Photo by Trevor Traynor
Rakaa Iriscience is one-third of world-renowned hip-hop crew Dilated Peoples, he released his debut solo album Crown of Thorns via Decon Records in 2009, after four albums with his group and countless guest spots. He was asked if it meant the end of Dilated, or even the euphemistic “on hiatus”, and the response was swift and resolute.
“Definitely not,” says the rapper. “We were always solo artists that came together and The Platform [the group's storied 2000 debut] was our common denominator. Solo projects have always been a major part of our plan. This isn’t anything that should catch anyone that’s followed us by surprise. We’ve been hinting at this for a while and if anything, it’s just that my project is very late. In fact, Evidence and Babu produced the singles that have just started to bubble.”
Featuring guest appearances and production by fellow members Evidence and DJ Babu, Crown of Thorns represents less a departure than a continuation of the group’s goals since first joining forces in 1992. As Rakaa puts it, “This is just another piece of the puzzle that makes the picture that much more complete.”
For the emcee, graffiti artist, event host, and full-time advertising student, it’s a puzzle that’s been fomenting since his early days immersed in hip-hop culture; a time when the musically adventurous and daring were embraced, making the outcast the visionary. “In a typical graffiti crew, you’d have gangbangers, rich kids, punk rockers, and social rejects in the same crew and we all had love and respect for each other,” recalls the rapper. “That gave me a true appreciation of diversity and the exploration of different cultures and made a big mark in how I approached Crown of Thorns. It’s a hip-hop album, but what does that mean? As I get older, I’m not going to pigeonhole myself into what a rap record is supposed to sound like in 2010 and act like I was not around well before that. I’m pulling from all of the different influences that made me who I am today.”
Crown of Thorns, consequently, is the sonic prism that has absorbed the myriad cultures taken in by the peripatetic emcee and reflected them back in the form of groundbreaking music (check the dj honda-produced “Ambassador Slang,” featuring emcees from Korea, New Zealand, The Philippines, and Hawaii among others for proof). With this album, Rakaa creates his most personal and introspective project of his career; a daunting, but liberating feat that allows him to expand his heavily conscious ideas about politics, social issues and the community past the typical 16 bars found on a Dilated song. Consciously stripped down to the essential elements, the album manages to seamlessly blend surprising depth and refreshing minimalism into a unique soundscape.
“Dilated records are whatever the three of us can agree on at the time in the studio,” admits the rapper. Crown of Thorns has the benefit and handicap of pure freedom. There’s no one to tell me ‘No’ which is a source of great happiness and frustration. It’s a mixed blessing. But it’s like having a baby. At some point, it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be. You just want it to have the right amount of fingers and toes and be breathing right.” With guest production by The Alchemist, El-P, Illmind, Exile, and Sid Roams, there’s no respirator needed for this one. Add appearances by Evidence, Defari, Chali 2na, Fashawn, Aloe Blacc, and the legendary KRS-ONE, and things are looking healthier than ever.
But you’d expect nothing less from hip-hop’s consummate Renaissance Man. Soon after joining the New York hip-hop collective Rock Steady Crew as a graffiti artist and emcee, Rakaa helped found their L.A. chapter and subsequently joined the Universal Zulu Nation. After reuniting with future partner-in-rhyme Evidence, the pair released 1997′s underground classic “Third Degree” before adding Babu to the ranks. Since then, the group has put out a series of critically-acclaimed albums, while Rakaa has stayed busy traveling around the world hosting events such as the Red Bull BC One (in Johannesburg and Paris) and the R16 (in Incheon, Korea), destroying a variety of studio booths, and “chipping away at [his] black belt” in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.
It’s not hyperbole to say that Rakaa’s whole life has, consciously or not, gone into the production of this album and Thorns is as much an amalgamation of the emcee’s life experiences and travels as anything else. “This record is my opportunity to solidify my place in the group and give context so people understand more what I’m trying to do,” says the emcee. “It’s the first time I’m really making a conscious decision to sit down and let somebody come into my house and after all of this time, I’m welcoming all guests.”