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Workingman’’s grind: Ed E. Ruger’’s new album is a slice of blue-collar hip-hop life

Outside Greene Street Club during a show by Big KRIT on a Sunday night in late January, a champagne sedan with its headlights killed rolls up the dark alley from behind the club. The driver rolls down his window to meet Ray Armfield, who hands over a wad of bills just pulled out of his wallet. The scene’s not what it sounds like, but it’s not an atypical Sunday night for Armfield, otherwise known as Greensboro hip-hop artist and promoter Ed E. Ruger. The guy in the car is Young Stacks, an up-andcoming rapper with LGI Entertainment who was getting paid for playing a show with Ruger two nights before.

“We back here makin’ deals,” Ruger says with a wink. “But man, y’all takin’ all my money. I’m ballin’ like a midget,” he adds, a reference to a well-received single he dropped a few years back that wound up on his 2009 album Lights Out.

The show in question was the CD release party for Ruger’s latest work Ziplocked & Loaded at that very club, and like any show where Ruger is involved, it was a demonstrative slice of Triad hip hop. Names like Illpo, J. Harris, Scottie Flippen, UpRite Lions, Phillie Phresh, Ty Bru, Kayo Bracey, and Stitchy C aren’t simply artists on the bill, they’re his friends. But like any set by Ruger and fellow Iconoclast Crew associates, things can sometimes be unpredictable. In this case it was a surprise appearance by Rugged N Raw, a young rapper signed to hip-hop icon Immortal Technique’s Viper Records, who came down to support Illpo.

Big shows seem to be coming more often these days for Ruger, who just recently opened up for noted producer RJD2. It’s all about networking, he explained as he walked through Greene Street, slapping hands with Joe Scudda and bumping fists with Sadat X. But like he outlines so succinctly on the new album, the grind never seems to get much easier. “All these shows I’m doing, man you think I’m ballin’/but you got to add up how much this promos costin’/I can barely pay the bills on the phone y’all callin’/bungee cord on my Accord to keep the trunk from fallin’,” he rhymes on “Luck’s for Losers.”

Whereas Reloaded was the outlet for his anger over the death of his close friend and mentor Tre’ Stylez and Lights Out was an assertion to his place in hip-hop, Ziplocked & Loaded is without a doubt one of the most introspective works of Ruger’s career. “I don’t feel right every day punching the clock,” he states almost immediately on the album’s first track “40 Bars,” but it’s about more than the juxtaposition of being a working Joe while pursuing a hip-hop career at night.

“I’ve grown up a lot since the last one. I still talk a little s***, but this one is more about what I’ve been going through the past couple of years, raising my little girl, all the tours we’ve been on and actually making some money on this,” Ruger said. “To me, it’s the best mix I’ve had ever.”

His flow is strong and flexible on every track, a versatility he partially credits to close listens to Alabama rapper Yelawolf during the recording process, and production on the album matches him track for track.

Iconoclast producer JJ the Jenius put beats to 11 of the album’s 16 tracks, with folky chords hacked and chopped amidst blaxploitative funk and stoner grooves to match the litany of smoker references.

“It has a couple of radio singles, but damn near every track has weed references,” Ruger said. “That’s what I do, I can’t get rid of that.”

As much as it is a part of his persona, it’s his brand as well, and as Ruger’s matured as a businessman, consistency has become as important as frugality. Throwing dues to Rugged N Raw and Young Stacks days after the show comes a little easier as he parses out his production expenses. He cut more than $500 off album costs simply by going with plastic sleeves over jewel cases.

“People literally throw the CD in their computer and toss the jewel casing anyway,” he said. His next release, due in April or May, will cast off the packaging entirely, as Ray Lock: The Missing Links goes entirely digital. “We tried to be a little clever with the links reference, I just hope people get it,” he says with a big grin.

In the meantime, Ruger has been recording with another mentor, veteran Greensboro emcee Celinski, along with a separate project with legendary Brand Nubian member Sadat X, which will also feature frequent Ruger associates Genghis Khan and Ty Bru. Ruger’s work with Bru, which includes a dubstep project with DJ Phillie Phresh and Dubkiller known as DubBoro, landed a track on the new season of Breaking Bad, and nearly goes back to a former life: the days when Ruger was simply known as E Dot. A dispute over trademarks with a producer on Uncle Howie Records, however, forced the change.

“I’m sure there’s a million other E Dots, but there ain’t too many Ed E. Rugers,” he said. “I’m the best one, that’s all that matters.”

Another shot from the Ruger: “I can barely pay the bills on the phone y’all callin’/ bungee cord on my Accord to keep the trunk from fallin’” (courtesy photo)

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