C-Rayz Walz is not a rapper. C-Rayz Walz is a hip-hop MC. It's a distinction the Bronx-born artist will make several times during our conversation at Yats on College Avenue, which he refers to as his office.
"Hip-hop gets a bad name because of rap music," Walz tells me. "Rap music is used to promote products and a lifestyle that is dominated by people who are wealthy and live imaginary lives. Hip-hop is about loving the next person and growing through sound-word power."
Although he hasn't yet achieved mainstream success, Walz an institution in the world of underground hip-hop. He's collaborated with the most revered and respected artists that the genre has produced, including the Wu-Tang Clan, MF Doom and Atmosphere. Never afraid to step outside the boundaries of traditional hip-hop, Walz has worked with the Hasidic Jewish reggae star Matisyahu. He's also a member of Abraham Inc., a klezmer-funk outfit featuring funk trombonist Fred Wesley. In a career stretching over 10 years, Walz has released nearly 20 albums and appeared on over 40 singles.
Through a series of circumstances, including a (now-failed) love affair and run-ins with the law, Walz now makes his home in Indianapolis. His current ambition is to use his decade of experience in hip-hop to help move the Indianapolis scene into the national spotlight: "Even though it's not fast-paced like New York, I believe a lot of people have good hearts here, and I believe hip-hop can thrive here. I think Indiana's ready for the ultimate rising of hip-hop culture. If I gotta be a leader of it, then whatever. It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at, and hip-hop is everywhere."
He isn't trying to build the Indianapolis scene single-handedly, though; last year, Walz released a free mixtape, Naptown: The Broken Comb (listen below), mixed by DJ Indiana Jones and featuring 17 of Indy's most notable MCs and crews. His latest release, The Circle City Project, is a similarly conceived compilation of Indianapolis MCs that Walz boasts "will become a classic like Dr. Dre's Chronic." A solo full-length, The Indy CD: Mind of a LUNA-Tick - named for a couple local record stores - will drop on Halloween. Oct. 21 will mark the first edition of Raps at Yats, a monthly hip-hop showcase at the Massachusetts Avenue Yats hosted by Walz and featuring DJ Ronin Roc on the turntables. Walz also has plans to host an open mic night at Earth House entitled Down to Earth.
It's all in line with Walz's almost mystical belief in the power of hip-hop to transform lives: "I truly believe with all my heart that if we didn't have this music, the world would be at war." His stage name is all about that effort to break down walls. At one level, it's just a play on words: C-Rayz is a reinterpretation of the word "crazy," and Walz is an abbreviation of his given name, Waleed Shabazz. But it's more than that, according to Rayz: Walz represents the barriers that we put around ourselves, while C-Rayz stands in for that little bit of craziness that might allow us to break through those walls.
Raised by Marvin Gaye
Hip-hop transformed Walz's life as a kid growing up, high-risk, in the Bronx. "My father was murdered when I was 2 years old," he says. "He was running the streets, he was what you call a hustler."
Walz dabbled in various forms of criminal mischief and street thuggery as an adolescent, a period to which he refers in the confessional lyrics of the song "3 Card Molly": "And Ms. Rios, sorry that I dissed your flag / And when Ty got shot, he had to shit in a bag / But that's okay, cause Ra lay, on the same corner / On the same ave, where I sold, marijuana." Music was always present in his life, providing an alternative to street life: "I was raised by Marvin Gaye and those soul music cats."
Ultimately, Walz's exposure to the birth of hip-hop that would provide him with a way out: "I come from the Bronx, Echo Park. There were Zulu Nation jams in my park. Kool Herc, who is considered the founding father of hip-hop used to be in my park every other day in the summertime just jamming."
An encounter with pioneering hip-hop MC Busy Bee (best known for his role in the epochal 1982 film Wild Style) would seal Walz's fate: "When I was 5 or 6 years old I freestyled for Busy Bee. He gave me $5, said, 'Boy, you're good. Keep rocking son.' I ran with that because he was one of the greatest of all time. I knew I was a freestyle legend when I was 6."
As years went by, Walz gained confidence - and worked the scene like a heavyweight fighter racking up championship belts (or bracelets, like the one he wore during our photo shoot): "As a freestyle MC I've done it all. I've rhymed all over the world. I was rhyming online before Google! I've battled Supernatural and I scraped him. I've been in ciphers with Eminem. Any artist you can think of I've probably been on stage or backstage freestyling with them. I'm a master of that. There's no one else that can go toe to toe with me. I usually do full interviews rhyming through the whole interview."
