First Look Friday: ROYAL Is The Return Of King Shit + "Grey" [STREAM]
Nearly two decades after Outkast came tumbling out of the mothership wet behind the ears with cosmic slop to deliver what would arguably become their best release, ATL duo ROYAL aka mikeflo and Devon Lee assume the power stance and signal the return of king shit with their critically-acclaimed self-titled debut EP and their latest single "Grey." Back from the next dimension to plot world domination and plant the flag for the genre-bending burnt sugar of future funk, the pair boasts a collective musical history that - in spite of their recent emergence - has seen them wrecking shop for well over a decade and suggests that they could, in fact, be the latest chapter in the prolonged revenge of the iconic Star Kitty. Combining punk, soul and electronic influences with stellar musicianship and an encyclopedic knowledge of hip-hop's core elements, ROYAL rises from the ashes of Atlanta's chart-topping salad days and a tradition of revolution cemented during the Civil Rights Movement to create a new strain of resistance that pays tribute to the Revolutionary But Gangster motto coined by dead prez, eschews the industry standard of fitting into neat little boxes and flips the bird at the suggestion that they should be anything but the keepers of the crown.
Okayplayer: Let’s start with your musical beginnings. How did each of you get your respective starts in the music industry?
Devon Lee: I started rapping when I was young. Early teens and all of that. I was in a number of little Atlanta groups growing up; Proton - all kinds of outfits. It really started there. My family has always been into some sort of musical situation. My grandmother owned a bar on Auburn Avenue and my great-grandfather as well. So I was around a lot of blues musicians. I’ve been around live music pretty much forever. Now I’m a fourth generation business owner of the same blues club my family owned. I guess I decided at a young age that I was an artist and it was just a natural progression from there. It was a matter of sifting through different types of art; playing instruments, rapping, singing, producing different kinds of music. I’ve always loved music and I always felt like I had a natural gift to do it. To learn and express myself with it. So that’s how it started in a really organic sort of way. Being around music at a really young age was my thing. My family didn’t necessarily teach me how to play instruments but they were always supportive and the environment I grew up in definitely had a lot of musical influences. My father and step-father also listened to a wide array of music. That’s how I got started. Just loving it and knowing what I wanted to do.
Mikeflo: I grew up in a house full of vinyl. My mom worked in a record store and we probably had doubles of everything that was in the store. We had a lot of vinyl and I started DJing. My mom did hair in a shop and at home. When she would have clients over, I would DJ for them. She might be doing a few heads and she would say, “Put on a record.” That turned into “Okay, flip that record.” I’d flip that record and she’d be busy handling business with her friends so I began to make the decisions about what to put on next. That might go on for 6 or 7 hours sometimes. So, essentially I started DJing when I was about 8 years old. From there it grew to hip-hop in high school. By then my mom had transitioned from vinyl to CD’s, so I got all of her old vinyl and subsequently became like the youngest old school DJ available. That was also the start of my interest in production. I was always writing and things of that nature. So that was how I got my start.
DL: Also, I later had a rock band called Black Beard that played a lot in the south. We did some stuff in New York. We had an album out called Rock & Revolution. It was a three-piece rock & roll thing. I was singing and producing. When I came back to Atlanta after moving away and started getting back into the music scene, that’s what I was doing. Then, after that I started working with the funk goddess Joi. She’s a legend in her own right. I’ve known her for a long time and we eventually began to work together. I started producing music for her and we started a collective together called Hot Heavy & Bad. We released some songs. We’re actually looking to release some more songs – probably on her upcoming projects. But, I’ve been doing a lot of production work for her. She’s been a major part of my creative core.
OKP: How did you cross paths and decide to form a group?
MF: I was (and still am) DJing for dead prez. Devon and I have known each other probably 15 years as individual artists. I had been in some groups here in Atlanta also. I was just floored by Devon’s genius. His production work, guitar work and vocals. One of his solo projects called A Lovely Machine – I loved it so much that I was interested in doing whatever I could to help heighten his profile. Just to assist my friend and get behind some dope shit. Then we ended up playing around and did one song together. One song turned into five. Five turned into the self-titled ROYAL EP and then we did the #ROYALRemixes project and all of that. It was really organic. We were friends with a lot of respect for one another as musicians and it just took off from there.
OKP: Why the name ROYAL?
MF: Because it’s the resurgence of king shit. It says opulence. It says decadence. It says craftsmanship. It is us approaching what we do from a power stance. We both got our start in “underground music” and it just seems like so much of that stuff is for dead people. Like its truly buried under the ground. There is a lot of dope talent. Dope lyrics, dope beats. But it doesn’t look like anything that my 15 year-old son wants to be a part of. That we want to be a part of. It’s the look, the feel, the fabric of it that we felt were just as important as the sound. The gravity of it all is important and ROYAL seemed like the only name that was fitting for who we are and what we do.
