This story was first published by The Smoking Section on 12/20/2007. I am posting it here with some minor edits and additions. I regret that I wasn’t able to interview Staff Sergeant Thorburn before he passed away on January 7th, 2010. Many thanks to John Gotty for his help with the original interview.
On March 14th, 1970, during a long-range reconnaissance patrol mission in the Duc Lap area of the Quang Duc Province of South Vietnam, a UH-1P helicopter carrying Capt. Dana A. Dilley, Capt. Marvin R. Loper, SSgt John A. Thorburn, and A1c David A. Carpenter was shot down by enemy ground fire. Staff Sergeant Thorburn, along with fellow gunner A1C Carpenter, suffered serious injuries. Captain Dilley lost his life in the crash, and Captain Loper sustained broken bones in one of his feet. An Army helicopter on the same operation was able to rescue the surviving crew and bring them to Cam Ranh Bay, where they received treatment for their injuries. Upon receiving treatment, they were brought back to the U.S. Despite significant injury, Thorburn survived the incident.
Thirty-six years later, in a verse that would win him a “Hip-Hop Quotable” in the October 2006 issue of The Source, Thorburn’s son RA The Rugged Man would retell what took place on that fateful March night in the Jedi Mind Tricks’ song “Uncommon Valor: A Vietnam Story”. The song was featured on Jedi Mind’s most recent album, Servants in Heaven, Kings in Hell. Spanning forty-four bars and nearly two minutes, RA’s rapid fire, monotone masterpiece of a verse left people breathless as he dropped lines like, “Tail rotor broke, crash land, American man, Cambodia, right in the enemy hand” over producer Stoupe’s haunting production. His vivid storytelling ability and insight into his father’s emotional state during the helicopter crash made the song an instant classic.
Almost ten years after after its release, the verse still stands as one of RA’s most memorable moments as an MC.
Gino: Whose idea was it to make the song? I know that your father is a Vietnam veteran and that your verse was based on his experiences. Did you come up with the song’s concept or did Jedi Mind Tricks approach you about it?
RA: Paz had approached me to do a song about Vietnam because I always have the veteran’s hat and green jackets on and I’m all on that Nam shit. When he first came up with the idea I didn’t think, “Whoa, amazing idea”, I was just like, “Uh, ok.” When I started writing to the first Stoupe beat I was writing some Rambo shit about grenades and blowing shit up. I didn’t think to do my verse about my father. But then I started to think about doing the verse differently because it felt corny.
When I got the second beat I said, “Eh, trash those other rhymes. That’s some Rambo cartoon shit.” So when I got the beat we used for the song I said, “You know what, fuck it. Let me tell my father’s story. Who got a better story than him?” I called him up and talked to him for an hour or two and took notes. I knew most of the stories by heart, but I didn’t know the names of everything. I didn’t know the name of his gun or the names of specific locations. He also said things that I used in the song, like the stuff about black pajamas. So that was just me talking to my father for two hours. I took a little time on that song too. The 44 bars took me a week to write. Usually you go into the studio and just write some shit. But that particular verse, I tried to make it really accurate and took my time on it.
“If you’re a writer you reinvent the beat. That’s part of your job, to reinvent the beat and give it a new world.”
Gino: Was it difficult for your father to talk to you about his experience in depth and was he uncomfortable that his story was being made into a song?
RA: No, he loved the idea. When he heard it he was blown away. He couldn’t believe it. He was blown the fuck away, like, “Holy shit, it’s like you were there.” It brought some of his friends to tears. They were really happy and impressed with it. As far as talking about his experience, he was OK with it. He told me all the stories in the past. But there is one part of his story that he doesn’t talk about. My dad’s gun shot 4,000 bullets a minute. He was shooting 30,000 bullets a day sometimes. When I would ask, “Hey pops, how many people did you kill while you were there?” he’d say, “Oh son, I didn’t kill nobody. I didn’t take lives I saved lives.” He looked at it like he wasn’t killing, he was saving the lives of his people. So he’ll never tell me how many lives he took. But the rest of it he’s totally open about.
Gino: How much input did you and Vinnie Paz have on Stoupe’s production for the song?
RA: Well, Stoupe originally hit us with different beat. I started writing some shit to the first beat he hit us with. Stoupe is neurotic, and after I started writing to the first beat he said, “Oh, I hate the beat. I don’t like the beat.” I told him, “Just give me the fucking beat that we’re really using.” Paz sent me over the next beat that Stoupe had, and I just started writing to it. Neither of us really had any influence. Vinnie just accepted it and I said, “No doubt, we’ll do it.”
Gino: The buildups in the production fit the lyrics so well. I thought you guys might have had some input.
RA: Yeah, well if you’re a writer you reinvent the beat. That’s part of your job, to reinvent the beat and give it a new world.
“If you want to test me, I’ll grab a sheet of paper and read the whole thing to the beat without missing beat.”
