Published Jul 26, 2009It's surprising Royce Da 5'9" has time to take phone calls - and it's not just because you can hear his nine-month-old crying in the background. The microphone fiend has just released a new digital EP, The Revival, in anticipation of what he claims to be the most polished solo album of his career. Street Hop, executive-produced by none other than DJ Premier, is due this September. In the meantime, Royce has joined forces with three other ferocious spitters - Joe Budden, Crooked I and Joell Ortiz, all outcasts of the major label system - to form a punch-line supergroup called Slaughterhouse, which will be releasing its debut in August. During an off day from this summer's Rock the Bells tour, on which Slaughterhouse has a coveted slot, Royce speaks candidly to Exclaim! from his Detroit home on his fear of the "Thriller" monsters, the allure of producing beats, and getting back on good terms with another Detroit rapper you might have heard of.
What's your earliest memory of Michael Jackson?
I remember being scared when I first saw that "Thriller" video. I was scared, man. He did the damn thing in that video, but I was definitely afraid. I used to run away from the TV when that came on. Then I started watching it when I was more mature. They always used to have the "Thriller" video come on, and right after "Thriller," the Menudo video would come on. So I'd run away from the TV during "Thriller," then come back and watch the Menudo video. But once I broke myself of that fear, I started watching it, and it's my favourite video of all time. I was a huge fan. That Thriller album is the best album ever recorded in the history of music.
How will you celebrate the 4th of July?
I normally just chill, eat some barbecue. My birthday's on the 5th. But this year I'll be in Toronto [on the Rock the Bells tour], so I'll just chill there. Maybe I'll bring my family up.
You're married with how many kids?
Three kids, ages 11, two, and nine months.
Is the 11-year-old into hip-hop?
Not really. He's a Nickelodeon kid, so he listens to Nickelodeon music, watches Nickelodeon, eats Nickelodeon. He hasn't got an ear for hip-hop yet.
So you haven't pushed him to listen to your music at all?
Not at all. That's not what I want to do. God forbid he says he wants to be a rapper. I don't even like rappers. Why would I want to raise one?
You're a beast on the mic. What brings out such focus and hunger when you step in the recording booth?
I matured into that. I matured into a more focused, hungry, fine-tuned machine. I had a lot of play in me eight, nine years ago; I played around too much. I was just a kid enjoying all these overwhelming experiences. It was a little much for me. One by one, God started to take stuff away from me - and He gave me so much. Once I started noticing the pattern of what was going on and my career started to spiral, I had to make the conscious decision to turn stuff around. Stay focused, stay hungry, no matter what comes my way, no matter how much money I'm getting. And I think I've been doing that so far.
How difficult is it to get amped up to deliver a fierce verse?
When I have no beats that I'm really excited about, it's hard to just go to the studio and figure out something. By the same token, I usually have music. If I don't have anything, I gotta go through some mixes or make changes to songs I already have done. But when I finally get in there and get into what I'm doing, that inspires me. I'm always glad that I decided to go [to the studio], because I could've just stayed home.
Do you write every day?
Not every day. I don't have the time when I'm on the road. But when I'm recording an album or a mixtape, I'll pretty much write every day.
Do you always write to a beat?
If I don't have the beat, I won't write the rhyme; I'll just write down thoughts. If I'm getting thoughts, I'll write those thoughts down or write lines down, and then next time I'm in the studio I'll start pieces those lines together if they fit with the beat I got pulled up.
Do you ever get writer's block?
Very rarely, but I have. I think every MC has at one point or another. If it happens to me, I step away from it for while and go home and try again another day. I've tried to force things before, and it doesn't work out. I don't even do that to myself anymore.
Do you have a favourite verse or a time onstage where you felt untouchable?
I get in that zone a lot. It depends on what's going on. Some nights it's clicking, some nights it's a little harder. Some nights I'll be onstage rhyming, and I'm thinking too much. I'm thinking, "Ah, man, I hope I don't forget none of these lines." Right while I'm rhyming, I'm thinking some shit like that. Some nights I'm not even thinking; everything's just coming out. I'm not stumbling or nothing, I'm feeling it.