DL: A lot of the stuff you’re hearing and seeing right now is very transparent and one-dimensional. We’re seeking to take things to another level artistically -- visually, and really connect back into what’s real and natural. It is not just about what we put together but also about the things that are perceived in our nature; strength, self determination, honesty are a major part of who are. All of those characteristics are ROYAL. It doesn’t have to be about money or power all of the time. It is important for us as artists to create something that means a lot to us and really connects back to who we are as individuals. As people, we feel like we’re royal.
OKP: What were your experiences recording the #ROYALRemixes project and your self-titled EP?
DL: The EP came first. We began one song, which turned quickly into five and then six. Once we completed that, we were reluctant to put it out immediately. Instead we sat down and decided to put together what was essentially going to be our version of a mixtape. Instead of doing newer songs, snatching folks' ideas and really leaning heavily on the piracy thing, we decided to totally remake music that has inspired us as artists. We wanted to do a project to introduce ourselves before the EP. The remix project actually came second in the creative process, but for that reason we decided to put it out first.
OKP: Can you explain how your relationship with Ropeadope Records? What was it like to prep your release with them?
MF: We got involved with Ropeadope because I am a vinyl collector – I’m a DJ – and over the years I had been buying all sorts of records off of that label. So things like King Britt’s Sylk 130, Mark De Clive-Lowe's projects and others. Mark had a show in Atlanta. I went to the show. We chopped it up and I found out that we were fans of one another. I didn’t know that he was not only a fan of deadprez, but also mikeflo. So, I asked if I could send him some music. He was down. I sent him the remixes and some early mock-ups of the EP. He liked it, but he’s a working musician. He’s got shit going on, I’ve got shit going on. Fast forward, we were ready to look at different label situations and I asked him about his relationship with the Ropeadope. He broke things down and introduced us to the owner of the label via email. He attached links to the music in that email and the rest is history. Its been great because our deal gives us creative autonomy while still allowing us to benefit from over 15 years of experience that the label has with working records that are not cookie cutter industry products. For that reason, it kind of made sense for us to end up here. We’re a part of a great roster (including Snarky Puppy, Jneiro Jarel & Christian Scott) and all parties are happy.
OKP: Given your funk, rock, electro foundation, were there any artists in those arenas that you looked to for inspiration as your recorded these projects?
DL: The EP takes us into some different chambers than those we traveled with the remix project. Electronically, I was always influenced by the ambient vibes of Bjork; she was able to bridge electronic and soul in a way that really spoke to me artistically. I’m really big into Latin music. We covered a Celia Cruz track on the remix project and for “Stranger” we kind of break into some latin flavor again. Radiohead is another band that has had a great influence from the rock and electronic scene. When you‘re trying to do something that’s not in one box you are able to reach around and pull all of those influences into one song. Or one project. There were artists we obviously look up to that we touched on with the remixes. Then there are also the greats like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, etc.
MF: To add on, from my perspective as an MC, I always wanted to do things that were really transparent and vulnerable. In my experience I’ve just found a lot of strength in vulnerability. It has become difficult over time with the RBG collective and my work with deadprez, which has made people eager to put my work into boxes. I appreciate that to a degree, but everything coming out of my mouth is not about a certain type of revolution. Revolution just means change, but often times people romanticize that term.
OKP: Have you surprised yourselves at all listening back to the music? Is it ever overwhelming?
MF: Hell yeah! Every time I listen. I have a new favorite damn near everyday. Devon can add on to this. This is as raw as it gets. This project sounds awesome sonically. We’re not recording in multi-million dollar studios, but we’ve been able to merge the organic with available technology. On any given day, either of could be in a different city or country working to make this happen. To listen back to what we worked on and think about that in hindsight –- I put it on in my car and I’m blown away. I’m a fan of our music. That’s a great feeling! I don’t recall being as excited about something that I’ve been a part of since first being stoked to work with dead prez.
DL: It is great when you’re working with someone that is as honest in the art as you are. That’s really important when you’re working to bridge the gap creatively. We’re so honest with ourselves in the moment, artistically. Because of that, the music sounds new to me when I hear it back. Its about being in the moment. We could go back and record those songs over today and they wouldn’t come out the same. We wouldn’t approach the recording process the same way. I can’t express just how good it feels as an artist to have that. I’m extremely hard on myself as an artist. I always find fault and I always want to get better. To think about things a bit better, grow as an artist and reach into different chambers. It is really crazy when you have a project that you can listen to and really feel good about what its doing in that moment and know that its an honest representation of who you are.
OKP: How have people responded to the music at shows, across the web? Have you gotten any surprising responses?
