How's the situation down there in Baltimore? Are you maneuvering differently in terms of planning, making and delivering music during the pandemic?
The city's slowin' down. I'm not in the streets as much as I used to be, but watching the city grieve and seeing it at a halt, is an eye opener. It really turned on the hustle and it put things in full perspective. The hustle that's in my heart grinds for times like this, because it doesn't have to be a dope performance and a merch table in order for me to get my product off. Me, the studio, my man Sos (Ray Sosa) or whoever I'm lockin' in with on the beat—I'm sorta like MacGyver; I gotta create a way with these things, you know what I'm sayin'. I'm glad that the streets are taking to what it is that I do.
Let's start from the very beginning—Can you talk about your roots in East Baltimore?
My father is from South Carolina. He moved to New York and made his way around NY at a fast pace with a pool stick—that was his hustle and how he got fast money. My mothers side of the family is from Baltimore. My mother was a beautician; she did hair, and my grandmother sewed and made clothes. My father was the suave ladies man, so my mother had to outsmart him to get that father out of him, you know what I'm sayin'. My father was more active in the streets than he was on the home front. So, when my mom needed him to be where he needed to be, she had to swindle him. My mom was a real slick chick because she had to out-slick a slick talker—she had to be that much more keen with the tongue, you know what I mean. She was a real clever woman.
We used to read comics and she would make me figure out where the pun was. I learned how to read between the lines, thanks to my mom. There was The Boondocks and there was a comic strip called Curtis, and we would read those comic strips every Sunday. Every comic strip would have little punchlines in there, and my mom didn't give it away; she made me figure it out. I always held on to that. The conversation and the dialogue in these comic strips created my personality.
Take me back to your introduction to music. What are some of your earliest music-related memories?
My pop, you know, he was a smooth southern cat that had his run in New York and in Baltimore, so a lot of Ray Charles—a lot of it was blues. My mom and pops' particular taste in music was dope! There was a song called Soldier Boy by The Shirelles that was one of my moms favourite songs, and a memory of ours. Sam Cooke, he was another one that my mother liked a lot. These artists are battling demons in real life, and are people who have a story behind their music endeavors. The music that I take part in is very truthful, too. You gotta be truthful, you gotta be real transparent, and the music that I deal with comes from the heart.
You're well aware of the trials and tribulations of the hip hop listener. Comin' up, I listened to MC Hammer—I grew up to Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em. Run DMC looked like the guys that was outside of my house. To go outside and see cats in the street and then come home and see dudes on the TV, and they looked alike, I was like, "Oh shit!." That was crazy, you know what I mean. I didn't have to take sides because the same cats I looked up to in the real world, I could look up to musically. The words rhymed and you had these cats on stage, and you had a crowd that was goin' crazy, and I'm like, "Yo, I wanna be that, I wanna control a crowd! I want motherfuckers to love me for looking cool and saying some slick shit." How do I obtain that? How do I become popular, how do I say the right shit, how do I wear the clothes right, to gravitate toward people? I intertwine that with my personality, so if I'm not rhyming, I'm trying to make you laugh or engage in some dope conversation.
When I was a kid my friends and I would trade tapes and CDs, and there were a few record stores around the way where we'd get music. Those spots are pretty much all gone now, except for one little record shop that's been around since 1958. I have so many great memories of being in those stores and looking through music. When you were a kid, where were you getting your music? Take me down memory lane.
The hip hop that turned me on the most was so hard to find because it wasn't the commercialized music that everybody was pushin'. When I finally got hip to the mom and pop stores in Baltimore—there was a place called The Sound Garden and you could go in there and you were able to pick up a CD, and tell them that you wanted to listen to it. It was a beautiful thing. Judging something by its cover—it might not be that great of a product and you don't wanna rob yourself of the little bit of money that you got, by purchasing something that was wack! Being able to sit in these mom and pop stores and listen to the music before purchasing it, was a very dope thing. I was a CD collector and I still have my CD collection. I carried my big ass CD player in my back pocket and those headphones that wrapped around your head from behind—those were the shit. I would have probably six CDs, rubber banded up into one CD case, just so I could have my music for the day, you know what I'm sayin'.