Do you have nights where everything goes wrong onstage?
I've had plenty of times when the DJ messes up; that's just part of being on the road. We spend a lot of time away from each other, and then get together last minute before the show - you're wide open for something like that to happen. There's been plenty of times when the DJ messed up. There's been enough times when I forgot my rhymes. Back when I was young and I felt like I needed to be drinking to be onstage, and I'd fuck around and drink too much, I'd forget lines and can't bounce back from it. I'd have to start the whole song over.
On the song "Shake This," you mention you lost your good friend. Who was that?
I was talking about Proof. He'll always be around in Detroit. He embodies so much. He's one of those dudes that knew people in every neighbourhood. Not only was he popular, he was loved. He has a lot of people with strong voices that will keep his spirit around.
Also on the song, you rhyme, "I went so hard and woke up sober." So are you sober now?
Right now? As we speak?
I mean, when was the last time you had booze?
The night before last, I was hanging around with Slaughterhouse. I took them out in Detroit. I drank that night.
But it's more under control now?
Oh, definitely. [laughs]
Do you remember your very first rap?
I don't. I don't even remember what year that was, so much has happened since then. I used to write other people's songs down and try to rap them better than them. But I can't even remember songs I wrote three, four years ago. I was a huge Redman fan. I remember there was one point where I sounded exactly like Redman. Before I really started, I used to mimic people. And I think that's why my delivery is so diverse now. I honed that skill back then - being able to change my voice to different pitches and doing other people's flows. So when I started defining myself, once I got around Em[inem] and found myself, I was able to do so many different flows because I came up doing it. That whole era, it's like a blur. It went so fast.
Why is it so blurry?
Once I turned 19, things got so serious. Everything before, all the open mics, I remember having a lot of fun; I just don't remember specific things from that time. My brain is on overload, all the people I met, all the experiences I've had, how many cities I've been to, how many songs I've done. My brain is selective on what it'll remember. I'm sure there's things that can happen that'll jog my memory. Em brought up a few things [in conversation] where I was like, "I don't even remember that." Remember when we did such and such? "Man, I do not remember."
When was the last time you spoke to Em?
It's been over six months. Maybe seven or eight months.
During a recent BET interview he mentioned you among a select few artists making good rap music today. What was your take on the D12 song "How Come," which deals with friends who have lost touch?
A lot of people told me, "I think it's about you." But when I heard the song, the hook, if anything, I thought could be about me, but I didn't think any of the verses were. I didn't think so, and I listened to it verbatim, but the hook definitely sounded like something that could pertain to me and Em's relationship.
Any chance you'll get together to do another song?
There's always a possibility of anything. It's gonna depend if he wants to do it, if the schedule is right, if the timing is right. There's always a possibility-that's how I look at it. I don't close the door on no opportunity. You never know what tomorrow's gonna bring. One good step we made is, we patched everything up. We on good terms, so that's a good sign. It's something that had to happen; it couldn't be something that either one of us pushed for. It had to just happen.
So did you patch things up seven months ago when you last talked?
It was that conversation. We actually had two conversations in two days. We had two hour-long or two-hour-long conversations.
Who reached out to whom?
He reached out to me.
What do you think of Relapse?
It's pretty good. I don't think it's his best work, but then again, it's not easy to make his best work. He set the bar so high. But I definitely think it's a great album, and definitely better than the stuff that's out now. He set the bar so high, to me, it's almost like my ears are desensitized. He said everything already. He's said the most incredible things and made the most incredible songs. I'm probably listening to it with biased ears.
What about yourself? Are you still improving?
I feel like I'm improving. I'm probably listening to myself with biased ears, too. But my Street Hop album that's coming out in September is my best work to date. I haven't had anybody tell me different so far that I've played the album for. My albums in the past, they was cool. I was young. I didn't know what I know now. It was good music. But this is great music that I'm sitting on right now.
How much of that would you attribute to DJ Premier being the executive producer?
