C-Rayz Walz: Bronx emcee lands in Indy

 

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.

NAPTOWN: The Broken Comb by CircleCity317

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."

Going pro

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":

Why

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."

Frozen molasses

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.

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Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.