Happy 10th Anniversary to Guilty Simpson’s debut album Ode to the Ghetto, originally released March 25, 2008.
Byron “Guilty” Simpson is one of the best emcees to come along in the last 15 years. His deep gravelly baritone and commanding delivery gives him a distinctive and powerful vocal presence. He can throw lyrical blows with the best of them and has become known for his forceful battle rhymes. However, he also maintains a penchant for storytelling and is quietly adept at waxing philosophical on life and love.
Ode to the Ghetto, released a decade ago, was Simpson’s commanding opening statement. A gritty dedication to his native stomping grounds of Detroit, it showcases his versatility as an emcee over beats created by some of the Motor City and Los Angeles’ best producers. It was released on Stones Throw Records, the label led by Peanut Butter Wolf, which released some of the best and most creative hip-hop of the ’00s. It’s an excellent album that still resonates in the current climate.
Simpson made his entrance into the realm of hip-hop under the tutelage of two Detroit-based mentors. The first was Denaun Porter, a.k.a. Kon Artis, of Eminem’s crew D12, a rapper, singer and well-respected producer who showed Simpson the ropes. Porter would sometimes take Simpson with him to Los Angeles when he’d work with Dr. Dre. Simpson’s second mentor was the legendary James “J Dilla” Yancey. Simpson’s first appearance on a major release was “Strapped” from Champion Sound (2003), the J Dilla and Madlib collaborative project known as Jaylib.
Some of Ode to the Ghetto’s best tracks are handled by each of the production wizards. Mr. Porter worked behind the boards for “Getting Bitches,” which features Simpson at his most rugged, and “Kinda Live,” which features him at his most vulnerable. “I Must Love You,” an excellent exploration of complicated relationship dynamics, is the sole Dilla production on the album.
Dilla’s presence looms large over Ode to the Ghetto, however. In Simpson’s ideal world, the album would have been produced entirely by Dilla, or at least split between Dilla and Mr. Porter. But Mr. Yancey passed in 2006 due to cardiac arrest, knocking Simpson for a serious loop. Not only had he lost a close friend, but he was also unsure how to proceed with recording the album.
Dilla’s death led to Simpson enlisting a roster of different producers to work with, the varied production still resulting in an outstanding album. Besides fellow Detroit residents like Black Milk and Konnie Ross, Simpson travelled to Los Angeles to work with DJ Babu, Ohno, and the aforementioned Madlib.
Madlib’s chaotic, swirling tracks provide an ideal soundscape for Simpson to cover a myriad of topics. “She Won’t Stay at Home” describes a souring relationship and “Pigs” tackles police brutality. On “The Future,” Simpson teams with M.E.D. to spit more rough and rugged shit. He envisions himself as “Mayweather with a MAC in his drawers” and shouts out Ronnie Brewer, his cousin and former NBA shooting guard who played for the Utah Jazz and a few other squads.
Ode to the Ghetto set the table for future projects that Simpson would undertake. He teamed with Madlib to release OJ Simpson in 2010. Recording his debut album also connected Simpson with the late great Sean Price, who blessed him with a verse on the Black Milk-produced “Run.” The three would team up to form Random Axe, inspired by Simpson’s opening line on “Run.” They would go on to release a self-titled album in 2012. The album also honors Simpson’s past, as he teams up with the Almighty Dreadnautz, the group he first started recording music with, on an album-closing track of the same name.
I recently spoke with Simpson about the process of recording his debut album, his experiences working with J Dilla, the impact of Dilla’s passing on his then nascent career, and why, while he enjoys Ode to the Ghetto, he’d never record another like it again.
Jesse Ducker: So looking back, how do you feel about Ode to the Ghetto on its 10th anniversary?
Guilty Simpson: It’s significant because it’s my first contribution worldwide. That will always be special for me to hit the 10-year mark and for me to still be active in the game. That shows that I was able to sustain a level of longevity. It was definitely a learning experience with everything that was going on. Dilla recently passed before that, so this is really just me jumping into deep water myself, without really knowing a lot. More like a learning experience for me. Something I had to go through to get to where I am.
JD: What was the recording process like? Had you been recording songs with the purpose of them being for your debut album?
GS: Well, a few songs that were on the album were songs that I had started working on already. I brought a couple of songs to the table. I was excited about the deal, but it hadn’t really hit me how much different I felt like if Dilla was there. I was still kind of in the mourning process. Not to make an excuse for the album, because I like the album and still listen to it. To look at an album and say, “It’s going to be done this way,” and then for the person working on the album with you to pass, and being such an important part of the process, it was really like the bottom fell out of a paper bag, so to speak. I kind of had to pick up the pieces and get going. I was excited, but now that I have the wisdom that I have, the process of creating that album is totally what I’m against now: getting the beats with this producer, that producer, and trying to patch together an album. If you follow my career, you would see that’s totally different than how I am now.