He gave me a few beats, he helped me out with the mixes. I pretty much picked all my music - that's one thing I learned how to do. I know how to make my beat selection. My beat selection is very good; I be getting complimented on that. I didn't used to get complimented on that before. People used to say, "Royce need to pick better beats." That's just a part of growing up. My ears have changed, too. I don't need help on the beat selection.
What kind of input does Premo give you?
He does give me input on my rhymes. A few times he's made me rewrite verses, but that's normally with his beats. It's very rare, but it's happened. I had a different second verse for "Shake This," and he told me, "Yo, I think you can go in a little harder on that one." He ended up being right, because the next verse I wrote fit better. That's why I call him the executive producer.
How does the creative process work with the Slaughterhouse collective?
Since there are four of us, the beats come quick because everyone's coming to the table with something. We have producers coming through all day. So if a beat come on and everybody react to it at the same time, it's safe to say that's one we should be writing to. As far as the verses, everyone's trying their best to come with their A game, rhyme at the height of their ability because they're competing with the next man, the next MC. So very rarely does someone have to rewrite something. Nine times out of 10, if that artist feels his verse isn't as good as the rest, he's gonna rewrite it anyway. We don't have to tell each other to rewrite. It came real easy. In six days we did the album.
Were you all together for those six days?
We were all together. Before we started the six-day process, there was a couple songs - I might start one, or Joe [Budden] might start one, and then send it and have everybody else do their verse. But that was only a couple songs, and a lot of those didn't make the album.
Might it be detracting to have a group album and your best solo album come out in the same year?
I thought about that, man. I'm back and forth with it. Sometimes I think the Slaughterhouse album might drown [my solo CD] out because of the buzz that's surrounding it. I'm-a test my records, I'm-a push my singles and see what the reaction is. I have no problem pushing my album back. If the album's gonna ride the wave, I'm willing to wait. I'm willing to even go in and do new [solo] records. I'm-a see where it ends up. I don't think it's gonna matter, because everybody else [in the group] is putting out projects, too. We just keep ourselves fresh. And the Slaughterhouse sound is so different from my solo album sound that I don't think it's gonna matter.
Whose idea was it to form Slaughterhouse in the first place? You're all from different cities.
Nobody's in particular. Joey had a beat that he wanted us all to get on for his project, and he reached out to everybody. Once everybody laid their verses and the song hit the internet, how crazy the response was to it is what made everybody feel we should do more records. We formed from there and didn't look back.
What's the biggest obstacle you've faced in your career?
A gang of mistakes, a gang of decisions on my part in too short a time that created a situation where there was a lot of people getting to me, and it was a real big obstacle for me. It took me years to turn it around, years to mature and start making better decisions and stop making those same mistakes. If there was any obstacle for me, I was my biggest obstacle at one point.
What year was this?
Around '04, '05. Maybe '03.
If you could go back, would you do things differently?
I don't think I'd do it differently. I was just making the decision based on where I was and my maturity at that time. I just think that now, the way things are looking and coming together, I wouldn't be in this position to do it had I not been in that position back then. Everybody got their time, and I don't think that was my time. But I'm starting to think that it is now because I'm more mature. I know how to handle it. I'm not crashing cars and shit, acting crazy. I'm a whole other person, so I think I can deal with fame or success better now than I would've been able to then.
What would you like to do that you've haven't done yet?
Musically, I'd like to produce. I've dabbled in it, and I've had a lot to say [regarding the beats] and haven't gotten the credit. I'd like to start getting credit for producing and start producing other artists, maybe executive produce another artist's album.
You must watch people like Premier when you're in the studio to learn how to use the equipment.
I'm like a sponge, man. Any producer-I don't care who it is-I'm always watching, trying to learn new tricks. Hopefully I can get to the point where I'm actually hitting the pads on the MPC and actually pressing buttons, mixing the songs, making the beats. I want to do all the technical shit.
But you don't own any equipment yet.
I haven't bought nothing. That's what's crazy. I don't have anything. I need to start buying stuff and put a studio in my house. I hate that drive to the studio.
That seems to be the trend, people setting up home studios.
Apparently I'm the one that's behind. I shoulda been did that.