When San Diego-based rapper Ruslan released his debut solo album Carry On in 2013, he was the undisputed face of his record label Kings Dream Entertainment and rap group Dream Junkies.
Things have changed.
Since then, his label mates Beleaf and John Givez have dropped critically-acclaimed solo albums, Red Pills + Black Sugarand Four Seasons. John Givez especially has been busy with features in 2014, making appearances on Swoope’s “Same Team,” Bizzle’s “One Way (Remix),” Reconcile’s “Can’t Take This from Me” and Jackie Hill Perry’s “Where’s Love?”
Ruslan’s team progressed so much that he knew he had to improve to keep up.
“Since I released Carry On, Beleaf and John just got really, really, really good like almost overnight,” Ruslan told Rapzilla. “I was like, ‘Oh shoot. I can’t be the weakest link. I got to step it up. I got to really continue polishing my craft.’”
Ruslan trained to record his new album Do for One, which he aims to drop in late-January or February, by working with Ray Rock, a vocal coach who produced the song “Parallel” on Red Pills + Black Sugar and “Paganini” on Andy Mineo’s EP Never Land. Ray Rock put Ruslan through cadence exercises to refine his flow, and the producer believes that Ruslan’s extra effort paid off on his album and EP, which Kings Dream made available for free download when listeners preorder Ruslan’s album.
“People are going to be very [pleasantly] surprised,” Ray Rock said, “especially the second verse of ‘Out of It’ is one of the best verses I’ve heard in a long time. The cadence is [amazing].”
“Out of it,” the title track of Ruslan’s EP was produced by Curtiss King, who has also produced for Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul. King met Ruslan backstage when they both opened up for Murs at the House of Blues in Anaheim, California in 2012.
“[Ruslan] just sounds like a seasoned vet,” King said. “As I’m listening to [his album], I feel like I’m listening to somebody that is already ‘on’ and not someone who’s still up and coming.”
The song “Out of it” stands out on Ruslan’s EP, as does a line on the intro track, “Idea.”
“My crew is superior to anybody doing this music,” Ruslan says on the song.
Hip hop is a boastful art form in its roots, which is an attribute that many Christians stray from on the mic. Ruslan believes it’s simply part of the culture and can be embraced without contradicting the faith.
“I think hip hop is foundationally competitive and braggadocios,” he said. “It’s like basketball. Anybody that’s played basketball or has experienced basketball culture, there’s a lot of things that you do playing a pickup game that totally makes no sense out of that cultural context — telling somebody you’re going to break their ankles … But when you’re part of the subculture, it makes sense.
“I think Christian hip hop in general is really disconnected with that part of hip hop, which I think is unfortunate, but I think it’s fun. I think the average person knows that if I’m saying some crazy, over-the-top stuff it’s not literal. When Beleaf is saying, “One of the best of them / beyond the beast, I’m the Nephilim … I’m just trying to get real close to them / so I can eat the flesh of them,” he’s not literally saying he’s going to eat people’s … it’s all allegory. But it is rooted in a competitive nature.”
Of course, Ruslan doesn’t think that calling his team the best is “crazy, over-the-top stuff.”
“I do believe that when you compare Dream Junkies as a collective, as individual artists — when you compare Beleaf pound-for-pound, when you compare John pound-for-pound — you factor in song writing, live shows, singing and bars … I don’t think there’s anybody touching us on a musical level,” Ruslan said. “I think we make some of the best music of our time.”
“And we’re doing it without spending stupid amounts of money, and it’s comparable to a lot of the stuff that’s out there with big budgets and studios behind it … And especially lyrically. C’mon, we’re really going to talk bars? Who’s really touching Dream Junkies on a bars level? Your favorite artist is on a song with us and gets bodied. It’s not even a comparison.”
Ruslan may be biased, but Curtiss King and Ray Rock testified that there’s excellence coming from him in 2015.
David Daniels is a writer for Rapzilla.com. He’s been published at The Washington Times, Bleacher Report, Christianity Today and The Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter.