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Interview: Royce Da 5’9 on Conquering Demons, “Layers” & Hip-Hop

Since he first burst onto the hip-hop scene back in 1998, Ryan Daniel Montgomery aka Royce Da 5’9 of Detroit, Michigan has become one of the most underrated, respected and revered artists in hip-hop history. With a lyrical style and flow that is unsurpassed and at times uncomfortably raw and true, Royce has indeed solidified himself as one of the hardest working and authentic lyricists around. With the recent release of his sixth studio album, Layers, Royce has once again upped the ante with his most honest body of work to date.

Since signing his first record deal in 1998 with Tommy Boy records, eventually leading to Columbia Records and his first album Rock City (Version 2.0), Royce has achieved major underground recognition, notably including the first of a long running collaborative relationship with DJ Premier on the Primo-produced single Boom. Today, Royce feels that now is the time for him to share the personal side of a man, who as an artist, battled with vices and demons almost to the point of self-destruction. This September will see him celebrate his fourth year of sobriety, and that time has induced a sense of awakening and clarity for the rapper. He states that his current album Layers is his most personal and has come about at the perfect time for the more mature lyricist to finally shine some light on the man behind the rapper, his views, his past his childhood, as fans have no doubt realised through its first single and opening track Tabernacle. Royce has left no stone unturned on this therapeutic album.

From his strong bond and friendship with fellow rapper and Detroit native Eminem, whom he only refers to as Marshall, to his union with underground hip-hop sensation Slaughterhouse, as well as PHryme, a collab with Premier, Royce is an artist who has never stopped respecting the foundations of a culture that helped carve him into the incredible talent he is today. He is also an artist encouraging the forward movement and evolution of the genre, steering it towards something kept relevant and poignant by the younger generations. He has stopped the angst and war of words of his earlier years and is embracing the grown, wise and secure family man he has become, kicking out his heavy drinking and partying, replacing it with music that is both personal and necessary to his artistry and to hip-hop.

The following is a conversation that flowed effortlessly, speaking about what was, what is and what will be in an exchange that was honest, insightful, funny and real. Royce Da 5’9 is sans the celebrity and hype that shrouds our hip-hop artists all too often, instead opting to be present in the moment of his own evolution from extraordinary rapper to one of the most powerful lyricists of our time, without ego but with a certainty that his music and message will remain a necessary part of hip-hop – no matter how many Layers he continues shed in the process.

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Hey Royce, so awesome to speak with you – how has life been treating you?

Man I can’t complain, life is good and I am doing great. If I nitpick I can say that I would like a little bit more time with my babies, but at the end of the day this is what I signed up for right so I am blessed to keep doing what I do. I stay busy which is a good thing as it keeps me outta trouble I guess *laughs*.

You are hands down a pioneer in hip-hop, you have put in the hard yards for years and have always kept it 100 per cent real, regardless of feelings being hurt, when it comes to what and how you spit. I would love to hear who Royce Da 5’9 as an artist is to Royce Da 5’9 the man and is there any separation between the two?

Thank for you that. You know what, there’s less of Royce the 5’9 artist in me today than when I first started, I can honestly say. I am working on bringing more of Royce the Man into the artistry side of me in recent times, especially on this new album Layers. There is a real sense of retrospection that is being ushered into my music now, what I write and say is more personal and reflective of my life, especially my childhood. This new album is by far my most personal body of work, being a full blown scope of who I am as a man, what some of my views are and so you are getting the full dose of Ryan Daniel Montgomery – the man who’s calling himself Royce Da 5’9. There is still a divide though between the two: when I step in that booth I am the rapper, but when I head home to my family I am just a family man and I don’t get treated like a rapper, so its helps me to just carry myself between the two in the same vein. We are all regular people you know, aint no celebrity here, just a regular human being who loves to rap you know what I’m saying *laughs*.

You have given us an incredible new album, Layers, major congrats on that. How are you feeling about the music you are making right now and these albums, in particular Layers? Why this personal body of work now at this stage in your hip-hop career?

I appreciate that thank you. I would have to say getting sober had a lot to do with it. I will be sober four years in September, so anybody who knows Royce will know that I was very forthcoming with how much I drank. I mean I celebrated Patron like I had a sponsorship with them, and it truly highlighted everything in my life at that time, particularly in my music. Becoming sober just brought all these memories back for me to that time when I was running around crazy, drinking and not really knowing who I was to where I am now, and I just look at things so differently through my sobriety. The world we live in, people are gripped by terror and violence constantly, economic strains, Trump running for President, and just trying to be a black man in hip-hop doing what he loves and trying to take care of his family, man I look at things so differently now and that will be reflected in my music. I also had all these memories of my childhood start to hit me that I hadn’t thought about in the ten years I was drinking, so I have been dealing with that component of my life which I felt was important to be added on this album, which is how the Tabernacle song came about. So yeah, it is what it is, don’t get it twisted though: I will always love to rap just for sake of rapping and it is a layer of myself that I will never lose. But I also felt it was important for myself as an artist to show my personal side and get it off my chest. If there is someone out there who is going through some things that my album might help, then I have done my job as best I could through Layers.

You have worked with many great names in your lifetime, namely Eminem, Slaughterhouse and DJ Premier. Energy is an important thing when an artist decides to collaborate with another, as the outcome of that project is clearly indicative of the initial vibe between one another. Can I ask what it is about these particular collaos that have been concurrent and helped create some incredible musical projects? Particularly DJ Premier – you both work so damn well together – PRhyme was brilliant by the way!

