Interview: Royce Da 5’9 gets personal, talks beatmaking, and empathises with “mumble rap”

There are few figures in the industry as highly regarded and respected as Royce Da 5’9 when it comes to straight, no-bullshit, masterful hip hop. The Detroit emcee is often referred to as one of the greatest emcees alive, and that accolade hasn’t faded ever since Bad Meets Evil and Rock City were introduced over a decade ago. In fact, his status is only getting stronger, beefed up with some serious introspection over the past few years, leading to two of the most honest and expressive albums released by such a top-tier rapper in the past decade – first Layers and now Book of Ryan.

Across Royce’s numerous solo and collaborative works – including Slaughterhouse and the acclaimed PRhyme with DJ Premier) – we’ve found some of the strongest arguments against the constant claim that hip hop “is dead”. So it’s no surprise that Royce’s upcoming seven-date debut solo tour across Australia is one of this year’s the most essential for hip hop fans around the country.

It’s all kicking off at the end of this week, so we wanted to speak to the man himself and get up to speed on where his mind is at right now, especially after hitting us with two of the best hip hop albums of the year: the aforementioned Book of Ryan and PRhyme 2.

Check the full transcript of the talk below, where Royce speaks on putting together such a personal body of work, getting into beatmaking, and why mumble rap doesn’t necessarily mean the death of hip hop.

First off I wanted to say congratulations for getting both PRhyme 2 and Book of Ryan out there this year. And for all the acclaim they’ve both received.

I appreciate that man. Just trying to keep it moving.

A big talking point for Book of Ryan has been how deeply personal it is for you, and how much you expressed on the album. Could you start by telling me a bit about when you began writing for the project and what it was like sharing such a big part of yourself after so long in the industry?

I was actually writing for it on and off for about five years. I just told myself that I wanted to take my time, and I knew that I would know when I had exactly what I needed. I knew that it was going to take some time, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to rush it. So I actually started it, and then I did Layers, which was kind of like a precursor.

So I sat out for awhile. I didn’t want to come right out with such a personal album, especially after sitting out for so long. So Layers was the perfect album for me to do; I got to emcee on there, and then get a little bit personal…so kind of ease them in to it. By the time I got all the way there with Book of Ryan, I felt like the story was told. I was physically and mentally drained. I feel like I let it all out. It was one of those patient processes and I just let it flow, I let it happen organically and didn’t force anything. No matter how much I loved a beat or concept or verse or hook, I didn’t force a song if it wasn’t clicking.

I remember when you dropped “Tabernacle”, one of my favourite tracks of that year. I could definitely hear you moving into the open and expressive ways of lyricism. I know you’re always trying new things with your style, because you’ve already proven yourself time and time again as a lyricist. With nothing left to prove, do you think all those years spent just straight rapping has made it easier for you to segue into something a bit more open and personal?

It definitely opened up the door for me to view it that way. As far as creatively, I’m coming to the studio everyday and I’m just trying to like find a vibe to grab on to. I’m definitely feeling the after effects of doing an album so personal. For the first time, I’m going to the pen and the pad and thinking I just don’t want to do another album about myself. Now it’s time to broaden it a bit, maybe do some music that can help other people. We’ll see what happens; I can do concept albums, stories, wherever the creative vibe takes me. I’m just waiting for it to land itself in my studio so I can grab on to it.

“I was physically and mentally drained. I feel like I let it all out”

Was PRhyme 2 a good way to kind of balance that out this year, with you basically flexing in the studio?

Yeah that was like, I always call PRhyme like a “commercial break”. It’s the fun work. I get to work with Preem [DJ Premier] and just kind of go in as an emcee. That’s easy work. That’s like the fun stuff, because we didn’t want to make PRhyme like a highly conceptual thing. Plus I knew how personal I was going to be on my solo album, so I just decided to have fun on PRhyme.

I know your sobriety has impacted and influenced the way you approached Book of Ryan, and Layers as well. How has it changed the way you approach behind the scenes processes like songwriting and recording?

