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
boundaries of traditional hip-hop, Walz has worked with the Hasidic Jewish reggae star Matisyahu
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."
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
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"
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
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."
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
his label at a time when it was considered the next big thing in
"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."
his tenure with Def Jux, Walz made memorable cameo appearances on
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
Tires screech to a halt, the ground cries
speak to the streets
The skid marks are replies
discussions of what we rode through, entrenched in the vocals
hopeless stay hopeful, the toxic fumes choke you
As I walk out my
door, step into the pollution
I breathe in the problems, exhale
Physically the situation's hard to stop
I had a
wicked jump shot and sold crack rock on back blocks
this apocalypse, street chronicles
abnormal abdominals, push-ups
Integrated sectors, metropolis and mecca
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
The land was raped, scorn, torn and withered
Later on you would praise portraits of these killers
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
We did nothing but show love to a stranger
were repaid with murder, rape and anger.
Def Jux era, Walz made a prominent guest appearance on the MTV reality series Made
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,"
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
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."
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
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
Vuskovichsays. "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."
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
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
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."
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
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.