Sometimes you’re at a gig and you get a little bit blown away by what you see, it’s happened to us all at some point. Having seen the Ruby Kid perform his hip-hop set live on several occasions and on hearing his third release, the Maps EP, I’m totally astounded by his passion and strength of lyric maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a hip hop girl maybe it’s just because (I’m open to general opinion here) I have great taste in music. It seems tracking down this fella isn’t as simple as it seems, by way of Nottingham, Sheffield and currently London we’ve mixed and missed dates to meet up and have a chat.
Eventually we got our act together and I got to find out more about the guy that is the Ruby Kid
Ruby Kid is in fact Dan Randall. The name he tells me is ‘just something I came up with’. On further probing, I find it has a double meaning; ‘firstly, it’s a nod to my cultural heritage. My dad’s family’s name is actually Rubinstein, but it was changed to Randall in the 1930s to make it less ethnically obvious. I’m not religious any more (quite the opposite, in fact; I’m a militant atheist) but I do still feel a very strong affinity with my Jewish heritage so I wanted to acknowledge that. It’s also because rubies are red, and red is the colour traditionally associated with radical working-class politics, which are also pretty important to me both in my music and in my life more generally’.
Like most people, Ruby Kid grew up in a very musical household; he admits both his parents are 1960s-generation folkies, ‘so I did a lot of hanging around at folk clubs and gigs when I was knee-high’. He continues ‘that’s something that’s stayed with me. I’m still very keen on folk music, both more traditional stuff and even some of the new indie-folk that all the kids are into these days, as well as people like Dylan, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen and that whole generation of American folk singer-songwriters’. The hip-hop influence appears to have struck when he was 12 or 13 years old, basically when Eminem started getting big. ‘I think it was probably the same for a lot of white kids from a suburban background. I caught a bug for it though and delved a bit deeper, so it wasn’t long before I was getting into slightly meatier stuff like Public Enemy and beyond that into the more leftfield stuff that labels like Anticon, Rhymesayers and Def Jux (RIP) put out. I first got Aesop Rock’s ‘Labor Days’ a year or two after it came out and I remember thinking “yes: this is my shit’.
“I take influence and inspiration from stuff as big and major as world events right through to small-scale human interactions we can observe going on around us every day.”
It was following this period and throughout his adolescence that the Ruby Kid was proverbially born, ‘I guess the key moment in my transition from angsty-teenage-bedroom-scribbler to a hip-hop artist (although there’s still a decent element of angsty-bedroom-scribbling in my writing) came when I was at university in Sheffield’. He explains, ‘somewhat by accident, I hooked up with some guys making hip-hop locally and they helped me network with producers, people with recording facilities, and promoters. Things have basically snowballed from there. I never really saw eye-to-eye with those guys in artistic terms but they really helped me out in terms of giving me a leg-up so I owe them a lot. It was partially through contacts I made through them that I found artists in Sheffield who I felt I had more in common with, so I owe them for that too’.
The first ever, proper, Ruby Kid gig was at the Frog and Parrot, Sheffield, in October 2007, he proclaims ‘so I guess that could be seen as my launch-pad’. Since then he’s done a multitude of gigs, so which one stands out as most memorable?
‘I couldn’t pick just one. Different gigs have been memorable for different reasons. The shows I did at Plug have always been great experiences, particularly the one Wiley was supposed to headline and ended up not turning up for. Playing for a crowd of hundreds of teeny-boppers who’d come coz they’d heard ‘Rolex’ on Fearne Cotton’s show (I’m making assumptions here but roll with it; they make the story better) was nerve-wracking but I think we won at least some of them over and it ended up being a really great show. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve done shows in squats, at house parties, or with maybe 30 people crammed into a dingy basement venue and they’ve been just as enjoyable, if not more so, than something at a big venue like Plug because there’s an intimacy and an energy that you’d don’t necessarily get at a bigger venue. The Tramlines show this year, with Renegade Brass Band, Jehst and Micall Parknsun was pretty good and the shows I did with Themselves and Anti-Pop Consortium (both legendary groups in the pantheon of indie-rap) at Bungalows & Bears and The Harley respectively were also incredible’.
Obviously music is influenced by many factors given Ruby Kid’s passion for music and politics, it only feels right to find out what influences the poetry that fronts the music, I’m told straight away ‘this is really too big a question to answer! I know it sounds a bit trite, but I take influence and inspiration from stuff as big and major as world events right through to small-scale human interactions we can observe going on around us every day’ quickly drawing breath he continues, ‘plus I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff that’s found its way into my music that I wasn’t even consciously aware of being influenced by. In terms of other artists who influence me, I’d say my all-time top 5 are Aesop Rock, Slug from Atmosphere, Why?, Bob Dylan and Josh Ritter’.
As we further discuss our love of music, the focus turns to music scenes in general, if it can actually be called general, Ruby Kid points out that “The music scene” is ‘such a loose and subjective term’. ‘I could opine for days about my thoughts on the UK hip-hop scene, the Sheffield hip-hop scene, the London hip-hop scene, etc. etc. etc. but I’m pretty sure Counterfeit readers would get bored. I think people kinda build up their own scenes, particularly at the independent and relatively underground level at which artists like me are working. I’ve never really been one to go in for self-pitying moaning about how underground artists never get sufficient attention from “the industry”; being featured in NME or whatever, while it would obviously be cool to have a platform like that, is not really the reason I started making music so it’s not something that particularly vexes me’.
