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The word, according to rapper Dice, is "ruggedness." That's what he thinks labels both local and national are missing when it comes to signing Detroit hip hop, and why they should really be dibbling and dabbling more with the street cats who really bring it. You know, like Dice.
Does he have the right to express his opinion? Well, he dropped his first album when leather 8-Ball jackets were still in style, and his street-representative sound has been a constant in Detroit hip hop ever since. But Dice's history is also littered with failed partnerships and broken business deals. After almost 15 years in the rap game, he's still lingering on the frustration between opportunity and his own sense of entitlement.
Dice is staying positive, though. "I'm sure the shit will happen," he says. "I ain't punched no clock in over three years, so I must be doing something right."
The early days looked promising for the native West Sider. "I hooked up with Mystro [of Chaos and Mystro] in 1990 when he was signed with World One records," Dice says, leaning back in a kitchen chair at his mother's West Side colonial. (He's just visiting; nowadays Dice lives on Detroit's East Side.) "[Mystro and I] was doing stuff in the studio, and by '94, World One went ahead and signed a nigga."
With his dark jeans and hoodie, clean-shaven head and cold, hard stare, Dice appears to embody the street aesthetic of his music. He even brandishes a butterfly blade.
By the spring of 1992, Dice had dropped his debut album, The 40 Made Me Do It, and opened local shows for Rakim, Ice Cube, Public Enemy and WC. But though the album's grimy, restless sound did well in Detroit, Dice and World One eventually parted ways.
He sits up and considers his words. "Basically some cats from Def Jam wanted to holla at me, but World One wanted them to take Eboni, Chaos, Eazy Bee and the whole World One package instead of just me."
Dice claims he contemplated sticking it out with the label, but ultimately didn't feel that they had his best interests in mind. "[World One] started saying they were in debt, and they weren't sure if they were going to put out any more records, so I just dipped."
And suddenly Dice was a free agent.
When word spread that Dice was available, Esham was the first to inquire. "I guess he knew I was that deal," Dice says. Esham had long been criticized for not showing love to other local emcees. He'd built what was arguably the biggest fan base of any local emcee in the 1990s, but rarely collaborated with or signed fellow Detroiters to his thriving label, Reel Life Productions. Still, here was Esham knocking on Dice's door. And Dice says those years were his most prosperous as an emcee.
"I wasn't opening for any big names, but I opened for Esham, and he had shows with two or three thousand people all the time," Dice says. Those are big numbers for an artist who'd already watched one record deal fall through.
Unfortunately, the business relationship between Dice and Esham withered too.
"Esham dropped my album in 1996, but I never signed a contract," Dice says, shaking his head. He estimates his second album, Theneighborhoodshittalka, sold 200,000 copies from which he saw no royalties. "Every couple months I would holla at [Esham], and he would drop me a couple of dollars," Dice says. "I wasn't that business-oriented back then, I just wanted to be out there."
The rapper says that by 1996 Reel Life was in debt, so when Esham left to start Gotham Records, Dice became a free agent again. He hooked up with B-Def and Jack Frost for a trio called the UN, but outside of a few recording sessions nothing materialized. So in 1999 he took a different approach, starting Fallen Angelz Entertainment with entrepreneur Russell (Kwation) Culvin, with emphasis on an "acid" hip-hop sound similar to Esham. In addition to Dice, the label featured DJ and producer Lynn Swann, and emcees the Pervert Pastor, Razzaq and Arcane. Dice's promisingly gritty Black Monday appeared in 2000, and the album made a strong showing in the streets. But the deal with Culvin soured less than a year later.
Dice's tone darkens when he talks of the split. "I was like, 'This nigga [Culvin] is fake, and I can't fuck with fake niggas,'" he says. "He was the businessman behind everything, but he wanted to be around other muthafuckas like he's Suge Knight."
Culvin responds in a separate interview: "Dice is still signed and he has not completed his contract. It's a three-album deal with one option."
"I gave them Black Monday and that ho-ass Red Rain album," Dice says. "I had a contract for an album and a half. That shit is over, fuck him."
Culvin stands firm. "Dice's decision-making is horrible. As you can see he is the only artist who's been signed to three record labels and left every one because he can't pick up a dictionary and find out what the word 'recoup' means."
Dice is dismissive. "He's just mad because nobody gives a fuck about his label now that I'm gone."
But Culvin says that Black Monday is still selling 300 units a week, revenue Dice will never see until he fulfills his Fallen Anglez contract.
Dice gets up, walks outside, and takes in the final moments of a yawing, blaze-yellow sunset. He says he's cool with World One and Reel Life, but that they're behind him just like Fallen Anglez. He and friend Essenze started Big Head Records in 2003, and released Dice's Neighborhood Watch this past May. "I'm cool, I'm selling units," he says of Big Head and the album. "I'm picking up checks, and I'm still eating." Big Head's future plans include albums from Essenze, fellow Fallen Angelz veteran Perverted Pastor, and a Dice EP. "We gon' have these units floating so something should pop off," he says.
And Watch is vintage Dice, its Donald Goines-like street tales unfolding over dark, bass-heavy Detroit beats. With its gritty street narratives and twisting beats, the album is exactly what Dice wanted it to be, and wanted to represent from Detroit. It is, in a word, rugged.
"My style has always been rough," Dice says. "I just kick real shit, that's all."
Besides ruggedness, it's bitterness that might best describe Dice best. But the rapper maintains that, instead of being angry about the failed deals and never quite getting to the next level, he's content that he's been able to survive this long in the rap game. "I've been able to do my thing and still eat," Dice says, "And in the end that's all that matters."
Kahn Davison is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.