Detroit, the Motor City that made a household name out of Ford and Motown, has developed a mystique for itself within the musical realm of Americana. It seems only natural that the manufacturing boom that made it the birthplace of the car industry, with hundreds of thousands of black workers from the South migrating to the North, would later influence the crisp, clean, crossover soul of Barry Gordy’s Motown Records. The industrial decline of the Midwest, more popularly known now as the Rust Belt, would also play a role in the creation of the hard-hitting, cerebral sequencer-based global force that is techno—founded by students at local Bellville High School.
To understand a cold, gritty city like Detroit helps to provide context for an artist like Guilty Simpson. Coming out of the J Dilla camp that helped reestablish the D’s place within comprehensive hip-hop ethos, Guilty has—from the get go—been recognized as an artist serious about his craft. He’s dedicated to proper presentations of his work, from an initial appearance on the Jaylib project that made his name known, to his debut Ode to the Ghetto off Stones Throw Records.
His dedication to being a disciplined voice of the cruel streets has drawn comparisons with artists like Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap—coincidentally, his inspirations—and has been duly noted by the hip-hop world in awe of his thoughtful baritone. One the cusp of releasing his new album, appropriately titled Detroit’s Son, Guilty chatted with me about the chance encounter with Dilla that put him on his path, his preference for working with one producer for each project, his views on the Drake vs. Meek Mill battle, and why it’s so important for him to remain consistent with his craft.
“I ALMOST FEEL LIKE WHEN I’M DOING MY ART, THAT’S MY WAY OF BEING SELFISH WITH WHAT INSPIRES ME.”
SENAY KENFE: We’ll start it off with one of my favorite lines—it’s how I first came to learn about you as an artist—which was, “I sit on the end of the movies and let my feet stick out,” which is how you started off with “Strapped.” [Champion Sound] was a very monumental record. Everybody had an idea of who Jaylib was as an artist; when you connected with that, that kind of brought a spotlight to the scene that was building in Detroit. How did you end up being on that record?
GUILTY SIMPSON: Um, well I used to go to this hip-hop spot right outside of Detroit called Delux Lounge. We used to go there to emcee and he was in there one night and I was actually rocking on the open mic… I literally met him, rhymed in front of him, 15 minutes later, an hour later, I knew that he wanted to work. And like 2 days later, I was over there working and “Strapped” just happened to to be one of the first joints we absolutely did together, which the first one was “Digital Delight,” which was a remix. And the second joint was “Strapped.” So yeah, that’s how I became about being on that record. I just by chance impressed on the mic, and yeah, he heard my name.
What I like about you, and what I think a lot of your fans like about you, is that you’re alive with sound and your dedication to what some people would call “street music.” It’s always aggressive beats [and] strong lyrics behind them. What makes you dedicated to the sound that you’ve consistently been bringing to the table?
Because it’s me. I really feel like it’s my art. For the fans that I have, I almost feel like when I’m doing my art, that’s my way of being selfish with what inspires me, you know what I’m saying? Everybody’s trying to push the envelope and do something so next level. I mean, that’s fine with me to an extent, but I still like to be grounded in where I work and what I hold true to my art. I like to build from the foundation and what inspires me; I just don’t really like to reach for corny stuff. One thing I do find is that, when you do find that success, you’re almost stuck trying to duplicate that success. If I overextend myself and do something that I think is corny or outside of my realm that I’m comfortable with, and I do get this success, I’m stuck being that guy. I think if I’m going to make music and make my art, I’m going to be true to who I am and where I come from and that way, if I do make it, I can be proud of the person that I made it being. I just choose not to go totally 180 for the sake of being different. If I was this unique individual, this hippy kind of spirit, then I would live that through my music. But that’s not really me, I’m not necessarily more street than the next rapper, but we grew up in Detroit and that’s what inspires me. And I don’t really feel I have to change what my inspiration came from, for the sake of trying to obtain a new crowd or be this “progressive” guy; trying to do my version of some weird music. I think I do do it with the beats, I think I experiment with the beats, but I just use those as my landscape to tell my story. That’s what makes me unique.
I think that’s important as an artist to develop that sense of self and stick with it so then, [people] know what they’re dealing with when they come to look for new material.
I want to make sure that when a listener does listen to Guilty Simpson, you kind of get the fine-toothed comb and really go through my catalog. Like, I might be recognized for one style, kind of the open mic battle type thing. But I guarantee you, when you go back through my catalog, you’ll hear—like I did a project with Apollo Brown on homelessness. I did a project with my man Eric Lau where I deal with relationship issues. I talk about police, I try to stay current with a lot of the things we go through. But for some reason or another, people like to categorize rappers at certain levels and stuff. I like to think that I touch on more subjects than the average rapper. And you know, maybe I should be judged when I’m done. I’m not saying when I’ll do that, but I like to think I touch on more subjects than I’m actually given credit for.
