In an exclusive interview with Villain Media, artist Rugged N Raw talks about creating the music for the powerhouse tracks inside his latest EP, Mercenary. Discover what it takes to confront life and art in the face of hip-hop music.
As we previously mentioned, there is a raw, witty, truthful and relatable vibe to Mercenary.
With Mercenary now available on all streaming platforms, including iTunes, Spotify and Amazon, Rugged N Raw opens up about reclaiming his mojo after putting together the two volumes behind Anomaly Book, getting his latest EP out into the world, while making sure each track is memorable and different from the last. Join us as we take an in-depth look at the studio and discuss the art of music.
Villain Media: Tell me how Mercenary came about. How different did you want it to be from the last one, Anomaly Book 2?
Rugged N Raw: It’s interesting, because usually it takes me about 18 months to write, record and release a project, give or take. I am not a fast writer, and I try to promote each project as much as possible, whether through shows — my favorite way of promoting — radio play, write-ups, interviews or music videos. After I released Anomaly Book 1, I was trying to promote that while going through a lot of changes in my life. The original plan was to release Anomaly Book 1 and Book 2 the same year, but I didn’t get to release Book 2 until 4 years later.
[Anomaly Book 2] took a lot to finally piece that album together because I wanted it to capsule the frustrations in my life; really wanting to bare all. And have it come from a perspective of isolation, and trying to say some of the things I was afraid to say. After finally releasing it, I wanted to build back on my momentum, while continuing to learn about the ever-changing music climate. Mercenary gives me the opportunity to continue to put out music, while continuing to figure out how I want to evolve. Shortening it to an EP has allowed me to put something together for the fans, without having to put together an entire project.
With Anomaly Book 2 having such heavy content, I wanted to put something out that was a little lighter in feel, where the words came off the pen a little easier, something opposite of all the overthinking I did for the last album. Overthinking has stopped me at times from putting out content at a faster rate, but I never like to rush quality. It’s about the happy medium of continuing to improve with every album and not having it come at the cost of worrying if every single line is the most clever I can have it.
Mercenary allowed me to not have a particular rhyme or reason behind the collection of songs. I just wanted to be free and put out songs. The climate today is much more record and release as fast as you can. Admittedly, I may never get to release music at a pace as rapid, but it let me know I can be quicker about it. Also, Mercenary allowed me to not worry about structure as far as needing a three-month plan to release an album. Once I had the collection of songs, I just put them out and released videos as I pleased. Basically, the difference between Anomaly Book 2 and Mercenary is not as much about the type of music as much as it is having a different approach.
VM: “Night Owl” is a great choice to start Mercenary because of its hard-hitting beats and rhymes. Tell me about opening the album this way.
RR: The first song of a project is supposed to set the tone, give people a reason to want to get excited about listening to the rest. It’s kind of like going to a restaurant. You might be going there for a main course, but the appetizer, if done right, is gonna have you wanting the entree even more. I treat the first song as a mission statement, even if what is said in that song does not mirror the messaging in [the] other songs. With hip-hop, the bravado still counts for a lot, and no matter how much I continue to expand content-wise with my songs, I feel I like having at least one song on each project that shows I can still have top-notch punchlines and metaphors; that might never stop for me.
VM: I thought “Say Goodbye” was an interesting choice to close the EP, mostly because of its soul jazz vibe. Tell me about how you chose ending the album with this pick.
RR: To me, that might be my favorite song to end a project that I have done. It’s a weird cross between introspective and feel-good. I definitely revisited moments that made me sad, but at the same time, wanted to have a message about learning from what life throws at you, and that better days are ahead of us. Ending a project on a positive note is important to me, as is having the last song as strong as your first. That actually has been one of the favorites so far. I will be shooting a video for that one really soon. Got a cool idea for it, but I am not sharing that right now! You’ll have to wait!
VM: What track among the six was the most challenging for you to put together?
RR: “Lane Bryant Model” was actually the most challenging. It was originally written to be on Anomaly Book 2, but I fell out of love with the original beat I had for it and it wasn’t as witty as “Every 5 Minutes.” The only thing worse than writing a bad song is writing a song people feel indifferent about; so I shelved it. A few months after I released Anomaly Book 2, I decided to revisit that song. It took about 4 beats until I was able to finally have a great match.
I also decided to take more time with the lyrics, particularly my second verse and hook, so that it was witty and not playing as safe. But of course, I wanted to make sure that what I was saying wasn’t being taken out of context. I love full-figured women and would never want to shame them in any way. Choosing my words carefully is something I always take seriously, so I tweaked and tweaked until I felt I got it right. The final approval came when I played the track for some before I released it. I’ll be shooting a video for that too over the winter. Needless to say, it will be a fun time!
