Last summer, Royce da 5'9" took to Instagram to offer a full-throated defense of JAY-Z's partnership with the NFL. So it makes sense that a few months later, the Detroit rapper is partnering with the NFL’s Inspire Change initiative to release his new song "Black Savage" as part of their Songs of the Season program. Despite criticism of JAY for entering into the partnership, Royce stands by it one hundred percent. "When I heard that they were willing to sit down and figure out a way to come together and inspire some change, even if it's just a little bit of change—it's more than what we were doing," he says.
"Black Savage," which also features T.I., Cyhi the Prynce, Sy Ari Da Kid, and White Gold, was produced by Royce himself. In fact, it’s the very first song he’s ever produced. He’s very excited by his new foray into music production, and he has a career’s worth of friends like DJ Premier, Denaun Porter, and DJ Khalil he calls for advice.
We sat down with Royce at the Complex office in New York City to get his thoughts on JAY and the NFL, his new passion for making beats, his role in the never-ending feud between Lord Jamar and Eminem, his show-stopping verse on Gang Starr’s "What’s Real," and more. The interview, lightly edited for clarity, is below.
You mention the Rumble in the Jungle in your verse on "Black Savage." Why is that a touchstone event for you?
It was something about that fight. It was an energy in the air that was like magical. Like, they thought that the natives had put a spell on George Foreman. It was an exciting time where everybody was standing for something. It was cool to be black. It's one of the only times you can pull from, because everybody is just so afraid of everything. Everybody [today] is so afraid of these positions. And people who have a little bit of power, they see that fear and take full advantage.
You see the owners and the equity guys stressing ownership, ownership, ownership. Then you see the artistic guys stressing art, art, art. Then you see the commercial guys really just corny, corny, corny—to their detriment, but they don't know it. I feel like it's a time right now where everybody is looking at the same thing in their [own] way and it's a problem. America is pretending everything is okay, and it's not. We're past the point of us even being able to come off as victimized to a degree.
That's why I really felt it when Jay Z said "actionable items" [When asked about kneeling during the national anthem to protest racist police violence at NFL games, Jay Z said, "I think we've moved past kneeling and I think it's time to go into actionable items."] Actionable items is what's going to get people in a more progressive mind frame. We're too comfortable with just complaining about the state of things. It's happening to hip hop. The lyrical guys are complaining about, "They're not too lyrical." Bro, you just be lyrical. Do your part. Anybody can complain. Anybody can sit and make a fucking top 50 list. You make the top 50 list [as a rapper] before you try to not put me on your [personal] top 50 list, because you know I'm going to get offended. We’re fragile like that.
At what point did the NFL and Inspire Change become involved in the song?
I had the song done. Once we heard about the initiative and heard they were looking for music, we got together and we played them the song.
What do you think about JAY-Z working with the NFL?
All of us know what the NFL represents, and how important they are to the culture. So to hear about [the NFL and JAY-Z] sitting down, I could only see the positive in it. I can't even see the negative. We're not in a position to do that no more. We're either moving or we're not. So when I heard that they were willing to sit down and figure out a way to come together and inspire some change, even if it's just a little bit of change—it's more than what we were doing.
Inspire Change had a bit of controversy because they gave money an organization called Crusher's Club [which shared photos of its founder, a white woman, cutting off two black men’s locs]. I assume you heard about that?
What were your thoughts when it came out that Inspire Change had given money to that organization?
“Wow. You're attacking already, huh?” That's what it felt like. It looked very contrived. It looked like a group of people were sitting in a room and taking pieces of things, and threading them together, and creating a narrative. We usually see it happen at the beginning stages of stuff. Everybody's not going to be able to see the vision. Martin Luther King probably looked like a crazy person to people in the beginning. Peace? Can't we all get along? If you've got somebody that can see things before you can see them, you allow him to play his role. [JAY-Z] hasn't given me a reason to not trust that he would do that. Like I said, I could only see the good in it.
The approach that Inspire Change has taken on the issue of police violence has been of trying to build understanding and having both sides come into dialogue.