One of C-Rayz's childhood friends, Prodigy, a member of the legendary hip-hop duo Mobb Deep, attests to the emcee's freestyle skills. "C-Rayz is my nigga, we go way back," Prodigy said following a recent appearance at the Egyptian Room. "We went to school together, and we used to have MC battles at the lunch room tables." Prodigy attributes much of C-Rayz's longevity to his freestyle abilities: "He's good at that, and it's one of the reasons he's still around. He has that original early '90s style, he's still doing his thing and I'd like to see him continue."
Walz started getting paid for his verses at age 19. His first LP, The Prelude, released in 2001, was recorded by Plain Pat, who has since become an engineer for Kanye West. Less than two years after that debut, Walz's work caught the ear of Def Jux Records CEO El-P, who signed Walz to his label at a time when it was considered the next big thing in (indie) hip-hop.
"Def Jux was epic," says Walz, whose time at the label is seen by many as the high water mark in his career. "El-P had a collection of the dopest, hardest working MC's in New York City. As a collective we really came through and put out some powerful music."
During his tenure with Def Jux, Walz made memorable cameo appearances on albums by label mates Aesop Rock and Cannibal Ox, and released two highly regarded LPs of his own: Ravipops and Year of the Beast. Featuring A-list guests (MF Doom, Jean Grae, Dead Prez) and solid production, both albums managed to strike a balance between radio-friendly moments and more challenging material in line with the label's reputation for radical experimentation. The Def Jux LPs also feature some of Walz's best work as an MC.
In addition to his legendary freestyle skills, Walz is known for his charismatic flow, razor-sharp battle raps and comedic one-liners loaded with sarcasm. But that doesn't mean the MC isn't capable of more introspective moments; take, for instance, his contemplative verse on Aesop Rock's "Bent Life":
is it like this? Why the fuck do I care?
I don't have the answers, or at least the ones you want to hear
City lights look like bright groups of fire flies
Many see the truth only when the liar dies
Tires screech to a halt, the ground cries
Spit sparks, speak to the streets
The skid marks are replies
Read discussions of what we rode through, entrenched in the vocals
The hopeless stay hopeful, the toxic fumes choke you
As I walk out my door, step into the pollution
I breathe in the problems, exhale solutions
Physically the situation's hard to stop
I had a wicked jump shot and sold crack rock on back blocks
Casualties in this apocalypse, street chronicles
abnormal abdominals, push-ups phenomenal
Integrated sectors, metropolis and mecca
It's a conspiracy, I can't lie dukes
Sometimes I feel the rats got a better deal than I do
Walz is also a capable storyteller, as evidenced on the Native American lament "Dead Buffalos" (from Ravipops):
The land was raped, scorn, torn and withered
Later on you would praise portraits of these killers
Even made holidays for this unholy act
I'm the voice of the dead! You can't hold me back
Dead buffalos, similar to us now
In the name of gain on these plains we get bust down
What up, how you think there can be reparations?
We been touched down, so make preparations...
We did nothing but show love to a stranger
We were repaid with murder, rape and anger.
During the Def Jux era, Walz made a prominent guest appearance on the MTV reality series Made, having been given the task of teaching an upper-class teenage suburbanite from Minnesota how to rap. The episode, which featured special appearances from Ghostface Killah, The Game and Snoop Dogg, was a hit. "At that time it was the highest-rated show on MTV ever. So I went platinum visually," Walz jokes.
It should've been a breakout period for Walz. But the sales didn't add up, and his relationship with Def Jux started to deteriorate. Walz criticizes El-P for Def Jux's failure to thrive: "Def Jux could have been the all-time greatest hip-hop collective ever, but El-P just lost sight, and he wasn't as a good a leader as someone like Slug [of the indie hip-hop duo Atmosphere], who constantly promoted his label and their artists."
A disagreement with El-P over the album title for his 2005 release, Year of the Beast, signaled the end of his run with the label: "My album was censored, which is something that I would expect a major label to do. Year of the Beast was really supposed to be called Nerd Rap. I'm from 178th and Anthony Avenue in the Bronx, which is definitely not a place for nerds, but I'm super-intelligent. I can walk around in glasses and suspenders and be a nerd all day, and I wanted to embrace that, but El-P shied away from that."
