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The Layers of Ryan Montgomery: Royce da 5’9″ talks new album & the day he got sober

Edmonton, AB – Nearly four years ago, Royce da 5’9″ got sober. The Detroit MC has been in the rap game for a very long time now and is kudized for his many collaborations within the rap game; he’s a longtime affiliate of Eminem and one half of their Bad Meets Evil duo, he’s one half of the PRhyme duo with DJ Premier, he’s one quarter of the Slaughterhouse rap crew. He’s a rapper’s-favourite-rapper kind of artist. And now that he’s sober, his whole outlook on life and artistry has changed.

Layers is Royce’s first solo release as a sober MC, following his 2014-released collaborative PRhyme album with DJ Premier. Layers is one of Royce’s most thorough bodies of work so far as it tells both the historical and emotional backstory of Ryan Montgomery (aka: Royce da 5’9″). The 17 track albums spans Royce’s come-up in the rap game, as well as his sobriety, his spirituality, his marital problems and reconciliation, his political views, his analysis of the modern day rap game, and more.

Royce came through Edmonton’s Union Hall on May 6 to perform a show as part of his Layers Tour. The tour’s previous show in Calgary had packed the venue so we were anticipating a similar turn out in Edmonton. But very few people came to the Edmonton show that night. Throughout the evening, Royce candidly spoke on his new-found sobriety (by encouraging the crowd to drink is lieu of him being unable to do so), while delving into more serious issues like the current ongoing Fort McMurray fires in Alberta as well as the water crisis in Royce’s home state of Michigan.

And HipHopCanada was fortunate enough to catch up with Royce just before he hit the stage that night.

Royce da 5'9 to perform in Edmonton on Layers Tour -
Photo by Sarah Jay

Royce told us about his path to sobriety, including how his doctor actually gave him a prescription for liquor in an attempt to wean Royce off the booze. Eventually Royce ended up linking with Eminem’s doctor and went through detox in the hospital. Now he sees a therapist and attends 12 Step meetings to maintain his sobriety. He’ll be celebrating four years of sobriety this upcoming September.

We also chatted about Royce’s children and how he’s warned them of their own genetic predisposition to addiction. Royce also talked about some of the collaborations on Layers, and admitted that he considers Rick Ross to be one of the most underrated lyricists in the rap game right now.

Q&A: Royce da 5’9″

Royce da 5'9 to perform in Edmonton on Layers Tour -
Photo by Rosa Jason

I’m proud of my addictive personality now because I’m not using it for evil no more.
-Royce da 5’9″

HipHopCanada: My name is Sarah Jay. I’m sitting here today with Royce da 5’9″ in Edmonton, Alberta on his Layers Tour. Welcome to Edmonton.

Royce da 5’9″: Thank you. Thank you for having me. And for coming here with all the pretty girls.

HipHopCanada: I got you. So let’s get right into your album. You opted to use your real name on this album – Ryan Montgomery. What was the significance behind doing that?

Royce da 5’9″: I said my real name on other albums. But I felt like this with this album in particular, I got to try to get rid of the layer that separates Ryan Montgomery – the person – versus Royce Da 5’9″ the artist. I didn’t really want to have that alter ego for this album. I wanted people to see me as the person.; me coming across as the family man that I am, and really just being as introspective as possible. And just being as natural and as comfortable as possible. A lot of times, just saying “Ryan Montgomery” just felt more natural in the studio. But it wasn’t like any type of ploy or anything or any type of plan. It just kind of came about naturally. And I think that’s really what I like most about my album is how organic and natural everything feels.

HipHopCanada: I think when people talk about your Layers a lot of people talk about your affiliation to PRhyme, and Slaughterhouse, and all that. But I felt this was much more about your historical layers and your emotional layers. So could you break down all those layers for me.

Royce da 5’9″: I mean it’s been a long journey for me. Creatively I’ve been in a lot of different groups… a lot of different groups: Slaughterhouse, Bad Meets Evil, – like you said – PRhyme… Now I’m just kind of like combining all of these things. But like you said it’s also been a very deep, emotional journey for me, as well. I decided to stop drinking almost four years ago. That impacted my creativity, my life, everything. And I just kind of wanted to bring all of that across.

HipHopCanada: Speaking of your sobriety – I found it really interesting that you waited until you were four years sober to release an album like this. So why did you wait that long into your sobriety?

