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On the song "New Heights" from his new OJ Simpson album, Detroit's Guilty Simpson lays out his place in hip hop, circa 2010:
I got a murderer's intent when I jump on a beat and vent/I'm Guilty, I leave my prints ... Stuff that rap missed while they do handstands and backflips ...
The gruff emcee (real name: Byron Simpson), the one handpicked by the late great producer James "J Dilla" Yancey almost a decade ago to be a voice of the Detroit rap scene — maybe even the voice — has since made a career of deciding whether or not he even wants to be that voice, one mean-mugging, unapologetic album at a time.
"I'm not going out of my way to conform to a certain audience," Guilty says. "But I'm not out to change the views of a million fans."
OJ Simpson will likely cause as much head-scratching as head-bobbing. The "OJ" of the title refers to producer Madlib — whose real name is Otis Jackson. His record-making approach involves a grainy, cinematic sound.
"It was different for me to make a record that's really more of a listening experience," the rapper says. "It's definitely a collaborative effort."
Of the album's 24 tracks, one-third are instrumental interludes with dialogue sampled from classic comedy records. But when your hear Guilty, his skill's still undeniable.
Over the organ and tambourine bounce of "New Heights," Guilty raps: I'm at it again. 'Pad and a pen?' Nope. I wrote a demo in a cell phone memo.
And it sounds like a memo: Tight couplets stripped of any extra syllables. Guilty is nothing if not economical as a lyricist, and Madlib's simple skitter beat complements Guilty's no-frills rhyming.
Lyrically, the second verse of "100 Miles" is Guilty's fave, and you can hear why: Escaped the front page/ Coulda been a victim in a gun blaze but left unscathed/ Divine intervention shit, I got a mission to achieve/ Indeed my enemies gone bleed (watch).
An obvious standout is "Cali Hills," essentially a recap in verse of Guilty's career as mentored by Dilla. Over a pretty wistful Massive Attack of a Madlib beat, Guilty's as concise as he is heartfelt: I remember blowin' chronic in your ride/ Never knew it was the last time I would see you alive/The dream I still believe in it/ I know you're here watchin' I just wish that I could see you seein' it/ All the real shit you said I keep repeating it/ This is for 'Dill' releasing the pain my pen spills/ inspired by best, born in Detroit but laid to rest/ in Cali Hills. This is what it sounds like when thugs cry ...
"Jay always had a passion for the music," Guilty says. "I'd cut a verse and step out of the [vocal] booth and he'd be smiling and nodding, listening back to it. I mean, at that point in his career, it'd been real easy for him just to be doing button pushing."
How the rough-around-the-edges west-sider Guilty and Dilla came to be Detroit's hip-hop version of the Odd Couple is its own sub-8 Mile saga. Guilty found a share of trouble in his West Seven Mile and Lahser neighborhood. "I wasn't like a drug dealer or anything, but I can honestly say music provided me an outlet for what I had going on," he says.
His cousin Cysion, another emerging emcee, encouraged Guilty to get on the mic himself. Soon, Guilty (who originally dubbed himself "Guilt" before discovering too many other rappers called same) became part of the local Almighty Dreadnautz hip-hop collective. He was inspired more, however, by East Coast rappers like Kool G Rap as opposed to the Q-Tip abstraction that seemingly fueled the rest of Detroit.
"Kool G Rap had this typical persona, but he was very detailed," Guilty says. "You almost forgot where you were listening to his rhymes. In a rhyme, you can almost escape from your reality but still acknowledge it. That's what I try to do. One foot where you been, one foot where you want to go."
By 2001, Detroit's rhyme-battle scene took a Wednesday night residence at Hamtramck's Lush Lounge, Guilty and the Dreadnaughtz among the participants. It was the open mic battles that drew attention away from the headliner at those shows — and Guilty's flow stood out among the typical lyrical jabbing; "Roll Call," a collaboration between him and cousin Cysion, was the local rap anthem that summer.
"I remember it was during the filming of 8 Mile because Em came through one night," Guilty recalls. Around that same time, Michael "DJ Houseshoes" Buchanan — self-proclaimed "Detroit Hip-Hop Ambassador to the World" and longtime St. Andrew's resident DJ — brought Dilla by to introduce him to Guilty.
"He just commanded your attention," Houseshoes says of the then up-and-comer Guilty. "It's thug shit but it's very intelligent. He's a great storyteller, like real accurate — and he'll fuck you up." Houseshoes laughs, and says, "There were a couple of times that cats had bottles broken over their heads at the hand of Guilty Simpson."
Dilla noted Guilty then ... but didn't act. "Jay actually sorta brushed him off," Houseshoes says.
