I first encountered Daniel Randall – AKA The Ruby Kid – just after dawn in a Kent field last summer. I had my back to a line of police. They’d just invaded the edge of our protest camp – again – and they weren’t about to move, but then we weren’t going anywhere either. So the call went up for performers to keep us all entertained. This might all sound a bit weird, but I can’t really think of a better introduction to this young rapper, who faced cops as he spat about “starting modern slave revolts like Spartacus“. This six track EP follows his first release, 2008’s La Manif.
Art Versus Industry kicks things off with a lyrical description of the conflict between the profit impulse of corporations and the artistic drive to create authentic stuff. The Ruby Kid describes the failings of most commercial rap (“… how many different ways can you say ‘I’m good and you suck?’/How many different ways can you say that you’re popular with women?/How much can you embellish the obscene opulence with which you’re living?”). He then dissects the media’s obsession with meaningless labels and pigeonholing artists (“So I’m an Aesop Rock wannabe/Then I’m like Mike Skinner/Then although I rap I’m more like a folk protest singer/But I rock fake bling/So I get labelled as a chav/I’m all and none of this and a whole lot more on top of that”)
The title track deconstructs a snowbound day in Randall’s life, full of unironic social realism (“Wandered purposeless past boarded-up working men’s clubs/And fluffy St George’s cross dice in the window of some guy’s truck”) plus philosophical excitement at the joy that cold weather brings him (“The dialectic of frost and mist existed/Led to synthesis/And set opposites in conflict with rhyme to reconcile all the differences.”)
A La Recherche invokes Marcel Proust as Randall describes a weekend back in Nottingham, the city where he grew up, before moving to Sheffield. Over jazzy horns and piano, he references Jean-Paul Sartre and Hollyoaks in the space of a few seconds, and laments “…for a time before I knew what debt was/And working for a wage meant”. However, he bursts that balloon of escapism with a gloriously sharp definition of nostalgia.
East 6th (Between 2nd & 3rd) sees Randall on another journey into the past. This time he’s retracing the footsteps of the early 20th century New York Jewish migrants he’s descended from, and tries to hear echoes of “thousands of [his] forebears singing strike songs in Yiddish”, whilst looking for the things that inspired artists like Leonard Cohen.
March 25th, 1911 expands on this theme, with an intense, impassioned history lesson about what was – until 11th September 2001 – the worst workplace disaster ever seen in New York City. Rather less well known than 9/11, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 garment worker ‘girls’ locked in the sweatshop, while the owners who’d locked them in escaped to the roof. When history is told well, it is vitally relevant to the here and now, and The Ruby Kid makes this very clear (“Cos I wish that I could see you now/Struggle together and we’d find a way through somehow/To all my sisters I know you’re still hurting now/You’ve got to respect the past to make the future ours”). The track then cuts to a moving and evocative performance by a female Randall, as she recites part of labour activist Rose Schneiderman’s post-blaze speech. Certain words – though they are nearly one hundred years old – seem very now (“The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred.”) With the music now gone and The Ruby Kid’s older relative going solo, she proclaims: “I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working class movement.” Extremely powerful stuff.
Finally, Labor’s Giant Step is where The Ruby Kid expands on his manifesto. If we hadn’t worked it out already, he likes “working mics, certain nights and the Minneapolis Teamsters strike”, while “scabs, bosses, most coppers and corporate invertebrates” should “feel nervousness”.
It’s almost embarrassing to be so positive about something I’m reviewing, but I’ve never had the pleasure of describing a work of art as complete as this before. It is intelligent AND heartfelt. It is of ‘the streets’ AND threatens to go beyond them. It commiserates in my troubles AND makes me glad to be alive.
The sheer volume of esoteric references dropped may well put some off – I must confess I’m yet to read Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? – but as we come face to face with global turmoil, many will no doubt be looking for wisdom beyond their television screens. At just twenty-one, maybe The Ruby Kid is coming of age at exactly the right time. This shit’s just getting started.
The Winter In The City EP can be bought for £5, from The Ruby Kid’s MySpace.