Rick Gonzalez Describes Big Pun's Impact & Reception From Other Emcees
Exclusive: Rick Gonzalez recalls his early mixtape days, and the Brooklyn native also explains how both fans and fellow emcees react to his success in the acting world.
Simultaneously holding down an acting career and being a competent contributor in Hip Hop has always been a delicate balance. For every Ice Cube, Drake or Childish Gambino, there’s a god-awful clip of Nas and TLC’s T-Boz in Belly contemplating a new life in Africa. After landing roles in the likes of Coach Carter, Old School, Blue Bloods and NCIS, Rick Gonzalez is aware that more skeptical listeners would question his motivation for maintaining a Rap career—despite the fact he’s held his own on tracks with Prodigy, Blu, Joell Ortiz and others.
“It’s always been skeptical for someone in my position to approach the industry and the music,” Gonzalez says. “Sometimes it’s just not open-minded that way. And I’m sure there’s been other people in the past who haven’t really done a great job of showing that someone in my position would do a great job of caring about doing music the right way.”
Unbeknownst to most, Gonzalez has musical roots that predate any recent material of his that may have surfaced online. He was pushing to get his rhymes on Whoo Kid and DJ Clue mixtapes when they were actually on cassette tapes. His bond with Mobb Deep’s Prodigy is the byproduct of a genuine friendship sparked before P and most of the general public knew Gonzalez had been pushing the pen since 1998. Now with several projects under his belt, Gonzalez details why he’s not a rapper-turned-actor, but rather someone immersed and well-versed in Hip Hop culture.
Rick Gonzalez Recalls Transition From The Physical Mixtape Era
HipHopDX: You established a presence with Tony Touch and Whoo Kid mixtapes. How have things changed in the era of blogs and directly reaching fans via social media?
Rick Gonzalez: At the time, you got exposure by physical mixtapes. You had to press them up, meet with DJs pressing up their own thing, and there was no Soundcloud where you could reach millions of people at one time. So I was just trying to use my resources to get with the Touches and Whoo Kids to be a part of projects or even start my own projects with them. As time went on, and the Internet started to be a place where you could reach more and more people, I just put together my own site. Along with my connect, I just decided to put out my own music.
It’s funny how the transition came from getting your mixtapes on Canal Street from the bootleg man to uploading it yourself and getting on Nahright, 2Dopeboyz, HipHopDX and a slew of others. Those are the tastemakers now, whereas before, if you were on a Clue tape, those were the people that were stamping you. Now the bloggers have become the people who say, “We like him. You should listen to him.”
DX: Some people had an emotional connection to the physical product, what came along with it and things like the Justo Awards. How do you handle that transition as a fan?
Rick Gonzalez: It’s like a certain feeling, because I appreciate being at the age that I am. I can say that I’ve been able to purchase tapes, and I know what it feels like to go to the store and buy the tape, listen to it and run it until it pops. Then you gotta get another one. That was how you devoured music and really took it in. There was something magical about that…not to take away from the young people that listen to music the way they do now. I’m sure it’s special to them. But to physically have something in your hand like Raekwon’s “Purple Tape…”
I think the first tape I ever bought was 3rd Bass’ “The Gas Face” single. Then after that, I bought [Public Enemy’s] “Can’t Truss It” and “O.P.P.” by Naught by Nature. You would buy the maxi-singles, and then someone gave me Slick Rick’s first album. The next album I actually bought myself was Redman’s first album [Whut Thee Album]. Conceptually, that blew me away. That was it.
Why Rick Gonzalez Appreciates Hip Hop’s Recent Growth
DX: I wanted to revisit one of your lines. Explain what you meant on “Grindmode Infamous” when you said, “I ain’t always on some conscious shit / Ignorance is high, I’m displaying what they promising?”
Rick Gonzalez: I’m a fan of all kinds of music. It’s like there’s a purpose in everything. So you say things that other people may think are not politically correct, but it comes from a real place. That’s how I’m feeling in the moment. Most of the time, I try to be the best person I can be and make the right decisions and choices. But at the same time, as a human being, there’s always another side to you. That line really speaks to musically trying to be almost where ‘Pac was. You got “Hit ‘Em Up,” but you also got “Dear Mama.” Nobody’s one way, and it would be a lie for me to say I’m one way.
