“I Can’t Be the Camouflage:” An Interview with Royce da 5’9″

TE P. speaks to the Detroit rap legend about the legacy of his hometown, the subjectivity of success, and the power of brotherhood.
By    March 17, 2020

Art by kEVVY KEV

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For 25 years, Royce Da 5’9” has existed on the edges of the mainstream while remaining steadfastly dedicated to the essence of hip-hop. He is Detroit to the core: virtuosic and raw, given to a serrated sense of humor and a hatred of gimmicks. Of course, Royce’s god-given gift as an MC and songwriter separates him from most of his peers. And sure, it would be easy for him to coast on his close working relationship with longtime friend and collaborator Eminem, or rest on the props you get when you’re one of the few solo MCs to get to do a career-defining project with DJ Premier. But all of that seems so limiting when speaking about Royce’s greatness and what truly makes him stand out from the pack: his depth of humanity puts him in a place all of his own. 

So often the numbers, the accolades, and the awards define an artist. The pressures that the industry places on these measures of success leave the person behind them blurry and confused. “You know success is being sold to the kids. Happiness is not necessarily. But happiness is the main thing.” For the public, the growth that’s displayed in the booth and onstage far outweighs the ups and the downs of people. Let’s not forget, they are people, and they go through them under the scrutiny of an ever increasingly intrusive public eye. Yet for a quarter century, Royce has continued to grow as a human. 

It’s one thing to profess growth. As he discussed his latest album, The Allegory, he spoke about his battle and journey to sobriety. He’s even talked about falling outs with people who frankly aren’t worth mentioning. But inside of all this is a resolve. The resolve of someone who wanted to be sober and actually did it. The resolve of someone who came to grips with his infidelity and is working through it. The resolve of someone who had the idea of producing a project, so he produced his own. The resolve of someone who wants to shine light on younger artists, so he asked them to get on his most important album to date. And the resolve of someone who wanted to define his own success, so he built a studio to share his energy and wisdom to those seeking it.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave speaks to a story that the Greek philosopher told to put into perspective how he felt in a world full of confusion. As he told the story; three prisoners were chained in a cave since birth. They only see shadows from the light behind them and equate these shadows with real objects. One day, one of their chains breaks loose. They are free but find themselves outside of the cave in an unfamiliar world. At first, the real objects and world they are in seem fake compared to the shadows they were once used to. But over time they realize that this is very real and the cave is not. Upon their return to the cave they are met with resistance, and even hostility, from their former prisoners who have only known the cave and do not want to be freed.

Music is Royce’s passion. He’s made that very clear. But affecting people is his purpose, and he’s not afraid to walk into that. “I’m willing to wear whatever God puts on me. I’m not rebuking any information or any position of leadership or anything I need to do to break cycles. I love breaking cycles.” In an industry where the ability to show others a truly real world outside of what they’ve known is not always emphasized, Royce is that mind constantly searching for enlightenment. He’s intellectual, informed, and intentional. Whether consciously or not, The Allegory has transcended the meaning and the name of his album, and has now become his life aspiration. For him, whatever that looks like moving forward, he’s completely ready for it. We should be too. — TE P.

Detroit is very central to your story. When I think of Detroit from my perspective, your name is what comes to mind. But I could imagine for you it’s different. When you think of Detroit, what comes to mind?

Royce da 5’9″: I immediately think of cars. Maybe it’s because of the automotive industry and the way it was booming here. I immediately think of Motown, Barry Gordy, Diana Ross, The Temptations, Hitsville USA. I think about stories my dad used to tell me [just] being at the barbershop. Coming out of the barbershop and three of The Temptations would be leaned up against cars, hanging outside, [just] talking like it was a normal day. When I think about Detroit I think about the rich lineage of greatness. I tapped out from the negative stigmas that’s attached to my city. I don’t even connect to them anymore.

Detroit also has this lineage of producing a sound and incredible artists that continue to [literally] change music overall. What is it that makes Detroit such a transformational place?

Royce da 5’9″: I think it’s spiritual when it comes to the creative aspect. It’s just how it was intended to be. I think God puts certain great people in certain spaces for certain reasons. And I think phrases like, “There must be something in the water,” speak to what I’m saying. It’s just something about Detroit and the thing that makes it so great is that you can’t explain it. It can’t be explained. It’s just understood. There’s no explanation for it. It’s just classic. Every city has their strengths and weaknesses. It just so happens that Detroit—one of our strengths is music.