Yeah, it’s changed the way I approach everything. And I’m getting a little older too, so I’m definitely using a lot more of my mind. I like being instinctive. I like using my instincts, especially in the studio. So when I approach music, I have to feel it, I want to feel good about what I’m doing.

I’m learning that it has a lot to do with everything. It’s like the environment too; having the right people around. If there’s going to be people around it has to be the right people, they can’t get in the way. Some people can just sit in the room and be good for the vibe…something about their vibe makes you feel creative; they’ve got a good soul. Some others, they can sit in the room and you would be like “yo, I just want this person to leave, I don’t want to go into the booth until this person leaves”. I’m that vibey of a person.

In between being like that, I just try not to think too much. I try not to allow you to hear too much of what my brain is doing. I want it to come from my heart.

“I’m definitely feeling the after effects of doing an album so personal”

Who have you been working with lately that you haven’t necessarily worked with before, that you’ve just clicked with very well?

I’ve been spending a lot of time with my brothers. I’ve been making beats as well. I’ve got like a new love for making beats, and learning all these different machines. My next thing is to learn Ableton. I’ve learned Battery, the MPC, FL – my next thing is definitely Ableton. And I love making beats. Vibe is real good. Conway was actually here yesterday and he laid something on one of my beats, so that was a cool session. We’re just playing it by ear, not really trying to plan too much, just letting things happen.

Detroit is known for producing some of the scene’s best beat makers as well.

Yeah definitely, we’ve got some great beat makers here. I’ve got a newfound respect for them too, now that I know what goes in to their craft. I got a whole new respect for them for sure.

I’m not going to act like rapping about mental health is anything new in hip hop, but it’s certainly a bit more noticeable above ground now. You had your man Joey [Joe Budden] with Mood Muzik a long time ago, but now you have Kendrick, yourself, J Cole on KOD, Hov on 4:44. It seems to be a bit more common among master-lyricists now. And it also seems a lot of master-lyricists are doubling down on their lyricism. Do you think this more personal approach is kind of a response to what people call “mumble rap?”

I don’t think so. I think guys like Jay, Kendrick, myself. We’ve been in the game for a minute. I’m definitely at a point in my career, and in my artistry, where I feel like I need to be contributing to hip hop, I don’t need to be tearing it down or putting anything into it that’s going to hurt it in any way. After however many years I have left doing this, I would like to be able to sleep well at night knowing that I handled it with care, before I passed it along. Along with that platform comes responsibility.

We’ve got everything right in your face with the internet now. Before, you had a lot of these things going on that could slip right by you. You got Mac Miller passing away, all this stuff happening in the culture…you can’t escape it. It’s a little bit hard not to go in there and not be touched by it, not to be effected by it. Not to be inspired to want to prevent it from happening to someone else. I feel like if you’ve got a platform and a multitude of people listening to you and believing in what you say…you don’t need to be the Pope or anything but at least try to throw something in there where it’s balanced. I always try and put some positivity in there, and I like to say things that matter.

You can go in there and you can do a shit-talking version of rap, but you can also go in there and say something that matters. Take Will Smith for example, what he’s doing with his Instagram page. He goes on his IG page and damn near makes every post counts. Like everything he does on that page can help someone. Why are we any less accountable on the mic? A fan base is a fan base. That’s how I look at it.

“I always try and put some positivity in there, and I like to say things that matter”

Ever since Nas said it all those years ago a lot of people have been saying “Hip Hop is Dead”, but it seems like it hasn’t been this strong in a long time. Like 2018 has been one of the best years in hip hop, from a fan’s perspective, in a very long time..

Yeah they get a nice wide variety of music to choose from. I think it’s great. I think there’s always been bad rap in hip hop. There’s like purists and stuff from my generation and the generation before me, and people feel like they own hip hop property or something. Like they hold the golden key to the golden gate, and you have to watch how you rap and you have to pass their test. Shit just is what it is man. A lot of that stuff is just frustration because these guys can’t figure out how to get into the current climate.

