Four tracks into his Monday Monster Jam performance, Brooklyn rap czar Jay-Z stops the music and points to a freeze-frame image of George W. Bush on the titanic screen above the TD Banknorth Garden stage. After prodding fans to curse and raise middle fingers for about 30 seconds, Hova poses this election season’s choice rhetorical question: “Boston — are you ready for a change?” In a second, the thick piano line for “Public Service Announcement” drops and Dubya’s mug is replaced with a beaming portrait of Barack Obama. The crowd blows its collective load.
The Obama campaign has seen celebrity endorsements aplenty, and not just by hip-hop artists. This past September, Barbara Streisand stirred angry conservatives by hosting a posh Beverly Hills fundraiser for the Illinois senator. Bruce Springsteen incurred similar Republican wrath when, earlier this month, he rocked an Obama rally in Philadelphia to swing Pennsylvania into blue waters. But the pro-Obama vigor pumping through the hip-hop community since the primaries is second to none; try finding another non-MC who’s touched the cover of The Source and Vibe in the same month.
Enter the self-proclaimed “American lowlife” R.A. Thorburn, who’s better known to leagues of underground aficionados as R.A. the Rugged Man. He is hip-hop’s political anomaly: a proud John McCain supporter who is equally down with Sarah Palin. And while he doesn’t have the reach of Jay-Z, Nas, or any of Obama’s other major-label shills, Rugged Man (who is white) is using his notoriety and knack for controversy to rally troops behind the red team.
“A lot of hip-hop heads don’t like that I’m doing this,” says Rugged Man, who features McCain, Palin, and Penthouse pet Jelena Jensen among his top MySpace friends. “The entertainment world is brainwashed by Obama — they’re falling for this guy because it’s the cool thing to do and he’s a great speaker. He’s the world’s greatest used-car salesman.”
Though Rugged Man never shies away from demeaning one-liners, his position on the 2008 presidential election is more rooted in support of the McCain ticket than in disdain for Obama. His father, Staff Sergeant John A. Thorburn, is a highly decorated Vietnam War hero who was shot down behind enemy lines in 1970. Furthermore, he describes his family as “special needs,” having lost two siblings and a nephew to microsyphalic-related complications. He says of the Thorburns’ military ties and special-needs suffering, “I guess you could say my family has more than a bit in common with both McCain and Palin.”
Thorburn has caught negative feedback from friends and fans, but he need not worry that hip-hop will condemn him as a racist. As a rapper, he’s worked closely with dozens of prominent black acts, including Mobb Deep and Wu-Tang Clan, and was famously considered by Notorious B.I.G. to be one of hip-hop’s great talents.
“This whole thing of calling McCain supporters racists is propaganda,” he says. “The media supports the Democrats, and they put the most ignorant white people on camera. You could do that in the brokest hood, too, and say that drunken homeless black people are the only ones who support Obama. How about the sexism from the other side? There are strip clubs with Sarah Palin impersonators.”