Turmoil behind him, Royce da 5'9" finds his slice of Heaven

The veteran Detroit rhymer has a positive attitude, a new respect and is in a better place than he's ever been

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

For Royce da 5’9”, heaven is peace of mind.

On a recent Saturday, the Detroit rapper is relaxing inside the main control room at Heaven Studios, the sanctuary he’s found inside an industrial neighborhood in Birmingham. It has become his home away from home, where he’s able to come and work for days on end without being bothered or otherwise harassed.

“I equate success to peace,” Royce says, and by that measure, he’s never been more successful. He’s achieved a steady calm in his personal life that has spilled over into his career, his stage presence and even his delivery. At 42, and with 20 years in the rap game behind him, he’s embraced his elder statesman status, and has taken on a mentor role to younger generations. And he’s still discovering and refining new aspects of his art, as evidenced in his latest album, “The Allegory.”

'Royce da 5'9" poses in his recording studio.

Royce recently toasted “The Allegory” with two nights of events in Detroit, performing an album release party at midtown’s Garden Theater and hosting a private dinner party at the Shinola Hotel the following night. “It’s easy work,” he told the group of about 80 friends, family members and associates at the Shinola, calling the semi-formal soiree “just another day at the office.”

Things weren’t always as rosy for Royce, who pulled himself out of personal and professional hell to be able to see the sunshine. He’s experienced success, failure, hits, misses, courtrooms and jail cells to now be able to kick up his sock-clad feet behind his studio console and breathe easy.   

“Peace of mind and freedom, if I can have those two things, I’m fine,” says Royce, dressed casually in track pants and a T-shirt, the studio TV in the background locked on BET Jams. “I don’t need anything else other than that.”

Finding Heaven

Inside Heaven Studios, Royce is at ease amid the controlled chaos of the building; his 13-year-old son Aiden is inside of the rooms playing “Sonic the Hedgehog” and his little brother Al is in another room working on music.

Hallways are lined with plaques and portraits of Royce and Eminem, his close confidant and sometimes partner-in-rhyme. Pairs of sneakers are scattered throughout the various rooms, a Green Glow pair of Air Jordan IVs here, a pair of Sean Wotherspoon Air Max 97s over there. Motivational quotes hang on the walls of the main enclave — “Nobody cares about your excuses,” “Out work everybody. Period.” — along with posters and images of figures such as Bob Marley, Don Corleone and Pablo Escobar. Monster Energy Drink signage and product is plentiful. 

Rapper and songwriter Royce da 5'9", Ryan Montgomery, in concert at the Garden Theater in Detroit.

“As soon as I walked in this place and started looking around, I was like man, this looks like heaven,” says Royce who, along with his friend and fellow Detroit rapper and beatmaker Denaun Porter, moved into the building around three years ago. “And I was like, ‘Why don’t we call it Heaven?’ And the name just stuck.”

The positivity of the Heaven workspace is reflected in Royce’s demeanor, says Royce’s brother Marcus, who raps as Kid Vishis.

“He’s as clear as ever, and he’s got the best energy that I’ve ever seen him with,” says Vishis. “Ever since he locked in on sobriety, the turn he’s taken has been a consistent path, and he’s been getting more and more in tune with the man he’s always wanted to become. It’s a beautiful thing to see.”

It’s a marked transformation for Royce, who was born Ryan Montgomery in July 1977 and raised on Detroit’s west side.

Rapper and songwriter Royce da 5'9", Ryan Montgomery, paces the stage while performing at the Garden Theater in Detroit.

He began rapping as a high schooler in Oak Park and he tasted success early when at 22 he traded verses with Eminem on “Bad Meets Evil,” a track on Em’s 1999 major label debut album “The Slim Shady LP.” Em later brought him on as a writer during the sessions for Dr. Dre’s “2001” album, and Royce penned the album’s Mary J. Blige-featuring closing track, “The Message.”

He made his solo debut in 2002 with “Rock City,” but Detroit in-fighting, including a spat with Eminem’s D12 crew, nearly derailed his career, not to mention his life. His 2004 album “Death is Certain” found him spiraling into darkness; a third DUI conviction sent him to prison for a year in 2006.

Then he straightened up and started pulling himself out of his hole. He flooded in the internet with free mixtapes and linked up with fellow rhymers Joe Budden, Crooked I and Joell Ortiz and formed the supergroup Slaughterhouse In 2009.

A full length collaboration with Eminem, “Hell: The Sequel” followed in 2011, and Royce got sober in 2012, at age 35.

Rapper and songwriter Royce da 5'9", Ryan Montgomery,  jokes around with his daughter Lyric Montgomery, 11 in a backstage dressing room with his wife Artegia Montgomery and friends and family before his set.

That’s when things really started to shift, he says.