JD: How much was Dilla going to be involved in the album’s production when you were first planning this album?
GS: To keep it real, me, Dilla and Mr. Porter were planning on working on something within ourselves as far as a trio. I am on record saying Dilla was probably producing the whole first album. He hadn’t gotten that far deep into it to realize if that was going to be 100% for sure, but Mr. Porter was also instrumental in what me and Dilla were doing. He was also in communication, he was going to be present in production with a lot of stuff that we were doing. But I think in the first album, especially with it being with Stones Throw, and not an independent venture, I think Dilla would’ve produced the whole album.
That lets you know how different stuff would’ve been if Dilla wouldn’t have passed. On Ode to the Ghetto, the project we were really working on would’ve been my first album with Stones Throw, exclusively produced by Dilla. That just gives you an idea of what could’ve been. I don’t live with regret. I’m just dealing with the facts of what and how I would’ve went. Me knowing Dilla and me knowing myself, I know in my heart that would have happened, but it didn’t happen.
JD: How did you see Ode to the Ghetto coming together as you recorded it?
GS: If I’m in an open mic performance, I’m pretty much rapping one kind of way. “I’m the best rapper. Nobody is as good as me….” It was important to me, with Ode to the Ghetto, to give people an introduction to my personality, to kind of steer away from the open mic style of rapping, and to put together songs. I wanted to show people the range of my thoughts. Whether it’s “American Dream” or “Kinda Live,” different things like that. I just wanted people to understand that I have more depth, as opposed to just rapping metaphors a lot of times. I think that was the most important thing.
In hindsight, I would’ve liked to pass my beats exclusively to a producer. You can see through my career the way that I’m most comfortable working, I would have tried to do that. But the message of what I was sending with the music, and the idea of who I was as a person, who I was as an emcee? I think I was able to capture that very well. That was my mindset. I wanted to let people know that I wasn’t just an “open mic rhymer.”
JD: Do you feel you were successful in that goal?
GS: Yeah. Hindsight is always the best sight, of course there’s things that I would’ve done differently. But for it to be ten years later and for me to still be in the game, that lets me know that it was received by the people that needed to receive it. From that point up until now, my trajectory has been going upwards. I’ve been able to build a fan base. I can’t really question what I did, and say that was a mistake, or I did that wrong. Of course, with what was happening with Dilla and all that different stuff, I could’ve changed stuff, but I’m not really the type of person to live with regrets. Yeah, I think I accomplished it. I’m not this person that puts out one album, and then everybody wonders, “What happened to him? Where is he now?”
JD: How did you hook up with Stones Throw?
GS: Dilla was approached by Stones Throw to do a project with Madlib. At the time, he didn’t even know Madlib. He knew he was dope, because Madlib sent him a lot of music. So they had reached out to him to do Jaylib and he had just agreed it. I was in the song on that album called “Strapped.” After we did “Strapped,” Dilla said Stones Throw was asking about me, but it didn’t happen until they came to the Electronic Music Festival in Detroit. They had a Stones Throw showcase there. Peanut Butter Wolf, J-Rocc, and Madlib, all of them came to Detroit, and I performed “Strapped” with Dilla. Maybe a day after that, Dilla told me that Stones Throw wanted to sign me, just from that live performance.
JD: You touched on it earlier, but what would you say is the biggest impact that Ode to the Ghetto had on your career? What was the most important thing you learned recording the album?
GS: Just to capture my ideas and stay creative. None of this time is promised to any of us. At the time before Dilla started getting sick, he was invincible to me, and the king of beats. Ultimately, to go from invincibility to vulnerability, because you’re sick, that just lets you know that we’re all here on borrowed time, and just to really make the most of it.
I just want to stay creative, even if I’m just making songs just to make them, not particularly for projects, and just to build my library to get my ideas and my thoughts out there. Music is pretty disposable now. It’s messed up, but it’s our reality. I have to keep feeding the listeners. So I’ve learned that I’m not going to harbor all these projects. I’m going to work. And hopefully in 2018, probably every other month, somebody will have something new, a new contribution from me, because getting these ideas out is the most important thing.
JD: So you want to break down each of the tracks on the album?
GS: It’s all good. I got you.
