1) Let’s get the basics out the way: whoooo are you and how long have you been MCing as The Ruby Kid?
– My mom calls me Dan, you can call me Ruby. I’ve been writing poetry (or something like it) for as long as I’ve been able to write. I’ve been recording and performing music as The Ruby Kid since late 2007.
2) Where did the name ‘Ruby Kid’ come from anyway?
– It has a dual meaning. My dad’s family’s name is Rubinstein, but his father and uncles changed it to ‘Randall’ during the 1930s (it wasn’t a good time to have a conspicuously Jewish name). So Ruby is short for Rubinstein; it’s a nod to my culture and heritage, and an expression of pride in it. It’s also because rubies are red; red is the colour traditionally associated with radical, working-class politics, and they’re a pretty central, defining dynamic in my life. They crop up from time to time in my writing too so it made sense to reference them in my emcee name.
3) You’d been all over the place, up north, New York and now you’ve settled in London. What’s with the Jay-Z style jet-setting? It’s an obvious question but has it really influenced your musical style?
– I’m not sure I’d call relocating from Nottingham to Sheffield and then to London “jet-setting”, but thanks for the Jay-Z reference! Now that you mention it I think that, in many ways, the East Midlands Trains rolling stock between Nottingham and Sheffield has been my equivalent of the yacht Hova is standing on with UGK in the “Big Pimpin’” video. Sort of. In a way. Anyway…
I grew up in Nottingham but it was in Sheffield (where I’d moved to go to university) that I really started getting into music seriously so I still feel very connected to the Sheffield music scene, and to Sheffield generally. I love Nottingham too and have a lot of connections with musicians and artists there, and although me and London took a bit of time to get to know each other I think I’ve developed a pretty exciting working relationship with the Big Smoke too.
All three of the cities I’ve lived in certainly cast an enormous shadow over my work. I’m very interested in cities in general – urban geography, town planning, cities as a concept, architecture… pretty much on every level, really – and exploring the relationship between self and place is a major preoccupation of my writing. In my more pretentious, self-indulgent moments I think I conceived of ‘Maps’, my 2010 EP, as a concept project about that issue – what is the relationship between people and the cities we live in, and how do we find our way through these places (figuratively and literally, hence the title)? Politically I’m also fascinated by what I think is the unique potential of cities as sites of struggle. Like all the best things in life they have an incredibly explosive, contradictory character in that while they’re quite brutal places where a lot of the worst exploitation and alienation is going on, they’re also places where working-class people are brought together in a way that’s unique and specific to modern, globalised capitalism. There’s a huge amount of potential for ideas, collective organisation and struggle to develop in that context. There’s also a unique artistic potential as well.
The New York connection is through my mom; she’s from Brooklyn but moved to the UK in the late 1980s to live with my dad. I’m lucky enough to have US citizenship so visit my American family as regularly as I can afford. I feel a profound affinity with that aspect of my heritage too – that working-class, Eastern European, New York Jewish culture, plus the artistic heritage of the Greenwich Village scene in the 1960s that my mom grew up around. You’ll find a lot of references to that in my writing too.4) How would you describe your style to someone not in the know?
– This is always a tricky question, because you want to give people who might not necessarily be hip-hop or poetry aficionados a frame-of-reference that they can relate to, but you also want to avoid using really obscure, esoteric genre or sub-genre labels that just make you sound really pretentious. Usually I describe my music as indie-rap or alternative hip-hop, because I want to situate it within the broad tradition of rap and hip-hop but I want to let people know that it’s also to some extent outside of that or at least engaging with it in a slightly independent or critical way.
Increasingly though I find myself inclined to just say “I write poetry and sometimes rap over beats or music”. Maybe it’s better to just be plainly descriptive in that way and let people process it and find a frame-of-reference for it on their own.5) You’ve sighted Aesop Rock as an influence. I personally think it’s a pretty just comparison when I introduce your music to people. The lyrics and content of your tracks whilst usuallyfollowing a narrative are sometimes quite surreal or at least articulated in a more ‘standard written poetry form’, (Although rapping and poetry are the same thing) then a lot of other MCs. Was this a conscience thing, or just how you write?
