Royce Da 5’9” has been grinding to establish himself as one of rap’s most respected MCs since 1999, when he was featured on Eminem’s standout track “Bad Meets Evil” from The Slim Shady LP. Three years later, Royce dropped his solo debut, Rock City, and in the next six years has put out three more projects—2002’s Rock City (Version 2.0), 2004’s Death Is Certain and 2005’s Independent’s Day—and several big mixtapes. Known mostly for his monster freestyling and being a master at battle rap, Royce has struggled to earn mainstream respect, suffering mostly from the aftermath of a fallout between him, Eminem and D-12.
Things recently got dicey for the D-Town MC, in September of 2006, when the rapper was sentenced to serve one year at Oakland County Jail in Michigan for a parole violation following a DUI. After serving a three-month bid, Royce is free from the pen and ready to roll, with a new mixtape called The Bar Exam on the way from DJ Statik Selektah. He’s also working on his next album, which has yet to be titled but will come out this year on his label, M.I.C. Records.
xxlmag.com recently talked with Royce about his memorable friendship with slain rapper Proof, legal drama and being proactive in hip-hop today.
You were locked up for 90 days, and you just got home over the holidays. Your girl was pregnant while you were gone. You must’ve had a big strain on you lately.
Yeah, it was a big strain. That was the hardest part of it to deal with. I’ve never considered myself a criminal kind of dude or jail type of hard criminal or something like that. It’s just something I felt God put on me for a reason. The hardest part of being away for that amount of time was being away from my family and being creative.
So you got closer to the Lord when you were inside?
I ain’t go in there and get all religious. I always believed in a higher being, always been of Christian faith. God is either protecting me from something or he wants for me to take some time off and think. Maybe I might’ve been going too fast.
Were you plotting your career when you were locked down, in terms of songs stacked up? Where was your mind at?
I’m plottin’ all the time. I’m plottin’ right now. When I was in there, I wasn’t doing a lot of writing when I first started off. In there, I had to actually get used to doing the time, so it wasn’t a lot of phone calls home. I didn’t really respond to no letters or nothing like that. I just really had to get used to myself being in that environment. Once I was able to actually get well-adjusted and get used to the food and just get used to waking up every day and actually crack jokes and shit, I started writing. I started figuring out how to get my alone time, ’cause there was a lot of niggas around me all the time. So I had to get my alone time, ’cause that’s when I write best, when I’m alone. Solitude. When I found out how to do that, I was good.
Do you think you’ve gotten stronger with it since you’ve been out?
Yeah, ’cause I came up with a lot of ideas and concepts, and I just kept to myself, and when I got out, I just started laying them down. That’s the best thing to do. I told myself, from now on, before I do an album, I’ma actually take some time off without nothing. Maybe just the pen and the pad and just vacation, not even nothing extravagant. I can jot down thoughts, and when I come to the table, I’ll have so much ammo that I can just go ahead and knock that shit out.
It seems like your recent bid was a gift and a curse.
It is, and it’s not even really a curse. Things happen, and it didn’t set me back too far. Before I went in there, you had people that was saying I’m finished. And those same people will be jumping back on my dick as soon as I come out with something. That’s how muthafuckas is, and if you can get through that, then you can get through anything. I did a lot of things too early in my career. I think I was too ahead of the curve, like five records with the Neptunes when I was signed to Tommy Boy. People didn’t get it back then. You fast-forward two years and these muthafuckas is having Pharrell do all they shit.
What was the first thing you did when you got out?
Came to the crib. I got on work release, so I actually use my house as an office, so I can write and do interviews like I’m doing right now. First thing I did was come to the house, kissed my girl, ’cause she was very pregnant. I got ahead right on the phone and started doing interviews. I’m making up for lost time.
It’s real tough out in Detroit, where you’re from, since it’s an urban industrial city. How do you view it?
The same as always. I don’t like to talk bad about Detroit, because this is home to me. Everybody got their horror stories about their own cities, and it’s always gonna be worse for you when you go somewhere you’re not accustomed to and you see it firsthand. We suffered several losses. We lost my man Proof, my man Blade. My man Obie got shot in the head, probably for nothing. Because these are significant, somewhat famous people, it’s making people look at Detroit like, “Wow, when did this start?” It didn’t just start. It’s been here. You can’t improve on violence. The only way to improve on violence is to stop doing it.
Most fans don’t even realize how close you and Proof were. His murder must have had an immense effect on you.
Yeah, that was my nigga. The problems started with the game. Just like with Eminem. It was a bond in the beginning, and things that were political got in between and intervened. That comes with the territory of being in this business. But me and Proof were real good friends. Me going to his Grandmamma house every time I finished a song and us playing it. And I remember him pressing record on another Maxwell tape, wanting a copy as soon as I put mines in, before he even heard it. We was real cool. It was a relationship even before I met Em. It was solid with Proof. That was like ’95.
Has his death brought you and Em closer at all?
Nah, not at all. I think Em has a lot he has to deal with over there. You know, I got my separate problems.
But y’all ain’t on bad terms?
We aight. We just don’t talk. There’s nothing really to talk about at this point. I think we both made our minds up on what it is, and that’s it. Two people can agree to disagree and leave it at that. It don’t have to be a problem.
Let’s switch gears a bit. You’ve been in the game and had major-label experience and are now signed to your own independent label, M.I.C. Records. How did that work out?
We had different experiences on the different labels. Columbia, Tommy Boy and Koch. I got to know all of these systems and figured, “Why don’t I try to factor some of this shit into my own thing.” I was going through a lot at the time, because I had the powers that be against me. I was like, “You know what? I’ma just go ahead and do it myself,” and factored everything I wanted into my own project and see how it works.
Do you feel like you’re underrated as an artist?
MCs feel me, so I’m not underrated at all. I don’t think I’m as well-known as I should be for the type of material I’ve done. I think I got classic songs. You gotta be that type of hip-hop listener to know about me. I just think I’ve failed to go as mainstream as of yet. That’s where we always went wrong in the past. Being more on the business side of it now, we’re ready to capitalize on that.
You’ve been consistent, doing the independent route with respect. Is the mainstream aspect all that important?
It’s not me compromising in any way. It’s something that hip-hop needs. Don’t just talk about it, be about it. Be proactive. Hip-hop is in a state right now where it needs something else. And I think these kids now are being cheated, because they’re growing up in a new generation, where it’s just one thing year after year after year. It’s not evolving fast enough. It’s staying one way. They need to get firsthand these type of classic albums that are like movies. Every song is like a scene out of a movie. You know, these epic albums. They need that.
So now you’re out and focused. What can we expect from Royce in 2007?
I’m gon’ take a portion of the game over. It’s gonna be the type of album to make all the artists worry when they hear it. Like how the fans are gonna perceive it, ’cause of the state hip-hop is in now, I can’t say. Nobody can do what I can do. Just picture the mind frame Nas goes into making an album, the mind frame Jay goes into making an album, the mind frame Em goes into making an album, and put it all together, all elements off of all those albums. The diversity of what they’re best at doing.
What about a mixtape. Anything along those lines for the streets?
Yeah, I’m working on a mixtape right now. I kind of finished it with DJ Statik Selektah. It’s coming out in a couple of weeks, called The Bar Exam, end of January, and I’m working on some shit with my man G-Spot out of Ohio. The Internet presence is crazy!
Sounds like you’re going hard to disprove the notion that hip-hop is dead.
I don’t believe that hip-hop is dead. I think that it’s lacking the creativity. I think there’s a lot of talented people out who don’t challenge themselves to be as creative. But it’s a whole bunch of people that’s so talented you can’t ever call it dead.