Dilla, not-so fresh from a misfire deal with MCA Records, had projects and beats. So Guilty recorded verses on a beat promised to Phat Kat. Dilla was duly impressed so he stuck Guilty on a remix of an up-tempo track by U.K. new-beat soul act called Four Tet that — in true Dilla flip-it fashion — wasn't exactly begging for a Guilty "thug" verse. He also contributed to "Strapped," a track from Dilla's Jaylib collaboration with Madlib. Dilla planned to eventually do a whole record with the newcomer.
"It was kind of a new [Detroit] chapter," Houseshoes says. "Guilty was the first cat from Detroit on that tip who was actually a great emcee, and not just some guy from the hood. When Dilla saw what Guilty had, lyrically, it was a chance for him to bring an artist to the table that people could take seriously, like some Gang Starr shit. And that meant Guilty was Guru."
Dilla, of course, passed away in 2006, leaving Guilty's full-length debut, Ode to the Ghetto, to be completed by other A-list underground producers — Black Milk (who, with Guilty and Sean Price, would become part of the rap trio, Random Axe) and Madlib among them.
When the music finally dropped on Peanut Butter Wolf's Stones Throw label in 2008, though, it seemed a little left, even for that label. Guilty's stone-cold rhymes and low-slung-sling shot of a voice made him an anomaly, maybe even a liability, for the label, simply for being a rap archetype — that is, the thug. As the Pitchfork review of Ode put it: "Stones Throw interrupts its wise exploration of alternative hip-hop and puts its goodwill on the line in order to release a thoroughly mediocre gangsta rap album."
In its way, though, Ode sorta made alternative hip-hop sound ... well, more native: "Robbery," produced by D12's Denaun Porter, almost seemed self-mocking.
"The thing about Detroit — not just hip-hop but music history in general," Houseshoes says, "is that true artists use the studio to vent and escape on their own terms. They're like, 'I'm not trying to aim at a market, but I'm the best at what I do.' That said, I don't wanna hear any more super underground shit from Guilty. I'm not saying he should be on 106 & Park either. But there are cats from the hood around the world that could be hearing what he has to say."
Guilty agrees. "I'm looking for a producer as opposed to a beat-maker," he says. "I can also acknowledge a hot beat and recognize that I shouldn't be trying to rap on it." Random Axe, his group with East Coast rapper Sean Price and producer Black Milk, is a step in the right, if not a more permanent, direction.
Guilty may go lengths to woo fans, but knows a dope gig when he spits one, such as when Will Sessions' the Guilty Simpson Big Band played the Magic Stick last October.
"Those funk parties get like a thousand people, which is unheard of in Detroit," Guilty says. And this Memorial Day, he'll join Milk and Phat Kat with Will Sessions at the Movement festival.
It won't be the first time he's played Hart Plaza — he performed with Dilla and Madlib's Jaylib tour at Movement 2004.
"At that point I had a love-hate relationship with music — mostly hate," Guilty says. "That's when I was told that [Peanut Butter] Wolf wanted to sign me to Stone's Throw. That was kinda what turned it around for me."
It's not that Guilty can't find his traction in the Detroit rap canon, but that the canon itself might be too canonical to embrace a hood rapper straddling its micro-scenes. Guilty's mean-street subjects put him in the "Em school" of battle rappers — including the late, great Proof, Obie Trice, Kuniva, Phat Kat, King Gordy, Bizarre et al. — local rappers who've found an audience beyond the battle.
But on the production side, Guilty is still part of that Dilla lineage and his heirs apparent — that is, your Black Milks, your Dabryes ... and all the other shape-shifting but still soulful sample re-constructionists. Their lyrical counterparts are usually conscious rappers — Invincible arguably being the current queen and king among them — who turn hip-hop into part-poetry slam/part-lecture that's such a frontal lobe workout, you feel like you've earned a college credit just for following the lyrics. Guilty can relate to that idea. "Some people need to read a book before they fuck with Invincible," he laughs. "That's my girl and I love her ..." He, of course, means no disrespect. But, well, you don't need to read a book to fuck with Guilty. He is the book. As he once said on Dilla's "Baby": "You can find Guilty Simpson at a rave for days packing a .38 snub and a razorblade."
How can you possibly forget that?
The OJ Simpson release party is Friday, May 21, at Shelter (431 E. Congress St., Detroit; 313-961-6923) with DJ Houseshoes and Elzhi. Guilty Simpson also performs with Black Milk and Phat Kat with the Will Sessions Big Band, on Friday, May 28, at Movement in downtown Hart Plaza.
Hobey Echlin writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.