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“FROM HOT SIXTEENS’ TO MULTIPLE STREAMS”

Interview with Rhyme Majesty, Jay Royale

BY HAIKEEM STOKES

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This exquisitely sunny, yet crisp mid-morning finds me traveling the scenic route from the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection to Charm City for an interview with ferocious lyricist, Jay Royale. The similarities between Philadelphia and Baltimore neighborhoods are truly uncanny to say the least. Areas of east and west Baltimore City strongly resemble south and north Philadelphia, which may be the reason Baltimore felt like home to me from my very first visit too many moons ago.

Hip hop is somewhat the same in many instances, whereas it’s vastly the same yet different from the days of my early adolescence, but it contains the same context and relevance. Most songs are heavily criticized by the older generation, and there’s a rebellious tone to most pieces, and style/culture is dictated according to the artist. But no matter what label is attached to rap music or drastic measures come with its evolution, there’s always some familiar element within hip hop that attracts us to it.

The Young King and I are meeting for brunch at Miss Shirley’s Café, which is nestled in the city’s Roland Park section. Upon arrival, Jay Royale’s brilliant smile greets me at the door as if to say, Welcome to Baltimore, the greatest city in America. As we exchange pleasantries, we proceed inside and are lead to our table. I order a Maryland omelet, and he gets a garden omelet.

After a few sips of cranberry juice, I ask, “Where were you born?”

Jay Royale sips his ice water then responds, “I hail from East Baltimore. I grew up around East Belvedere Avenue, a block hidden behind Eastern Parkway; for all intents and purposes, they consider that more or less Northeast Baltimore. We also lived on Swartz Avenue. I consider that area to be my essence because it taught me how to navigate through life. One of the earliest lessons I learned was to keep your mouth shut and yours eyes open.”

“How was it growing up in Baltimore?”

After consuming a fork full of his garden omelet, he wipes his mouth then responds, “It was exceptional. My city has always been the same, whereas it pulls no punches, and for this, I love it dearly. Being an 80’s baby, I grew up in a time of discovery. Rap was getting radio airplay, music videos were becoming popular, and video game systems were coming out. There were BMX bikes, remote-controlled cars, and very active imaginations. If the water plug was on, we’d race Popsicle sticks down the gutter. Or, if your best friend didn’t have a bike, you’d let him stand on the pegs of your wheels so you two could ride out. I love the era that I came up in. It was a phenomenal time in history for so many reasons, and I got to live it firsthand.

“What’s your most fond memory of that particular period as it pertains to rap?”

“Being downtown on Baltimore Street around a place called Crazy John’s for those legendary cyphers! Friday nights were like the Mecca of everything, meaning your gear had to be fresh, originality was a must, and your rhymes had to be impeccable. At that time, only the most talented cats congregated there. It seemed like once the Job Corps buses unloaded there and the last dude from around the way pulled up, it was on! What amazed me the most was when I saw the gangsters, hustlers, and players getting down, too. I would’ve never figured that was in their repertoire, but apparently it was. Many thanks to this older brother name Rasheed, who felt my rhymes and pushed me to step into the cypher my first time, which is what made me believe I could rock with the best. Also, O-Goon for holding me down for the first time in studio sessions and shows. And last but certainly not least, Dirt Platoon for showing me love and letting me see that Baltimore brothers can make an impact worldwide.” 

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 “Considering I’m an 80’s baby, the cats that wowed me around the time that I was getting on are AZ, Nas, Sean Price, Big Pun, and Ghostface Killah. I do have to give honorable mention to Big L because he was incredible. Those dudes said things that people are still trying to figure out to this day. I think those individuals were serious about their craft.”

“What is the very first rhyme that caught your ears?”

To my surprise, Jay Royale replies, “To be perfectly honest, the first rap that I paid attention to as a child was Run DMC’s, “Christmas In Hollis.” I forget the name of the show, but it was an annual special on television, and when they performed, that did it for me. The way they rocked on the mic and had control over the crowd was incredible to me. It wasn’t so much what they said, but how they delivered it. Seeing that as a kid made me believe I could do that, too, because they looked like cats I saw around the way. I believe that hip hop’s relatable for that reason. I also remember rocking out to basically any rap that was in a movie at the time. Most rappers back then became huge by having their song on a movie’s soundtrack; if they appeared in the movie, then their popularity became global at the time. Cats claim that they didn’t listen to this rapper or that rapper, but you didn’t have much choice but to rock with them because their songs were everywhere.”

“How did your particular style come to be?”

“Just from studying myself and wanting to present the best production of me to the masses. I didn’t strive to be the second coming of this one or a duplicate of that one; the goal has always been to be the best Jay Royale I can be. In saying that, I do strongly believe in paying homage to those who came before me, but I gotta be me.”

