Flashback to 1997: The Ebony Showcase on 7 Mile in Detroit was the place to be on Tuesdays. It was open mic night for local rap hopefuls. You signed up, stepped up on stage, rhymed and hoped for crowd approval. Every now and then, emcees tested their mettle by battling one another.
On one particularly electric night, a crew of unnamed participants challenged Royce da 5’9”, an upstart from Oak Park.
Word on the street was that drastic things happened when Royce, then new to the Detroit hip-hop scene, approached microphones. This night was no exception. The crew that challenged him was boastful, and they sent their best emcee to the stage.
The rapper did well. The crowd approved, and gave up hearty applause. As he bopped to his seat, arms waving and chest poked out, he seemed to tell Royce, who sat motionless in a corner, “top that.”
Royce obliged. He stepped on stage and let loose a verse that was a searing, unapologetic dis of the testy rapper and his entire team. His cadence was complex but never lost its rhythm. And his message was fierce and simple — you lose against me.
The opponent ceded defeat, but Royce was too far gone. He was animated, like a speed fiend. He talked louder, feeding off the frenzy he’d created in the room. The microphone picked up every word for the audience to hear.
He told them to never again think they could challenge him, that he is the king of this rap shit. They responded by rushing him. One member of the crew ran up to Royce, got in his face, and got socked square in his own.
I grabbed Royce with help from his manager Kino Childrey. We pulled him away from the crowd, before the melee became a full-fledged barroom brawl. The club owner, an older man trying to provide a place for youngsters to go, took the mic and scolded everyone for allowing words to escalate to violence.
The other rappers barked that Royce was disrespectful, arrogant.
Royce — and everyone with him — was outnumbered. Yet he refused to back down. That’s part of Royce’s problem — he’s never backed away from a confrontation.
In fact, the road Royce has taken to arrive at this point in his career has been bumpy as hell, with many of the bumps self-created. Fortunately, his just-released sophomore album, Death is Certain, gives Royce da 5’9” another chance to become the star he’s aspired to be since ’97.
Royce has endured the kind of drama usually reserved for rappers who achieve Ja Rule’s level of superstardom. He’s been signed to four different record labels — Tommy Boy, Columbia, Game and, now, Koch. His well-publicized conflict with D12, friends and colleagues of the most popular entertainer in the world, Eminem, almost got him shot. And his first album got a lukewarm reception because many of his fans felt its commercial push betrayed his underground roots.
Then there’s his reputation at home. Some local rappers, none of whom would admit it to Metro Times, just don’t like the dude. What’s more, many mistake his introversion for egotism.
Royce, via phone call from New York City, where he is preparing to tape a segment of BET’s “Rap City: The Bassment,” rejects the notion that he is arrogant. “People say I’m arrogant, shy,” he says. “I’m none of those things. I just gotta get to know you before I open up. When I try to push it, it’s like I’m turning it on and off, and it’s real uncomfortable.”
Royce, by his own admission, is short on interpersonal skills.
“I doubt if I will ever be able to interact with people the way that a superstar artist should be able to,” he says. “I have a problem letting people in. I’m kinda like a dog. If I don’t know you, I don’t fuck with you. But if I like you, then I’m stuck with you.”
Early in his career, Royce’s business team suggested he try to position himself as a sort of millennial LL Cool J. From a marketing standpoint, the suggestion seemed to make sense. Ladies found him attractive, emcees respected his skills and the talk-less-rhyme-more character trait was brash.
Royce agrees that the marketing scheme didn’t always translate well with his audience. The image wedged him somewhere between the underground and the mainstream. On one hand, he wrote “The Message” for Dr. Dre’s many times platinum LP, The Chronic 2001. On the other, he recorded underground hits like “Scary Movies” and “Nothing to Do” with Eminem, and the classic “Boom” with DJ Premier.
“Nobody’s ever said anything negative about his ability to rhyme,” says Geddy, a local record exec who works with Detroit rapper J. Hill. “He’s one of the dopest. I put him in a category with Eminem.” But Geddy adds that Royce’s personality was sometimes off-putting, saying he often seemed unapproachable.
J. Hill says that Royce cultivated his foes. “I think people got cross images of what he was trying to do,” Hill says. “I think he kinda got dragged into it. Anybody take a shot at you, you gonna lash out. His lashin’ out gained him a lot of enemies.”
And take shots folks did. D12 lobbed the first one, premiering a Royce dis record on WJLB. Royce went the next night to WDTJ and issued a challenge of his own to D12.
Dis records were recorded. Internet chat rooms and hip-hop Web sites lit up with news of the beef.
The shit-talk reached an apex last summer when Royce and D12’s Proof, a one-time close friend (they’d taken their sons to Chuck E. Cheese together in the past), had a freak meeting in Greektown. They taunted each other, pulled guns, thought twice and decided to talk instead. They walked around the corner to hash it out. A bystander saw it all. The two emcees were arrested by Detroit police and held in custody for 19 hours.
Royce has said it amazes and almost shames him that all this conflict revolved around music. Then again, he says, this is his life.
“I don’t have aspirations to do another profession. This is where I wanna be.”
With beefs behind him, Royce is not backing down from his latest challenge, salvaging his career. “I’m taking everything I learned and putting it all into this next album,” he says.
Death is a complete record, a throwback to the days when the music business had not become a singles-driven industry. There is one guest rapper on the album, Cutty Mack, from Royce’s D-Elite crew.
Four producers — Carlos “Six July” Broady, DJ Premier, Ty Fyffe and Azar — collaborate to give the CD a consistent sound. It’s dark and intense, and brutally honest.
Royce uses the album to publicly clean his dirty laundry. Without the liner notes, it’d be difficult to tell which is the title track, because he proclaims that “death is certain” on four different songs.
Fans will also celebrate Royce’s return to his grimier, underground roots. “My album is different,” he says, “because I look within and point out my own flaws. An example is how I left the underground so soon. On the record, I apologize for that. It’s been times I could have reached out to people and didn’t. But that’s hip hop. You learn.”
“Hip-Hop,” the lead Premier-produced single, strips music down to a dry drum, a looping alto chime and a clip of a sliding violin. Its structure is akin to Gang Starr’s “Skillz.” The accompanying video has no dancers, no extras. Royce takes off the velour jogging suits he wore in the videos for “You Can’t Touch Me” and “Rock City,” the singles from his first album, Rock City, Version 2.0. His standard gear now is para-military — skullcap, thermal undershirt beneath an army short-sleeve, jeans and boots.
“I heard the album,” says Hill. “It’s hot. It just seem like his style on the whole album changed up to some ‘I done been through the ringer, I know the game, fuck everybody else.’”
When the video premiered on BET’s “106th & Park” three weeks ago, fans called it a refreshing change of pace from hip hop’s status quo.
“I haven’t heard anything negative yet,” Royce says of the response he’s gotten while promoting the album in several cities. “It’s gonna take people who hate me to hear it and decide. I wanna hear what they have to say. ’Cause I think it’s undeniable.”
Royce says he no longer wants to be known as the King of Detroit. He has been knocked down enough, he says, to know that once respect is earned everything else just falls into place.Khari Kimani Turner is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org