June is in full chill mode as he lounges in the basement of his newly purchased Dearborn Heights home. He's rocking a T-shirt, shorts, and a beer. He pulls his newest project, WhatUpDoe State Of Mind: Vol.1 from a small cardboard box, and pops the CD in the stereo. He hits the skip button skip until a track called "House Party" roars from the speakers. It's a slow 808 bass-driven song meant for clubs and car audio systems. Next up is "Thinkin' of #Detroit," and it's a lyrical journey through the yesteryears of Detroit hip-hop, from 7-Mile's Hip-Hop Shop to the Grand Quarters. June nods his head and lip-syncs the lyrics while the beats fade out.
June (born Calvin June Johnson III) has been rhyming since he was 16, back to his high-school days at Oak Park High. Then he was known as Jha Da' 5'9. He and best friend, Ryan Montgomery (known as Royce Da' 5'9), formed the duo DaMainPhokus. "We were both 5'9 so it made sense," June says, with a laugh. DaMainPhokus collaborated with another duo, Truz (Trey Little and Cutty Mac), to form the group WallStreet. "You would be in Oak Park high-school hallway and during lunch, a bunch of guys would rap and beatbox," June says. "Soon we started going to the studio and recording every day."
With a lot of hard work, WallStreet became a fixture at open mics and local stages. "Mannnnnn, we performed everywhere we could," June says. Even at the very beginning, June sought to be an emcee known more for rhymes, wit, and wordplay rather than just a cat spitting elementary rhymes over tight beats. "I wanted to be lyrical, say stuff that would go over your head— kind of like Keith Murray, Redman, or Helter Skelter."
The year 1999 was the apex for WallStreet. June and the crew were featured at a variety of shows and were asked to be the opening act at the Palladium for Usher during his "My Way" tour. "At that same show, Marshall (Eminem) was selling his CD Infinite. He was hustling his ass off! After the show Em and Royce got introduced on a personal level."
Later in 1999, Royce was signed by Columbia and his debut album Rock City dropped in January of 2002. June and WallStreet were featured on the track "D-Elite Pt. 2," which was available on the European version of the album. However, the group naturally wanted more than just to be featured on one song. "I always felt like we would come out at the same time that Nelly and the St. Lunatics came out," June says. "That was the formula back then. But around that time things fell astray, and it just didn't work out like that."
There was no definitive reason as to why a group album never materialized. By 2003, other members of WallStreet had gone their own way. June stayed. "Loyalty is royalty," he proudly says. Together with Royce's little brother, Kid Vishis, they assisted Royce in the studio, were hype men at times, and just worked at being a good friend. "I feel like some years were delayed in the support factor because I probably just overlooked myself."
In 2003, June was featured on The M.I.C. Mixtape. Five more exclusive mixtapes from June followed in the coming years: A Million Ways To Make A Million, More Ways To Make A Million, A Million Is Not Enough, Millionaire State Of Mind, and The Rustic. June decided to relocate to California. "It was biting me to get out of here," he says. "I went to Cali to pursue music. I got pulled into a friend's acting class and got offered free classes."
June ended up getting stand-in work for shows. He worked on C.S.I. New York, Ugly Betty, October Road, 24, The Sarah Conner Chronicles, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Chuck. He was also able to keep recording. "I recorded at this place with my man Juan," June says. "He was the engineer and mix-down guy for Dr. Dre. He gave me a player-rate to record in a world-class studio."
By 2011, June felt it was time to come back home. He had been in a long-distance relationship and was eager to get his music back to his fans. The relationship didn't work out, but his mid-2011 release album, June's 1st, 2011 (CJ3 & Co.) was a work of art. "I wanted it to be a straight boom bap album," he says. "Even if you listen to it now, it's for the heads."
Though Royce has ascended to a higher level in his career than June, he's still more friend than mentor. "The advice I get from Royce is unsaid," he says. "I can just watch what he's doing and get advice from that. It's the support that's the main thing that he's always gave me."
Fast track to 2015, and June is back at it. A new mixtape, WhatUpDoe State Of Mind: Vol.1 debuted this past July and has been embraced well in the hip-hop community. June is clearly a more seasoned, nuanced, and focused emcee. "Lyrical content aside, I'm way more direct at how I want to approach a song and the audience," he says. "I'm always trying to make sure I'm doing something that hasn't been done. As long as you keep caring about making your craft better, that's what counts."
In the coming months, June promises several new videos and a steady stream of performances. He loves the direction Detroit is going, and has love for everybody. "Everybody is collaborating and showing love in their own way for Detroit hip-hop. That's the good side. The downside is that everybody thinks they can fucking rap!"
-K. Santori for "Detroit Metro Times"