I don’t think you’re limited in what your range is as an artist. I was gonna ask—being a rapper in Detroit, what artists motivated you and influenced you? I know about your appreciation for Kool G Rap, but what other artists have had a big presence on you as an artist?
I always liked Scarface—I was a huge Scarface fan. Huge Ice Cube fan. I used to like his unapologetic honesty from his earlier years; not being separated, I mean I just like Ice Cube as an artist totally. Big Daddy Kane... when it comes down to Detroit, I used to love Detroit’s Most Wanted, Merciless Ameer, Awo, you know, people like that. On Kool G Rap, I really liked his pattern, his flows, the way he’s very intricate with his flows and his pockets. I think he made the biggest impression on me cadence-wise. I really appreciate his cadence, even if I don’t necessarily attempt to do that myself. So even though you already mentioned G Rap, I still gotta go back to that. I was also a huge fan of Prodigy. I used to love Prodigy a whole lot. In my early beat days, I just liked the way he would kind of break off his rhymes. He almost would disrespect the cadence sometimes when speaking his rhymes just because he had that presence on the track. But I could go on all day about admiring different emcees.
“WHEN I WAS YOUNG, THE MUSIC WAS A PRIVILEGE TO HAVE.”
What do you feel is the difference between fans of hip-hop of your time and fans of hip-hop now in 2015?
When I was young, the music was a privilege to have. I think now, with the Internet, fans are kind of entitled, so to speak. I think they understand they don’t have to support these rappers the way they used to. I mean, we used to go to record stores and buy a record and read the credits and stuff like that. Now, you can dissect the album. You almost don’t even have to engage in somebody’s whole album; you can pick three or four songs off each record and make your own mix. So I think the biggest difference is that the average fan has the whole world at the click of their fingers. When you give that much information to your fans, you leave yourself open to be judged. And when you’re open to be judged, it’s almost like, “I learned too much about those guys. I learned I don’t like them as much.”
So I think, now that we’re in this information age, that you have to be a little bit more tactful and keep in mind what you’re trying to put out here as far as yourself because you could be judged for it. Somebody could pull up something I said 3 years ago and I might not even feel like that now. But they might pull that up and run me across the post for that, even if I don’t necessarily feel like that now. Or I might still feel like that, but that’s not the point. The point is that you have a consequence for everything that you do because we’re in the information age. We came from an era where we went to the record store, we would go there, we would get it, take it home, read it, and that was all pretty much we would know about a rapper. The rest would be what we imagined how a rapper would be. And that was good enough for me back then, so now fans are entitled. I mean, rightfully so. I might not have been the same fan I was if I had that luxury back then myself. So I can’t necessarily say I was a better fan than them, they just have more at their disposal.
I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention recently to the conversations being had about Drake and Meek Mill and stuff, but, as a writer, as well as an emcee, as a lyricist—can you talk about how important it is to you, as a fan and as an artist, to know whether or not someone wrote their own material?
I mean, I see it both ways. As somebody that’s written stuff before, with a chance of ghostwriting for people and stuff like that, I can relate to that. I think the biggest issue with Drake is what he says in his raps—he makes a lot of claims that he’s the best. You can almost tell he’s driven by separating himself from the rest of the pack and saying he’s the better rapper than a lot of people. Now that’s where I would take issue with, as an emcee and a fan, so to speak. I think, when you think of certain rappers that people have written for them, I think the common denominator is: I don’t remember a lot of them saying they were the best. Like Eazy-E, I’ve never heard Eazy-E sayin’ he’s the best. Or Will Smith, or a lot of these different rappers that I’ve heard that will take on ghostwriters or co-writers or whatever you want to say.
Drake makes so much emphasis on saying he’s the best and he’s so much better than other rappers. I think that’s probably where a lot of people, more or less, take issue. Like Kendrick Lamar, he’s an incredible rapper. He’s put it out there that he feels like he’s better than everybody. That’s a huge statement to make. And I mean, you can wear that, I don’t have a problem with it. But, I’m sure he won’t let nobody write his raps. I don’t think he would do that. I would like to think that if you make claims to being the best, you should own what you’re writing. I’m not really here to judge who won or that kind of thing. But, at the same time, he does say he’s the best a whole lot.
“AS YOU KNOW, US INDEPENDENT RECORDS DON’T MAKE NO MONEY OFF RECORD SALES. I CUT MY TEETH ON THE ROAD, SHAKING HANDS AND KISSING BABIES LIKE A TRUE POLITICIAN.”
Earlier, you mentioned that… you would like to [highlight] your choice of beats and the production that you’ve chosen to rap over throughout your catalog. I’ve noticed that throughout your career you’ve had a very old-school idea of what it means to frame an album. You usually do it with a single producer. What makes you choose to do it that way?
I just hate when an album sounds everywhere—when there’s not really a groove to an album. Some people reach for certain audiences and different producers, and it sounds like a scatterbrained project. And I actually did that with Ode to the Ghetto. I don’t necessarily regret it—Ode to the Ghetto or anything about it—but if I could do something different, I would probably just stretch out these incredible producers that I had.