That makes sense to me. I see a lot of people putting more emphasis, more outrage on defending the situation, defending their whiteness. People are choosing their whiteness over the importance of people dying. It's so indoctrinated in the fabric of the country, it's like a reaction. And a lot of them are speaking due to lack of information as well. It's an information problem that we have. So there's only one way to open up the dialogue: everybody got to come to the table willing to listen, and willing to be open to the possibility of having to unlearn some shit and relearn it again. So, I think that's a good approach.
You had one of the best verses on Gang Starr’s One of the Best Yet. Was it different having to write for a Gang Starr project than for the two albums you and DJ Premier have done together as PRhyme?
Yeah, it was a little bit more pressure because it can't just be some throwaway shit. It got to be something that lasts. Because one thing that I always associate with not only DJ Premier but the Gang Starr brand, it's consistency, longevity.
We were rehearsing for the PRhyme 2 tour. It was real late at night and [Premier] was sitting in front of the board. He was like, "Yo, I forgot to tell you, I'm secretly working on a Gang Starr album." I was like, "Well shit, is it done?" And he was just like, "No, I'm just starting it." He was like, "You want to jump on something?" I was like, "Shit, don't threaten me with a good time. Let me hear something." I think it was the first one he played. I just started writing and it just came together from there.
Tell me about the fourth-wall-breaking moment of that verse where you talk about seeing an urn with Guru’s ashes in Preem’s studio.
It was ammo for me, because I was just like, "What is that?" "That's his ashes." It was a little weird to me at first, but it was like, I've got to figure out a way to incorporate this. I'm weird like that, though. I look around the room and I start asking myself questions, answering them. That's why it's good for me to be alone when I'm writing.
Does that come out of having to freestyle a lot? The really good freestylers I've known are people who couldn't shut it off. Any stimulus they got, they automatically turned into a rhyme.
That's a different skill set. Most of us can't turn it off, but we all don't want to apply it in that way. I don't have any desire to be able to off the top of my head stream lines together in time to make them end bars. Because that's all freestyling is, is doing it in time.
I'm at a point where the ideas are coming, but which one is the right idea? I think that was the only reason why I was able to produce. I just realized that it's not about making the best beat. It's not about writing the best verse. Because when you start talking about the best, it becomes subjective. It's a lot of smoke there. I need the verse that works the best for this song. It's not subjective. It's a fact. That's what I look for, because now you're talking about classic shit. Guru has a lot of those moments in history.
You mentioned producing. How many self-produced songs have you released?
“Black Savage” is the first one. When I finished my last album, it was so personal, and I was getting to a point where it was like, I think I may have said everything that I want to say, or I'm getting close. I'm going to move on to whatever the next phase is. I think it's important when you've been around for a certain amount of time to try and wrap your brain around continuing to move forward. I'm seeing in the game right now, that seems to be a problematic area. People are afraid to grow older. They're afraid to say their real age. They're afraid to dress like adults. They're afraid to carry themselves like adults. I don't like seeing people in that space. With me, the only thing I can do is carry myself like an adult.
I was thinking about that. I was going to the studio every day. I was writing things that I felt like were cool, but it wasn't really giving me the fulfillment that I look for. So I was just like, you know what? Maybe I'm just rushing it. I started chilling. Going to the studio every day just watching TV, being on YouTube. Then one day I was talking to somebody in the room about production, and I had one of those moments where it's like, fuck it, I'm going to just go buy some shit right now. It felt so spur of the moment. It felt so right. I just went and bought up as much stuff as I could. That's how it started.
I went out on a tour overseas and I FaceTime'd Preem. We sat on FaceTime for four hours. He was just teaching me. I kept messing with it, and making a bunch of a really, really bad drum loops. Then I came back home and Denaun [Porter], who has the room next door in the same studio, came in and he was like, "What is that? You doing that already?" He started to point out things that were good about it that I didn't realize were good. I got it. Then he showed me how to use Logic, and that was it. I don't think I left my studio since I learned how to use Logic.
You're producing an album for yourself?
