To listen to Carl Hancock Rux’ alternately blistering and blissful commentary is to attest to an artist who picks at his own sores as readily as he salves them, a life borne out of tragedy that painstakingly claws out its own victory-whether or not we perceive it as such. His Sony 550 debut, Rux Revue, is a case study in unconditional honesty-how much a man can gorge himself in flame and still emerge on the other side, how much of him remains and in what ways he’s changed.
You’re from Harlem originally?
I was born in Harlem, but I wasn’t raised in Harlem. I lived in Harlem until I was about four, with my grandmother, who died. Then I lived in the Bronx, mostly with foster parents.
Your upbringing was nothing short of traumatic in many respects. What were some of the feelings you had about this nomadic sort of existence and what helped you stay centered?
I was absolutely unsure about everything. I didn’t feel like I had a traditional family structure. For instance, there’s the traumatic death of the reality of my biological mother, who was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and institutionalized. I’ve always known who and where she was, but there’s no relationship, so there’s this weird thing going on. Like, “My mother’s there. What does that mean?” No clue whatsoever who my biological father was. Two brothers with different fathers, no clue who their fathers were and then neither of us related to the other, so I had an incredible insecurity. Nobody asks children what their feelings are about their lives and what they mean, or what they may think they mean. If people provide food, clothing and shelter for children, they say, “That’s enough. You’re okay.” But it wasn’t enough for me. The thing that kept me centered, from the age of four, was drawing. I was doing art before I could write. I was writing little short stories. I was always listening to lots of music. I was creating a little fantasy world for myself. My adoptive mother died recently and I went through some of things she kept-things written as a child I didn’t even know I’d done. Inside of all that-this magical world-was some of what was ugly about my life, things that you wouldn’t expect a child to say. But that’s what kept me centered: holding on the reality and making the fantasy at the same time.
What kind of formal education did you have?
I went to the High School of Music and Art. Got a bachelor’s degree at Columbia University. I attempted to go to grad school, but I stopped. I wanted to be a writer but I wasn’t clear how furthering my formal education was gonna help me do that. So I just stopped and focused. Tried to be sure of my views. Started writing plays, poetry. But when I was in Columbia University, I worked with the International Theater Company as a drama intern and I went to the American University in Paris for a minute to study comparative literature and sort of focus on the things I wanted to write.
What sort of positive reinforcement did you get from people around you, or were you cut off from that?
My foster mother, who also became my adoptive mother, was really supportive of me as an artist. She was always incredibly encouraging. My foster/adoptive father was like, “Learn a trade.” But that’s the world he came from. He worked in a factory. He worked with his hands. He thought art was a ridiculous escape, especially for a Black man in America, so he wasn’t interested by my interest in art. And then in schools, yeah. People recognized early on that I had all this creative energy and were always pretty supportive of it.
How did you start developing your ideology?
My ideology developed itself based on my life experience. There was my own strange personal history and how I saw myself in that. Then there was all the literature, all the movies, all the music I was experiencing. I allowed that to inform my feeling about things. There’s a little bit of decadence and some nationalism. Then there’s some political beliefs that are not as defined. I’m trying real hard not to speak about or to things or have conclusive ideas about things that I don’t know anything about yet. If I don’t really know anything about it and if it hasn’t really affected me personally, I’m trying not to go there ’til I’ve figured that out. My world and my ideology are incredibly personal. It’s personal and political in a global way, because there are other people who feel the same thing. Our politics as people are best when they’re borne out of how we relate to the personal, as opposed to creating some ideology for the sake of creating an ideology because we think we should “have ideas” about everything.
What was your formal entry into the literary world?
My older brother, who I grew up with, moved back to New York City. We got to know each other and we had this great relationship. Then he died like a year later. He died of AIDS and I became his primary caretaker. Again, it was like the continuation of trauma for me. To never have something that you wanted, to finally get it and then have it snatched away from you. It just, like, flipped me. As he was hauled away, it was like, “There’s my brother, and WHAM! I can’t have that!” So I didn’t know else to do except to write this play. And it was produced-that was the first thing, about 1991. It called, “Song of Seven Men,” about Black men like myself. But it was also about a community that had a great heyday and then had fallen into decline and what do we do with that? What do we do with the people who are here who are just wasting away? That was really the first thing. And writing plays and collaborating. It’s New York and working with a lot of musicians, dancers, artists, writers. I was hangin’ out at the Nuyorican [Poets Cafe] and these poets’ spaces in New York.
What does being in the studio and recording yourself do for you that performing live doesn’t? And vice versa?
Well, those two things are not in opposition to each other. One is the natural progression of the other. Writing is a very personal thing I do in solitude. Then going to a studio or going to the stage is the next level of that. It’s collaborative. There are musicians and producers and singers. And it’s about figuring out, “How do I land this idea? How do I take these words I have and how do I sing them? How do I phrase them? How do I want them to sound? How do I want my voice to sound? What does the bass and the guitar and the drums bring to this that makes it something else or informs it a whole other way?” It’s about being in a room with other artists and figuring out how your art lives in their art.
There have been many poets who’ve recorded their work, but only a few really on a major label. Now that it seems that spoken word is becoming more popular, the majors seem to be trying to stick their toes in the water. What does it represent for you, being on the vanguard as one of the few poets on a major label, especially as huge a label as Sony?
Wow, that’s a good question. It’s funny, ’cause, you did have this sort of interest from major labels for a minute in the early ’90s, and then that changed. After ’93, ’94, when major labels saw spoken word as some incredibly viable thing, they were running around trying to sign a whole bunch of poets. Which I don’t think is happening now. And I don’t think Sony signed me with that in mind, either. The way I was signed was, I was gigging around a lot with my band, ’cause I wanted to just work it out. The term “spoken word,” to me, is misleading. Because it doesn’t describe what everybody does. It doesn’t describe to me what I do. I speak some of my poetry, sing some of it, speak and sing some of it. I’ve always done this. Then I relay my poetry in the company of musicians and interpret the work. This is what Polly Anthony, president of 550 and Epic, saw. She came down to one of the shows at Izzy Bar and decided to bring people from Sony down to see me at the Nuyorican, and brought other people to see me at CB’s 313 Gallery. And just kept seeing me consistently. And I think what she responded to. For that reason, to me, there’s something kinda homogenous, kind of honest about it. Polly Anthony, being the president of two labels at a major label, she’s responsible for making sure that those labels are making money. But she didn’t sign me because she thought she was gonna make major money with me as an artist. I don’t think what I did immediately made itself clear to her in the commercial market or the commercial arena of music. People tend to find the carbon copy of something that is actually selling right now as a sure way of making some dollars. So being at Sony doesn’t resonate so much to me. I see it as a great opportunity to do my art and to have my art marketed in a way that is national or international. To have a system of power that a lot people don’t have or may not have in their lifetime. Which is unfortunate, because there are people who are incredible and should be at some major labels right now, poets, singers and musicians and whatever. That’s what it means. I’m real happy to have this opportunity to bring myself to the forefront.