Gino: When I first heard your verse I was trying to tell if you did it all in one take. It sounds like you did, but I wasn’t sure because of the length of it.
RA: I could do that whole verse in one take. The only problem is with memorizing it. When I read it off a paper I can do it in one take. That particular time when we recorded it in the studio I didn’t. The length of the verse is 44 bars, I didn’t know the rhyme very well, and I was reading it off of a piece of paper. So it took a couple punches here and there. But our reason for using multiple takes wasn’t because I couldn’t do it in one take. If you want to test me, I’ll grab a sheet of paper and read the whole thing to the beat without missing beat.
Gino: Is it difficult to do breath control and hold it together when you’re rhyming for that long?
RA: Yeah, that’s difficult, but the most difficult part is memorizing all them fucking syllables for forty-four bars. Even today when they want me to do that song I don’t really know it by heart yet. I gotta sit down on the subway one day, grab the lyrics, and just read em and read em for a week straight. There are a few songs like that on my album, like “Black and White” with Timbo King. He’s hit me up and said, “Hey, let’s perform that song together at a show.” And I don’t know the rhyme by heart yet. There’s a song “The Renaissance” with Razor and Tragedy Khadafi and that took me god damn weeks on the train to memorize. There are so many different fucking syllables. It’s not a typical verse where there are like ten syllables in a sentence. Sometimes I’m spitting forty syllables in a two or three bar thing. It’s crazy.
“A lot of people hit me up and said ‘Uncommon Valor’ had them in tears.”
Gino: “Uncommon Valor” probably brought a lot of people to tears that were affected by the war. It’s so intense, you almost feel like you’re experiencing it in some parts.
RA: I work hard to make sure I portray things realistically. On some corny RA shit, sometimes I listen to my own songs and certain things touch me for a second. I don’t cry, I never cried at my own shit, but all of a sudden I get chocked up or teary eyed. Then I have to go, “Whoa, whoa, RA calm down. It’s a song.” One time it happened to me at one of my shows. I was doing my song “Lessons” and my sister was in the crowd. I said the line, “I’ve seen disease take the life of my sister’s kid. Six months on the earth, that’s all he had to live.” It was a simple lyric, and it had never hit me. But when my sister was right in the crowd, nobody noticed but me, but I almost came out my face with it. I got chocked up. I had to go, “Oh shit, chill RA.”
Gino: Did your sister notice?
RA: Nah. The first time I played the song for her I saw that she got a little choked up. But she’s like me, she controlled it. A lot of people hit me up and said “Uncommon Valor” had them in tears. A lot of people said, “We were crying.” When people tell me stuff like that, I just think, “Wow, I was just telling a story.”
Gino: I can believe it. I tell people who haven’t heard “Uncommon Valor” that in my opinion, your verse is one of the top five verses ever. Ever. I put it up there with all the great ones. The first time I heard the song, it completely blew me away.
RA: That’s our job, to try to advance. When Melle Mel was painting pictures with songs and just verbally destroying shit back in the day, you wouldn’t think that 20 years later the average rapper on the radio would be worse than him. We’re supposed to take that storytelling shit from the G Rap’s and Melle Mel’s and the flows from the Puba’s and the Kane’s and keep building on what we learned and saw from them, rather than get worse than them. If I’m a top five verse for you, it’s because I had great influences. I didn’t bite nobody’s shit, it’s my own shit, my own style, and I did it myself. But I was able to build off of the greats of the past. It’s like filmmaking. You look at all the greats and you can learn to do things because they’ve done it already. I wish that in five years I wouldn’t be in your top five no more because all these rappers would have verses that kill mine in “Uncommon Valor.” But it doesn’t seem to be the trend to have ill verses no more.
Gino: Agreed. Out of all the songs you’ve ever been involved in, would you say the song is the most important song of your career?
RA: No, it’s not the most important song of my career. But it’s a real personal one that I really like a lot. It’s top notch RA, it’s me on my top game. But it’s like when a fighter has an incredible knockout. Everyone says, “That’s the best fight of his career.” But they were saying the same shit nine years ago when he knocked someone else out. At this particular moment, “Uncommon Valor” is a high mark because it’s new. It’s a close, personal record, and I’m really glad it’s out there. My father drove around and listened to it all the time. That’s a real good thing. I’m glad I’m a part of it and I’m glad it exists, but a year from now when I’m done with my new album, I hope to have a couple of songs that blow “Uncommon Valor” out of the water.
“If I’m a top five verse for you, it’s because I had great influences.”
Gino: You don’t want to settle with one song and say it’s your pinnacle…
RA: Yeah. I think I have a few instances in my career when I put something out that made people say, “Wow, that’s some shit.” There are a couple of songs on my first demo that the label said was my pinnacle. A couple of my demo songs in 1992 got me nine record deals. Everybody wanted to sign me. They all said, “That was the pinnacle, you had it. The first songs you ever made for us that you shopped, those were the best songs of your career.” Everybody has their opinions about what your best material is.
