As the recording engineer counted down, Alby Ruiz turned his black, tattered Oakland A’s cap backward and brought his lips a hair’s length from the microphone. A drum-like beat with a heavy baseline filled the studio.
“I’m on fire for the Lord,” his chorus thumped over and over. “Stand up. Get crunk!”
Crunk is a genre of Southern hip-hop. The origin of the style derives from the nightclub phrase “crank up,” but it’s also assumed to mean the “chronic-drunk” or “crazy drunk” stupor induced by alcohol and crack cocaine abuse. After surviving that lifestyle and a severe mental illness, Ruiz is putting it all to song in a studio crammed into a converted garage in southeast San Jose.
He was only 14 years and two days from starting his freshman year at Lincoln High School when a street gang mistook his group of friends for a rival gang. As he and his buddies ran, Ruiz was hit from behind. The blow crushed his skull. He never finished high school.
By 21 he had been on the streets for almost five years, suffering from seizures, paranoia, and schizophrenia. He tried to medicate himself with booze and hard drugs. It didn’t work. Luck wasn’t with him, either. He came down with unrelated lymphoma and testicular cancer. His life rotated between brain surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and jail sentences for selling and using drugs. When he was out, he usually found a way to get to Christian weekly worship.
“I was in and out of the system,” he said. “But I was always with the Lord.”
He was recording his song, “Fire,” at Thro Down Records run by sound technician nicknamed G Rock, who overlaid Ruiz’s lyrics with a slow tempo and a fast beat common to crunk music.
“Holy ghost knocking down enemies doors!” Ruiz continued.
Now 34, he grew up in a working class, Mexican-American neighborhood just south of downtown San Jose in a family dominated, he said, by their abusive father. He was too young to protect his mother and siblings, so his child’s imagination kicked in as an emotional defense.
“I wanted to be a Navy Seal when I was growing up,” he said during a recording break. “The real reason I wanted to be a Seal was to protect my mom from my father. He used to hit her.”
Even in his darkest years, Ruiz tried. He joined the Job Corps, earning a general education degree and certificate for concrete and masonry work. He also wrote rap music lyrics on the side, collaborating for a while with the Big Tymers, a New Orleans rap duo active from 1995 to 2015. He even married in 2008.
Still, his addictions to crystal methamphetamine and hallucinogenic drugs overwhelmed those accomplishments. His marriage fell apart after three years. Mercifully, in September 2003, an arrest for drug peddling led to a routine jailhouse mental evaluation, which eventually led to this psychiatric diagnosis: schizophrenia with paranoia.
Ruiz wound up in the Crossroads Village residential treatment center for a year under the care of doctors with Momentum for Mental Health. He moved on to transitional housing and outpatient programs for a few more years. He’s been sober for almost five years, delivers auto parts for a living and rents a room in a house with public assistance.
Today, Ruiz volunteers to lead discussion groups at Momentum by day and records Christian crunk music at night.
“My faith allowed me to focus on what I went through,” he said. “One step at a time.”