JD: “American Dream”
GS: I wanted people to know that it wasn’t necessarily just about open mic rapping. I really wanted to put you in the mind state of Guilty Simpson and what I think about when I rap. Racism in America, poverty, depression, hustling and selling drugs to provide for your family, that whole intro touches on that. I think it was important for people to hear something like that first to understand that.
GS: It was a little something that I was working on with Mr. Porter already. It was about things that people do when they get hungry. A popular thing in Detroit and ghettos all around the world is people hit licks, so to speak, and commit robberies. Sometimes it’s easier to commit robberies on people that are committing illegal crimes themselves, because they can’t report it. “Somebody broke in his house and stole $20,000.” Just preying on prey.
JD: “She Won’t Stay at Home”
GS: It was really about beefing with my lady about random girls. Everything I do is based on reality, but not totally on reality. My wife to this day definitely thinks that a lot of that song was about her. She’ll still say that to this day. Me being a writer, I might take from anything. I might be having a conversation with my boy, and he might be stressing about what he’s going through. If there’s something that might make the light bulb go off in my brain, then I use that as material.
GS: It’s really a description of the neighborhood drug store. Not CVS either. Just random spots and the houses on the blocks where people tend to be resourceful with whatever your vice is. Really it was about navigating through the neighborhood, knowing what people have in certain neighborhoods, and where not to go, and where to get the best stuff from.
JD: “Ode to the Ghetto”
GS: My whole vision of the record was how Detroit feels from my view. “Ode to the Ghetto” was really just taking what I’ve seen, and what it did to make up the fibers of who I am as an emcee. It touched on the short story of how the same people from “Footwork,” those that have been drug dealers in the neighborhood, just how quickly it can be taken away from them. How they go from the most powerful people in the neighborhood to inmates and convicts. The song was just saying no matter where I go, I take the motivation and the inspiration from what I’ve seen with me.
JD: “Getting Bitches”
GS: That was something that me and Mr. Porter [came up with when] we were previously working before. I got signed to Stones Throw. So me and him, we were grinding in the studio and making sure we were stocked on stuff, and that was a song that I put over there with me. At the time, we didn’t have a hook to it, it was just the raps. It was just me saying, “Getting bitches. Getting bitches.” Mr. Porter wanted to put a hook on it, so we figured out a hook, and he sang it and it just worked. The vibe to it is a different vibe than any other beat on the project, and it kind of takes you more into the upbeat. Even though you know I’m rapping about serious stuff on there, it’s still kind of fun. That track means a lot to me. Peace to Mr. Porter.
JD: “I Must Love You”
GS: It was really about weighing the pros and cons of staying in the relationship. If you really listen to the song, you hear in the background “stay” and “go.” “Stay” and “go” was the conflict, and the swing of the beat. It showed the conflict: I really love my lady, she treated me the best, but she drives me crazy and we fight all the time. I like to go out with her and we laugh and joke. Just like anybody that’s in a relationship that might see those rocky stages, and it gets bad, then it gets better. Then, you might have to go through worse to get to even better. [The second verse] I definitely took from my life. I was questioned because I left a questionable tip to somebody while we were already going through our own thing, and got accused of flirting. It touched a little bit on some real stuff. That was easy material to write because I had been through it.
JD: “The Future”
GS: Produced by Madlib with my man M.E.D. on it. As many artists can attest, especially back then, Madlib will give you an overabundance of beats. He will give you these beat tapes, and it’ll be literally 70 beats on them. Mind you, that when I was writing “The Future,” the beat was so short on this tape, I was able to just really get that one verse out of it and then the beat would change up and go into this other track. The verse and the hook ended up being exactly the same length as “The Future” beat on the tape. Like I said, after that I was like “I’m going to put a feature on it.” I considered making “The Future” to be a transition from one song to the next, kind of like an interlude, but I ended up putting M.E.D. on it and I’m happy I did it.
JD: Did Ronnie Brewer, your cousin who you shout out on the song, ever hear it?
GS: Oh yeah, he definitely heard it. Ronnie is from my father’s side, and they’re from Arkansas, and we’re from Detroit. I hadn't really seen him since he was a kid. He didn't know that I was rhyming at the time. They were playing the Lakers, and he said one of the ball boys came up to him and says, "You've got a cousin named Guilty Simpson?" Simpson is our family's main name. He was like yeah, and he did his research and found out more about me, and me and him got closer from that song. That song actually brought us closer, because we didn't actually grow up together.
GS: I just was feeling it. Currently, the Internet is highlighting it, but that was going on ten years ago for sure. Police arresting people out there, and killing people. I just wanted to make sure people understood where I stood as far as police brutality, and just being aware of what’s going on.
