"Everything I Know Is From Making Mistakes": A Candid Conversation with Royce da 5'9"

"'Book of Ryan' took everything out of me: Financially, physically, and mentally. Everything I had. PRhyme is a much-needed mojito, bro."
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"'Book of Ryan' took everything out of me: Financially, physically, and mentally. Everything I had. PRhyme is a much-needed mojito, bro."

I discovered the music of Royce da 5'9" in 2008, the days of Datpiff premieres, Zshare links at the bottom of blog posts, and rappers being spotlighted for filling graveyards with the instrumentals of their peers. At the time, Royce was 10 years into his career, yet still a well-kept underground secret. Dynamite was the best description I had heard of Royce, an emcee who delivered the kind of explosive lyricism that made you question if he dipped his quill in lighter fluid instead of ink.

Rhymes infused with rage and humor hooked me―for hours I listened to Nickel Nine rampage across beats like a bull trapped in traffic staring at a long line of brake lights. The Detroit MC carried the qualities of an elite practitioner, a master in the making, a rapper who would become a bona fide rap genius.

Potential is an idea of what could be; when the latent and dormant is exciting as what appears on the surface. In music, especially rap, potential is easily identified but realizing that potential is far from guaranteed. The genre has witnessed the sharpest swords become dull blades as time moves forward. Rappers who once stood as gods shrunk to the size of mortals as their magic dwindled. Conversations gradually change from who they will become to who they used to be. It's hard to be good. It’s more difficult to be consistently great.

As a fan, watching Royce da 5'9" live up to the MC he always had the promise to be over the past decade has been rewarding. The rage subsided into passion, humor matured into clever wit, and old vices were replaced by healthier desires. Sobriety didn’t take away his edge but sharpened the mind. He evolved into a lyricist who is less explosive and more technically mesmerizing, like a solar flare.

Over the past four years, his collaborative work alongside DJ Premier as one-half of PRhyme, his mixtapes Trust the Shooter and The Bar Exam 4, and his sixth solo studio album Layers showcased Royce as a fully developed veteran wizard who casts rhymes like Dumbledore cast spells. Knocking on the 20th year of his career, Royce exemplifies gradual growth and aging into greatness.

Like my recent interview with Phonte, Royce’s veteran badge comes with jewels of wisdom and a buffet's worth of food for thought.

The following conversation—which took place directly after I hung up the phone with DJ Premier—has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Yoh: I was surprised you were asleep when I called. You’re always up.

Royce: When my mind is moving, and I’m trying to think of raps and shit, I forget I’m supposed to sleep. But if I’m not in the lab, if I have to sit around and wait for stuff, I get exhausted. It’s like all of that shit catches up to me.

How do you balance it out, then? How much time do you spend in the studio?

I dedicate everything to the studio when it’s time. I haven’t been in there since I finished the album. I haven’t really been in there at all. Now I’m just focused on working out. Spending time with family. I know I’m gearing up for shows and shit. I just go hard with each thing. I never try to do them all and balance it, I’m not good at that. It’s all or nothing.

I just spoke with Phonte about a week ago, and he told his wife, "I’m going into war mode. I’m locking in the studio and you're not going to see me," before he finished his new album. When it’s time to go to battle, it's nothing but war. Once the war is over, though, you have to go back home.

When you come to Detroit, you’ll see the studio. My booth has a sign on the door. It’s called the War Room and I spent all of 2017 in there. I didn’t really see my family the whole year. I didn’t really see anyone. I didn’t get a lot of haircuts, I didn’t take a lot of showers. Between [my upcoming solo album Book of Ryan], Bar Exam [4], PRhyme [2], and fucking with this play, I mean it took up all my time.

When I got done, and I got to the house, it was damn near a homecoming. It was like a vacation. Being here at my house, and just being able to relax, rest, and spend time with the kids, it’s like a vacation. It’s like going to an island. People ask me why I don’t take vacations. Bro, this is why. I have no desire to get on a plane and go anywhere. That shit feels too much like touring.

It's wild how you become programmed after living a certain lifestyle. Staying home becomes the vacation.

I had to realize I’m an extremist. I have to cut the liquor out completely. I gotta give the music everything I have because I’ve been doing it so long my brain is a little bit different now. I don’t always go in there and nail shit the way I want to the first time I take a stab at something. In my older age, I’m becoming better at A&Ring myself. I can always go in there and write a dope rap and write a dope song, but now it’s like, I spend a lot of time just A&Ring myself. Pulling the music together. Changing a verse here, changing a verse there. Switching this around, switching that around. That’s the most important part of making an album.