“Over the last 8 years, my perspective and the way I see things has changed a lot,” says Royce, who has five children with his wife, Artegia, and lives in Farmington. “I got sober and I began to build my platform at a time in my career and at an age that I’m not supposed to be able to do.”

He collaborated with legendary New York hip-hop producer DJ Premier on the album “PRhyme” in 2014, and released his deeply personal, autobiographical “The Book of Ryan” in 2018. The latter work garnered him the best reviews of his career.

Defying the system

The new album, his eighth studio set, was cooked up at Heaven and entirely self-produced by Royce. He taught himself production after learning the basics from DJ Premier over Facetime, “then I went down a rabbit hole,” he says. (Royce is prone to what he calls “rabbit hole behavior”; he once cooked every recipe from a Patti LaBelle cookbook during one such tumble.)

Production became an obsession, days turned to weeks, and when he came up for air he found he had enough songs for a full album. (He also produced two songs for Eminem’s “Music to Be Murdered By,” including first single “Darkness,” which flips a sample of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.”)

Lyrical inspiration came from reading Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” the Greek philosopher’s study of education and its correlation to nature, which became another rabbit hole.

“I felt like I just wanted to start challenging things,” says Royce, and those things included everything from popular views on vaccines — which has ruffled feathers in some corners of the internet in recent weeks — and the very notion of what makes a hit record.

He had a big one, or what seemed like a big one at the time, with “Lighters” in 2011.

The track, recorded with Eminem and with a chorus featuring pop sensation Bruno Mars, reached No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. It was omnipresent the summer it was released, “and I made a whole bunch of money off it in the beginning,” he says, but in the years since it has been all but wiped from the cultural landscape.

“You’re not going to hear it again,” says Royce, who considers the song outside of his wheelhouse, or what he calls a “reach” record. “What I’ve learned in my journeys is nobody likes ‘reach’ records. Like, it exists for a period of time, and then goes away. When that happens, that’s not good for your brand.”

He compares “Lighters” to “Boom,” a song from his debut album. “'Lighters' is my most successful radio song that I've ever done, and I don't perform that song live. They don’t ask me to perform it. But I can’t do a show without doing 'Boom,'" he says. "'Boom' is my most important song. So when I go in the studio, I should be thinking about making ‘Boom’ before I think about making ‘Lighters.’”

A quick study

Heaven Studios is designed to make more “Booms” — like a casino, there’s no windows and no clocks. “I could never punch a clock,” says Royce, lifting both hands to scratch his face, a nervous tic. “I never understood that. Because what you’re doing is you’re basically giving yourself a window to come up with a classic. That’s not how classics are made. Quincy Jones never said to Michael Jackson, ‘Michael, you’ve got to make ‘Thriller’ between 6 and 9 today.”

He likes to pull up to the studio around 11 p.m., tinker with beats for a few hours, and find his creative head space. “I don’t even think about cutting vocals until maybe two in the morning,” he says. Sessions can go on for days; he has a shower, outfit changes and everything he needs to live his life inside the studio. 

Working on “The Allegory,” which premiered at No. 58 on Billboard’s Top 200 albums chart, he took his time perfecting tracks; “Overcomer,” built on a sample of “Lost Love” by '70s Chicago soul group the Lintons, took more than a month to complete.

Porter, Royce’s partner at Heaven Studios, helped Royce learn the ABCs of production, and says his apprentice was a fast learner.

“He just needed to learn the basics, and once he got those down, I was ready to reel him in,” Porter says. He now looks at Royce as a little brother coming into his own on the basketball court. “Watching him learn, it was like, ‘I can’t wait til you get to college so we can ball!’” he says.

Porter has known Royce for 20 years and says he’s never seen him more confident and more comfortable in his own skin. “As an artist, he knows exactly who he is and what he wants to do,” Porter says.  

Royce da 5'9" expresses with an English D on the back of his left hand.

As a producer, Royce says he’s “dying” to work with other artists and to continue to grow, and producing an album for someone else — "where I don't have to do no rapping," he says — is a dream. Royce and Porter see Heaven as a place where they can school young artists and take them under their wings.

In the meantime Royce's plate is full; he just finished an extensive press run for the new album, and he launches an 18-date tour next month that wraps May 20th at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor.

Royce knows he’s currently in a good spot, especially compared with where he's been and what he's experienced before. And he doesn't take it for granted.    

Royce da 5'9" smiles during a documentary shoot.

"I have something to weigh it against," he says. “I like being able to drive to the studio with no gun. There’s no girls calling my phone being demanding of my time. Nobody’s calling me names, saying they’re going to kill me. I’ve experienced all these things. I’ve lived my life like that. And I didn’t like it.”    

For Royce, peace of mind didn’t come cheap. But now, he's finding it priceless.