don't think they're stupid, and I don't care if it's a black or white audience. I make my music for intelligent people."
Applying this philosophy takes discipline. On "FirstWordsWorse," a track from Year of the Beast, his forceful new disc on the Definitive Jux imprint, Walz declares, "I won't dumb it down to double my dollars." Yet he understands that by taking this stance, he risks alienating an audience unaccustomed to a healthy sonic diet. "If somebody feeds you shit sandwiches from the time you're a baby, by the time you're six, ain't nobody can tell you that poo-poo's not good," he maintains. "You'll be like, 'C'mon, eat some shit. I've been eatin' it my whole life.' And that's the way it is with music. They haven't been turned on to quality hip-hop with good beats and good lyrics and everything across the board.
"If somebody listens to 50 Cent, they don't have to think that hard," he continues. "They can understand it right away. But if they get turned on to something deeper and start listening closer, they'll be like, 'This is so much better. I feel this more.'"
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Walz, whose given surname is Shabazz, could certainly hype his thug-life credentials if he wanted to take a more predictable hip-hop career path. His dad, who made his living peddling drugs, was murdered when his son was still a toddler. By the time he reached his teens, Walz says, "I was sticking up stores, sticking up white people -- or should I say green people, because white people had all the money in Midtown when I was growing up." Although he promised his mother that he'd draw the line at dealing in deference to his father's fate, he eventually succumbed to the siren call of crack cash, only to be busted shortly thereafter in what he saw as cosmic payback for breaking his word. In all, he spent about nine months in juvenile facilities or adult lockups, but the experience didn't scare him straight. According to him, "I was inspired by jail. I had a plan: I'd build up my muscles, write an album, then come home, get signed and live happily ever after." Instead, he returned to robbery upon his release, and he might still be following the way of the gun were it not for the fact that "my mother's voice was always in my head. They say a woman can't raise a man. Well, she definitely proved that one can. She raised a positive man."
This attitude doesn't exist in a vacuum. Grimmer impulses remain with Walz, he concedes, "and if I gave in to that kind of existence, I could imagine being real evil. I could imagine myself chopping someone's hands off and getting a chicken and covering them with a black star and eight black candles, so nobody would touch the body. Terrible things. But I'm not going to pass that on. I've made a choice, a conscious choice, not to." He adds that his two-and-a-half-year-old son, Ravi, who inspired the title of Walz's Def Jux debut, 2003's Ravipops, gives him extra incentive not to ride the cycle of violence. "Ravi needs me to be there," he says. "I'd rather be a bum in the street and be around for him than spend five years in jail for trying to get him some money."
Just because Walz traded crime for hip-hop doesn't mean that he left his aggression behind. He made his reputation as a battle MC -- he was a member of the appropriately monikered Stronghold unit -- and in the absence of big-time contract offers, he took charge personally, issuing a slew of singles and early long-players such as The Prelude, Singular Plurals and Limelight. (The latter featured a cameo from an exceedingly unlikely collaborator, Academy Award-winning actor Adrian Brody.) Much of this material called for a radical response to injustice that Walz no longer endorses. "It's about evolution, not revolution," he allows. "Think about it: A .38 Special is a revolver, and after you bust six times, each round has come around and you don't have no more shells. But if you're an evolver, you can turn that .38 into a laser, and with crystals and mirrors, you've got unlimited sparks."
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Metaphors like this one abound on Beast, a lyrically dense effort that often uses irony and humor to strengthen its arguments. "BlackOut," featuring the Angel and the Preacher, is a prime example. The first half of the track, introduced by the chant "We're black and we wanna be white!," satirizes African-Americans who fantasize about changing races: "All the dues I paid, I wanna be dude! in the shade," Walz declares. Then the tables are turned, with his Caucasian opposites announcing, "We're white and we wanna be black!" -- a desire supported by the couplet "How would you feel if you lived in the Village/And were told all your ancestors did was steal, kill and pillage?" To Walz, this absurd juxtaposition shows that "you shouldn't label people, and you shouldn't say 'Black people are like this' and 'White people are like that.' They're just people, yo. If I kill you and put you into the ground, and then somebody kills me and puts me in the ground, in a couple of months there's not going to be black or white. There's not going to be any color. All it'll be is straight decay. And how much does black and white matter then?"
While Beast includes cameos from outsiders such as Dead Prez's M-1, who turns up during "BlackSoap," and Jean Grae, a guest on "Pink," the disc's crew is anchored by Def Jux cohorts such as Rob Sonic, Aesop Rock and El-P, the imprint's owner. "I wanted to show the Jux fans, the core Jux base, that there's definitely a unity within the whole Def Jux collective," Walz says. "There's endless possibilities within that range, and they're family. At the end of the day, I'd rather be chillin' with family than sleepin' with the enemy with one eye open."
Being identified as an indie rapper makes commercial success that much more difficult to attain in an industry that's made a mint catering to the lowest common denominator. Nevertheless, Walz believes he's up to the challenge. "I remain hungry, I watch my health, I keep positive energy and I stay strong, even when I don't get encouragement. That's the way it was when hip-hop started -- using the music to go from having nothing to having something. And now that they've made hip-hop about what you have? We're going to take it back to the basics. In order to get to paradise, you must do as I instruct you. I commend you to riot and overthrow your mind."