I want other people who are fans of the culture or don’t really devour it the same way to just respect it as a craft with somebody being honest on the record. Other genres delve into dark places of music or where the person is coming from. So I felt like it’s only right for me to be in the same place.
DX: How much has Hip Hop evolved from that mentality of so-called conscious or underground material being in binary opposition to what’s presented on Top 40 radio?
Rick Gonzalez: I think where music is now, there definitely is a place where you see the worlds meld even more. Before it was radical to see it, because the image had to really speak to what lane the person was in. You could identify with that. I appreciate where Hip Hop is now, and you can kind of see different facets of artists who can show that side. I think it’s great, because it shows Hip Hop is growing and the fanbase is maturing with it. It’s not so easily identifiable where you can say, “This person is only this one thing.”
How Rick Gonzalez Balances Competitiveness & Celebrity-ism
DX: With the latest project, In The Grind We Trust, what was the strategy behind the featured guests you picked?
Rick Gonzalez: The strategy for that mixtape was to get a hold of as many people I felt would challenge me and show other people that I was able to hang with them. I just wanted to show and prove that I’m lyrically able to swim with them. That was the whole purpose. I look at someone like Joell Ortiz; not many people could really touch him. It was important for me to reach out to him and be like, “I really need this favor for you to get on this record.” He’s such a humble dude, and he cares about the art of Hip Hop. He understood that I have a real passion for it, so he wanted to do it. Someone like Blu, or Fred The Godson, those are people who come at music in different ways, but they’re still amazing at what they do. I feel like it’s important for me to be right in the middle of what they’re doing and just showcase me and show I’m an artist. I’m also talented enough to hang with them.
Hip Hop is competitive in its own way. I remember when Capital Punishment came out, and as a young person, I remember conversations with people saying it was amazing [Big Pun] got Black Thought on a record [“Super Lyrical”]. He did it on purpose to be like, “This is the one y’all lookin’ at, right? OK, well watch me swim.” And that was like the same idea.
DX: In your interview with Sway, you talked about the phrase “celebrity-ism.” How do you balance that between your own acting career versus the celebrity factor of the guys you rhyme with?
Rick Gonzalez: That’s a good question. It’s always tough to balance it, because I think the façade of the image can make some people uncomfortable. But it also makes some people welcome it. For me, I just try to focus on building a relationship with the artist. I try to focus on people who show love, because if I show them love, they show it back. Then we have a real rapport, and when it comes to music there’s no forced energy. They can see that I truly do care about it, and it’s not just a hobby or whatever.
That’s most important. I feel if it’s not organic and you don’t hear two people on the same track who want to be there, you don’t really feel the energy in terms of how much they care about music. In this day and age, it makes it so much easier to approach some people. But it also becomes a double-edged sword, because it’s always been skeptical for someone in my position to approach the industry and the music. Sometimes it’s just not open-minded that way. And I’m sure there’s been other people in the past who haven’t really done a great job of showing that someone in my position would do a great job of caring about doing music the right way.
DX: Brian Austin Green?
Rick Gonzalez: I’m not naming names. No shots at people, but I think there’s another side to doing the music. You can have a chef do an amazing dish, but if it’s not presented the right way, would you eat it? I always try to keep that in mind, and I try to put myself in other people’s position. Would I comfortably want to listen to someone in my position? How would I listen to it? I’ll try to just take that position like, “How would I get someone to listen to my music if I’m in their position?” It’s just about respecting the other side of it, because you have to respect the music.
DX: You mentioned the double-edged sword. How much does being a working actor help? A lot of people aren’t making any money from their music right now.
Rick Gonzalez: Right. It helps in that mentally, acting is its own stress. It’s not a walk in the park for me to do what I do. It brings its own trials and tribulations, and what I love about music is it helps me to escape that. I can go on an audition and not have to worry about it. I don’t know if I booked that job, but I don’t care, because I’m going to go write a verse to a beat from The Olympicks. It allows me to let that world breathe, so I don’t have to put negative energy towards it.
The flipside of me being who I am in the acting world is that it does allow certain people to show me love where they wouldn’t. But at the same time, it also hurts. I can tell you a million stories. It’s just funny who shows me love and who doesn’t, and you’d be surprised at who shows love and who doesn’t. It makes people uncomfortable, and for certain people it’s like, “Oh, I’m a fan. I think you’re really cool,” or, “I don’t have any qualms with you. I don’t give a shit if you wanna rap.” So my success in that realm just affects people in different ways. But that’s just the nature of life.
