Royce is a seven-piece hip-hop band that consists of talented locals Jamie Clemmons (JMEE), Conor Klaus (C-ROK), Justus Roe (J-Love), Ross Wall (Ross Vega$), Nicholas Spizzirri, Ben Spannaus and DJ White Lightning (Dwight Lite). They've released two albums on Galapagos4 (the only full band on the label), Subtleties of the Game (2003) and Tuff Love (2006), both of which gained overseas acclaim for the effortless blend of soul, rock, electronica and hip-hop. It's not easy to define the group's music, so we thought we'd let them explain it themselves - and explain how finding a Playboy in a back-alleyway can be an incredible source of inspiration.
How did you guys meet?
Jaime Clemmons: Royce began in high school. Justus, Conor and I were obsessed with James Brown, house music, The Meters, and Cymande; we'd hang out, listen and then eventually conspire to assemble a band based on those influences. None of us had any kind of classical music background, which ironically helped us to cultivate a lot of unique tracks. While most everyone else we knew was trying to copy the grunge sound, we were busy assembling driving, soulful, percussive epics. Justus and Ben met the first week of school at the University of Illinois thanks to the Cocktails and Blues Explosion (a New York–based punk blues trio).
Where are all you guys from originally?
Justus Roe: We're all mostly born and raised in Chicago, except Ben, who hails from Decatur. He's recently joined Royce to bring us his south central Illinois flavor.
JC: While we're all from Chicago, we all went away for college. We played together occasionally, but it wasn't until afterwards that we really started having this more focused path. We asked our friend Ross to play keys with us and his Fender Rhodes lent a new, much needed warmth to the music. Nick joined just a few years ago. Nick is our friend's younger brother; he's a freak of nature, in an X-Men kind of way. Together we all switch up instruments and continue to push and evolve, while all the while remaining friends-first and foremost.
Ben Spannaus: North Side, South Side and the super-far South Side in Decatur, Illinois.
How has Chicago played a role in the development of your sound?
BS: Peter Cetera (bass player for the band Chicago) and Terry Kath (original guitarist and founding member of the band Chicago) are two of the best bass/guitar match-ups ever.
JC: Chicago has played a vital part in who we are and how are music is crafted. There's an expression we toss around "Too much smart, not enough heart," and like Chicago it's got to have heart. Royce is many things, but mostly, it's honest and that's rare-like Chicago or like Nelson Algren jokes.
JR: We all grew up being exposed to a huge range of sounds and musical genres. This is pre-internet, pre-iWorld. We were lucky enough to have some friends with older brothers who turned us on to the best of early rap and hip-hop, along with the best of Chicago house music. Pre-CD world we all lived off of mix-tapes, by Hotmix 5, Ron Hardy, Julian Jumpin Perez, Hyperactive, DJ PNS, Kevin Beacham's Time Travel Radio Show bootlegs and Josh and Jason Grotto. This turned all of us on to collecting music in general, but definitely searching for classic rock, soul and disco records that had been sampled in early rap + house music. I basically lived at Chicago's Gramaphone Records too, collecting every rap record and decent house record I could get my hands on till the mid 90's. We also grew up in Chicago when Clark & Belmont was the Chicago epicenter of punk, new wave and industrial. We used to frequent the best all-ages juice bar, Medusas, which was definitely educational and influential on our 12 year-old minds-jumping between each floor hearing bands like Fugazi, Ministry, Naked Raygun plus all the good Wax Trax records.
Take me back to the first time you performed together.
JR: Well, we rocked the socks off of Damon Hall at St. Ignatius College Prep in late 1993, and we crushed the Stossur Fest Block Party in early 2000 during the air-show. But our best real sets came at the Galapagos 4 monthly at the old Hothouse. I believe we set the Tuesday night bar record for the Hothouse during a super-icy February in 2001.
JC: Our first real performance was at a bar that no longer exists called Thurston's. Like many firsts, it was awkward with a few regrets, mistakes, and some bruises along the way, but it was also an exhilarating experience at the same time.
You all seemed to have had successful solo careers before Royce, was it hard transitioning from solo work to collaborative?
JC: I love White Lightning's beats, he loves my solo stuff, but none of that stuff will ever be Royce. It's the Voltron principle: in our own right we're fantastic, but put us together and we're fierce; like a big, shiny robot with lasers...from Chicago.
JR: Voltron, '92 Championship Bulls, 2005 Championship White Sox, the Obama campaign team; the magic happens when the whole team comes together. Collaborating is sometimes challenging, but working as a group always brings a greater result.
Collectively, what are some of your influences?
JC: We're influenced by many music and musicians. Some of these, in no real particular order are: New Order, Cymande, The Meters, Sea & Cake, The Obey Your Brain crew, Icy Demons, Chandeliers, Michael Columbia, Michael Jackson, Vincent Gallo, Public Enemy, Aphex Twin and Sam Cook.
