Rocking camo shorts, the rapper Ed E. Ruger rises and shows off a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Hip Hop Dads” at the outset of an interview at the Common Grounds coffeehouse in Greensboro’s Lindley Park neighborhood.
“That’s sort of the direction I’m headed,” he says with a wide smile. “I’m a lot happier now.”
The avowed conversion is a little dubious: Since his early days with Iconoclast Crew, the grimy persona projected in albums from Shots from tha Ruger in 2005 through Lights Out in 2008 was belied by an upbeat and indefatigable entrepreneur, eager to make friends and forge alliances to help his fellow artists break in.
For a couple years after the release of Lights Out, Ruger — who is known to his family as Ray Armfield — wasn’t especially feeling the rap game. What would become Guerilla Grind, the album he released in January 2015, started as a song and a hashtag. People started asking him when the album was coming, and he duly complied. By then he had a lot of material banked, and in hindsight he says that deadline pressure resulted in some filler. Guerilla Grind Pt 2: The Token, released on Aug. 7, is more tightly curated, and generally more positive than his past work, to a point. The sunny “Good Day” is counterbalanced by an anthem for a day when everything that possibly can go wrong, does, called “F*** That, Screw You.”
“Good Day” sets the mood for Guerilla Grind Pt 2 with a description of waking to the smell of breakfast, a child chasing a dog around the yard and a welcomed surprise visit from old friends.
“I’m just grillin’ with the family, kids chilling outside,” Ruger raps in the relaxed, loping style of Ice Cube on “Doing Dumb S***.” “Ladies catching up on life, just sipping some wine/ While the fellas killing time, just feeling the vibe/ And reminiscing and reliving the greatness/ And the memories collected from all the different places/ Feel like we never missed a day, but it’s been ages/ I love it every time I see the smile on they faces/ They say we’d never make it, but somehow made it out/ Let’s pour some Makers out for the ones that ain’t around/ I took my own route and stayed away from the doubt/ Now what a great time to celebrate, just look at us now.”
Reapplying himself to his craft, Ruger reflected on the parallel trajectories of fellow Iconoclast Crew members — people like Ty Bru returning to the scene in North Carolina from a stint teaching English in China, DJ Phillie Phresh deepening and confounding his sound, Stitchy C going harder than ever.
“Now you’ve got veterans who want to do grown-people rap,” Ruger says. “There’s a demographic — I’m in my mid-30s now. Ty Bru, he came back from China. With all of us back, we have found that the people we had before still want it. The grown people want good music, too. We’re not into politics all the time. We want to have a good time, too.”
Ruger’s posture has changed, and it hasn’t. “It’s still as obnoxious as can be,” he says. “Less violence. Less ‘I’m gonna shoot you,’ and more ‘You’re an idiot.’”
It can be tempting to dismiss the “street” sensibility in Ruger’s music as the posturing of a white dude conjuring an imagined authenticity of poverty and criminality. But as he tells his story in broad strokes, there is some basis for the profile projected ins song. He describes his father as “a forensic officer who went the wrong way,” explaining, “So I went in the opposite direction.”
Most of his criminal misdeeds could best be summed up as self-inflicted harms, he says, adding, “I never done anything to wrong anyone.” Indeed, Guilford County court records chronicle a string of minor offenses from the time James Raymond Armfield was 16 to about 30, mostly misdemeanors for small amounts of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, and many of them dismissed.
Ruger credits his wife with turning him around.
“My wife bought me a thousand CDs,” he says. “She said, ‘If you can sell this, will you stop selling that?’”
Later, he adds, “I was the bootleg king, so it’s probably karma that everybody’s bootlegging me. Ultimately, as long as people are listening to my music, that’s all I care about.”
Though most of Ruger’s music is not overtly political, he displays a consciousness about how the color line operates based on his own experience.
He mentions Alton Sterling, the black man killed by the police in Baton Rouge, La. last month while selling CDs, and recalls a run-in with the police for the same activity in which he was the only white person in a group of black men.
“There was one time when the cops asked us what we were doing, and they put everybody on the ground,” Ruger says. “Then they told me: ‘Get up and go home, you shouldn’t be hanging around with them.’ I said, ‘I can’t. These are my roommates. I literally can’t go home because they have the keys to the house.’”
Beyond whatever illicit activities he might have engaged in, Ruger has experienced the kind of adversity that no one would invite just to flesh out a compelling biography: In 2005, his close friend, the promising rapper Tre’ Stylez, died in a mysterious shooting incident, and in 2009 Ruger nearly lost his first child and his wife due to health complications during the birth.
He credits the Greensboro rap duo Illpo with the term “grind” — meaning to work hard and relentlessly for what you have — an ethos espoused, after all, by both Michelle Obama and Melania Trump.
“The ‘guerilla’ comes from how we promote, using our local resources to go up against a bigger mainstream power,” Ruger says. “In warfare, the guerillas are the local fighters. We throw our own concerts. We make our own fliers.”
In addition to turning out a substantial catalogue of seven albums, opening for some industry heavyweights and touring nationally, Ruger has pulled off some notable guerilla strikes: He’s made music that was featured on AMC’s “Breaking Bad” and the Cartoon Network’s “Boondocks” series, and he created the theme song for the Ugly Ducklings wrestling crew. And in 2013, Ruger scored a near masterful bit of self-promotion by narrating a video chronicling the arrest of hip hop artist Riff Raff outside Greene Street Club in Greensboro, which was picked up by the celebrity gossip website TMZ.com.
Those connections have helped Ruger book shows at venues that otherwise wouldn’t give hip hop a chance.
“You talk to people that don’t like rap, but they like the Ugly Ducklings,” he says. “I have many, many different ways to get into places I shouldn’t be. Once they talk to me, they find out I’m a professional.”
Ultimately, Ruger has realized there’s only one path — his own.
“Once I realized I was in the Ed E. Ruger business, not the music business,” he says, “things got a lot easier.”