I think it’s just being likeminded you know, we don’t just randomly collaborate. It’s about us having the same goals and respect for hip-hop that has solidified the unified bonds we share as well. Primo and myself are two guys who are friends and share a common interest and respect for hip-hop that has made our bond and collab work. One of us is from an era before mine that I respect so much and we share a similar vision and work ethic for the projects we work on, so it’s a great experience when we create something different and push each other a little differently, which keeps us open. With Slaughterhouse, that was taking four emcees from different states in the US and bringing us together to give hip-hop an underground feel that was so needed at the time and it worked. We didn’t really know each other personally or kick it before the group came to be so that was group brought together purely by energy, lyricist ability and respect for the rawness of hip-hop.

Marshall and I, that’s easy, we were just two best friends running around hip-hop and having fun as the young men we were at the time. Two guys outta Detroit and the only two at the time to get record deals, tour the world and do what no-one thought we would. We had some of our best times musically and personally back then and we worked well and had so much fun working together, we always have been. And that’s where I am right now in my life, I just wanna have fun with what I am doing. I spent so many years being stressed and on guard, always feeling I had to fight all the time to be heard and after a while you get tired of fighting and you just wanna be you feel me, so that’s a big thing for me now, positive energy and outlook on music and life.

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You’re a straight shooter who doesn’t pussyfoot around issues in hip-hop or life that need to be addressed, and it is this honesty that is your greatest appeal to lovers of real hip-hop. Standout tracks of yours that have truly resonated with me would be My Own Planet, Hip Hop, You Should Know and You Can’t Touch Me. Thank you by the way, for those tracks – they have gotten me through my own tough times. When you put pen to paper what fuels you to write the tracks you do and how important is the marriage of beat and lyric at that point of creation?

Thank you for listening to those tracks man, I really appreciate it. I always just aspire to keep positive thoughts and feelings around me before I head into the studio and lay down a track, and if I don’t feel positive I try to keep myself, or bring people that are positive and inspiring around me as that fuels me to create better. Like Mr Porter helped me out with that a lot and he would bring an energy into the studio that would light a fire beneath me. I would just be so ready to work and create after that. It’s basically just finding the inspiration, the mechanics of writing a rhyme and making it happen. Sometimes I overwrite my tracks to the point where I have to find the best 16 bars I want to lay down in a track and keep the other words for other projects later on. I just love writing and creating so it happens often *laughs* I put no limit to it and just do the best I can.


Can I ask you what your thoughts are on the current state of hip-hop and what you think are the pros and cons of the industry today as opposed to when you started?

I think we are in a pretty good place, there’s a lot of good music being made, there’s also a lot of bad music being made and a lot of new styles being created; not the textbook standard sound you would expect from hip-hop, so that’s a good thing I think. As long as hip-hop is evolving and keeps changing forms and trying new variations from time to time, it’s not going anywhere and that’s a great thing. Hip-hop will never go away, it will always remain. But we have to keep it fresh and relevant and forward moving, we can’t be having everyone trying to rhyme like a lyrical spirit and tear up the next emcee. That’s no good, we need balance.

When I think about the cons I would have to say there is not enough balance on the radio, the climate itself is a sedative to how the labels function, and the labels are not functioning in a way that is conducive. They are not using their own instincts anymore, but it’s all come down to numbers and how many followers the artist has. That is nothing like what I had experienced when I first came into the game. If I had label meetings, I had to go in there and impress them with everything I had to make them hear my music and believe in taking a chance on me. I was auditioning for a record deal, now, they won’t even give you a shot unless you have social media buzz.

As far who I am listening to right now in hip-hop I’m liking Anderson .Paak’s album, Pusha T a lot, Kendrick a lot, Schoolboy Q is great, I pretty much try to hear everything new that comes out and of course I love my classic stuff as well, Kiss From a Rose by Seal is a favourite of mine too so yeah lots of different stuff. I’m getting older now too so my brain can’t be on ratchet mode all the time I gotta slow things down from time to time *laughs*.

If you could take four albums with you into the afterlife what would they be?

The Chronic, Thriller, Life After Death and any Stevie Wonder album – it’s that simple for me.



Your thoughts and feelings on all the musical artists we have been losing this year in 2016 – how does that affect you as an artist if at all?

You know what, it’s just really sad, and truly it just makes me feel really old to be honest. You know how it is when all your heroes start dying you’re like, “Am I really this age man”?? I don’t remember going through any of this when I was a kid and now all of a sudden they are upon us you know, Phife Dawg, Prince, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston – gone. That’s half of my childhood right there, half the 80’s just gone. It just makes me feel old and sad for real.

What would you say your role is in this hip-hop community and how do you wish for your music and message to be remembered?

I think my role now is to be an OG and to set good a good example and role model for the younger generation on the come up. I just want to continue to be true to the sport and my legacy to be remembered as one of the true lyricists in the game, I don’t need any trophies or trinkets, but for the general consensus to be that I was one of the great lyricists of my time and to make age appropriate music and show my peers that’s is okay to age lyrically, its okay to do that.

We are living in a time now where you know hip-hop is like rock and roll in a way, we have to own that and not always feel like we gotta chase these youngin’s around all the time. Hip-hop is not just for the kids, hip-hop is for the world. I would like for the kids to look at me and say I wanna be like Royce!


Also published on Ms Hennessey Speaks Blog

Images: supplied