Over the next few years, Walz's career would take an unlikely turn: The Bronxite met a girl, fell in love and decided to follow her west. Midwest to be exact. "I wound up getting married and landed in Indianapolis in 2006," he says. The couple divorced in 2007, but what might have been a short stay in the Hoosier state for Walz was indefinitely extended when the MC was arrested after a scuffle with the police. Walz downplays the incident: "I pulled up to the club with a red Colts hat and a red Colts jersey. I guess that was too gully for them, and I wound up bumping into some security guards who turned out to be police. I got into some disruptive behavior, which led to a couple felonies."
Walz has spent the last few years in and out of court rooms and jail cells fighting the case, releasing albums in between. Although he's still on probation, he says the incident is behind him and he's eager to move forward with his career: "The lesson is learned. The anger management classes have been paid for. Here I am, five years later, an Indiana resident trying to motivate the culture of hip-hop in this city."
Although Walz remains best known for his work with Def Jux, there are several other gems in his discography, including Monster Maker, his 2007 collaboration with producer Sharkey. A crazed mix of pop, electronica and hip-hop, Monster Maker earned rave reviews while drawing comparisons to Gnarls Barkley's St. Elsewhere. 2007's Chorus Rhyme, another highlight from his catalog, features excellent production work from Parallel Thought and an abundance of memorable Walz lines, like this lyric from "Leo Chorus": "They cut off your mind when you work with your hands / when you work with your mind, they cut off your hands."
The transition from New York to Indianapolis hasn't been easy for Walz. "I really hated this place in the beginning," he admits. "New York is like catching two lightning bolts in your hand at a party with Zeus, and Indiana is like being stuck in frozen molasses while going backwards through a time machine. People here were more close-minded, but I made it a challenge to myself to thrive in a place that's slow and bring it up to speed."
Part of Walz's transition has included an extended "residency" at Yats, where he's become an institution, something like Indy's version of Norm from Cheers. The Yats tattoo emblazoned across Walz's right wrist says it all."C-Rayz is a character," Yats owner Joe Vuskovich says. "He's one of those guys that makes life fun. He came in one day and one of the guys working in the kitchen recognized him. He said to me, 'Hey, that guy is a really famous rapper.' From there we just started talking. He was always smiling, and he's just a nice guy to have around."
"Sometimes he'll jump up and start bussing some tables. Or, if we don't have a certain dish on the menu here, he'll order takeout at our Mass Ave location downtown and bring it back here to 54th Street to eat. Now that's loyalty to a location," Vuskovich laughs.
And what about the tattoo? "All the sudden he's standing at the cash register and he shows me the tattoo. I've never had anything like that happen," Vuskovich laughs. "I've been doing this since I was 19, and I had a couple of famous places in the past, but no one has ever done anything like that!"
An artist's artist
Alan Roberts, aka DJ Topspeed, can give a local perspective on Walz's efforts. An iconic figure in Indianapolis hip-hop whose encyclopedic knowledge of the genre is every bit as impressive as his devastating turntable skills, Roberts is unstinting in his praise of Walz: "He's a very dope MC, and as a rapper he fundamentally knows what it takes to be a great."
Roberts reels off his favorite Walz tunes: "There's 'Mark of the Beast,' 'Camouflage,' 'Battle Me,' which is one of my theme songs, since I've always been about battling as a DJ. The C-Rayz song that really set me off was 'Whodafuckareyou.' I played that 12-inch on Hot 96 back in 2001 when it originally came out."
Roberts encountered Walz before the MC relocated: "I had the pleasure of meeting C-Rayz at the Casbah around 2002. He came through Indianapolis with Breez Evahflowin and Akrobatik. I was opening the show spinning breaks, and he came up to me and said, 'Yo, you're my favorite DJ now'. I was happy to hear that, because he was one of my favorite MCs at the time.""
"I've been a witness to him falling in love. I DJed at his wedding in Rockville, Indiana. Being that he's from the Bronx, it's a big deal to me," Roberts says, noting the importance of the borough as the birthplace of hip-hop. "I'm glad he's here; I think it's great. I'd like to see him find the right project and progress to the next level."
Sean Daley, aka Slug of the Minneapolis-based hip-hop duo Atmosphere, hits a similar note: "C-Rayz is an artist's artist. Art is a language, and his grasp on that language is amazing."