On the other side of the coin, Detroit has a history of resilience and Black folks who don’t go for shit. It’s been documented as far as the uprisings and Detroit being the catalyst of movements where Black folks had enough. Can you speak to that side of it?

Royce da 5’9″: We just warriors. We warriors. The thing about us is that we don’t always have all of the proper information. But if we had the proper information, we knew exactly what we’re fighting, and we know exactly how to fight it—we’d be way more effective. But just in terms of standing up for ourselves, that’s just in our blood. It’s in our blood because the environment in itself is aggressive. So, at a very young age we accepted that aggressive energy as our reality. We accepted it as a way of life. It’s just another day at the basketball court. I think it shapes you in a way. It just gets you ready for the world. That’s why information is such a big thing for me now because I feel like we’re naturally armed with a lot of the other characteristics we need. We’re already naturally armed with those characteristics by the way you grew up. Now, it’s just learning how to use the tools we already have and when to use ‘em.

I tell my homies and my young buls this all the time. Being armed with that information changes everything.

Royce da 5’9″: That’s with anything too. But this in particular. I’m telling you right now, man; especially as it pertains to the music business. We just gotta start thinking like a collective. That’s all. Start thinking like a collective. The OG’s like myself, we just gotta go out of our ways to put certain things into perspective.

Just a random question… what’s your favorite Marvin Gaye album?

Royce da 5’9″: It would be the What’s Going On album. It was the first time that he spoke about something that was affecting the world. They begged him not to put that one out. One thing I don’t think he realized, if it’s in your heart, it’s going to come out anyway. If it’s affecting you, it’s going to come out anyway. So, you might as well let it flow. What he was doing at that time wasn’t a safe space for an investor. It was a high risk. We like to exist in a risky space. I can’t sit in a safe place. I don’t go to the airport early. That’s not what I do. I need to walk up to the gate while it’s closing. I can’t function any other way. A lot of us artists, we think that way. I can’t be the camouflage. I’m not fulfilled in that place. If everybody is going right, I need to be able to go left.

You just mentioned, “When it’s in, it’s gotta come out.” Throughout your career you’ve continued to grow. Through your music but also through you [just] being you, you’ve shared. What does it feel like for you to have gone through all of these changes in the public eye?

Royce da 5’9″: It’s ups and downs. To be highly favored, it goes back to what we were talking about earlier. That God would pick somebody from Detroit and put a certain amount of things on his or her shoulders because he already knows that that resilience is gonna be there. It’s based off the environment. Just sheer resilience. No information at all. Being completely naive to things and just having resilience was enough to get me through certain things. Making those mistakes and being resilient enough to survive through it, that made it to where, “OK. I survived through it,” but I’m also able to accumulate all those jewels based off all of those mistakes being made. There’s a certain level of wisdom that comes with that that you can’t get from a book. This is one of those businesses where it’s so wide open and it’s not as many rules as people try to make you think that it is. So, a lot of it is finding your way, what works for you, and trying to keep the mistakes to a minimum while knowing you’re going to make them but embracing them. And pulling the lessons from them and knowing how to apply those lessons. That’s basically all I did. I had my good days and I had my bad days. I wasn’t always positive. I wasn’t always optimistic. But I lived to fight another day.

Something I find interesting is in speaking with people like you, founders of companies, and just people who think on another plain, there’s a common thread of not being afraid during the journey because of that being naive piece.

Royce da 5’9″: You apply yourself when it’s the one thing on your mind. That’s why I never told my son to have a backup plan. I know that’s common advice but that’s bad advice to give an artist. It’s not good advice. You’re putting something else in your head. That’s the worst thing you can do. You just don’t accept losing as an option. From there, you’re a certain level of naive, and you’re forced to become patient. You don’t know how it’s gonna happen. You don’t know when it’s gonna happen. All you’re gonna accept is for it to happen. You’re willing to sleep on floors. You’re willing to sleep in the cars. You’re willing to go days without eating. You’re willing to do what you need to do, or make whatever sacrifices you need to make, you’re willing to make those sacrifices because you believe in yourself. Those are the grassroots intangibles that you need. If you can blossom from those—there’s no stopping you!

And then, when you look up, and you’ve seen all that you’ve done, and what you’ve built it feels so much better because it’s yours and you know what you put into it.