It’s more meticulous now. Do you prefer it this way? Do you prefer to be a professor of the art than being a craftsman?

Yeah, I do. A craftsman is damn near like a gift you’re given as a creative person. You don’t always keep that if you don’t become a professor and keep on constantly, repetitively doing it and putting in the work, and trying new things, and learning new things from trying. A lot of people think that in order to stay sharp and get better you have to pay attention to everything that’s going on, but not when the music itself is devolving.

There's not much to be learned out right now. Not if you’re talking about building on what you already have. If you’re coming into the game brand new, then yeah, there’s plenty to learn. You need to learn how unbalanced the climate is and where you fit. If you’re an artist who already found their place in music, you have to continue to build on what you have. The only way to do that is work, work, work, work. That’s what I do.

A few years ago, when we met in the studio in Atlanta, the music you played for me was from your forthcoming album, Book of Ryan. This is before you released Layers. How do you juggle all these different projects?

When I saw you last time, it was before I had my studio. When I first got sober I decided to do Book of Ryan, my solo album. This album is like five years in the making. I don’t know if you remember me telling you but I wanted to put Layers out first, just so I didn’t leap into such personal material after not putting out material for a while. So Layers was like a prequel to Book of Ryan

After I put Layers out, Preem wanted to go right in and do PRhyme 2. He kinda threw me off because we started on PRhyme, and I got into that mode, and then he went dark on me.

After waiting for a while I ended back in Book of Ryan mode. I started focusing on those songs to really create the remainder scenes to the movie that I felt was missing. I started doing shows and shit. So I waited around for awhile—I can’t multitask, so it’s one or the other.

How different is it working on Book of Ryan versus PRhyme?

Book of Ryan—I don’t want to get too much into that because I know we’re talking about PRhyme, but Book of Ryan is telling my story in a way I want people to understand it. It’s not a rap contest. 

When we do PRhyme we go in there and we kick bars. Preem does something different with all the beats; he pulls from one source. It’s a break in the action for me. It’s like when I’m doing my album, PRhyme is the commercial break during the Super Bowl. I get to go, after working out and being on a diet, I just get to have pizza for a minute [laughs].

It’s a cheat meal. It doesn’t take anything out of me. It’s a little more fun because I get to work with Preem. Nothing beats working with Preem, working with Slaughterhouse, working with Marshall. It’s just fun. It’s fun to collaborate. Book of Ryan took everything out of me: Financially, physically, and mentally. Everything I had. PRhyme is a much-needed mojito, bro.

What was the first song done for PRhyme 2?

"Rock It” was the first song we did. Preem sent me the beat—we weren’t in the same room yet, he sent it to Detroit. I wrote to a version of it. The hook was the same, the beginning of the verses was the same: “First the Fat Boys break up.” I knew that would be the song stencil. I knew I wanted to go in that direction. We went to New York. Met him in New York and worked in his studio for like a week. I knocked out some songs. I can’t remember which ones I did out there. I know I rewrote portions of the verses to “Rock It."

What were the other songs done in New York?

We did "New Era" in New York. I remember that. He pulled up the “doot doot doot” that kinda sounds like “Beez In The Trap” a little bit. I was like, "What if you loop something like that?" I remember a lot of the shit we had was really musical. I was like, "Let's think of a way to really simplify things a little bit so everything isn’t so over-the-top musically composed." He was like, "Alright, cool." He started laying the “Rocket in the Pocket” snare. He was building the beat around Dave East’s verse.

That’s why East sounds like he’s floating on the beat, like he’s walking on the drums. He rode to that tempo but he didn’t ride it to that drum pattern. Preem built the beat around him. I thought it sounded so crazy. The “Rocket In The Pocket” snare, the "Beez In The Trap"-esque sound—it sounded like you were mixing two eras together. Dave is a newer artist. That’s where the concept came from. It sounded like a mixture of eras. 

For some reason I used to always think to myself in the shower, Man, I feel like I’m stuck in the wrong era. You ever felt like that?

Ha, now that you mention it, I have.

I looked at a couple reviews on it and people were saying I’m dissing the other rappers. Which, of course, they expect me to do, because I’m an older artist and that’s the narrative right now. So not true. I’m talking about all of the bullshit going on in today’s era. You ever wish you could go back to the ‘70s where everyone was fucking with no condoms and everybody was wearing suits and afros and getting money? It looked fun. I would like to experience it.

[Laughs] How was it working with Rapsody on “Loved Ones"? I was excited to see her on the album’s tracklist.

