For 20 years, Blaze Ya Dead Homie has remained one of the freshest, most innovative voices in underground hip-hop. A towering figure in gangsta and horrorcore, he’s mastered not just the craft of rap but the art of reinvention, developing new characters and introducing them across his discography. It’s a skill that puts him in league not just with rappers like Twiztid and N.W.A. but filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and John Singleton.

“It has a lot do with comic books and movies in general,” Blaze says. “That’s what it gets at. As an artist, if you’re making movies, you don’t want to make the same movie over and over again, and that’s where it gets to be fun to create new characters to do new things that ultimately your character wouldn’t do.”

Since debuting on Twiztid’s “Hound Dogs” in 1997, Blaze has released seven solo albums and four solo EPs, plus a slew of cult-classic collaborations as a member of groups like Dark Lotus, Drive-By and Zodiac MPrint. All told, 13 of his records have charted in Billboard, and his most recent LP, 2016’s The Casket Factory, reached the top five of the Independent Albums chart and the top 50 of the overall Album Sales chart, his best showing yet.

Blaze, known offstage as Chris Rouleau, was born in Mt. Clemens, Michigan, a small city just north of Detroit. As a teenager, he’d rap constantly, and when a co-worker told him he had the skills to become genuine artist, he devoted himself to mastering the genre. What rappers inspired him the most? He lists names like Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, the Notorious B.I.G. and Detroit underground star the D.O.C., now the other half of Blaze’s Zodiac MPrint. “A lot of them are dead,” he says upon reflection, but the Blaze Ya Dead Homie persona was born of this death.