Royal T returns from extended stay in Thailand, maintains crown with ‘Ya Highness’

The Columbus-born rapper will celebrate the release of his new record with a show at Rehab Tavern on Saturday, May 7

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Royal T

Royal T left Columbus for Bangkok in 2005, planning to spend six months in the Thai capital performing his own music as a contract artist.

At the time of the move, Royal had $400 to his name, much of it saved in the months he spent slinging pizzas for Papa John’s. But following issues with travel documents in Florida, which required the group to journey from Tampa Bay to the Thai embassy in Miami before making the trip overseas, the rapper landed in Thailand with barely a dollar to his name.

“And then we get over there, and the boss is like, ‘Oh, you don’t have a full band? We don’t know what to do with y’all.’ And I was like, oh, my God. It was scary,” said Royal, who will celebrate the release of new album Ya Highness with a show at Rehab Tavern on Saturday, May 7. “A couple of days later, the boss finally came up to me and was like, ‘Look, it’s not going to work out, so this is what I’m going to do.’ Then he told me I either needed to join one of these Thai bands or we can send you home. And to save face, I stayed there, and said I’d join one of the Thai bands. Then they came to me with a list of songs I had to learn: ‘California Love,’ ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot.’ ‘Gold Digger,’ ‘In da Club.’”

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Prior to making the move, Royal, born and raised on the North Side of Columbus, had never been overseas, though he’d long before been bitten by the travel bug, spending years traversing the U.S. with his father, who for a time worked as a driver for doo-wop group the Impressions. “My dad didn’t want me to go [to Thailand] but he was like, ‘Boy, you just like me. You love to travel,’” Royal said, and laughed. “We can’t sit still. They call us tumbleweeds.”

Regardless, Bangkok initially overwhelmed not just in terms of the culture shock, but also in its sheer scale, with Royal describing the city as “New York times three.” Gradually, though, the rapper adapted, becoming something of a local celebrity in the course of performing in packed clubs six nights a week for months on end, to the point where he couldn’t even go to the mall without being swarmed.

“My mom came to visit and was like, ‘Oh, take me out to the mall. Let’s go.’ And I was like, mom, go with my girl, because if you go with me you ain’t gonna get no shopping done. She was like, ‘Boy, you ain’t all that!’” Royal said. “So we go, and as soon as we hit the first door, it was just chaos, and my mom left with nothing in her hands.”

After Royal’s initial six-month contract ended, he opted to extend his stay, spending much of the next 15 years living overseas in Bangkok and then later in the coastal town of Pattaya, a stretch in which he had a daughter with a Thai woman and later married another. (Royal’s daughter and wife both currently live in Columbus.)

In those years, the rapper sharpened his skills as a performer and a lyricist, often freestyling the verses in cover songs live onstage before delivering the more-recognizable hook, This dedication to craft bleeds into Ya Highness, which pairs Royal’s boasts and bedroom come-ons with a soulful musical backdrop courtesy producer Jack “Tha Audio Unit” Burton.

Royal first started making music as a child, initially singing in the choir and later playing drums in the church band, developing an in-the-pocket sense of rhythm that has carried over into his work as a lyricist, syllables snapping like cracks from the snare drum.

Indeed, when Royal started rapping at age 13, he soon earned the nickname “puffy knuckle,” owing to his propensity for tapping out a beat on lunchroom tables, lockers and water fountains, creating a running backbeat for class cyphers. 

“That’s why I say, just give me a beat, and if I like it, I like it. It doesn’t matter [what it sounds like],” Royal said. “I write all kinds of music, even ballads. Like I said, I hated when I found out I had to be in a cover band, but … it made me a better musician.”

Now the rapper’s next challenge is to employ these long-developed skills in service of his own story, which he has largely avoided in his music to this point, generally embracing the form as pure escapism, or a way to fuel parties stretching from clubs in Thailand to his current home in Columbus.

“I am going to make an album like that, where people can get to know me more,” Royal said. “This album (Ya Highness), people who know me, they know this is some Royal shit. But as far as the other people in the world, I want to really make some music that explains Thailand, that explains me. Where people who hear it can say, ‘OK, this guy’s seen this and done this.’ … You want people to connect with you, so I’m giving them this, and now you know what I can make, and then I’m letting you know who I am.”