Rick Gonzalez Explains Ditching The Moniker “Realm Reality”
DX: There are a fair amount of your interviews out there, but very few seem to explain where the name Realm Reality came from.
Rick Gonzalez: I’m glad you brought that up. When I started writing, that was around the time Capital Punishment came out. That’s when I started writing, and we didn’t get into freestyle battles or cyphers. What we did was get together with rhyme books over instrumentals. J Armz and Clue had instrumental tapes back then, so we would just basically spit [our rhymes] to each other. [A friend] told me, “You should go by Realm Reality.”
My mom never gave me a middle name, and no one in the neighborhood ever gave me a nickname. I was just like, “I’m gonna run with it. Someone gave me a nickname.” It wasn’t that I loved the name; I think I hated the name. It was just that I was loyal to the name. This year, I just nixed it. I’m just going by Rick Gonzalez. I feel like people identify with that anyway. At the end of the day, trying to separate who I am and what I’ve done really makes no sense. I still just want them to get to know me through the music. I can’t run away from Rick Gonzalez.
DX: A lot of rappers can craft popular, successful singles without listeners getting to know them. What was behind you including personal details about yourself and your family into your music?
Rick Gonzalez: I think it’s important to be as honest as possible in the music. I still understand the technical aspect of lyricism and certain things you have to display and showcase. I have fun doing that, but I know that in making music there has to be some sort of connection. I know what it feels like when you hear truth in a record and how that makes you feel…how you connect to it so easily. I just try to add that in. I’m not embarrassed. With the new album, I’ve put a lot of things in there that a lot of people wouldn’t speak on. But I’m like, “Why be embarrassed about it? It’s the truth.” I think more people would relate to that than me rockin’ a new Cuban [link].
If I’m gonna give you the glitz and the glamour, then I gotta give you the dark shit too. It’s only right.
Rick Gonzalez Talks Big Pun’s Influence & His Style Evolution
DX: You mention Capital Punishment fairly often. How big of an influence was Pun?
Rick Gonzalez: He was a big influence, because he was somebody that looked like me and talked like me. I liked B Real and all of them. They were dope. “How I Could Just Kill A Man” was like, “Oh my God. I love this beat.” But he didn’t look like me, and he just wasn’t me. So when I saw Pun, it was like, “Whoa.” And it didn’t hurt that he was kind of like better than everyone at the time. It just kind of made every Puerto Rican or Dominican in New York City say, “Yeah, fuck that! We gonna get our lane now.”
It just felt good, so I really held on to that. Although, I can’t take away from like… As I said, my first album was Redman. That really lit a fire in me to feel like I could do that at that point. And I did try to write at that time. I must’ve been 11 or 12 when that came out, but I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t figure the puzzle out. But once I left high school, I picked up the pen and pad and it just clicked. I don’t know.
DX: Pun was obviously on Loud—the same label Havoc and Prodigy had success on. Have you guys ever talked about Pun?
Rick Gonzalez: He would just say that he was super funny, and that’s what I’ve gotten from everyone. I’ve spoken to Fat Joe about Pun, and I guess I’m sad, because I never got to experience his humor. Everyone said he was just the sweetest guy, and would just make you laugh. Those are the coolest people to be around, because they don’t take themselves too seriously.
DX: You’ve talked about a lot of the technical aspects of rhyming. What was the hardest or last thing you worked on before feeling fully confident in your skill set?
Rick Gonzalez: Well, the easiest for me is the flow. That’s what my mind thinks in terms of writing. When I hear the beat, I think of the flow first. Then I try to craft the words into it. So the hardest part is trying to be as witty and clever as possible without sounding recycled, rehearsed or repetitive. I feel like those are the little gems people take away from a verse and what stands the test of time in terms of each emcee and their ability to give you insightful things to say in certain ways. That’s why I respect people like Fred The Godson. He does a really great job of that. Wayne is a legend at that, and he’s done a fantastic job giving you clever, fun things to say in verses. Those things mean a lot, so I always find a way to give that to a listener. To me, the most important thing is flow.