Mike Rimmer went to Nashville where he met up with one of Christendom's most gifted rappers, JOHN REUBEN
There aren't many Jewish rappers around and there are even fewer with the skills and sheer wit of John Reuben. Born John Zappin in Columbus, Ohio, John was raised in a "community full of transplanted New Yorkers." After working his way to Los Angeles he made a splash mixing sounds at local record stores and clubs and in 2000 was signed to Gotee Records. In fact, Gotee's Toby McKeehan (Toby Mac) guested on John's debut album 'Are We There Yet?'. Further albums followed - 'Sees Everything In Hindsight' (2002), 'Professional Rapper' (2003), 'The Boy Vs The Cynic' (2005), until his latest, 'Word Of Mouth' (2007), has been generally acknowledged as his best yet. Cross Rhythms certainly thinks so, the album producing four turntable hits in "Sing It Like You Mean It", "Trying Too Hard", "Good Evening" and "Curiosity".
For a man whose on stage persona is so lively, face-to-face I've always found Reuben to be pretty shy when it comes to him talking about his music. Perhaps he's just happier doing the music than talking about doing the music! I tell him that I think 'Word Of Mouth' is the best thing he's done and wonder aloud whether John agrees? He responds, "Well especially when you're done with it, every album feels like the best thing you've ever done and then usually that quickly fades and you start getting the itch to make more records. But this one is definitely.even as time goes on.I still have been enjoying it."
One of the factors in Reuben pulling out such great performances is that this time around he teamed up with producer Joe Baldridge. His recent albums have been self-produced but having a producer on board pushed Reuben's creativity. "I think we wanted to make something that was very coherent from front to back," he reflects, "whereas with previous efforts I've done I'd really get caught up in writing a tune and sometimes not realise, 'This might not necessarily fit what you're going for throughout the whole record.' You got a handful of songs that are over here, a handful of songs that are over there. This album I think really makes sense from beginning to end."
And it wasn't simply in the feel of the songs that Reuben was pushed. He remembers, "As an MC you grow up going to open mics and it's just about spitting verses and sometimes just engaging in a circle with other guys and just exercising your ability to MC and that's phenomenal. I've been doing this since I got signed with Gotee in 2000; really learning how to be a singer.I don't mean a singer/songwriter because that's not what it is but learning how to really write songs. I was taking what I know as an MC but putting it in a format that really makes it a tune. I think Joe just took that to the next level and really pushed me on my lyrics, challenged me to be more creative in how I got my point across. So all across the board it was a wonderful experience. Tough at times because I'm a control freak and I like to think I had it all figured out, especially producing the previous albums of mine, but it was just really good. I feel like I grew a lot as an artist."
One of the songs on the album which really leapt out at me was "Make Money Money" with its familiar bluesy sung hook. It seems I'm not alone! "I really like the tune and live it goes over great. It's just more of a funny observation about how hard it is to make ends meet, especially as an artist. But yeah, I got the band and the first thing we got was that banjo loop and it was just like, 'That's really good!' So it was going through old files of drum loops and we started chopping stuff up and really building that tune and it turned out that the guy who sings the hook on it just took it over the top. So yeah, great song. It was cool because there was a lot of experience put onto the album and it would be very ridiculous for me to sit here and take credit. It was a real collaboration, which was cool. I got to work with people who had some great ideas. I'm really proud of the record because I do feel like when you have other people challenging you and it's not just you trying to control everything, better stuff happens with really good collaborations."
Although Reuben vehemently protests that he is a rapper and not a singer/songwriter, there is something about 'Word Of Mouth' which has made me start thinking of him as a singer/songwriter. "I try to learn from singer/songwriters. It's hard to say because I know what I'm good at but sometimes I feel like I'm limited. It's like, just constantly taking what you're good at and what you're talented at and making the most of that, and then allowing other people to come alongside of you and help make that even better. So you won't find me tucked away somewhere with an acoustic guitar writing songs but I do tinker around a bit with keyboards and those sort of things; just coming up with melodies. I enjoy writing lyrics. I've always written poetry and I enjoy writing melodies. It's a bit of a different approach. It's still very much a hip-hop approach but it's just pooling from different influences besides other MCs."
Many people have written off John Reuben in the past for being a bit silly with his songs. His previous albums have been flooded with sarcasm and humour as Reuben's lyrics go for the punchline every time. This album feels more serious. Now that he's out of his 20s, is he just getting old? "Nah! You know I think I'm becoming more comfortable with who I am. I guess you would say it's still sarcastic but not everything's a joke. I think you learn how to have fun and not make a joke out of everything. I don't regret anything I've ever done but I think that can be a bit of your own insecurity coming out on the record, which is great because if that's who you are then let it come out on the record! But as you get older you start really finding new ways, for me at least, to make it fun. I'll still put some thought into it and I still have a little bit of that sarcastic edge."