I sent Rap the raw composition when I first got it. Sometimes Antman [Wonder, the source of PRhyme 2's samples], he would send Preem a zip file of raw compositions and he would CC me on it. I’d be privy to the composition before Preem could do anything to them. I sent Rapsody the raw file and had her rap over just the instruments. Once Preem got it and he started to build the beat, we sent that to Rap and she wanted to change her verse because so much time had gone by. She took it and she rhymed over a version with drums. The beat is still built on her verse, but the original was all over raw compositions. I loved both of them.

When I got the first one back, I was like, this girl is incredible. Incredible. The newer one is better, of course. She's constantly improving, all the time, across the board. But that first verse was no fucking joke. She was sitting in the pocket so nice. Her lyrical dexterity is so nice. She knows where she is on the beat all the time.

When you mentioned “Rock It,” you said you rewrote portions of the verse? Is that common practice for you?

Puff [Daddy], writing for him, he made me appreciate the art of rewriting. He pushed me so hard, dog. So hard I was taking it personally. I thought I wasn’t doing good enough. I thought he wasn’t really hearing me the right way. I didn’t like that shit at that time. But I had to say, this motherfucker made me write 34 verses to one song—why don’t I have that kind of relationship with my own records? I sent this nigga a verse I’m crazy about, he sends me back the verse with holes in it and tells me to fill them back in with something else.

Why don’t I have that relationship with my own songs? It’s something about artists where we are so afraid to record something we don’t like. We are so afraid to admit this could be better, to say, "I’m going to take a stab at this differently." To say, "There’s one line in this verse that I think is crazy but if it had a few more lines like that, it would be incredible." Very few artists want to take the time to nurse their songs to good health.

Nursing songs to good health, that’s a bar…

Artists think the first stab they take of something has to be their best stab. In the meantime, you got some artists who straight up got writers. Imagine an artist with writers; they have four or five different brains taking a stab at one song. They’re taking the best pieces and constructing the best music possible. 

[The song's] not done until the people have it in their hand. If you're the kind [of artist] who don’t want to work with writers, like myself—I don’t have anything against an artist who works with writers. I think it’s a beautiful thing. Just don’t do it in the dark and try to be looked at as the best lyricist ever, you know what I’m saying?

I chose not to do it, but I think it’s all art. I prefer to look at my shit like an open canvas. If I'm drawing something, please believe there’s an eraser at the end of my pencil. I’ll erase some shit and fix it. If a line is crooked, I’ll make the line straight. But I want to do it myself. If I look at that canvas and I see flaws, I’m going to fix those flaws. 

Once I present [the songs to the listener], it doesn’t matter if I didn’t write the rap down, if I did it in two hours or seven weeks, it’s in your hands and it’s the best it can be. That’s my thing. Puff taught me that without ever telling me.

What was your mindset before arriving to see Flex? And how did you feel once you completed your freestyle?

I was telling myself that if I go up there, I don’t want it to be some normal shit. And I want to do my best. That’s all I was telling myself. I’m getting a little bit older now. When I make impressions in this business now, I want them to be lasting impressions. I don’t want to go up there and do some regular shit. I’ve done regular. I’ve seen what regular gets you. Regular doesn’t feel bad, but I wasn’t fulfilled in any way. So I went up there and did what I did. Threw a couple verses together, jotted down a few lines and started memorizing them. I went up there and did the best I could with the time that I had to put it together. I left there feeling like I did my best.

There were a couple lines I fumbled on, but I didn’t want to go back and have them edit shit. I didn’t want it to sound unnatural. I wanted motherfuckers to know that I’m human. Let the younger artists know that it’s okay to be a human being. It’s alright. Just have fun with the shit. That’s what I told myself: I’m going to go up there and have fun. I’m going to poke fun at things. I was going to entertain people. I was going to make it so muthafuckas were happy they clicked on it.

It’s nice to converse with an emcee of your stature about the creative process. In your now two-plus decade career, you've experienced plenty.

You get forced to learn so much, so fast. You can either let it chew you up and spit you out or you can learn to take it. Everything that I know, all the wisdom that I have, is from making mistakes. Every single bit of it. I had nobody to hold my hand and tell me exactly what to do. I had people try to point me in the right direction to go, and I didn’t always listen. The good thing about me, I was never the kid afraid to jump out in traffic. I knew I was going to get hit by some cars.

You know when you get in that boxing ring, you're gonna get punched on. When a fighter kneels down on his knees he’s not praying that he won’t get hit; he’s praying he walks out of the ring with his life and a W. That’s me. I’m going to leave here with some losses, I’m going to leave here with some war wounds, but I’m going to leave here as a man, with my integrity, and with my hand raised. That’s what life is about.

By Yoh, aka Yoh da 5'10", aka @Yoh31