After spending most of the summer hitting several large stadium shows and festivals, it’s about time we got back to that grimy, hardcore, underground Hip-Hop with a small-venue show, where the drinks are cheap and the artists are closer. On a night when Hip-Hop fans around the world were celebrating the 44th anniversary of the birth of this culture, Toronto would get to celebrate with a 25+ year veteran in the underground scene, R.A. The Rugged Man. From collaborations with some of the greatest emcees ever, including The Notorious B.I.G. and Kool G Rap, to recording what’s widely recognized as the best rap verse of the 2000-2009 decade with “Uncommon Valor,” R.A. The Rugged Man is definitely a worthy artist to celebrate the occasion with.
While he’s known to take a long time between album releases, the music he has released showcases an emcee whose only concern is being recognized as an elite lyrical technician, and it’s this approach that makes his music timeless. There are no gimmicks on his albums, no blatant attempts to create a made-for-radio pop record, just raw rapping with the sharpest rhymes and wickedest flows. He hasn’t released a new album since 2013’s Legends Never Die, but he’s spent recent years developing young artist A-F-R-O and becoming a father while slowly working on his next album.
This would be my first time at Club 120, which is a cozy space above a diner at 120 Church Street that perfectly fits the vibe of an underground rap show. There’s a small, well lit stage anyone could walk up on, and an open floor with balconies and ledges around the perimeter, with space for a bar and a merch booth in the back. By the time I got inside, DJ Mercilless was about ready to get things started with the first local opening act, Skevious TIPS. The kid had good energy, getting the crowd to make noise with him as he jumped down from the stage and rapped among the people, although his mic presence could be improved.
The show was being hosted by Raw Dog Entertainment’s JDon, who would spit some verses between performers and keep the crowd hyped up. After Skevious TIPS, JDon would bring out my pick for illest opener of the night, Lyve Kaos. I had seen him perform a few months ago opening for Apathy & Celph Titled, and as with last time, his rhymes were sharp, his flow was perfectly in-pocket, and you could hear every word he spit. Even when he fucked up his breath control for a second, he made sure to restart the track and spit it properly. I think this crowd was even more into his set than the last crowd I saw him perform in front of.
Next up would be Kingston, Ontario’s Dirty Doc, who had a dope voice for rapping but would often rap over his own vocal recordings, which makes you question whether or not he’s lip syncing (not saying he was, but the thought did pop into my head). He still brought a ton of energy to the stage though, and had the crowd turned up. It was during Dirty Doc’s set that R.A. The Rugged Man arrived, carrying his daughter through the crowd as security guided him to the green room behind the stage. It was kind of funny to see Rugged Man covering his daughter’s ears to protect her from the noise, and fans around them making more noise once they realized who they were standing next to.
Before Rugged Man would hit the stage, there were a couple more local openers. Rock 13 of the Moon Crickets made a surprise appearance; I had seen other members of his group rock at the Apathy & Celph Titled show, but he controlled the stage just as well on his own. There was also the group THC, who had a dope set to warm up the crowd for Rugged Man. JDon handed out some freebies to the crowd, and pretty soon it was time for our headliner.
R.A. The Rugged Man came out and immediately did something I had never seen before at a hardcore Hip-Hop show: not only did he spit his insanely fast verses on “Definition of a Rap Flow,” but he performed the entire song while carrying his baby daughter in one arm! Trying to lull her to sleep, he got the crowd to sing the background melody from his song “Casanova (Fly Guy),” as he spit his slower paced verses before handing off his daughter to the babysitter to take to the back room. Just when you thought Rugged Man multitasking being a parent would make this a more reserved performance, he cranked up the energy and got the whole crowd to jump and chant along to “The People’s Champ.”
Rugged Man took some time to acknowledge Hip-Hop’s birthday, and while he wasn’t around for its beginnings in the 1970’s, he talked about how he learned to rap in the 80’s and his journey from there, before teasing some songs he made in the 90’s. He played some of his Notorious B.I.G. collaboration, “Cunt Renaissance,” and went on to rap accapella some of his song “Every Record Label Sucks Dick.” He would then bring it back to 2004 by performing his verse on his Wu-Tang collaboration, “Chains.”
There was a pause as Rugged Man praised Toronto, talking about how he had the most emotional performance of his career here in 2010, as his father passed away on January 7th that year and he was booked to perform here on January 8th. This then led into him performing that widely acclaimed true-story verse about his father, with the Jedi Mind Tricks song “Uncommon Valor: A Vietnam Story.” Rugged Man would then get a lot more interactive with the crowd; he brought a fan on stage to beatbox, replicating the beat from “Stanley Kubrick” as he spit the first verse from that song, and then got everyone to sing along to “Da Girlz, They Luv Me” as he jumped down and rapped in the crowd. He walked all the way to the back of the club, and even jumped on one of the ledges to the side as he performed the latter track.
Next, he would perform verses from “Shoot Me In The Head” and “Lessons,” getting the crowd to help him out with the choruses. He took some time to shoutout and thank his babysitter, who had gotten the baby to sleep by now, and then invited fans to join him on stage for a hyped performance of “Holla-Loo-Yuh.” The beat to that song got everyone jumping as Rugged Man slayed his rapid-fire verse, and then he performed the verse a second time accapella. You could tell Rugged Man wanted to start at least one mosh pit during his performance, and so he performed the hook from the song “Sam Peckinpah,” yelling the lyrics “we don’t give a fuck!” and getting everyone who had joined him on stage to jump off into the crowd.
Rugged Man would then join his fans in the crowd, as he performed the emotional “Still Get Through The Day” while walking amongst the people. Wanting to wrap up the show, he performed one last song off his Legends Never Die album, “The Dangerous Three,” getting everyone to jump and mosh as he threw water on the crowd and seamlessly switched between the rapid-fire and slow paced flows. After over an hour of showcasing the rhymes, flow, breath control and mic presence that make up an elite emcee, Rugged Man thanked the crowd and jumped back down to the floor to let the fans take pictures and get autographs.
This was overall another fun show, as the small venue was packed with high-energy fans who were ready to get rowdy. Club 120 proved to be a near perfect venue for a performer like R.A. The Rugged Man, with all the crowd interaction during his set (although he may have preferred a quieter green room for his daughter). As with the last time I saw him perform back in 2013, Rugged Man loves to be among his fans, giving a highly interactive performance of raw rapping and humbly taking the time to meet the fans after his set. Even with the grimy, hardcore music being performed, you could feel that the positive, unifying spirit of Hip-Hop was alive on its 44th birthday.
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