I kind of think the producers that I had had a lot more depth to them than contributing one beat to a project. I like to spit with a producer and kind of get an idea of where their mind is. I kind of like to really, really examine the producer’s catalog. The album I got coming out now, Detroit’s Son, we had pretty much done the album already. But when I went off to Australia for a tour, I went to [Katalyst’s] crib and he was playing beats and I’m like “Whoa, what’s that?” And like, I wrote it and we recorded a song the same day. That turned out to be the title track to my album and I added like two more songs that ended up being on my album.
So, I think once you get with those producers and you get a sound, kind of like a theme, I think it helps the writing process a little bit better—at least for me. And then, politics-wise, I just hate waiting on this beat or waiting on that beat. Chances are, if I’m working with one producer, he’s probably going to send me whatever I need musically to do my album probably within the first two or three visits with him. I just remember the frustrating process of dealing with Ode to the Ghetto, like, “I got this guy but I’m just waiting on this guy to send me a beat.”
Are you excited to tour around Detroit’s Son? What can we expect from this album?
I think it’s kind of left field; it’s definitely different. In defense of what you was talking about, about the emcees pushing the envelope and doing something different, you kind of will get something different from me. But it’s always going to be street because that’s who I am. You’re gonna hear some kind of backpack rap. Because my element, it is hip-hop. I came up on the emcee tip. I’m not some drug dealer that happened to get a rap deal. A lot of beats have a higher foundation to them, so it was still easy for me to write or be inspired by it. Definitely looking forward to touring because, as you know, us independent records don’t make no money off record sales. I cut my teeth on the road, shaking hands and kissing the babies like a true politician. I’m confident—humble—but confident, in what I do. So I’m sure that any of my fans that have rocked with me until now, I think this is right up here with anything that I’ve ever done. I definitely feel like this project is strong.
What would you describe the Detroit sound as being?
It’s not one, really. I think some people try to label it. I mean, we got a local sound, if you know what I’m saying. But I don’t really consider that the Detroit sound. I think Detroit is like a melting pot. We didn’t really inherit any of the biases of the coast. So I was able to listen to NWA and Tribe at the same time and not be judged for it. I think we were able to kind of get a little bit of everything. We really kind of have like a universal sound. But you’re from out West, I’m sure y’all local rappers have a certain sound too. Like the local-local rappers. It’s all based on the hustle though. Whatever it is, it’s gonna be based on that grind. We’re a blue collar city, we like to get our hands dirty, so regardless of if it’s Icewear Vezzo, or Guilty Simpson, or Elzhi, or Black Milk, or Phat Kat, Eastside Chedda Boyz, or Doughboyz Cashout; whoever it is, it’s going to be based on work. I don’t think Detroit really has a sound, so to speak musically, but we do have a vibe to us, when you’re around a Detroit person. I think we have a common vibe.
How is it to be an artist from a place like Detroit and still be living in the city you came up in?
I mean, it feels good. I would lie if I was saying I was never tempted to leave. But it feels good to be able to go wherever we go and come back home. I got people in my family and younger cousins that want to be involved in the music. And I don’t always want success to be equated to who was able to get enough buzz to leave. Somebody has to stay. I was thankful I was able to stay and be received in the city well and be able to travel. I have a whole other appreciation for home. I feel triumphant, man, I feel like I’m really, really a champion for the city. I do what I do and I come back. And I break bread right back at home right after I’m done.
“I DO WHAT I DO AND I COME BACK. AND I BREAK BREAD RIGHT BACK AT HOME [IN DETROIT] RIGHT AFTER I’M DONE.
I appreciate the opportunity for this interview. Is there anything you want to leave up on for the fans to hear?
I just appreciate my fans, got a lot of new music on the way. Random Acts 2 will be coming soon after this. I got a couple more things in the works I choose not to speak on; I don’t like to talk about it until it’s in stone. But yeah, to the people that rock with me, just keep listening. I got a huge musical output that’s about to be out, starting with this. It’s gonna be a chain reaction. It’s gonna be very, very happening in the scene. Words gonna be heard. Just keep listening, that’s all I can say.
How has your relationship been with Stones Throw since you’ve been signed on to them?
Oh yeah, we good man. They’re independent so it’s not like the majors, it’s not like they sign you and change your life. But what they were able to do was give me a platform for people to hear my music worldwide and they also give you a platform where, you know, once you’re not dealing with them and you do stuff outside of their realm, the fans still support you. I like their fans’ mentality. They got die-hard fans. They’re a hip-hop label man, they will put your music out. They ain’t gonna pay your rent, but they’ll put your music out. That’s all I ask. I’ll pay my own rent.
Pre-order Guilty Simpson’s Detroit’s Son on Stones Throw. Photos by Eric Coleman.