Royce da 5’9″: Well that first thing I wanted to do – the whole plan, right? – was to just reintroduce myself. Because when you stop drinking and you drink like I did, you become a whole new person. You feel like you’re a whole new person. So the first thing I wanted to do was reintroduce myself – not just to my fans – but just anybody who was willing to listen. So PRhyme was the first project that I did and that was a reintroduction of sorts because I took it all the way back to how I first fell in love with hip-hop; which was at the Ebony Showcase open mic night. And it was just all about beats and rhymes – that’s all it was. So that’s basically what we did with that whole album: beats, rhymes, scratches. I took it back to the essence of me as a lyricist. And then now we just happened a little bit more into my personal views, my family situation, personal things that are going on with me, political views; anything that’s involved in things swimming around in my head these days. Because now I’m forced to deal with all of my issues in real time. Anything. Like, whereas before I was used to just kind of drinking to get away from not really having to deal with it: “I’ll get to that whenever I decide to put the bottle down for a second!” Now I don’t have a bottle to run to so everything I’m dealing with in real time. It could be just a small argument with my wife – you know what I’m saying? I got to deal with it right at that moment … WELL ACTUALLY I don’t have to deal with that in the moment. I can wait for that. But you know what I’m saying.

HipHopCanada: So what’s been the biggest misconception about being a sober MC in the rap game?

Royce da 5’9″: I think the biggest misconception of which is actually the elephant in the room – is that you need [alcohol] in order to be creative. You absolutely do not. You don’t. But you can teach yourself that you need it. You can trick your brain into thinking you do need it if you do it so much in repetition. It’s almost like… I equate it to training a dog. You want to train a dog to use the bathroom, you get him to use the bathroom in the same spot over and over again until it becomes like a trigger. Then eventually when they have to use it, they’re trained to just go… either go in a certain spot or go outside. With me, I used to get up in the morning and when I’d leave out the house and go to the studio, the first thing I’d think about is stopping at the liquor store. It became part of my ritual to creating, you know? It’s the same with everything: weed, whatever you do, whatever your poison is. My new one is Tic Tacs. [holds box of Tic Tacs in front of the camera]. Actually. No. You can blur that out.

HipHopCanada: [Laughing] So you have an addictive personality.

Royce da 5’9″: Absolutely. I’m proud of my addictive personality now because I’m not using it for evil no more.

HipHopCanada: How do you use an addictive personality for good?

Royce da 5’9″: Well I’m giving Monster Energy Drink a lot of business. I love Monster Energy Drink. Very delicious.

HipHopCanada: I heard about that. You got on to the 5 Hour energy drinks. And now you’re on to the Monster.

Royce da 5’9″: I did have a little bit too much so I kind of had to chill it out for a little bit. But I’m just kind of wired that way – from the way that I eat foods, chewing gum… I actually get addicted to being in the studio now. I go into the studio and stay in there for days because I’m just addicted to the process now.

HipHopCanada: Throughout the album you talk about how you were genetically predisposed to being an addict based on your uncle and your father. I was wondering what conversations you’ve had with your own children about addictions and their possible predisposition to it.

Royce da 5’9″: I was pretty much forced to talk to my son. My son is 18 now. It wasn’t one conversation; it’s constant dialogue all the time about it. Especially since I feel like this particular generation – the younger generation today – they’re just a little bit worse than we were. We were pretty bad at that age. But they’re just a little bit worse because they’re reckless. When we came up, it was kind of like the drug dealer was glorified in hip-hop. Now the drug user is more glorified than I’ve ever seen before. So it’s making really really normal kids… (and you know – the hip-hop culture is pretty much the culture – period)… it’s making really really normal kids become junkies. That’s one of my biggest fears as a parent. So I constantly talk to my son all the time about it. And I just let him know. And I tell him the same way… I keep it funky with him. Like my dad told me: “You’re not going to be able to do these things the same way that some of your friends might be able to just because you’re automatically wired a certain way. Because of your lineage. You come from a long line of alcoholics, drug addicts… A long line. All throughout the family.” It sounds like that all the time.

HipHopCanada: On the opening song “Tabernacle” you talk about that day – THAT DAY – December 29. 1997. There’s a line in that song that you repeat in “Pray” and that’s: “God giveth/ And God taketh away.” So I wanted you to explain to me what that means to you – personally – and how you still see that playing out in your life today.

Royce da 5’9″: I equate it all to the universe. There’s a certain balance. It’s just like the term “You can’t have it all,” right? So everything’s not going to go perfect – just like that particular day. I lost my granny but I got my first son – the first child who I will forever hold up on a pedestal. Because he’s pretty much responsible; him coming here made me take everything seriously. I didn’t take things seriously before him. But also just following all the signs. That was the first time that actually saying – “God giveth/ And God taketh away”- impacted me in a way where it resonated with me. It wasn’t just words that people were saying – it actually affected something in my day that I’ve never forgotten for the rest of my life. I lost my granny and I gained a son – all in the same day. Same hospital. Same turn of events. Crazy.

