Robin Williamson first heard the prophetic voice of Big Rube in his uncle’s Buick Regal when he was six or seven years old. The Durham, North Carolina-based poet demanded that his uncle run back Outkast’s “Hootie Hoo” for another play, but instead they listened to Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik all the way through. Hearing Rube’s deep, raspy drawl on the “True Dat” interlude—“This is Big Rube sayin’ right on to the real, and death to the fakers”—he says, was a revelation.
“His words and his cadence made me realize that I didn't have to follow any rules when it came to poetry,” Williamson says. More than two decades after his first encounter with Big Rube’s music, Williamson, who performs spoken word as Sh8kes, had the opportunity to meet his inspiration on wax. His latest project, Chance 2 Change—dedicated to Williamson’s cousin, who had a near-death encounter with COVID-19—sees the pair swapping bars over crisp snares and deep drums, with introductions from DJ Fatz reminiscent of a Gangsta Grillz mixtape.
Rube’s influence on the art form is deep, and spans some 20 years: Hip-hop fans will recognize his voice from Outkast’s 1994 debut as well as Stankonia, Future’s Honest and Pluto, or his part in the R&B group, Society of Soul. Younger people may know him, firstly, from his work with artists like Offset, 2 Chainz, Rapsody, and Denzel Curry. His subject matter, which touches on knowledge, struggle, and the universe, makes his work timeless; his delivery—baritone and deliberate—turns albums into cinema.
Although Big Rube has also performed without beats, including one Def Poetry performance in which each line is alliterated with the sequential letters of the alphabet, he says he doesn’t consider himself a spoken word artist. In addition to his signature cameos speaking poetry in album intros and interludes, he also has credits as a rapper and producer, though these days, he says he prefers to describe himself as a “reality-smith.”
As part of the Atlanta-based Dungeon Family collective—whose members include such hip-hop royalty as production crew Organized Noize, Outkast, Goodie Mob, and Killer Mike—Big Rube was an MC before he’d ever uttered a line of spoken-word poetry.
“My style may be a little different cadence, a little different flow, but to me, it’s basically killing most people’s raps,” Big Rube says. “But that's because I was an MC first, and I attacked it from an MC perspective.”
Rube told VICE that he started rapping when he was 12. “It wasn’t until, when his friends in Outkast invited him into the studio fort heir first album, that he did a spoken word piece—and even then, he says, “It wasn't really on purpose. "The only spoken word act he could recall listening to was The Last Poets, a group of poets formed in Harlem in 1968 whose combination of revolutionary words over drums laid some of the initial groundwork for hip-hop. That link between poetry and hip-hop extends into the present: The group’s name comes from a piece written by the late South African poet laureate Keorapetese Kgositsile, who is Earl Sweatshirt’s father.
Like The Last Poets, Rube often speaks in revolutionary rhetoric: “Death is a small price to pay for respect,” he intones on Outkast’s “Phobia”; “Take back your existence or die like a punk,” he says on “Tru Dat,” his first spoken word feature with the duo. The closest spiritual analog to these musings may be the late DMX, whose recited prayers often made their way onto his records.
Rube’s voice can be found on major label projects and independent releases alike. He says that he chooses his collaborators based on what sounds good to him—not an artist’s popularity or streaming stats. “A hit record's a hit record before anybody's even heard it,” he says.
Accordingly, artists familiar with his larger-than-life voice might be surprised at how easy it is to reach Big Rube—something that Williamson knows firsthand. Williamson recalled that he’d posted a Tweet around two years ago, saying, “Man, I want to work with Big Rube.” Not long later, Big Rube actually responded. “Let’s work.”
“I actually post on social media that I'm available.” Rube says. “A lot of people assume, ‘I can't get in touch with this guy, I wouldn't be able to work with him,’ because they see me on TV or whatever. But that don't really mean nothing. I like good music. So I make myself available to artists that want to collab with me.”
Rube has lent his pen to other artists as well. One of them is the actor Morgan Freeman, who voiced several interludes on 21 Savage and Metro Boomin’s 2020 collaboration, Savage Mode II. According to Rube, he wrote Freeman’s parts without hearing “one piece of music.” Instead, he got on the phone with Metro Boomin, who briefed him on song titles and subject matter.
Although Rube is best known for his oratory skills, during our conversation, he keeps returning to a different kind of language: mathematics. At one point, he uses calculus as a metaphor for spoken word’s relationship with rap: Just as one cannot perform calculus without knowing algebra, a more elementary type of math, one cannot rap without understanding spoken word.
When I ask him where he draws the line between the two art forms, Rube returns, cryptically, to the most basic equation: "It is what it is.” In other words, you know it when you see it: “You don't have to know jack shit,” he says. “I could not know how to pronounce it, I could not know how to describe it. But whatever it is, that's what it is.”
And as far as Rube is concerned, it doesn’t even have to be English. Recently, he’s been watching Warrior on HBO, a show about the Tong Wars in San Francisco, set in the 1800s.
“At the end of every show, a hip-hop beat will come in, with Chinese dudes rapping in Chinese,” he says. “I wish I knew what he says. Because he was going in.”
Clearly, Rube’s respect for music goes beyond what languages he can understand. “The communication of music transcends just knowing what the words are,” he says.