VM: You have so far three music videos off of Mercenary, with the “Esquire” vid being the most comedic in my opinion. What direction you did you want for these music videos?
RR: “Esquire” was a super fun video to shoot. I had the concept for a while, actually initially wanting to do that for “Keep It Pushin” from Anomaly Book 2. However, with the EP taking shape, I decided to hold the concept for whichever song off of Mercenary that lent itself best to it. “Esquire” is the only song I was able to do that too. Seeing those awful B-Movie fight scenes always make me laugh, and I just wanted to try my hand at something really absurd. It was an idea that only me and the camera op, and good friend, Ahlycea knew about in full detail.
I didn’t even write out a storyboard, I just put it together in my head. While I had a skeleton of a plot, I left a lot of room for improvisation. So that it was easy for all of us to make it up as we go along, which to me adds to the charm of the video. The random shot with the big guy hyped up, he was not cast for the video. He was just in a bunch of random shots and didn’t have the awareness to get out of the way, so I decided he’s just gonna randomly be in there. He was mostly stoic and even sleeping for a few minutes, but I missed my chance to catch it. However, I still think we did great with what we got. Fortunately, it all worked out, but I need to start writing stuff down as the video concepts get more elaborate! While I definitely will cherish that video forever, I probably won’t be doing too many videos that silly again.
Shooting “Night Owl” was interesting because to be honest, I hadn’t shot a video in a while, and I for some reason, didn’t feel really comfortable in front of a camera right away, even though there was no concept or anything. It was just a straightforward guerilla kind of shoot. It took a second day to get my mind right, but I’m so glad we shot it.
“Introvert” was fun to shoot as well. I had the idea for a few years to actually do a therapist-patient song, but it never came to fruition. However, having a music video using that as a theme seemed like a great idea. What was also fun was having a music video where I wasn’t really the star. I play a big role of course, but I didn’t get significantly more camera time than the rest of the cast. When I did “Forever Gone” on Anomaly Book 1, the young man we cast as the kidnapped child loosely based on Etan Patz, stole the show in my opinion. I was more in a Rod Serling role.
In future videos, I would like to take this approach, because it can help, in case one day I want to shoot a movie. As my camera skills and video concepts improve, it is really getting to be more and more fun to be a director to my own videos. It’s nice to have all this extra control in how everything turns out.
VM: How did Mercenary change you as an artist?
Mercenary changed my way of thinking in a couple of aspects. It let me know that I don’t have to wait until I have a whole album’s worth of songs to put out content. As a solo artist, I haven’t put out an EP, since I was burning my own CDs at home and writing on them with a marker. While I don’t want to rush anything and put out lackluster content, I am learning that our time is the most valuable thing we have, and in this time I need to continue to leave as much of a mark as possible and do more of what I love to do, which is create music.
After pouring my emotions and frustrations into creating Anomaly Book 2, I wanted somewhere to go after that, and creating the Mercenary EP allowed me to keep creating while I regain my momentum. No matter who you are and what level you are at with popularity, releasing music can be exciting and nerve wracking at the same time. Even when you are confident with the songs you have, putting them out in the world leaves you vulnerable to random criticism and judgment. But each release makes it easier for you to display your art with confidence.
View this post on Instagram
I’m not usually one to reflect on past achievements, but ten years ago, I released the album that put me somewhat on the map. It got me mentioned in Entertainment Weekly, Philadelphia Inquirer, a ton of shows on the road, and more. Good people helped with the vision and though I’ve gotten better as an artist, Truth Serum will always serve as my landmark album. If you haven’t got to hear it, I recommend you do, not because I made it, but because it really did come out great. It’s on most digital platforms! #music #hiphop #rap #albumsstillmatter
VM: Right now, in this moment, when I ask you to think about Rugged N Raw, what’s the first thing that pops into your head?
RR: Someone who is comfortable in his own skin, someone who is willing to say what’s on his mind, even if it’s unpopular. Someone who will not compromise integrity just to get noticed, and most of all, someone who has a lot to offer now and in the future.
VM: What are you working on now?
RR: I have two more videos for Mercenary to shoot and release, but I have some songs for another project that will likely be out in the summer, and I have a couple of other things in mind too. My Mohammad Dangerfield partner-in-crime, Hasan Salaam, and I have talked about doing some new material together. It’s not really a question of if, just when. Not living in the same state makes things a little more difficult, but you better believe that it’s gonna be amazing. I’m just really fortunate to be in a space where I can really begin to create more consistently again. When life hits you, it always comes first. For a while, it impacted my ability to create, but now I have used those experiences to fuel me and I think the music I have been making is even more relatable. Introducing myself to new fans is exciting and I just want to continue building on that. I really do appreciate everyone who has ever said a kind word about my music or gave it attention. It lets me know that there is still work to be done.
[Writer’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity. Links are highlighted in bold.]