HipHopCanada: When’s the last time you’ve seen that play out for you… like today? How did God giveth and taketh away today?

Royce da 5’9″: I don’t know if he did today. But if I figure that out, I’m ‘a definitely write a song about it.

HipHopCanada: [Laughing] So December 29 – that was a big day for you. I know in sobriety another day that’s really important is your sobriety birthday. So I was wondering if you’d be willing to talk on that and to tell me about what led you to your rock bottom and what made you decide to get sober.

Royce da 5’9″: Mine [sobriety birthday] is September 12, 2012. I woke up – and I call it a “spiritual awakening” – I just woke up one day and I decided that I was fed up. Now I’m not one of those alcoholics who was in denial. I went many years knowing that I needed to stop drinking so much.

HipHopCanada: So you got step one covered…

Royce da 5’9″: Yeah. No. But it was like years… like, “Damn! I’m too good at this!” You know what I’m saying? It was like I was too good at drinking. Like I would be sitting here talking to you just like this after drinking like a whole fifth of Patron Silver. We could have just a conversation just like this. We’d be just chilling and you wouldn’t even really know that I’m drunk. You know what I’m saying? I was kind of looking at everything. And everything bad that was happening somehow led to too much drinking. Every mistake; everything that was going wrong. And it was a rock bottom. But it was one of those rock bottoms that is camouflaged with success because I was very successful at the time in terms of status in music. I had the #1 record…

HipHopCanada: You have that now too …on the Billboards.

Royce da 5’9″: Yeah. But I had the #1 song in the world at that time – “Lighters.” I had that song at that time so from the outside looking in, everything looked like it was going really really well. But just on the inside of everything – as far as my relationship with my kids and my wife, and everything going on at home – everything from a personal standpoint was just in disarray. I’m real big on having a kind of peace of mind where I know when I’m done making music, I can walk away with everything intact. I would walk away and turn around and there’d be all of this debris and shit; like this tornado that I created for myself … And I got no wife, no kids, no nothing – I’m just like… I don’t know… Scrooge McDuck, in piles of money with no nothing. You know what I mean? To me, that’s probably the worst place you can be as a human being. I kind of saw a pattern of that that’s where I was going. So I felt like if I didn’t hurry up and make a decision or act fast, I was going to be to the point of no repair.

HipHopCanada: So what’d that decision involve for you?

Royce da 5’9″: I made some calls. I called my dad. I called my mother. I called Marshall [Mathers (aka: Eminem)]. He was the one who really helped me because I went back home, I checked into a hospital… And it actually wasn’t the first time I went to the hospital. I actually went to my own doctor and told him that I wanted to stop drinking. He prescribed me liquor… to wean my body off of it. He was like, “How much you think you’re drinking a day?” I’m like, “Um. Probably a litre! Probably a litre of tequila daily.” And he was like, “Really?!?! Wow!” Like… he was impressed. You know what I’m saying? So he prescribed me… I had to drink a fifth. He wrote down how much he wanted me to drink a day. And it was like, drink a fifth this day… then only drink a pint this day… and then drink half of that this day…

HipHopCanada: So like… temper yourself down?

Royce da 5’9″: Yeah. Like, wean myself off of it. And that was the prescription. He actually wrote it out in very bad doctor handwriting and handed it to me. I didn’t take it to the pharmacy. I just took it to the liquor store – “I need to buy THIS stuff to get healthy!” Needless to say, that didn’t work. So the next time I went to see a doctor was Marshall’s doctor. And they hooked me up to IVs…

HipHopCanada: So you went through detox.

Royce da 5’9″: Yeah. Standard detox – just monitor me while I sleep to make sure I don’t succumb to the whole alcohol withdrawal thing. And after I got out of there I was fine. I was fine. Never had a drink since, and I’ve been seeing a therapist. And I just have my mind made up that this is something I was going to do.

HipHopCanada: Now I know within 12 Step programs, there’s the sponsor and the sponsee relationships. Have you had experiences with that – mentoring anybody, helping anybody get sober? Maybe within the rap game, even.