He carries on, ‘as far as favourite acts go, I listen to all sorts but it’s probably most interesting to talk about people amongst my associates and peers who I really respect because folk reading this might not have heard of them. There are a few really dope poets who I’ve done some work with recently who are all well worth a look – people like Captain of the Rant and Raymond Antrobus are starting to make a lot of noise. In the hip-hop scene, H.L.I. (West Midlanders now based in London who’re the closest thing Britain has to a Cannibal Ox equivalent) are worth checking out, as are Queens English (who might just become the UK’s Jurassic 5). Folk fans should listen to my tour-mates Al Baker & The Dole Queue, and people who like their hip-hop slightly tripped-out should investigate Nottingham’s Basement Forté and Bradford’s Alt Track’.
So we’ve ventured North in our discussions, so far, so what are Ruby Kid’s favourite Sheffield acts, considering it is his old stomping ground. He tells me ‘I like all the heavy-hitters (Pulp, Hawley, Monkeys etc.) plus artists like Neil McSweeney and David J Roch. The folk guitarist Martin Simpson lives in Sheffield now too, does he count? (yes he does). Everything the McClure’s (well, John and Chris anyway; I don’t know much about the rest of their family) touch seems to turn to gold at the minute, there’s some exciting buzz around them and Paul Blakeman, who I’ve been lucky enough to work with a bit already (he plays drums in Black Jacobins). That whole Club 60 crowd is pretty live. In the hip-hop scene (broadly defined), Renegade Brass Band and Burleskimo put on incredible shows, and I’d be remiss not to mention the little “milieu” (wanky term but can’t think of a better one) of artists I came up with – heads like Ohpityme, Appeal, Rayzel, Flex Digits, Psychosis Holocaust, Kworyl and the Bad Taste Records crew. We all face in quite different directions artistically but we’ve got enough sensibilities in common to click’.
So, what’s been going on with the Ruby Kid, how and what has/is he doing now? ‘Things are going pretty well. 2010 was a good year for me; I toured for the first time and released my third EP, ‘Maps’. The big event in my life was moving to London (which I actually did at the end of 2009), which was a risk from the point of view of my music’. He admits the move down south was a bit of a gamble ‘there are obviously a lot of opportunities down here (London) but I knew that if I moved, I’d be going alone and pretty much starting from scratch, whereas in Sheffield I had an established profile and crucially a developing network of other artists, promoters, producers and others I worked with. Black Jacobins, the band who I performed with at live shows, are based in Sheffield so moving to London meant a real change in how I worked as an artist. Fortunately it’s working out; one consequence of it all is that I’ve started to get involved in the London spoken-word scene, which I love. It has its pretentions, like any scene, but I’m an egotist at heart so the idea of me and my words being the sole focus is pretty appealing to me’.
Since arriving in London, he has ‘also linked up with some London-based artists and beatmakers, like Dan Angell who produced the majority of my latest EP ‘Maps’ and who’s now DJing for me at live shows’.
With regards to the Maps EP (although at 9 tracks he’s probably selling myself short calling it an EP) ’it’s got a really great response, so that’s obviously pleasing. I should say, though, that the relocation to London isn’t something I anticipate being permanent. My heart is still very much in Sheffield (with a bit still reserved for Nottingham, where I grew up, and a little bit for New York, where my mom’s family is from) and I’m excited about continuing to work with Black Jacobins and other Sheffield artists’.
Aside from the music Ruby Kid has also been busy with political activism. ‘Some of the organisations I’m a member of and campaigns I support have been very integral to the recent upsurge in student struggle so I’ve been involved in a lot of that. A couple of my tweets from the now-infamous Millbank protest on November 10 even got featured in the Guardian and on CNN, which was a little surreal’ he admits.
Music and politics do we have plans for world domination here? He replies ‘as far as my music goes I’m just taking things as they come. I’m not trying to make a career out of it right now and I don’t have a manager, agent or publicist or anything like that so I’m just trying to gain the widest possible profile and platform for what I’m doing. I’m planning on continuing promotion work around ‘Maps’, possibly with a tour, and I’m also hoping to play a few festival shows this summer. I think my best hope for being involved in a project for world domination though is through the international conquest of power by the world working class. That’s scheduled for sometime in July 2011, so watch this space’.
I admit that I am a Ruby Kid fan but whom does the man himself see as his admirers? ‘I think your archetypal Ruby Kid fan is a philo-Semitic Anglo-American hipster with the artistic sensibilities of Woody Allen, the political sensibilities of Hal Draper and a penchant for leftfield poetry. I’ll be honest… it’s a niche. Or maybe I’m just making music for myself. But then I guess we’re all doing that. In a way. (Really though, I don’t have one. My target audience is anyone who likes my music. End of.)’
End of indeed but we never leave it like that, if there was one piece of advice that the Ruby Kid could give to the world what would it be?
‘A wiser man than me once gave the following advice: “Face reality squarely; never seek the line of least resistance; call things by their right names; speak the truth, no matter how bitter it may be; don’t fear obstacles; be true in little things as in big ones; base your program on the logic of the class struggle; be bold when the hour for action arrives – these are the rules.” That pretty much says it for me. Oh, and don’t bother seeing Tron: Legacy. It’s fucking dreadful’.