JD: Shit hasn’t changed in 10 years.
GS: It sure hasn’t. And it was going on 10 years before that.
JD: “My Moment”
GS: That was produced by Black Milk. I really love that beat. It has kind of like a marching band drumbeat to it, and the big bassline sounding like an alien almost. I love that beat to this day. I’ve got the beat on my iTunes, and sometimes I just vibe out to it still and just play that beat. It just has a dope vibe to it. I just really wanted to use that beat to represent myself, and just spit on it. I was more like not necessarily open mic style, but just rapping, as opposed to sticking to a topic. I really liked that track. That’s one of my favorites.
GS: When I hollered at Sean Price, I sent him the beat. At the time, he didn’t know who I was, so my manager Hex Murda reached out to him, and asked him did he want to do the feature, and he was like, “I’ll call you back.” He was on tour at the time, and he was like, “Who is this guy?” This DJ who was on tour with him had a library of stuff I’d done as far as features and played it for him. P called back and said he wanted to do a group. He didn’t even want the money for the feature or nothing; he wanted to do a group. That’s crazy to me. Even repeating it now adds a level of crazy to it. At the time, we were casually talking about groups, and I had mentioned “Random Axe,” because me and Hex liked that name. At the time when we did “Run,” I just threw it in there. I didn’t even know if that was going to be the group name or nothing. I just thought it and I threw it out there. “Random acts, in the jam with Macs.” P ended up loving the name.
JD: “Kinda Live”
GS: That’s Mr. Porter on the beat and on the hook. At the end of the day, I never wanted to be a rapper that was so hardcore, you couldn’t imagine him with a woman. I don’t want to be that hard. Some artists tend to separate themselves from love, or being vulnerable with a woman. Some artists, they feel like it’s almost beneath them. I never really wanted to be that artist. I didn’t want to be necessarily an “in-love” artist, but I just wanted to put myself in the box to the point where I could be in love if I wanted to on the track. I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself, so I just thought that was a dope vibe, and the beat. I felt like that was something important to put on my record, because I wanted to make a statement that people couldn’t necessarily predict what I’ll do.
GS: That definitely is a track that will just sound like something you might hear me say if I was at the Lush Lounge in Hamtramck (Michigan). That’s what “Yikes” is about: rapping about everything and nothing at all. Really just spitting. It’s an emcee’s track.
JD: “The Real Me”
GS: That’s my favorite song on the album. That’s up there personally with one of my favorite songs I’ve ever done. It just touches on my life, and touches on what makes me who I am. “Mama got bills, papa got ghosts / My new father figure is popping that toast.” It’s about being able to have my eyes open to really see and to make that transition from the sheltered little boy to the young teenager that’s experiencing Detroit, and all the ups and downs that it gives. It’s a reflection of what I was going through.
JD: “Kill ‘Em”
GS: Really just a trash talking track, about what I like to do: blow a blunt. “Dumb high, I don’t even know the fucking month.” Showing a little bit of my humor along with the hardcore rap. That’s something I like to do, and that’s something that I hang my hat on. I do know on album it’s good to show a little range to keep doing different things. I’m definitely an emcee’s emcee, so I like the metaphors, and the rhyming, the cadences, and stuff like that.
JD: “Almighty Dreadnaughtz”
GS: That’s the first and original crew. I came up with them. They’ve been rapping with me since the mid ’90s. So actually those were the guys I was with when I didn’t even know how to formulate a rap. Hex Murda created the Almighty Dreadnaughtz, along with my ex-producer Blitz. I wanted to make sure that my guys had a chance to shine. They haven’t been as present in my more recent projects, but the projects that I’m doing now they’re more involved in that.
It’s really just about me just showing where I came from. The whole project was Ode to the Ghetto, and those are the same dudes that were still in the city while I was traveling in LA and doing my thing. That was really an ode to them, and a chance for my dudes to shine. My man Konnie Ross did the track and he raps on it too. He’s a crazy producer. I wanted it to be the last song, because I kind of wanted it to be a lasting impression. The last thing that people hear on the track is where I came from. It just brought it full circle of who I am. I wanted “American Dream” to be the first track, and I wanted “Almighty Dreadnaughtz” to be the last track.
JD: Okay, so to wrap this up, what are your five favorite albums of all time?
GS: Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Nas’ It Was Written, Redman’s Muddy Waters. OutKast’s Aquemini, 2Pac’s Me Against the World. Wait, you might have to take away something so I can add Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full.