Rich Robbins explores blackness and worth on “All.This.Gold"

The currently Madison-based rapper talks with us about his sophomore album.

MC Rich Robbins had a couple of millennia of literary and scriptural precedent, not to mention some well-established hip-hop tropes, to draw on in using gold as a theme for his songwriting. But instead, his new album All.This.Gold pares the figurative possibilities down into a focused statement. Robbins, real name Christian Robinson, turns gold into a metaphor for black people themselves—an idea that expresses both the inherent worth and beauty of their lives, and highlights how, like anything precious and valuable, they’ve been abused and exploited.

This creates a perspective from which anger, feelings of otherness, and tireless optimism all look like the same complex emotion: "I'm paydirt, like a gold mine / I ain’t dirt, my skin shine / I scrub scrubs like soap scum / 'Cause they too soft, like a clean rhyme," he raps over pleasantly trippy loops of pitched-up vocal samples "Juice 2." The first rhymes on the album, on "Down To Start A Riot," affirm his outrage at police violence and other forms of persistent racism in America, and argues that the anger’s more potent when combined with pride: "If they call you animal, tell 'em you eat with the lions / Tell 'em your teeth is as tough as the iron they wearin' / We strapped up and not even carin' / They're weak, it’s apparent." While making the album, Robinson also spent hours watching YouTube videos about gold, from a documentary about gold mines to rants urging people to hoard gold in case society collapses. He edited those into a few interlude tracks that offer a more playful, or at least abstract, take on the theme. (Full disclosure: Michael Penn II, who writes for Tone Madison, has a feature verse on this album under his MC name, CRASHprez.)

The album also has a sonic theme, deliberately or not: Rolling, moderate-tempo production that strike a balance between funky and deliberate. Madison producer Since'93's beat on "H.o.V.," has sparse but infectious little swirls of melody in it, but leaves lots of space for Robbins’ delivery to steer it from mellow to tense and back again. On "Touch, Pain, Pleasure," a producer named RB heads for the lower end of hip-hop's typical BPM range as Robinson and Broadway (who met through UW-Madison’s First Wave program) trade verses about the transcendence and anxiety that surrounds love.

Robinson, 23, grew up in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Oak Park (a suburb bordering Chicago's west side). Rather than identifying with any particular one of those places, he tries to embrace the complexity of identifying with many locales and having both urban and suburban experiences. For now, though, he’s in Madison, and this year will be pursuing some work in education, in addition to making an EP with Since’93, releasing a few one-off tracks, and revamping his live set. He's also playing a Madison hip-hop showcase on August 6 at the Terrace. Robbins spoke with me earlier this month about how he’s matured since his debut album, his journeys into weird videos about gold, and how All.This.Gold's themes developed as he worked on it.

Tone Madison: Just a few months ago we were talking about a show you put on in which you revisited your first album, Nimbus. That seemed really involved, so I was surprised that you turned around a whole new full-length already.

Christian Robinson: To be honest, most of [All.This.Gold] was done by the time of that show, but we just weren't ready to put it out.

Tone Madison: So was it weird to make a whole new record and then dive back into the previous one? There must have been some element of, "Oh, I've moved past some of this," right?

Christian Robinson: It was pretty weird, because we were so removed from that project. I had forgotten all the lyrics of Nimbus, so I went back and listened to it and was like "Damn, that's what I said in that? OK, cool." Or I'd be like, "Damn, I'm glad I don't speak like that anymore or rap like that anymore." One big thing was, I stopped using the word "bitch" in my music, but [I did use it] during Nimbus. So I would hear the music and be kind of disappointed in myself, that I wasn't as mature as I should have been then.

Tone Madison: On this record, you're basically using gold as a metaphor for black people, and looking at that as something that has great value and also something that can be exploited. What made you want to create a whole album around that idea?

Christian Robinson: It was actually the start of Nimbus where I really started doing it, because on Nimbus, there were a couple times where I said the line "all this gold inside our skin." I said that twice within Nimbus. And then I noticed that when we would make songs, I would just keep on using the term gold. That word just kept popping up. And then all of a sudden I was like, "Well, that's the direction this shit's gotta go," that whole theme of gold and brown skin being synonymous.

Tone Madison: Was it challenging to kind of build every song around that?

Christian Robinson: I wouldn't call it a challenge as opposed to, I just felt it wasn't done until I told the whole story. When we were doing the Nimbus show, we had probably 70 percent of All.This.Gold done, but the story wasn't done yet. It's kind of a hard question to answer, because one in every three songs we would write would end up on the album. It wasn't that we were writing specifically for an album, it was just like, "Damn, this is a part of the story that I haven't written yet that fits onto the album, so this is going on the album."

Tone Madison: Were there moments where that story or theme went in a direction that you weren't expecting at first?

Christian Robinson: The interludes were something I wasn't expecting. There's three of them including the intro. It's not rapping or anything. Those were just purely me sitting and watching endless YouTube clips about gold. All of my recommended videos on YouTube now are just like, "Dude explores a goldmine." If you looked at my YouTube, you'd be like, "Why is that even there?" These bizarre-ass videos of these old white dudes yelling at the camera like, "I found gold!" But, again, it was all part of the plan at the end of the day.

I literally watched an hour-and-a-half video of these people exploring a gold mine, just from start to finish. Didn't find anything that I used in the album, but I was like, "Damn, that was really interesting!" I didn't know that hella people die in goldmines. You start connecting that to the bigger theme. People do crazy shit to get gold. They literally go into these caves that are filled with dead people, there's like skeletons in them, all for the sake of getting this thing that they can sell. And putting that in a more political context—this is a weird connection, but that woman Tomi Lahren, who's weird and crazy and shit, she had made this comment about how white people have fought for black liberation because they fought in the Civil War to free black people, right? But the smart person's response is, "Well, they're freeing black people from white people." White people will literally die to exploit black people. They literally died in the Civil War so they could maintain black people as slaves, to keep their gold, or to get their gold. And in the same way, people will go into these caves and risk their lives so that they can come out with maybe something they can sell, this little pebble that's worth $500.

Tone Madison: That metaphor comes around on another level, too—it's been pointed out that at one time, slaves were the single most valuable asset in the entire United States economy.

Christian Robinson: Yeah, and people died for them! They literally were like, "No, this is such a valuable item, this human being is my item, and I'll die for it." Not in a way that's like, "I respect it," but in a way that's like, "No, that's my money, don't touch my money." Which is crazy—that you would die for another human being, not in an honorable way, but in a way that was like, "You're fucking with my check now, don't do that."

Tone Madison: Did you end up watching a lot of Glenn Beck gold pitches? Like the whole right-wing-prepper angle on gold?

Christian Robinson: Yeah, definitely. What else was there? Mr. T was in one of the interludes. He says gold was the sweat from the sun, which I thought was a dope line. Hella poetic. But by the end of the interludes, the dude that is talking about how black people are really gold, he says something about, "where some saw black, others saw gold." He was talking about that whole fiasco with the dress. So it was cool how relevant it was. That was a very pop-culture, 2010-and-up kind of thing, but it was very relevant to the project.