I used to record Rap City hosted by Joe Clair. Joe Clair would do east coast rap and Big Lez would do west coast rap. With all due respect, I would record Joe Clair. [laughs] One night it'd be Joe Clair and the next night it'd be Big Lez. I knew which nights that I had to prepare myself for Joe Clair; and he did the likes of Bootcamp Clik, Killarmy, Wu-Tang and all of the east coast legends. Now, don't get it twisted, I was aware of west coast hip hop and I liked Mack 10 and WC. There was also a show called Strictly Hip Hop that was on Friday nights from 12-5. It was all hip hop and I would take my tape and record that on my tape deck.
Like I said, there was a place called The Sound Garden and a place called The Wall and we would go in there and try to steal everything that we could. I remember my first time being introduced to Big L - Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous. I was with my friend and we went in there and I had to get Kool G Rap's - 4, 5, 6. We made outta there with both of 'em. Something about that Big L—the punchlines were witty and the music was fresh and it was more vibrant, ya know.
"I feel that if your art can create barbershop talk, it did its job."
What's your connection to K-Mack?
K-Mack is my big brother, man! I have a mixtape called The Decline and it dropped probably three or four years prior to The Ivory Stoop, and K-Mack is actually on there. It's a song called Ahaa, and we're just laughing at wack MCs and the hook was like, "I heard you got robbed for a pack, tryta get that shit back, you got slapped, Aaahhhaaaa!" I still run into K Mack a lot. Me and K-Mack are brothas, man. You ask him about me and he'll say, "Ya, that's the big homie," and I say the same thing. He's the OG! His catalogue runs deep, bro! He's one of the cats that used to run Baltimore hip hop. Being accepted by dudes like him, meant a lot to me. I can't take anything away from his success or what he's done for the culture. He's definitely paved the way, man. Shout out to K-Mack; I love him to death.
I heard about you through Vinnie Paz. He shared a pic of the cover of The Baltimore Housing Project on IG awhile ago, and that image really intrigued me. What's the story about Episode 11 taking that photo? Did you give him any direction on what you were looking for or did he know what was up?
I take my artwork very serious. My artwork on the cover of The Ivory Stoop was real profound, and the story that wraps around the artwork to these projects tell a story within themselves. In the picture on the cover of The Baltimore Housing Project— you're on the inside lookin' out, and you have a beautiful city, but the perspective comes with baggage. It's a beautiful city on the other side of that bullet hole, you know what I mean. It's a conversation piece and everybody who I talked to about that piece had a different perspective of what they're looking at. You got the hood nigga that says, "Yo, that shit look hard," and then you got somebody sayin', "Well, why did you use an image like that?" Everybody has their own perception of what they're lookin' at. I feel that if your art can create barbershop talk, it did its job.
Shout out to Vinnie Paz, man. That's the big bro! We got new music comin'.
Where was that photo taken?
The Ivory Stoop dropped 2 years ago, and when I listen to it, it feels like a gem I somehow missed in the 90s. How do you feel about that album 2 years later?
I love it! There were so many emotions, and so many arguments with my team about it. (during production) I think that is more near and dear to my heart than anything. Putting it together, seeing the verses and the cuts come together, and different people who I worked with—sharing that, I will never forget. These are the assets that make box sets come together, you know what I'm sayin. It'll be years from now and I might be able to do a box set and give people linear notes. I didn't have a babysitter, so I had my son in my arms while recording in the studio. His mom had to work and shit had to be done! I love that album because that was my first attempt at dropping a professional LP.
Let's talk about Vintage Garments for a minute. First of all, the production by JSoul is fucking BANANAS on that joint! That is one of my favourite tracks of yours. What garments was a young Jay Royale rocking in the 90's?