“What motivates your style?”

“When I want to write or have ideas, I’ll hop on a cross-town bus and bang something crazy in my earbuds then zone out. By the end of the ride, I usually have a masterpiece all created by the world outside my window.”

“How did you and Ill Conscious meet, and did you all ever think of becoming a duo?”

“One time, I went to a citywide rap contest just to observe fellow Baltimore MC’s, and Ill actually won that night. Afterwards, I approached him just to congratulate the brother, and he said he knew who I was and that he liked my style, too. From there, we just connected. We respected how each other was moving and supported one another accordingly from then on. We’re unofficially a duo called The Tutelage.”   

After taking an intermission to devour the rest of our vittles, we continued this session with the question,

“For the sake of argument, who are your top 5 lyrical MC’s?”

 “Considering I’m an 80’s baby, the cats that wowed me around the time that I was getting on are AZ, Nas, Sean Price, Big Pun, and Ghostface Killah. I do have to give honorable mention to Big L because he was incredible. Those dudes said things that people are still trying to figure out to this day. I think those individuals were serious about their craft.”

 

 

“Give the world a peek into The Baltimore Housing Project and The Ivory Stoop.”

Brother Royale flashes his gold fronts then offers,

“I’m very proud of the work I put into both of these efforts. The Ivory Stoop was up first, which is a metaphor for hip hop itself. Like ivory stoops back in the day were status symbols more or less, whereas you exhibited great pride in yours. People would wash it down every week and properly maintain theirs, but eventually the next generation or two just took it as a thing and didn’t treat it special. Each song is like a movie so to speak.

When you listen to it, just sit back, close your eyes, and it will literally take you on a lyrical tour throughout the heart of Baltimore. Now, The Baltimore Housing Project is a play on words as well; it give folks a perspective of something more. It also gives you a bird’s eye view of what is seen for better or for worse in the gritty city that’s not always so pretty, yet at times it is.”

“How did you come about working with Griselda?”

“Me and my squad went to a show and casually approached them afterwards, and after busting it up for a long while, we agreed to do multiple projects. Real definitely recognized real on that chance meeting, and those brothers kept it a hundred with us. No matter how large their movement becomes, they still show mad love, and we respect them for that and all of the jewels they dropped to help keep our movement strong.”

“How did the From Baltimore, With Love Tour come about?”

“That was a brainstorm of the brother Greenspan. That was actually his baby, and he brought me and Ill Conscious along after he and I had a few conversations. Everything happened just that fast. We only got to do Philly on that tour before Ill was called to tour in Europe for a few weeks, and the opportunity came up for me to begin The Ivory Stoop. Now that I have two solid solo efforts under my belt, I’d love to do another tour when the world permits.”

“Finish this sentence: if it wasn’t for rap…”

“I would probably be in prison or lost somewhere in the world. Hip hop was a saving grace for me. It allowed me to become focused on something positive and let me see that there was something real in the world beyond all the negativity.”

“What does Baltimore mean to you?”

“It’s not what it is to me, but what I am to Baltimore. I love everything about it and hate everything about it simultaneously. Sometimes, I want to divorce it, and sometimes, I want to remarry it. Baltimore is absolutely everything to me, and I’m everything to it.”

“What do you like least about the rap business?”

“Disloyalty, bad business, and when folks aren’t straight up. I don’t know how you can live with yourself knowing you stifled someone’s creativity. Most folks become so disenchanted due to the trickery of this ‘business’ that their effort never sees the light of day, and that’s sad. There’s enough money out here for all of us, and you shouldn’t have to accept the pennies they throw at you. All I ask is to be paid what I’m worth.”

 

“What advice would you give a young inspiring lyricist trying to get into the game?”

“Don’t go backwards, keep applying pressure. Never dumb down your bars—whichever way you swerve your pen, let it ride. Never be afraid to be yourself, and don’t let anyone change your mind. Keep your pen game strong and read as much quality literature as possible. Eat right and stay healthy.”

Follow @JayRoyale on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Bandcamp

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—  Name, Title

MARCH 2021

Life, Down Stage Center

The Esteemed Playwright, Derrell Lawrence
Of the Derrell Lawrence Theatre Company

Stage and theater are like a high wire act without a safety net. One must be a theatrical daredevil who performs fetes beyond belief. There are no second takes and no do-overs. The audience sees all of your flaws and accomplishments. You can’t cheat what is true and authentic. As a thespian, you have to get it right the first time and make it seem as real as life itself.


Winters wind makes its dramatic entrance this afternoon as I stroll to Warmdaddy’s Restaurant and Bar at Front & Reed Streets in majestic South Philadelphia to conduct this interview. Upon arrival, I’m ushered to the rooftop dining area where there’s a gracious amount of heating lamps, with the bouncing sounds of vintage jazz playing in the background. This should be very entertaining.

