Bruce Leroy barters for respect.
Bruce Leroy sits in the back dining room of MSM Deli, an iconic Tacoma sub shop on Sixth Avenue. He’s only hours removed from the birth of his second child, a daughter, but he looks rested in a crisp white T, dark denim and black snapback. He orders a Mike’s Deluxe—the only sandwich he’s ever ordered in more than a decade of patronage.
It’s been a busy week for the Tacoma MC. He capped off 50 hours in the hospital by releasing his first music video, a short complement for “Nutrition”—a standout on his recent 10’ EP—in which scenes of him lounging black-clad on a white couch are punctuated with shots of pot plants and pot smoke. Its simplicity pushes the music forward to speak for itself, a core tenet of Leroy’s philosophy.
Born Darnel Hill, Leroy grew up on the border of Tacoma’s south and east sides, and apart from short stints in Lake City and LA, he’s always lived there, an area that borders pockets of black, Filipino, Cambodian, Mexican and Vietnamese communities. His military father was strict, but he had turntables and records everywhere. His mom, also military, moved away to Texas in the early ’90s.
Tacoma’s melting pot informed Leroy’s musical upbringing: His older brother and neighbors showed him early LA gangster rap and Miami bass; his younger brothers in Texas put him on to Houston stars like DJ Screw and Slim Thug. By the inauguration of Napster, Leroy possessed the wherewithal to scour and digest regional rap.
Now 32 years old, Leroy makes meat-and-potatoes hip-hop, recapturing a fundamental essence of crackling vinyl samples chopped and looped over drum breaks. In the wrong hands, this throwback aesthetic can be hollowed of meaning, all the right signifiers merely echoing folklore we can no longer access. But Leroy engages nostalgic sounds wihtout getting lost in the past. The 10’ EP is a themed exploration of what he calls “The Standard.”
“When Michael Jordan didn’t make the team in high school, the rim was 10 feet, and when he got his six rings, the rim was 10 feet,” Leroy says. “If he lowered the rim at his house just so he could dunk, we might not have Michael Jordan.”
Leroy’s music, his entire ethic, harkens back to life lived off the Internet, in the physical world, in Tacoma. He eviscerates chunky beats with self-assurance rooted in self-sufficiency. On “Know the Biz,” he succinctly states his mission: “I do labor for this paper; dig a crate or dig a crater.” In the complete absence of curated image, Leroy creates hip-hop that’s both nostalgic and current, historical and present. It barters for respect by presenting big ideas about craftsmanship, loyalty and community.
After talking for two hours, Leroy takes a bite of his barely touched sub. Then he concludes our conversation: “Anything I ever got in life that I didn’t earn I either lost the same way I got it or I don’t care about it.”
Photo by Jake Clifford