Royce da 5’9″: And nobody will know it like you. There’s no label you’re going to sign to that’s going to be able to grow your brand like you. I don’t sit in board meetings with labels. Nobody knows me like me. Nobody can tell me how to market Royce da 5’9”. I’m just myself. That’s it.

Why do you think other cats who’ve been in the game for the amount of time that you have aren’t able to take the guard down and share their knowledge and lives the same you have?

Royce da 5’9″: The initial thing that we’re programmed to do is compete. We compete with each other. If you’re coming in and that’s your base, then that can evolve into many things—a hater is one of them. It’s life experiences that made me become more self-aware. I’ve always like the way I felt after helping somebody. I just do. I’m not claiming to be the guardian angel of the world. I just like how it makes me feel. I noticed the first thing we do when we get into the game, all the young artists complain about the same thing I used to complain about, “Everybody asking me for money.” It’s like, “Bro—it feels great to be able to help out my Mom,” “It feels great to be able to help out my real friends.” You know, like people asking for money comes with the territory. You know what you learning how to be in that situation? You learning how to be assertive and to stand up for yourself. We be afraid to tell people, “NO.” We back ourselves into that corner. But when you not just giving anybody money, you wear that. People stop asking! I used to attract those kind of people. When I didn’t want to just tell people, “No,” and I used to give everybody money, I would attract money askers. It’s learning yourself, learning what works best for you, and developing from there. What’s crazy is anything is possible from the hip-hop platform. Anything is possible. It can be finagled into anything.

Hip-Hop is literally the world. I remember when I first started hearing hip-hop in McDonald’s commercials. I remember thinking, “Holy Shit!”

Royce da 5’9″: We had that stranglehold on the world even before that. We were so taken aback by seeing it on mainstream tv because all we ever seen in regards to hip-hop was C. Delores Tucker stomping on 2Pac cd’s. People telling us what we can’t say. People blaming our music for all the ills of the world. We took our lumps. Once they seen it was something they could monetize, they accepeted it, and subjagated the fuck out of it. Now, what that’s doing is it’s birthing all the P.C.-ass rappers. Ice Cube, Ice-T, Uncle Luke, all the guys were freedom fighters for us. They kicked open the doors for us to be able to say anything we want to say. We barely get censored for anything. You don’t get afforded to have a platform now and don’t have anything to say. Be you. Paint your picture. Be that artist. Be that screenwriter. But understand your responsibility.

In speaking to something you mentioned as far as being able to give. I couldn’t help but notice the newer artists on this album and welcoming them into the spotlight on a project like this. It’s your first project where you’re fully producing but you’re like, “You know what… I want Vince Staples on this album. I want G-Perico on this album. I want Benny on this album.” Can you speak to embracing younger artists and your ear being completely immersed in this?

Royce da 5’9″: I wouldn’t even say my ear is completely immersed. I can’t really even take that kind of credit. [laughs] I really just like what I like. If it’s somebody that’s young and he’s quote—unquote “hot” and I don’t get it; I don’t listen to it. I built an ecosystem around myself. So, I protect everything. I protect my energy. I protect my mood. I protect what I take into my brain. I protect everything. Everything that comes in is filtered. So, when I’m working with people and I decide I want to work with someone, that decision is based strictly off of creativity and what kind of record I can make, and me being a fan of that person. This album was coming out so left of center that this was the first time for a few of those features I just made the decision based off of someone being dope and feeling the world should be privy to them. Most artists are afraid to do that. The only ones putting the fear into artists to do that are the muthafuckas at the labels. It’s all just a ploy to control people. I just need for artists to understand that we are the superheroes. We tell the people what they like. The people don’t control that. You got guys making records based on what they think people like. That’s not how that goes.

As you mentioned controlling your energy, you mentioned in a podcast that your studio is that place for you. I heard you say at times, cats come over and music’s not even being made. It’s just a place where people are able to have really good conversations, communicate, and share energy. For you being in this place right now in your careers, what does it feel like to have a place like that that you can share with others?