You’ve got to remember man, like by the time Marshall came around it was right after Canibus. Canibus had his, Marshall [Eminem] had his, Big Pun, Big L, Jay Z, Nas – they all had it. By the time Marshall got real, real hot there was no other way to go backwards as far as lyricism. There was nothing you could do technique wise to elevate that. There was nothing you could do; I mean he took Kool G Rap’s style, he took Nas, he took everybody, he made it his own and he did it in such a technical way, there was no way to add on to that. So I can understand creatively why it went in the other direction, people just got tired of having to be a technician.

I’m approaching beatmaking that way. When I’m making beats, I don’t want to be a master. I don’t want my mind to prohibit myself from doing certain things. I don’t want to place rules on myself. I already do that with my pen, and I know I’m stuck doing that. There are certain things I don’t allow myself to do as a writer because I’ve worked myself to the point where I feel like I’m a master writer. I’m going in a different direction with the beats.

So I totally understand some of those kids. It’s like “yo man, I don’t want to do all that, I’d rather make music like this”. And some of them do that shit in a genius way, it’s just that some of that shit is garbage. But there’s always been garbage in hip hop.

“I can understand creatively why it went in the other direction, people just got tired of having to be a technician”.

It seems like that it’s more about texture now to them, rather than lyricism

Some of them guys do it in a way where that shit is lyrical to me though. Some of those guys are real slick with it. It’s just not blatant in your face bars. And the concept is a little bit different.

Touching on Marshall’s Kamikaze. I loved the album, but I feel a lot of critics unfairly gave it an average score because it seems like they’re trying to create this kind of “old head vs new head” type of thing. Is that narrative frustrating for you guys?

It’s not frustrating for me. I could never speak for Marshall though. I still don’t understand why their opinion is important though. Like who made these guys like the be all and end all of hip hop? I appreciate when someone likes it, but for someone to place themselves on a platform like YouTube and put themselves across like they’re some master. It’s like “bro you’ve never written a rap before, I’ve never heard you rap before, I don’t really care what you think”. An opinion is just an opinion, and people know we are head over heels for our artistry. People know that we’re emotionally invested in our music, and they kind of use that shit to control artists. The only thing you can do as an artist is to take back that control.

I found that I was in a way better place creatively when I stopped seeking validation. I’m not seeking validation from anyone now. I feel like I’ve been doing it long enough, and I’ve got my finger on the pulse enough to where I can do some shit and I’ll know whether that hits my mark or not. And if I don’t hit my mark, then that’s okay. I’m not afraid of not hitting the mark. I’ve failed so many times in this business, I don’t give a fuck about nobody’s opinion. I’ve never got help from them before so why would I care now?

“People know that we’re emotionally invested in our music, and they kind of use that shit to control artists. The only thing you can do as an artist is to take back that control”.

Circling back to Detroit. I was talking to Guilty Simpson about the city a few years back. Detroit has always been very consistent in terms of producing high order emcees and beatmakers, and Guilty credited a lot of that to people growing up with a lot of empathy with Detroit and a lot of pride in the insular scene. Do you feel like Detroit has remained that way in 2018 or has it changed a bit

It’s a little difficult for me to say now. Like before it would have been easier for me to answer that because I was right there in that open mic scene, that hip hop community. Even though it’s still small, these guys don’t have common hangouts that they go to like we used to have. The internet ruined everything. Everyone is on there phone now. We used to meet up and rap, but these guys are now just talking to each other on Twitter. So I don’t really know what their mindframe is, I just know that they’re definitely talented. That comes from something, but I don’t think I’m in a position to say where that comes from. I came up in a totally different time.

Royce Da 5’9 Australian Tour

Friday 14th December | Manning Bar, Sydney
Saturday 15th December | Eatons Hill Hotel, Brisbane
Sunday 16th December | The Northern, Byron Bay
Wednesday 19th December | HQ, Adelaide
Thursday 20th December | Stay Gold, Melbourne
Friday 21st December | Max Watts, Melbourne
Saturday 22nd December | Capitol, Perth

More information and all tickets can be found at metropolistouring.com

Chris Singh

Chris Singh is the Deputy Editor of the AU review and a freelance travel writer. You can reach him on Instagram by following @chrisdsingh.

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