hese days, Detroit rappers are enjoying more spotlight than ever. Their musical approaches are completely different from each other, but there have never been this many Detroit emcees with global attention at once. Eminem is still the biggest rapper in the world, Big Sean’s clout has expanded to the point where he can bring stars like Drake and Lil Wayne to give surprise appearances at his homecoming concerts, Dej Loaf has transformed a viral hit into a viable career and Danny Brown is one of indie rap’s most critically acclaimed, sought-after performers. It doesn’t have the reputation of New York City or LA, but the city is slowly making a name for itself.
But the artists on the upcoming Kings Court tour were around when Detroit rap made even less of a blip on the radar. A crew of Detroit’s best rap vets-Slum Village, Black Milk, Guilty Simpson, Phat Kat and Blaq RoyalT (formerly Young RJ)- has joined forces and is currently hitting more than 20 locations in the United States, including a Detroit stop at Majestic Theatre on April 17.
For many, Detroit’s rap scene starts with James “J Dilla” Yancey, the production luminary and rapper who grew up on the city’s east side. He and Phat Kat had formed 1st Down, the first Detroit rap group to sign with a major label. They’d only release one single before the label folded. But Dilla continued to work with Phat Kat and later founded Slum Village-the first act that many people think of when they hear “Detroit hip-hop”-with rappers T3 and Baatin.
T3 remembers Slum building a loyal fan base of about 200 in the mid-’90s, premiering or performing their songs at Detroit rap hubs like The Hip Hop Shop and Saint Andrew’s every week. But most record labels were based in New York and Los Angeles, which were established as the genre’s hot spots. Slum Village struggled for the record deal they finally signed and, when they landed their first U.S. tour with A Tribe Called Quest, representing home was an uphill battle.
“First time we did a show and yelled ‘Detroit,’ we almost got booed. There wasn’t no love for the D like that when we were coming out,” T3 tells BLAC. “We were just trying to get out there, really.”
The group eventually established itself as underground elite with their seminal album Fantastic, Vol. 2. But by the album’s release in 2000, Dilla had built a reputation as one of hip-hop’s most promising young producers. He was crafting sounds for everyone from Common and The Pharcyde to De La Soul and Janet Jackson, and he left the group to pursue a solo career.
Dilla’s impact on Detroit’s rap scene continued after he left, though. He mentored Black Milk and Young RJ, two up-and-coming producers who would work with Slum Village after Dilla’s exit. Black Milk got in first, contributing to Vol. 2 follow-up Trinity (Past, Present and Future). He and Young RJ formed a group called B.R. Gunna that produced compilation records for Slum Village before handling the bulk of Detroit Deli, the 2004 album that had the group’s first commercially successful song, “Selfish”-featuring a young Kanye West.
Dilla introduced rap fans to the gutter street rhymes of Guilty Simpson on “Strapped,” a song from his Champion Sound album with Madlib. And in 2004, Phat Kat released The Undeniable LP, which Dilla produced a portion of.
Dilla was living in Los Angeles when he died in 2006 from a rare blood disease and complications from lupus. But not before he’d helped establish careers for lots of promising Detroit rappers and producers.
After Dilla’s death, his collaborators and protégés continued his and Detroit hip-hop’s legacy. Black Milk was up first, kicking off a successful solo career with 2007 album Popular Demand. He’d already been crowned as Dilla’s heir because of their similarities-soulful production that had been used by city staples and national acts alike and an in-the-pocket flow. Demand delivered, showcasing Dilla’s favorites-Phat Kat, Guilty Simpson and Slum Village-and hitting stores March 13, in homage to Detroit’s 313 area code. As Black said on the album’s single “Sound the Alarm”: “Detroit in the muhfuckin’ building.”
The floodgates opened in 2008, one of the best years ever in Detroit rap. Black Milk continued to prove his status with a tour de force of four releases, the most important being Tronic, adding electronic elements to his repertoire. He also made beats for Pharoahe Monch, GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan and others. Royce da 5’9″ self-released The Bar Exam 2, the second installment of the mixtape series credited with reviving his career after a DUI landed him in prison. Guilty Simpson released his critically acclaimed debut Ode to the Ghetto with Stones Throw Records; Invincible’s Shapeshifters set the tone for a career defined by a symbiotic relationship between activism and music; Danny Brown’s Hot Soup served as an underground launch pad before he became an indie superstar; Elzhi released debut The Preface; and artists outside of city borders, like Ann Arbor’s Buff1 and Pontiac’s One Be Lo, also made blistering new records.
Slum Village went through multiple membership changes in the decade after Dilla left. Detroit rhyme slinger Elzhi joined first, his first album being Trinity. But Baatin, suffering mental illness issues, left during the recording of Detroit Deli. T3 and Elzhi maintained Slum Village as a duo for a self-titled album in 2005, and Dilla’s brother Illa J joined later on, but Elzhi left in before the release of their album Villa Manifesto, citing contract issues.
These days, each of the acts on The King’s Court tour has its own successful careers. Black Milk has become one of the most respected names in independent hip-hop: He has more than a dozen solo and group releases, including a collaboration with Jack White of The White Stripes fame. He and his band Nat Turner, releasing The Rebellion Sessions April 4, have developed a reputation as one of the best live shows around. Guilty Simpson consistently garners critical acclaim as a member of Random Axe and for his solo albums with indie powerhouse Stones Throw. He released Detroit’s Son last year. Phat Kat, whose last album was in 2007, still tours solo. And Slum Village, now T3 and Young RJ, still tours worldwide, performing Dilla-era classics and new music alike.
Each act has toured with each other at one time or another, but this is the first time all appear on the same bill. Most have new records to perform: Slum Village dropped an album in 2015 called Yes! and Guilty collaborated with producer Katalyst on Detroit’s Son-plus there’s Black Milk’s Rebellion. They’ve each had times with bigger individual buzz, but Guilty Simpson is happy that The King’s Court is happening now.
“Each individual artist could do an hour set of their music. We all have a substantial catalog where we can rock out, and I don’t think the show would have a huge drop-off at any point,” Guilty says. “If we would have had the tour when I came out, or when Black came out, it would’ve been dope idea-wise. But execution-wise, I would’ve only been able to rap for about 15 minutes.”
Detroit hip-hop has enjoyed a strong reputation overseas for years. But its underground voice could still use a boost back home-both the U.S. and the city itself. T3 and RJ say Slum Village gets consistent crowds because they’ve had bigger songs, but other artists have to keep building inroads to new fans. Still, Detroit artists know what that grind is like; may as well “bring the family together,” as RJ says, and do it as a team.
“We all go overseas at least once or twice a year, sometimes three times a year. To go everywhere and get all that love, then come back to the D and, for some artists, struggle to get 100 people there, it just shows the love isn’t really there like it should be,” T3 says. “It’s great that we all came up together at the same time. It feels good to show the foundation that we’ve built as Detroit guys.”
William E. Ketchum III is a Michigan-based writer and former editor of MichiganHipHop whose work has appeared in HipHopDX, MTV and more. You can follow him on Twitter @WEKetchum.