Royce da 5’9″: It’s a success. That’s what success is. It becomes more and more subjective the more you grow. You know, right now, this is the equivalent to a mansion for me. My ecosystem I have here where I can control the narrative. I can control who comes in and out. I can control whether I’m around somebody with good energy or not. Then when I go home I got another ecosystem there that’s somewhat detached. It’s unplugged. It’s unplugged from the record industry. It’s a lot of resting going on. It’s a lot of talking going on that has nothing to do with the music business. It’s a lot of getting ordered around by my kids. It’s a lot of like, not being treated like I’m an artist. But just being Ryan. The dad and the husband. I detach. Then I charge up, I go back to the studio, and I plug back in. I found my balance. So, all is well. Everybody’s happy. Everybody that needs to be happy based off what I’m doing [my labor] it works with that system.

I’m really happy you have that. We’ve seen a lot of cats who aren’t able to have that or aren’t able to turn it off have to deal with some serious consequences because of it.

Royce da 5’9″: You know success is being sold to the kids. Happiness is not, necessarily. But happiness is the main thing. What if artists came into the game just thinking, “If I could just put myself in the position to where I can be happy.” But how can they? They are indoctrinated with, “Money is going to make me happy.” When I went to set up that second deal with Tommy Boy Records they were courting me. They took me to the strip club. They took me to the strip club and kept getting me drunk, kept giving me singles—they doing that shit with their sons and daughters. They prepping them to be executives. So, we coming in thinking we need to build relationships with the labels. NOT POSSIBLE! And it’s happening not only in music but in sports. These are billions on top of billions of dollars being generated by the principles—the players, the artists.

In the value we put in all of these other things, there’s still this cycle we’ve yet to hone in on or for lack of a better term—figure out. It’s timely that today they laid Pop Smoke to rest. When you see passings like Nip and Pop Smoke from your lense, how do you view them? And what can these youngins be doing different?

Royce da 5’9″: Artists are always going to be accessible. As long as we’re of the thinking, “Every man for themselves,” artists are always going to be touchable. But what if we started thinking as a collective, and we started looking at artistry like a brotherhood? Now there’s walls of barriers between the bad people and the artists. If we’re of the thinking, “We gotta take care of each other,” if a certain piece of information comes across my desk, and I know it can put you in harms way, I can alert you. Because that’s an understanding we have as a brotherhood. Police officers have it. A kid will get killed by a white police officer, they’ll send a black police officer to talk to the mother to see if he can smooth everything over. And he gotta act like he’s OK with it because there’s a brotherhood amongst officers where they don’t tell on each other. Everybody’s got a brotherhood that’s to our detriment.

Labels got all kinds of brotherhoods. The 360 deal is one big piece of brotherhood on paper. That’s what that is. That’s a brotherhood of record labels on paper. To our detriment. The only way to offset that is to form a  brotherhood. And make demands as a collective. That’s it! A collective of like-minded people—that’s power. I’m not so quick to run up on Nipsey Hussle now if I know I gotta deal with a whole nation of people. Why do you think Minister Farrakhan is still alive? Nobody gonna try to climb that tree. You talking about somebody who got a million people in one place. That’s a power you can’t duplicate. You can’t buy your way into that power. You gotta be loved by the people in order to pull something like that off and trust it. Nothing is more trustworthy than a brotherhood—nothing. If nobody is willing to take money and turn their back, while somebody comes up and blows your brains out, and nobody is willing to do that because everybody is loyal to the situation, then everybody is safe.

As we look forward, I think someone like you needs to be highlighted more. You are someone who touches people, you are a thinker, and that’s something we lack. What are your plans moving forward outside of music to really affect people?

Royce da 5’9″: I will say this, man. I’m going to wear whatever my passion is. And usually I’m passionate about things I’m sure about because I’ve done the research and I feel like I’m educated so I can speak intelligently about it because I either know from experience or it’s just something that I just know. That kind of information I’m willing to do anything I need to do. I think being of the thinking, that type of thinking, that can develop into many different things. And whatever that is, whatever it develops into, I’ll never speak on it unless I can enforce it or endorse it.

If I put my name on it, that’s also going to come with my integrity. I think the trust of the people and being able to sleep at night is the most important thing to me. I’m willing to wear whatever God puts on me. I’m not rebuking any information or any position of leadership or anything I need to do to break cycles. I love breaking cycles. Especially when I understand the cycle I come from, and I understand how difficult it is, and how much of a brain fuck it is to actually beat it. When I think of the music industry, now we’re just in a position where we gotta actually start out thinking people. And a lot of times it’s unlearning the natural shit—the go to’s we do. Airing each other out on social media, bickering with each other, and all of this shit. It’s to our detriment.

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