Four years ago, the career of Detroit emcee Royce Da 5'9" was immensely different than it is today. No one could have guessed that he'd still be prepping for the release of a long-planned album that's executive-produced by rap icon DJ Premier. Or that he'd be ghostwriting for the likes of Diddy. Or that he'd be touring the country as one-fourth of indie rap's premier supergroup on Rock the Bells, the summer's hottest hip-hop show.
But Royce is doing exactly what the acronym for his M.I.C. Records label stands for: "Make It Count."
"It's OK to make mistakes, but try not to make the same mistake twice," he says. "Be prepared when the opportunity presents itself. No matter how many times it comes around, if you miss the first one, make sure you're ready for the second one."
In the music industry — especially in the fickle-minded world of hip hop — an artist usually only gets one chance to make it. And Royce Da 5'9" definitely took advantage of the opportunities he had early in his career. Climbing through hip-hop ranks with fellow Motor City lyricist Eminem, he nabbed a deal with Tommy Boy Records for his debut album, Rock City. After making an appearance on Em's multiplatinum debut, The Slim Shady LP, he began ghostwriting for Dr. Dre's seminal Chronic 2001 album. And then his DJ Premier-helmed song "Boom" became an instant classic among hip-hop heads. He even got several of his tracks placed on the hit Grand Theft Auto III video game.
But the now-32-year-old rapper (born Ryan Montgomery) soon found out the hard way that the music industry isn't friendly. Heavy bootlegging of Rock City and the folding of Tommy Boy led him to sign another deal to re-record portions of the album, but he never regained his momentum. And once his manager revealed to the press that Royce was writing for Dr. Dre, his ties with that rap icon were immediately cut. He would later get into a public feud with Eminem's group D12, which he won on wax but lost in terms of contacts and connections to the rap megastar. He had other releases that made waves around this time — namely 2004's critically acclaimed Death is Certain, which was fueled by the Premier-produced track titled "Hip Hop" — but he ran into another severe roadblock in 2006, when he was sentenced to a year in prison for a DUI.
But after Royce served his time, he hit the ground running. His 2007 The Bar Exam mixtape renewed listeners' interest. He then announced the impending release of two albums — the DJ Premier-assisted Street Hop and The Revival — and he ghostwrote rhymes for mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs. And a year ago last summer, Royce performed with D12 at Detroit's iconic rap venue the Shelter to publicly solidify the ending of their dispute. But after an unfinished copy of The Revival leaked onto the Net, Royce released The Bar Exam 2 mixtape as a free download. Aside from a few remote instances left over from earlier in his career ("Something's Wrong With Him" from the aforementioned Death Is Certain, comes to mind), the mixtape unleashed a new Royce — one armed with a flow and mic presence that was more menacing than before as he took potshots at the likes of Lil Wayne and Jay-Z for no apparent reason, daring anyone to challenge his belief that he was the best.
"The way I feel outside the booth and the way I feel inside the booth is completely different than how I was five, six years ago," Royce says. "I now say exactly what I want to say, just to get people antsy. It's all in fun, though. If you want to take it personal and get your panties in a bunch and jump in that traffic ... well, that car is coming pretty fast."
That traffic almost led to a car crash with New Jersey rapper Joe Budden. The dispute gained steam after an AllHipHop.com battle event in New York City, in which Royce competed against Los Angeles emcee Mistah FAB. Budden withdrew from the event to tend to his brother, the victim of a shooting at the time. Royce ultimately lost the battle against FAB, even as he spewed structured verses instead of rhymes aimed at his opponent. Budden later said that the battle was "embarrassing" for Royce. So when Royce instigated and won a subsequent battle of songs against FAB, he baited Budden by mentioning him in various songs. Months later, a dated Budden song leaked that took a swipe at Royce. Even though Budden called the song "cutting-room-floor fodder" that he didn't mean to be released, he and Royce would continue to bicker with each other via interviews and YouTube videos. Ironically, though, Budden would later make a phone call to Royce, but it wasn't to discuss beef — it was to talk business.
"We've never talked about [the dispute], that's what's crazy," Royce says. "My conversation with Joey after all that was going on was simply, 'What's up? I need you on this song.' There really was no reason for [the dispute]. I don't think he really wanted to [get in a hassle] in the end. I threw a couple of barbs his way. He didn't take the bait, so I figured, fuck it."
The resulting song, "Slaughterhouse," featured Royce, Budden, Crooked I, Joell Ortiz and Nino Bless. The song was received so well and the emcees sparked chemistry so strong that the group (sans Nino Bless) continued to record tracks, leaking them onto the Internet. They finished a self-titled album, Slaughterhouse, within a week's time, and they've been touring all summer on Guerilla Union's hot Rock the Bells tour (which brought them to DTE Music Theatre earlier this season) alongside the likes of Nas, Busta Rhymes and others. All four members have overcome their share of public industry drama with major labels to establish themselves as indie staples. And to watch them perform their songs and individual hits onstage doesn't just show the sheer talent among the four of them; it also reveals a mutual respect and friendship that appears as though it was years in the making.
"We've all been through the record industry shit," Royce says. "We've all had our issues behind the mic, and we've all been at a point where everyone thought it was our time. And it didn't happen. That automatically makes it easy for us to relate to each other. Besides me respecting their pen games, they're all just cool."
Royce says that his early work with Eminem prepared him to collaborate with other heavyweights. "Working with Em gave me the urgency to work at my A-game early in my career," he confirms. "I was probably a little more prepared for the Slaughterhouse machine than the others were because Em put me in a gear years ago that I've never locked out of."
Looking to capitalize on their buzz, Slaughterhouse will release a self-titled LP next week, on Tuesday, Aug. 11. Royce also gave the world a digital release (this past July 7) of The Revival EP, consisting of four highlights from his still-unreleased Street Hop. While those four songs display the raw lyricism that Royce has been known for as of late, two earlier album leaks from this year — "Shake This" and "Part of Me" — were even more substantial. The former finds him rhyming about his prison time and alcoholism over a subdued backdrop from DJ Premier. The latter track vividly narrates a fantasy gone wrong — a pair of women drug a man's drink, lure him to his home for a one-night stand ... and then (ouch!) castrate him while he's asleep. In addition to Premier, other beatmakers on Street Hop include such respected previous collaborators as Nottz, Carlos "6 July" Broady, Bink!, and D12 member Denaun Porter, the latter who Royce says will executive produce his next project.
"You can't even put [The Revival] in the same room with [Street Hop]," Royce insists. "What I have now is a classic. And I argue against anybody who has anything different to say about it."William E. Ketchum III is a music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com