– Thanks! It’s always gratifying to be compared to one of your idols on any level. I’ve always been very into poetry and rap which is a little bit surreal or leftfield. Around the time I started seriously getting into writing and recording tracks, as well as listening to all those US indie-rap guys I was also mainlining writers like Whitman, Yeats, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot and the Beat poets (Kerouac, Ginsberg etc.) so I think it was inevitable that some of that slightly less conventional style or subject matter would find its way into my own writing. I’ve never really written “bars” in the way that a lot of rappers do, whereby they quite carefully construct set-ups and punches for maximum impact. That’s a skill I respect, but it’s not how I make my art.
6) Aside from Aesop who else would you say has been a big influence on your music?
– This is *such* a big question. In hip-hop terms I’ve taken an awful lot from the American indie scene – there’s hardly anyone on the roster of labels like Rhymesayers, Anticon, Stone’s Throw, Doomtree, SFR or (formerly) Def Jux that I wouldn’t cite as an influence on some level. Slug from Atmosphere is probably the biggest single influence after Aesop Rock. Within the quite limited milieus of people who pay attention to these things I’m well-known for being a bit of a fan-boy of American indie-rap, and I am conscious of treading quite a fine line between writing stuff which is influenced by that or even pays homage to it (which is fine) and stuff which is directly deriviative of it; not in a plagiaristic sense, but in that sense of falling into thinking “how can I make this sound like an Aesop Rock line?” rather than “how can I make this sound like a Ruby Kid line?” Since I’ve been getting more into spoken-word I’m enjoying working out my own voice and style and finding ways to not just write pieces that are bad knock-offs or pastiches of the work of the poets I’m into! That process of finding your own voice is one that every artist goes through and it’s one that never really finishes.
Beyond hip-hop I’m influenced by an absolutely enormous range of art – musical and otherwise – as well as stuff outside of the art-world. And I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff that I’m influenced by that I’m not even consciously aware of. Outside of hip-hop, the artistic traditions (for want of a less pretentious term) I’m most conscious of when I’m writing are mainly folk singer-songwriters; I’m in awe of the songcraft of people like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and more contemporary artists like Josh Ritter and Justin Vernon. I don’t think the influence they’ve had on me is necessarily as immediately obvious as the influence of, say, Aesop Rock or Slug but it’s definitely there.
7) Do you have subjects or narrative that you enjoyed rapping about more than other? (You get 10 points for saying one of your influences was ‘the struggle between labour and capital’)
– There are themes and motifs that I keep coming back to in my work, so I guess I must enjoy writing rapping about that stuff most. I’ve already mentioned my preoccupation with city-spaces; the other main recurrent theme, as you point out, is working-class struggle. I think the way in which I’ve reflected that aspect in my writing has changed a lot since I started out. I initially had a very explicit conception of myself as a “political rapper” writing “protest songs”, and I used to talk up my politics in what I now think was quite a crude, preachy way. My views haven’t changed – in fact I’m more politically involved now than I was when I started rapping – but I think I have changed my understanding of the way political ideas can reflect themselves through art and the relationship between art and politics, so the political content of my writing is a bit subtler now. The other theme I keep coming back to is a really quite whiny, self-indulgent seam of emo-moaning about how being an East London hipster and going to parties and doing loads of drugs all the time is actually incredibly alienating and melancholic. Make of that what you will.
8) What was the response for your 2010 release ‘Maps’ like? Will you be working with Dan Angell again? Dude’s got tasty beats!
– It got a pretty good response. Obviously for an artist working at the level I’m at, we’re mainly talking about social networking buzz, blogs and some zines. The crude measurement I suppose is how many units we shifted, and we did pretty okay on that front considering we didn’t have any label backing or support from a PR company or promo manager or anything. We had a little bit of mainstream press response too; there were a couple of features in the Nottingham Post, which is a local paper but a widely read one, and a big feature in the Metro (northern edition) which was obviously a big deal because everyone reads the Metro on their way to work, right? I got a lot of texts and phonecalls the morning that one came out.