“He looked at it like he wasn’t killing, he was saving the lives of his people. So he’ll never tell me how many lives he took.”
Gino: Your lyrics on “Uncommon Valor” get very religious. I was wondering if you yourself are a religious person, or if the religious tone is supposed to be more from your father’s point of view.
RA: It’s both of our points of view. I pray more than once a day. I believe in god. We were raised Protestant, but I’m not sure what particular religion I completely believe. I know that there is a higher power, and I believe in him. My father had me saying my prayers since I could talk. He was a wild man, a ladies man and a brawler. But he always had that religious element for us. He would always tell us to say our prayers.
My father went nuts a couple times. He was in and out of a couple institutions after he came home. One time, he paid for one of those things in the back of a tabloid magazine where they make you a reverend. He became a reverend through one of those magazines and went around trying to marry people and started selling bibles door to door. (Laughs) He called himself the black angel, the black angel and the white angel. He had two personalities.
His reverend phase changed him. Ever since I was a kid, my father taught me how to fight. He was like, “If you gotta fight, fight. Learn to protect yourself.” He was a straight soldier. Green Beret, all that shit. In third grade, if someone fucked with me, I’d put ‘em in a headlock or punch ‘em in the face. I was always brawling as a kid. And then about fourth grade he said, “The real man with the courage knows how to keep his hands in his pockets. Walk away from fights.” This was when he was the black angel. So after that a kid came up to me and started talking shit. I said, “The man with courage walks away” and I walked away from the fight. People thought I was a pussy for like two months. Then my dad snapped out of it, and I was like, “Cool, I’m allowed to fight again.” But for a minute I was trying to listen to my father, the black angel preacher.
“He was a wild man, a ladies man and a brawler. But he always had that religious element for us. He would always tell us to say our prayers.”
Gino: It sounds like that didn’t last too long.
RA: It didn’t last that long. I had a couple scuffles over him selling bibles later in life. In junior high a couple kids were like, “Yeah, RA’s father is gonna come to my house and sell us a bible” and mocked him. I said, “OK, after class you’re getting punched in the face now.” I had to go in the back and punch some people out.
Gino: On the last line of the song when you say, “God take, god give”, was that something your father said to you, or did you come up with it on your own?
RA: That was my rhyme. My dad spent a lot of years in pain mentally. He spent a lot of years angry and miserable. Later in life he became so fun and such a good-hearted, happy person. The worse things got, he always managed to have a positive outlook. Since “Uncommon Valor” was made, my family lost my sister in March. Somehow my father just maintained a positive outlook through everything. So I was trying to be like him with my rhyme.
You can hear how much more angry my music used to be. It was more hateful. I think I changed that up a little bit when I got older. I learned to accept things a little better, instead of saying, “I’ll fucking kill someone, I’ll break something over someone’s head.” I learned to accept that life’s tough for everybody. I think the ending of the verse is a little bit of both me and my father. My father didn’t say “God take, god give” but it’s something that he would say.
“In my old age I’ve kind of realized, just do whatever the fuck you want and don’t listen to nobody.”
Gino: My condolences. I’m so sorry for your family’s loss.
RA: “God take, god give….” you know?
Gino: It’s amazing that you guys have been able to stay positive through everything you’ve been through. That one line helps end such a powerful verse on a positive note.
Gino: Your flow on “Uncommon Valor” is almost monotone, and really rapid fire. Was that an intentional contrast to the intense emotions you rhymed about in the song?
RA: When I first started rhyming, all I did was rapid fire. A little bit before we started making “Uncommon Valor” I had listened to some of my old tapes when I was 15 and 16, and they were all crazy fast, all in one take, off the paper. I was like, “How the fuck did I memorize that shit enough to spit it back in the day?” When I first went to the labels in the early 1990’s, there was some complaining that I was more about flow than being lyrical. Like an idiot I went, “Oh, maybe I gotta dumb it down a little. I can only flow fast here and there, and give them a little flow.” I would keep the flow simpler, and do a little rapid flow for a bar or two, and then spit simpler and slower again. I was getting in the habit of that just so the dumb assholes could go, “Yo, he’s a dope lyricist.”
I didn’t want to be considered a rapper who was only voice and flow, so I tried to go the more lyrical route. On my last album, I had a song called “Chains” with Killah Priest and Masta Killa. I did an all out rapid flow like my old school shit. Everyone went nuts over it, and I was like “Really? I thought that you guys thought that shit was too much.” So I said, “Fuck it, let’s bring it on. I’ll do this flow like a motherfucker all over the place.”
Now I give ‘em a lot more of that rapid fire flow. Pretty soon people will probably go, “Well, we like when he raps simple better.” Who the fuck knows? They all got something to say. In my old age I’ve kind of realized, just do whatever the fuck you want and don’t listen to nobody. Now I’m just doing whatever the fuck I want.