JR: Staying with the Chicago sports theme, personally the '85 Bears. Musically: Chicago House, Westcoast Rap, Eastcoast native tongue-like hip hop, Caetano Veloso, Os Mutantes, Talking Heads, Joy Division, Kool Keith, Jay Dilla, Captain Beefheart, Stereo Lab, Brian Wilson, The Damned, Hank Williams, Kraftwerk, Devo, Marcos Valle, Boredoms, The Bomb Squad, Bad Brains, etc.
BS: Anything and everything. Press shuffle on someone's iPod and it might be Mississippi John Hurt, Fela, Gram Parsons, E-40, The Kinks, Curtis Mayfield, Milton Nascimento, Genesis all into some Slick Rick.
Tell me a little bit about Subtleties of the Game?
JR: Subtleties of the Game was a very special time for us. It's kind of when we went beyond just making jam-type 4-track recordings and stepped up to try and make something more substantive and unique. It was the moment where we all came together and attempted to refine our sound, our playing and our recording effort. We approached the record as being extremely important for us artistically. With Galapagos4 becoming a viable independent label with distribution, we knew that the record would be able to reach a bigger audience, which made us work harder on making it the best possible recording we could do with the limited recording gear we had.
JC: Subtleties of the Game was our first release. I still enjoy listening to it; there are so many strengths, including the honesty I referenced earlier. In this album, one can really hear a lot of the early funk/prince influences. It was a learning process, one that really solidified our resolve to be better musicians. The record was well-received in Japan and it gave us some credibility at home. The second record, Tuff Love, was built on the successes and failures from Subtleties. While I think that the second record is more cohesive, stronger, the first is powerfully charming, dynamic and sounds like nothing else I've ever heard. I have a copy of the vinyl pressing we made on my wall at home. It's a trophy as much as it is ear candy.
Now there's a lot of different genres mixed into the album, yet you begin and end the album with songs that have a decided hip-hop feel. Is that what you wanted listeners to walk away with?
JC: We give the average listener more credit than most record companies. We'd like for the people of Chicago, Tokyo or Madrid to decide for themselves; there are many different genres on the album but we have one message: More heart. We wrote and recorded Tuff Love after touring Europe with our hip-hop record label. It seemed apropos to represent that while we dabble in melody, we've always been percussion-driven. The record, its diverse collection of sounds, mirrors that of our own diversity. Listening to this record is like taking the Red Line from Howard to 95th and back; eclectic, artistic, tasteful, beautiful and honest.
BS: It doesn't matter what they walk away with, as long as they're humming something from the album.
Tell me about Tuff Love.
JR: Tuff Love is our ode to Chicago and our experience growing up here. Where Subtleties was a combination of musical influences, and styles, Tuff Love was more about the raw Chicago experience. But for as much as that album comes out of growing up here, the themes and ideas in each song are things that anyone, anywhere can relate to. Tuff Love also developed out of our tours and shows with the Galapagos4 crew. I had been producing and engineering records for several artists on the Galapagos4 label and we wanted to create a collaboration that brought the live flavor of Royce to the hip-hop that the MCs from G4 were creating. We were making music and beats that we could rock to at the G4 shows, while still having the pop genre-less song flavor of Royce.
JC: Sometimes, being a city kid, you see more bad than good, more hate than love, more flash than substance, more hustlers than squares. People outside of Chicago - state-side, Europe, Japan, Brazil, etc. - think of fantasy images of Al Capone or Kanye West, but that is a misrepresentation of what we value here. Chicago is not a pinstriped suit, or a neon handkerchief tied a la Gene Autry; Chicago is family, alley sports, BBQs, baseball, bitter winters and sweltering summers, food so good you feel like slapping someone. People try to use money to erase the Chicago we grew up in and before they succeeded we wanted to make a gesture of sincere love back to the people and places so unique, so dear, so vulnerable to corporate colonialism.
BS: It's everything that happened in Chicago. It's hot. Real hot. The new album's coming out and it's even hotter.
Any spots you go to in the city to get your creative juices flowing?
BS: Backyard BBQs and anywhere with foosball.
JR: PJ's for special quarterly taste testing, Irazu's for a mango milkshake, Taste of Lebanon on Foster for some mean lentil soup, and Bob San on Division for an urchin sake shot.
JC: I like alleys. The alley behind the house I grew up in, the alley behind White Lightning's parents' place, the alley I found my first Playboy. I also like the Art Institute. Unfortunately, a lot of the places I found inspiration from are now gone.
BS: The lake, Humboldt Park, the Shape Shoppe, the roof of the Shape Shoppe, etc.
Finally, describe the sounds of Royce.
JC: Royce sounds like a stick of butter sliding across a hot griddle.
JR: The sounds of Royce are like a vast, never-ending intoxicating forest full of pop rocks.
Catch Royce February 28 at Quenchers Saloon.