I’ll definitely be working with Dan again, and I’ll pass on your comment about his beats! Since we collaborated on ‘Maps’ he’s become my regular live DJ so we perform together when I play hip-hop sets. We’ve got a fair few live dates coming up in the next few months. Also, this is as good a place as any to announce that we’re about to hit the “lab” (which is actually the spare room of a terraced house in Leytonstone) to start work on a new project, which we’re hoping will be ready for late spring or early summer. It’s probably going to be a little less expansive than ‘Maps’ – which, at 9 tracks, was pretty long for a release billed as an EP. The beats Dan’s been composing recently are very much on a Mush Records-era AR vibe; heavy on the double-bass, jazzy but also kinda dark. I’ve been enjoying getting stuck into them. Watch this space for more news on the project, I guess.
9) What’s your hometown scene like?
– Which hometown? I never quite know whether London, Nottingham or Sheffield is my “hometown” in that profound sense, because I have a real affinity with all of them and very deep connections in all three places. The idea of a “scene” is also something that needs unpacking; in London, for example, there are lots of hip-hop nights you can go to (Doctor’s Orders, On The Real, Suspect Packages, etc. etc.) and watch great artists, but for me a “scene” should imply some kind of collective, participatory element, and until quite recently there weren’t many hip-hop nights that were actually about artists coming together on a creative basis. Obviously there was ‘End of the Weak’ and the recently-resurrected ‘Jump Off’ but that whole set-up kinda turns rap into a competitive sport, which I enjoy as a fan but less so as an artist. My favourite hip-hop night in London at the moment is probably ‘Fat Gold Chain’. The open mic there does formally have a competitive element but the atmosphere is very much about having fun, linking with other artists, trying out new stuff and the other emcees are always supportive, rather than being out to chop heads in that battle-rap sense. The other great thing about FGC is that it has a regular crowd of people who come just coz they’re fans of music, which is rare in the hip-hop scene. Usually everyone is an artist so it’s nice to meet people who come out to hip-hop nights just to listen to hip-hop.
I have a lot of love for the musical and artistic communities in Nottingham and Sheffield, too. What they both share that I think London doesn’t actually have so much is that they value artistic and stylistic diversity. In Nottingham you’ve got fantastic promoters and bookers like Parisa Eliyon and Will Bailey (also both incredibly talented artists in their own right) and great venues like The Maze and The Old Angel who’re putting on shows with punk acts, metal acts, folk acts, blues acts, hip-hop acts, whatever – sometimes on the same bill – and to an extent it’s the same crowd of people that comes out to watch them because there’s a community of people who just enjoy good art and good music, whatever label it has on it. That’s when a scene really transforms into a “community”. Of course there’s a danger that it then becomes cliquey and inaccessible but I think the Notts scene is getting it right at the moment.
There’s some of that in Sheffield too, with collectives like Prison Planet and Bad Taste bringing together artists from different backgrounds who’re doing some exciting work together. You’ve also got groups like 7 Black Tentacles and Renegade Brass Band who kinda fuck with genre as well. In my view, that melting-pot aspect is what makes a given city’s scene really exciting to be a part of.
10) Providing the world doesn’t end, what’s your plans for 2012?
– Just to keep on trucking, really. Things are, on the whole, moving in the right direction for me at the moment and I just want to keep doing my thing and seeing where it takes me. I plan on continuing to explore the spoken-word side of what I’m doing, although as I mentioned before me and Dan are planning on putting out another hip-hop release too. There are lots of gigs coming up, which people can read about on my site, so I’m looking forward to performing as much as possible. I guess the one big “new” thing I want to step up with this year is videos. It’s crazy how YouTube has basically become everyone’s one-stop shop (or at least their first stop) for discovering new music and if you don’t have impressive YouTube content (which I really don’t at the moment) then you’re doing yourself a massive disservice in terms of your online profile. So I’m hoping to get a few videos made, including music videos, live vids and some spoken-word stuff too.
Obviously my other big plan for the year is to contribute to the global conquest of power by the international working class, but that’s been on my agenda since about 2001 and we haven’t go there yet, so it’s more of an ongoing thing…
11) Gimee those shout-outs! – The shout-outs I would want to give would enormously extend an already gargantuan interview, so in a slightly audacious way I’m just gonna shout out my own Twitter and Facebook. That’s where I do my regular shouting-out so they’re pretty much the spaces to watch. Plus, a big shout out yourself for a thoughtful set of interview questions that were genuinely engaging and interesting to answer. Props