Royce da 5’9″: Not in the rap game – not in the rap game. There is a few friends that called me, and I helped them out. A couple people I connected with my therapist; they seeing each other. I always try and help when I can. I definitely got a few friends that I feel like may need help. But that’s like… that’s shaky territory. I’m real big on minding my business. You just hope that those friends come to you one day in the future. ‘Cause Marshall kind of did the same thing to me. He knew I had a problem for a while. And he told me one day in the studio – we were sitting there having a regular conversation like this and he was just like, “Hey! You know if you ever feel like you got a problem you can call me, right?” And it was just like out of nowhere. I was like “… okay? Alright. Cool.” You know what I mean? And it kind of stuck with me. I was like, “Damn! What’d he mean by that?” It wasn’t like I went to him and was like, “Yo! I got a problem!” He took it upon himself to just throw it out there and let me know – “Just in case you feel like you got a problem, you know you can always call me.” So that was probably two or so months before I actually called him. I kind of take the same stance. That’s really the only pattern I have to follow. I kind of take that same stance. I kind of keep my distance. And if anybody calls me and tells me that they think they may have a problem (I’ve gotten that call from a lot of people; a lot of my friends), then I do what I can to help them.

HipHopCanada: One thing I know is in 12 Step programs there’s the higher power. And I noticed throughout the album [Layers] there was a lot of spiritual focus. But at the same time, that’s contrasted by … you do have a bit of a God complex. So I was wondering about that.

Royce da 5’9″: What do you mean – “God complex?”

HipHopCanada: Well didn’t you release that song… What was it – “Nickel God,” “God Nickel.”

Akino (Royce Da 5’9″‘s tour manager): “Beast Mode!”

Royce da 5’9″: Oh yeah. When I say that it’s just… I don’t have a god complex. It’s just… when I say that, it’s just kind of [intended] lyrically. Us MCs – like when I was telling you about the Ebony Showcase when I first fell in love with the creative process. We made a name off of rapping with other rappers. So you can reach “God” level lyricism, and it’s just like a metaphor for being really good at rapping – just the art of rapping. So “Beast Mode” was just a song about a rapper rapping. That’s why I put Logic on there – ‘cause that’s another rapper’s rapper. So when we got on there it was just like… the focus was just to rap as good as we thought we could at that time. I’m not a god. That’s me in lyricist role. But nah. I wouldn’t call it a God complex.

HipHopCanada: Okay. I’m glad we cleared that up. On the album you linked with Rick Ross and Pusha T. And I thought it was really interesting with Pusha T because you guys collaborated way way back in the day. And you’ve both almost had this artistic rebirth – I’d say – where you’re both at very different places then you were when you last collaborated. What was that like for you guys?

Royce da 5’9″: Well it was something that I really wanted to see happen because I noticed that same growth and development in Pusha that you noticed. It was almost like he took on a whole new form. That comes from studying the game, and just that constant willingness to just get better. And I really admire Push because he’s always been like… super dope. But he went from really really really super good to great in a short period of time. One of my goals was I wanted to work with Push, but I wanted to work with the new improved Push. You know what I mean?

HipHopCanada: He’d probably say the same thing about you…

Royce da 5’9″: Yeah. I hope so, I hope so. And then with Ross – I’ve always been a fan of Ross. And there’s something about underrated artists – just in general – that I’m drawn to. And I always thought that he was an underrated lyricist. I don’t think he’s underrated as an artist; I think he’s underrated as a lyricist. I don’t think he gets the props that he should get as a lyricist. A lot of things that he does – a lot of very technical lyrical things that he does – he hides it in the swag… He hides it in the swag, right? He does like radio commercial kind of things but then he hides it; he hides the lyricism in it where you don’t know that he’s doing it. That’s so ill to me – you know what I mean? So that’s why I f**k with Ross.

HipHopCanada: Word. Well I guess we’re coming to the end of our time here. Any last thoughts or words you’d like to share before we wrap?

Royce da 5’9″: No thoughts! Thank you for the love and support! Peace!

Interview conducted by Sarah Jay for HipHopCanada

Twitter: @RoyceDa59

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Sarah Jay

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Sarah Jay is based in Calgary and works as a freelance journalist and photographer. Sarah is also a former A&R talent scout for the Universal Music Scouting Program, and runs a vintage store during the day. Sarah has juried the JUNO Awards, The Polaris Music Prize, and The Prism Prize. She has been fortunate enough to interview and photograph some of hip-hop's greatest influencers including Future, ScHoolboy Q, Ghostface Killah, Moka Only, Maestro Fresh Wes, Shad, Joey Bada$$, Mac Miller, and more. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @ThisIsSarahJay

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