Perhaps Reuben has chosen to hide behind the humour but these days he's honest about his struggles with insecurity. As a youngster he was introverted and sometimes hid away in isolation, so perhaps it's good that he became a rapper as opposed to some sort of stalker guy. "Yeah I guess so," he laughs. "I guess I'm describing myself as a sociopath right now!" But isn't becoming a performer a dangerous thing to do for somebody who is insecure because there are so many opportunities to be hurt? "Yeah I guess so," he considers, "but I think the music world's running around with a bunch of insecure people desperate for attention. It's definitely not a healthy thing. I'm not saying it's a good thing. That's a real tension with music, especially with guys like us who are believers, it's like: well how do we balance this out because part of this is unhealthy, this need for attention and the need to always be seen? We can hide behind the fact that we say, 'Well it's all about God.' But that's just not true. A lot of it fills people's insecurities and egos with some sort of validation. It's a real battle understanding the balance between all that."
So how has Reuben dealt with his insecurities, in terms of allowing God to heal them? "Oh, I haven't dealt with them!" He laughs but it's clear we're hitting a subject where Reuben isn't entirely comfortable sharing. He tries to marshal some thoughts together, "Uhmm.yeah, I don't know, man. It's constantly being honest with myself and being honest with God. That's all I can do. It's like once you realise: 'Alright, maybe I need to just chill out here because what I'm doing right now isn't really healthy.' It's just a matter of saying, 'Okay, I'm not gonna do that.' And disciplining yourself to be obedient. It's a matter of being honest and vulnerable in my opinion before God and disciplining yourself."
He continues, "It takes time. I don't know if people ever fully deal with it and you know what? I say that like I'm this horribly insecure person. I'm probably not any worse off than anybody else but I like to take the time to properly assess that, you know. I just sit down and really look at my own life, because I like to know why we do what we do. There's a reason why we do what we do. It's not like people just wake up and decide, 'Hey, I'm gonna hop on stage and have the spotlight on me!' or anything. Everyone needs to look back and if you follow through your own history of your own life and say, 'I can see clear moments where things happened that made me this and shaped who I was going to become.'"
I invite Reuben to explore the themes on the album. I wonder whether he approached the album with certain things that he really wanted to communicate with people at this point in his life? "Yeah, absolutely," he responds. "I think that happens with every record. You get into a head space for the time that you're writing the album and you can see what you're going through. But probably a lot of people are like that who write music, if they're making music that's true to what they're going through and not just writing songs for the sake of writing them. But that's definitely the head space that I was at and it was the issues that I was dealing with as far as the last year or so. A lot of faith issues; just kind of reflecting and probably a lot of times not even healthy reflecting but just a lot of questions. So a lot of this was just being challenged because I really felt at a young age, I committed my life to God. I committed the last eight or nine years of my life to doing music under the umbrella of Christian music and for whatever reason, whether I knew it or not, that's what I've been tagged as. So you just get flooded with all these ideas."
He continues, "Now as I'm pushing into my early 30s it was like, 'Lord are you even there?!' And secondly it's like, 'Did I make the right decision? Is this what I was supposed to invest my life in?' Because I've been doing this for 12 or 13 years and you're like, 'What's next? What does the future hold?' And you just start really feeling like, 'Maybe I didn't get everything I deserved.' Or you hold hostility and bitterness towards certain experiences. It's not an issue of whining, it's a real issue of questioning because I see this a lot; people get older and they get stubborn because it would rock their world to realise, 'Perhaps I invested a lot of my time and energy into the wrong things.' So for me it was more a refocusing. I feel very much at peace with God in knowing that I am where I'm supposed to be but you just kind of butt heads with that. It makes you think about your future and really like, 'Alright, what's the next 10, 15, 20 years gonna look like because it's going pretty quick?'"
Isn't he a little bit young to be having a midlife crisis? "I guess so!" he admits. "I have joked about it. I think I'm trying to avoid the midlife crisis! That's the goal. It's like, 'Alright, if I hash some of this stuff out in the late-20s I won't be well into my 50s thinking, 'Oh my gosh, what have I done?! I'm not even saying all this is healthy. Hear me out. It's a bit selfish to constantly be lost in your own head thinking about your own personal drama. It's probably a lot healthier to be thinking about how to help out other people and that way maybe you won't sit around constantly worrying about getting the most out of your life. But it's a real issue whether it's selfish or not that a lot of people deal with, so we just threw it out there."
There are some subjects that Reuben finds difficult to articulate. It may be that he's just not very good at talking in the morning and it takes a while and a few more cups of coffee for his brain to warm up. During the conversation he frequently starts sentences, articulating an idea and then loses his train of thought. I want him to tell me where he thinks his music is going. Obviously it has a ministry slant to it because he's doing Christian music. Before meeting up with him, I'd been listening to his debut album and wondered how what he is doing today differs from the John Rebuen back then. "I don't know," he says simply. "It's tough for me because I'm not good with questions like that I guess. Not because I don't have any vision but I feel a bit out of control when I put music out there because again, a lot of times I don't sit down with any clear direction. I just write. I write and I make the best I can make and then I try and play catch up and figure out: alright, who's supposed to hear this? So it's a bit tough for me to always know exactly how things have changed."
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