Yeah. But that wasn't the plan. The plan was to utilize my downtime to apply myself, keep having fun with it, try to take in as much information as possible, and acquire as many skills as possible. After I got in Slaughterhouse, I realized how into the arranging and producing side that I am. I like to see records through to fruition. So I started making a bunch of beats and practicing a lot. Then the beats just started getting better. Once they got to a point where I started to write stuff, I agreed to do an EP. I couldn't figure that out. I couldn't figure out how to make three or four songs exist together and it make sense in my mind. The only thing I could do to figure it out was to record more music. That's usually my solution to everything. The album just kind of happened to me once I knew what I wanted to say and I knew how I wanted it to sound. It started to just be fun.
Book of Ryan was autobiographical and introspective. Are you continuing to go in that direction?
I don't know. I'm not that calculated of a person. It took me there with Book of Ryan, because I got to a point in my career where I found out that I hadn't had a lot of content. I didn't even realize it. I just was rapping. I was like, "Wait a minute, I haven't done anything about myself." So I dedicated my time to doing something autobiographical. You can't do that again. You've got to nail it the first time, so if I nailed it, I nailed it. If not, you know, we move on to the next thing. I don't calculate things when it comes to the art.
Now that you’re producing, do you think differently about the producers you know?
[I have] a newfound respect for all of them. It's like getting punched in the face and then looking at boxers differently. I notice all the masterful nuances in their beats. I call all of them—Preem, Bink, Los [Carlos Broady], Mr. Porter, DJ Khalil, Green Lantern—and ask them questions. We just sit on the phone and talk.
I have to ask you about Lord Jamar. What do you think keeps him going with his jabs at Eminem, and recently now, a little bit at you?
You know, the whole podcast content space that everybody's in, that whole new wave, it brought on a lot of honesty. I don't take these things personal. The only thing I stand on is disrespect. Because up to that point, I've done nothing but respect him in everything that he's ever contributed to the culture. And I want to keep it that way. A lot of artists, they sign up to that—they both agree that they want to be negative toward each other to gain some attention. Nobody has a problem with Royce da 5'9." I haven't done anything to anybody. So you don't have a clear motive. Criticize the music all you want. But don't disrespect me. That's really my only thing.
And then Marshall has his way of looking at it. I'm always with holding people accountable. Some of the things I was saying when I defended Marshall were responses to things Jamar was saying that were inaccurate. I took that opportunity to make those corrections, but I don't take it personal.
What do you think about Vlad's role in this?
I've got an interesting take on Vlad. I think it's cool that Vlad found a way to thrive in the content world and through the culture. I respect anybody who can find a way, you know what I mean? Where I get thrown off is when you expect me to treat you like that shit is like real journalism. That's when I get mad, because now you're insulting my intelligence. Let's treat everybody like what we are. I'm going to show you respect as somebody who monetizes the misappropriation of the imaging of black people in our culture. It's cool. Own it. I'm not tripping, because I've done it to myself.
What do you mean?
I mean, I was on YouTube with a rocket launcher, bro. I can name shit I look back at, like, "Oh my God, I can't believe I look like that." But that's a part of growing up. It's all right. Nobody's going to fucking fire me. But I'm also not going to be making the same mistakes over and over again.
Coming up in Detroit, who's a rapper who absolutely blew you away, who we've never heard of?
See, that's a tough one, man. And I'm going to have a moment where it's going to sound like I'm bragging, but I'm really not. But our generation, every single person that I remember from the Hip Hop Shop eventually got a record deal. Y'all know Juan, though, right? Street Lord Juan from the Street Lord'z. The young guys you hear now from Detroit that do the street rap—Detroit street rap got popular in Detroit a generation or two before these guys. These guys grew up listening to the guys I'm talking about who were pretty much my contemporaries. Street Lord'z, Rock Bottom, [Eastside] Chedda Boyz, they created this sound that was like nothing else. And you can see by the way that the young guys now are affected by it. They grew up to it. They didn't listen to nothing else. Juan from the Street Lord'z is probably the greatest lyricist that I've ever heard who's not famous. But he's also in prison right now. When he gets out, I think there's a shot. Always.