We talkin' Timberland hiking boots, Columbia rain slickers, first down bubble coats, a lotta fatigues, a lotta Timbs, a lotta locs, a lotta Nautica and the Tommy shit was crazy. Anything with the logos, you know what I'm sayin'. Here in Baltimore, you wanted the people to know you were wearing the label, but you didn't want to be too loud with the shit. You remember when west coast hip hop ran the world? That's when we were doin' khakis with the 3" chukkas—the black chukkas, and the flannels. We were doin' Rockports—the beef 'n broccoli Rockports. The way the boot fit with some jeans was just insane! At that point in time, all jeans was mainly boot cut, you know what I mean. You had the 40 Belows, the super Timbs is what we called 'em. You had the super Timbs, you had your Timbs, you had your Rockports, you know what I'm sayin, you had your chukkas. And the way that your jeans would hit over top of some of 'em—sometimes you had to take your jeans and tie them into your shoe strings, so you could see the full effect of the shoe, ya know what I mean! [laughs] You didn't want the jeans to rob your shoe of what you was rockin' that day, so you had to tie the motherfuckas in... a lotta Polo sweaters, you know, a lot of Eddie Bauer—Eddie Bauer was crazy. You had your RP55 shit. I had my run with it all. The Nautica shit was real slick too, man. At one point in time they switched their logo up. Nautica and Tommy were under the same umbrella as far as style—it was just the logos that you was dealin' with. If you had something that just had Nautica across it, that's all you needed; that shit was fire, you know what I'm sayin'! You had your shirt with the stripes, some of them were thick, and all you needed was that boat. If you had that Nautica boat on there or the slick coats that had Nautica down the sleeve, that shit was crazy... that shit was crazy, man!
If you could bring one garment back from the dead, which one would it be?
I wanna say the Iceberg History sweaters bro—I really miss them. Iceberg had the thick knitted sweaters with one Looney Tunes character on there. You'd have a Looney Tune on there like Bugs Bunny or Daphne Duck, but the placing was real obscure, and it made it look very fuckin' slick—classy. Those sweaters showed that you had money, you know what I mean. Jay-Z was wearin' 'em in The Streets Is Watching. He startin' blarin' out all the clothing he was wearin'. He had the Iceberg sweater on, he had Tommy sweaters on in there. If I could bring anything back it'd probably be those Iceberg History sweaters.
You brought back some good memories on Yo! It's the Kicks the other night, talkin' about LA Techs and Jordan 6s. Those Jordans came out in '91 and they were like $200 CAD, if I'm not mistaken.
Let that sink in bro! Think of the value of $200 in 1991. To see them on the TV commercials was really fuckin' cool, but to actually see those in the hood... the tongue was different with the two squares in 'em! The kid on the block that had those probably stole 'em from their big brother. It was like being star struck; it was just some shit!
I've got a 5 year old son and I can only try to instill some of this shit into him. It's not what it was. It wasn't video games for us; we actually went outside. Atari was cool as shit, but it didn't make me wanna sit in the fuckin' house all day. I wanted to get outside, I wanted to play with yoyos, I wanted to throw a boomerang in the air just to see if that shit would really come back. We had a dope childhood, bro! We had the best hip hop, we had the best Saturday morning cartoons, and we had the best toys.
You're featured on Ill Bill's new album, La Bella Medusa, on the track Dinner Plate, along with Lord Goat, Recognize Ali and of the course, the Cult Leader himself—how did you and Bill hook up?
Funny! We were on IG talking about vintage gear, and discussing sneaker plugs and where to get hard to find apparel.
Now, you're no stranger to putting out cassettes, and I'm all about tapes, man! My grandmother bought me Dr. Dre - The Chronic on tape in ‘92 when it came out. I also had Nuthin' But a G Thang dubbed on VHS. Can you recall what your very first cassette was?