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The man of the hour arrives promptly, so we exchange pleasantries then are seated. After ordering a sample of appetizers and tasty beverages, I immediately jump into our interview with, “For those who have never met you, who exactly is Derrell Lawrence?”


Mr. Lawrence smiles brightly, then clears his throat as he replies, “That’s such a loaded question because I’ve positively progressed as a person over the years. As a man, I’ve developed chameleon-like traits in order to adapt to any situation or circumstance easily. I am a very determined individual who lets nothing stand in my way on the road to success. “


“So in saying that, how would you describe the adolescent Derrell?”
“For lack of a better phrase, I was very mischievous. Much like other inner-city youth growing up in urban areas, I was into every and anything when I was younger. Somethings good, most times bad, but thankfully I survived and was able to learn from and correct my wrongs.”

After soaking the answer in, I continued with, “What initially made you decide to become a playwright?”
Mr. Lawrence wrings his hands together while pausing briefly. “The murder of my older sister. That event was extremely stressful for me, and I needed a release to combat the pain and anguish of losing her. It was then that a close friend suggested that I begin writing down exactly how I felt since I refused to speak to anyone about it. Much time passed, and after this trusted friend took a look at the writings, they encouraged me to put together a play. So, I guess, in essence, my dear sister inspired me to take a chance and pursue my dream finally. This is why all of my plays are based upon reality. If it becomes a success, so be it, but my main concern is that the patron feels what is happening on stage and leaves knowing that I put my all into each production. I work hard to create plays that will linger in an audience member’s mind.”


“Do you have any regrets about the business thus far?”
Without hesitation, Mr. Lawrence responds, “Not at all. Everything happens for a reason. Accomplishments and even the major setbacks are all part of the process to make a person greater. So I take it all as it comes.”


“You actually showcased a full-length feature film as your introduction to the business. How did that come about?”
“I challenged myself to put that project together then did so. When I debuted it at a film festival in Miami, one of the organizers was so intrigued by the actual story that they suggested I do a play so that the audience could grasp the full concept. And the rest is history.”

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“How long have you been in the business?”
“I’ve actually been in the business for 17 years, but I feel as though I hit my stride approximately ten years ago. That’s when I began to understand so many things about this monster and how to tame it.”


“To date, how many plays have you written?”
“So far, there are six: Life Is Fair, The Funeral, Do You Trust Your Best Friend, I Love You To Death, 3 O.G’s, and Custody. I also have two plays that I’m currently in the process of writing. One of which is a musical set in the 20’s & 30’s entitled, Speakeasy. The other one doesn’t have a working title yet but is moving along steadily and will be ready for the world in the near future.”


“Do you have a favorite playwright or director?”
“August Wilson, without a doubt. As far as director’s, I’m torn between Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese for sure.”


“Due to your sports history, do you have any ambitions on doing any action movies?”
“I am willing to do anything that doesn’t damage my image or soil my integrity as a writer or performer.”


“Describe the feeling that you had after your very first production was completed.”
“The first thing I completed was a movie. It brought about a great overwhelming feeling of emotions due to the subject matter. However, immediately afterward, I couldn’t believe that I had just completed a movie. The first play that I performed bombed so badly that I was extremely embarrassed, but by no way was I deterred. Honestly, it may have fueled the fire to always be the best at whatever I do.”

“Would you like to write for television?”
“I consider myself to be a writer. Therefore, I have the ability to create on all platforms. I most definitely have the confidence and look forward to writing something for television sometime soon.”


“What do you do to deter writer's block?”
“I used to walk away from the table and do something totally different to let my mind breathe, so to speak. Now, I’ve learned to take my time and continue writing until something creative comes. I just keep the pen moving until it starts sounding right again.”


“How do you decompress from a highly emotional scene?”
“There’s a person who will bring me back by stating my real name and continue the last conversation that we shared to help me break character.”


“Which play would you suggest a person see first, that is new to The Derrell Lawrence Theatre Company?”
“Honestly, any of my plays will persuade you to want to see my entire collection. If I absolutely have to choose one, it would be, “Do You Trust Your Best Friend” because of its humor and adaptable storyline.”


“When exactly was your theatre company established?”
“The exact date is May 2018, and our mission is to reach those who are dealing with all forms of abuse. We wish to give a voice to those who need it the most and offer them help. I am proud of the people that my company helps and represents.”

   
“What jewels would you like to drop into the mind of a young inspiring playwright?”
“To never be defeated and always remain eager to learn new methods. Pay attention and never be afraid to ask questions. Try to stay in the company of great people and never try to cheat the craft. Always trust your heart and keep an open mind. Keep the Creator first.”

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