MF: I have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of people that I’ve run into that I don’t know that now – instead of associating me with dead prez – have begun to shout Devon and I out, like “Hey Royal!” I recently checked out some of the comments on iTunes and all of the remarks are 100% positive and poignant. When you are honest and infuse your music with that type of courage, people respond to that. This industry is full of so much ambiguity and plastic that people really seem to find what we’re doing to be refreshing. We’ve also been getting a lot of good feedback from our live show. The show is really energetic. People are excited to know when we’re playing again after they see us live. The EP has touched people in different ways and I’m happy to hear people’s reactions. The first single “Crash” features Philly’s own Lil’ John Roberts and we were able to get a decent share of his fans as a result of his involvement. They’ve been receiving us well. It’s been a really great experience
DL: This project is a newer project for us. We haven’t been doing this for years and years, but we’ve been working very diligently at it. It’s been great for things to be well received from the remixes project all the way to the EP. Everything has been positive.
OKP: You worked with Lil’ John (Roberts) on this project. Will he be back for other projects or performances? Any other artists you plan to work with?
DL: You know Lil’ John is from Philly but he’s been based in Atlanta for a long time. He’s been playing with me since I’ve been doing Black Beard and we have a long musical history together. It’s all about making great music and continuing to make music with the people who are badass - the same with the live show. He’s our official drummer. So, when we’re not sharing him with somebody like Janet Jackson or Stevie Wonder (laughs), he’s on the stage with us.
MF: On bass, we’ve got Mark Jefferson. All that Dungeon Family stuff that you like – that’s him. His discography is huge. The last show we did with them together was crazy.
OKP: What’s your mission for yourselves and the music as you go forward?
MF: Our mission is to remain free and self-determined and to do the music that we are inspired to do. To avoid feeling pressured by outside forces in the industry regarding which direction we choose to go or whatever. Other than that, its about visibility and reaching people in different demographics and different markets worldwide, which will give us more show opportunities and add value to our brand. To expand our fan base, geographically. We’re privileged to be making music that allows us to go out and hit with all kinds of folks, and that’s what we want to do in the immediate future. Longterm? It’s really all about branding. Continuing to make the music that we love but branding ourselves as a band – the look, the feel, etc. Taking advantage of varied opportunities and continuing to raise the bar so that we keep our fans and fellow musicians excited about what we’re doing. That’s our goal.
OKP: Where will you be rocking in the near future? What else is coming up?
MF: We’re planning a show in Atlanta at the moment for September. Its TBA at this point but we’re still working on logistics. We did two shows here. We did our own show and then the Afropunk thing here recently. We want to do something else at home. Between ourselves, publicists and the label, we want to play it smart. It’s less about hitting anywhere that there’s a stage and more about strategically deciding what we’re going to be a part of and what makes sense for us. We are accepting offers and if it makes sense, we’ll be there to play. Outside of that, “Grey” is our new single. We’re going to focus on working that.
DL: Yeah. We have the single and the video coming for that. Then we have more singles and other items coming after that. We have our own agenda for the EP that we’re working to complete.
OKP: What is your vision for the ROYAL brand?
MF: The #ROYALRemixes project is sponsored by The Brooklyn Circus and ArtComesFirst. Devon and I both have an affinity for style (not just fashion – that’s just clothes) and those are two brands that are free and self-determined that we like. From the Americana classics of TBC to some of the cutting-edge bespoke, tailored Return of the Rudeboy items from ACF. Those are personal alliances of ours. It felt really good to be able to brand together and unite with a-alikes to present the project.
DL: It’s about connecting to the global community and not just your immediate neighborhood. You can be in your particular area, but you have to look at the world as your neighborhood and develop those sorts of partnerships and branding relationships at the global level. With TBC, they’re in Brooklyn. ACF is over in Europe. Our thing is keeping our scope and movement international. We’re working with Paris-based MC Beat Assailant on some things. We’re all over. We feel we need to be connecting with each other all over the world and thriving together as a global community.
OKP: Given your relationship to the Atlanta music scene and your place in it, how does it feel to be at the fore of the next wave of important art coming out of the city?
MF: I am excited about that. We are fresh. We are new. Although we are already familiar to a host of people, what we are doing as a collective is new and no one is doing exactly what we’re doing. The tastemakers in the city know and respect what we’re doing and the new fans we acquire everyday catch on quickly to what we’re doing. With the city having historically been the epicenter of important musical and popular culture, it feels good to be some of the newest faces coming out of that situation.
DL: I agree and I can add on to that, in saying it’s about fucking time. Its about time. I’m from Atlanta and I’ve been other places. Musically, Atlanta has changed a lot. Years ago the music scene was a little more free. The past decade saw things close up and get a bit restricted again. I feel like we are returning to that freedom and stepping outside the box of just r&b or trap hip-hop or whatever and I feel good about it.
MF: Across the world people romanticize the city of Atlanta because of certain things. There are a lot of eyes and ears on Atlanta. There is no better time for a group like ROYAL to be new and fresh and I couldn’t be happier about it.