The first tape my mother bought me was Das EFX and then it was an NWA joint, and there was a song called, "She Swallowed It." My mother saw the name of that song and she ripped that shit up in my face. Everybody wanted a party that looked like the shit that was going on in the Nuthin' But A G Thang video. [laughs]
Before the grimy hip hop shit even entered my world, there was the MC Hammer shit. MC Hammer was the rapper's rapper, until he got wack and we outgrew it. At the time, Vanilla Ice was runnin' shit with the music and he had that hit out, and I didn't know it was wack at the time. I'm a fuckin' kid; that shit was cool to me! Not only that, he's in the Ninja Turtles movie rapping—fuckin' Vanilla Ice rappin' with the Ninja Turtles! I went and bought the Ninja Turtle soundtrack. It was called Turtle Power.
With the cassette shit, we can start with MC Hammer and Vanilla fuckin' Ice. As I got older it was Das EFX and Uncle Luke. Shit, lemme tell the truth, Uncle Luke and Sir Mix-a-Lot—I didn't even cop that shit for the music; I wanted to look inside the tape covers to see the naked bitches. [laughs] That's how they were sellin' their shit! This is when Uncle Luke went to the Supreme Court for the freedom of speech shit.
"I was gonna drop the Ooowop single and from there we was gonna drop The Baltimore Housing Project, and then my freedom was taken away."
There's no question that you're a sought after emcee. I know the story about how you and Vinnie Paz hooked up, but I'd love to know how you and the legendary Buckwild got together on his latest project - Music Is My Religion.
The Baltimore Housing Project wasn't even put out yet, and from what I was told, it was a coupla guys in a vehicle who were taking a trip to Boston, and The Baltimore Housing Project got popped in. Buckwild, being the cool humble guy that he is, says, "Yo, who is that?" I think they were going from Jerz to Boston or something. Then Buckwild was hittin' me up in my inbox, and he said, "I'm fuckin' with you bro, and I'm about to drop something. Do you think you wanna participate?" I said, "Fuck ya!" He sent me a pack, and I wasn't sure if that was the pack I wanted to fuck with, and I was like, "Send me one more." He sent me another one, and was like, "Look, I'm about to drop!" I didn't waste no time. Did you see the fuckin' people that were on that album?! That's hip hop elite right now.
Can you speak on your incarceration about a year ago?
We were looking forward to releasing Ooowop, and out of nowhere everybody's looking for me—"Where the fuck is Jay Royale at?" I was in that bitch and I didn't know what the outcome was gonna be. There was one dude; his name's Ogun and he was my engineer, and was the only person I could trust. I called him and I said, "Yo, you gotta get me outta here." I think I had like $2,000 to my name, so I took that and put that shit into a lawyers pocket.
I was just in that bitch playin' the waiting game, and writin' every rhyme that I could. It's crazy how fast life can change—you can lose everything today or tomorrow, you know what I'm saying'. You can't tell a judge, "Your honour, I can't be here, I have to go pick up my mother tomorrow and take her to the doctor." You can't tell 'em that. They don't give a fuck about you. At that moment, I had so much goin' on—I was finishing up The Housing Project. Everything in my heart and mind was set. I was gonna drop the Ooowop single and from there we was gonna drop The Baltimore Housing Project, and then my freedom was taken away. I was in there and I was like, "I gotta get my hands on a pen and some paper." I needed to focus on writin' and focus on gettin' the fuck outta there, and that's what I did.
As a kid, I coulda done any amount of time, 'cause I had shit to lose, but as an adult, I got my own apartment, I have a job, a vehicle, I have family that count on me and they just kept postponing my court date, bro! I had some charges prior and they kept on bringin' up my past, of course, 'cause that's what they do. It was just a fucked up situation. I'm not gonna lie, hip hop saved my life, man. Some people rely on bibles, but I just kept on writin' these rhymes. When I came home, the first verse that I laid was for Daniel Son, called Chasing Ghosts. Daniel was probably thinkin', "Damn, it takes this nigga three months to write a fuckin' verse."[laughs]
They dropped Ooowop, but it didn't do what we wanted it to do, but I was in jail, so I couldn't promote how I wanted to. It fucked everything up, but I'm sittin' outside talkin' to you right now, so let that sink in!
Check out Jay Royale on Bandcamp:
Landyn McIntosh | Published: November. 26, 2020