"Sometimes I look at him and think he burns so brightly it's almost too bright for some people to see," Daley said via phone. "I think he's going over the head of many people who try to interpret him. You know how dogs can hear certain sounds humans can't hear? Or how some people can see certain colors that others can't? His palette is outside of our color wheel."
"As an artist he doesn't sacrifice what he's trying to communicate," Daley continued. "He doesn't dumb it down. He doesn't do those things a lot of other artists do when they're frustrated because people aren't interpreting their work correctly. As an artist myself, I have a lot of respect for that; that's my kind of shit."
Hip-hop, not rap
Walz's love for hip-hop and the art of MC-ing is irrepressible: "I'm the epitome of freedom expressed through hip-hop culture with a universal appeal to intelligence and creativity." Walz easily tosses off such grand statements, sometimes in the form of rhymed verse. "Hip-hop is an amalgamation of jazz, pop, rock, folk music, slave chants, indigenous hums, celtic samples; it's everything. It encompasses the personality of people coming from the hood in New York City, expressing what they went through: drug abuse in their family, sex life, love life, violence in the streets, Nation of Islam, the 5% Nation, fashion. It's all an amalgamated story to give the listener an education and inspiration."
Walz contrasts hip-hop with rap: "Rap is a machine run by America that's used to sell cars, alcohol, jewelry, promote drugs and promote a way of living that isolates you from everybody else." Walz improvises a verse: "'Don't touch my ones, don't touch my guns, that's my girl you can't touch her buns.' Everything is me, my, mine. Rap music creates a negative mentality. It tells you it's OK to use girls, to have sex with them and throw them away. They tell you it's OK to shoot somebody if they step on your sneakers or bump into your car. They tell you it's OK to have a lot of money and not give back to your community. They tell you it's OK to be racist and ignorant. They tell you it's OK not to say anything that can transform life, shift politics and enhance the human family."
What motivates Walz to put so much work into developing a regional hip-hop scene at a time when he's also trying to rebuild his own career? "I wanted to overcome the stagnation Indianapolis had become in my life. I don't really believe in failure. I believe you are what your thoughts are, so I had to change my thoughts. The slowness of Indiana has given me the patience to try to help the scene and create this movement. Circle City is a movement. It's the whole culmination of me turning my experience in Indiana into a positive. It's my gift back to Indiana for taking so much of my time, my speedy New York time. I'm gonna give you all some real hip-hop that will stay here forever."
Which just might happen, as once again the future is looking promising for Walz. With his legal troubles largely behind him, he's eager for a fresh start and hopes his current album, All Blvck Everything: The Prelude, will provide for that. It features 16 songs, all of which contain the world black in the title. "It's a eulogy, because I'm in mourning," Walz says. One track, the Marley Marl-produced "Blvck Gifted," is a classic shot of pure, old-school New York hip-hop. Walz has never sounded better as he threatens to "refine your mind's lining with high science."
He views the album as the final word on the bad habits that were holding back his career. "It's about killing the way I used to handle my business, my anger issues and ushering in everything I'm doing now." With production contributions from beat maestro 9th Wonder and hip-hop legend Marley Marl, it's Walz's best-sounding album to date. Walz finds himself in top form, turning in his best lyrical work since his Def Jux days.
Whatever comes next, Walz is comfortable with his current lot in life: "I don't make enough to buy cars with gold rims, or gold chains with eagles, or dogs that walk themselves and lawns that mow themselves. But I pay my rent, and I make my child payments. I eat at Yats for free, and I'm happy, because I don't have to punch a clock or say hi to coworkers who don't really like me. I get to do what I love and inspire people. It's a win-win situation. I'm not bitter or jaded because I'm not selling records like Kanye West or Jay-Z. I'm C-Rayz Walz, and I'm the people's champ. I can walk through any hood, I can go to any state and I can get love. At the end of the day that's what you want, love from your family and your friends and to be respected as a genuine person."
And what about New York? Is Walz planning to return to his Bronx home when his probation ends? "I'm an Indy resident; I live here. I'll probably have more babies here. I'm Indy's own, and I appreciate Indy for receiving me with open arms."
See: "Blvck Gifted" from All Blvck Everything: The Prelude
See: "Destroy," a new Walz track produced by Jaz Infinite
See: "Blackout" from 2005's Year of the Beast
See: "Buck 80" from 2003's Ravipops
Thanks to Kevin Munoz for his role in making this article possible.