Few hours before rocking the crowd of the famous parisian venue Machine du Moulin Rouge, Slug from Atmosphere blessed us with a fascinating interview. Rapper, co-founder of the rap label Rhymesayers (Brother Ali, Dilated Peoples, MF Doom) and now father, Slug is a model of ubiquity and consistency with a 25+ years brilliant career in US alternative rap.
The BackPackerz: What is it like to be a rap group from the Midwest ?
Slug: When I was younger it seems as if it was a disadvantage to be from the midwest because everything that was happening was either in NYC or LA. When you’re a kid and want to be a rapper you think « Ok, I gotta make a demo and send it to labels. » And all the labels were in NYC or LA, there was no rap label in Mineapolis. So we started to just do it ourselves. As time went on, it turns out that being from the Midwest was actually an advantage because, there was an energy there. People would not become jaded or bitter. Whereas, on the coast, as I started travelling and meeting people, I realized these people have been trying to get signed for 15 years and it never worked so they’ve become jaded. They’re in the scene full of other jaded people and you know, in a scene, you drink, hang out maybe you accidentally fuck each other’s girlfriend. People start to dislikes each other. So there’s animosity, cliques. Me, being from the Midwest, I can go to NYC and get along with everybody because I had no history with them. I’ve meet rappers who were like « I know this guy, he was with me in high school, he was an asshole… » I don’t have that. None of them know me so we could just hang out. And not being from NYC or LA just turned out to be an advantage.
Also it became a story for press. You know, « you’re from Mineapolis, what’s that like ? ». Press and readers were very interested in our story. One time though, when I was in NYC, I went to dinner with this guy who was dating my ex-girlfriend. The guy got kinda drunk and started talking shit. He was from the Midwest too and he didn’t like me of course because I dated his girlfriend before him. You know men are fucking territorial in the US. He started to say:
« You had it easy ! Because you’re from Mineapolis. It’s harder for these kids in NYC to make it.
– I was like: WTF are talking about. You’re from the Midwest too. When you grew up, how many of your friends wanted to become rappers ?
– A lot, he answered.
– How many of them made it ?
– None of them.
– So you can’t tell me it was easier. Because if it was easier, a lot of would have made it. »
It’s becoming more and more accepted that there are rappers in Mineapolis. So, nowadays you hear about Dessa, POS, Brother Ali, Allan Kingdom, Mally. You know there’s a lot of us and we’re all starting to get heard now. But ten years ago, the only ones you would know of were Atmosphere and Brother Ali. Nowadays people are starting to take notice of Mineapolis as something more than a Rock’N’Roll city whereas when I was younger people would ask me: « Have you ever met Prince or are you a fan of The Replacements ».
You just mentioned some of your label mates. Could you remind our readers the genesis of your label, Rhymesayers ?
We started Rhymesayers, accidentally, in 1995. Before 1995, it was a group of rappers and DJs and we called ourselves « headshots » but it was just a crew. We became a crew because we ran around our city, we went to parties and if there was a few headshots there we would just take over the party. You know like « gimme the mic ». And it was just a local thing, we were doing it for attention, for how fun it was, how validating from people who said thing like: « oh I was at this party, the headshots came, it was dope ! ». And then, in 1995, one of us came with the idea of pressing tapes. So we would go to other people’s concert. Like, The Roots or The Fugees came to town, we sit outside and try to sell tapes to people. It was like flyers but with tapes. And tapes were selling, people were like « Oh I’ve heard of you guys, I might grab that tape… »
Soon enough, the tapes started spreading and we were able to do some shows outside of Mineapolis. Until the point where we decided to take all the money we made, to press CDs and vinyls. That was kind of how all that started.
But the funny part is that I never had any intention of owning a record label. When I was a kid, I wanted to be like LL Cool J. I wanted a gold rope and be on a limousine with 3 chicks you know what I mean. Sometimes, I still think owning a label is a pain in the ass but I’m glad we did it, I feel fortunate.
Luckily, my partners don’t make me do any of the work. I can just be an artist and continue to contribute ressources as an artist. And I make decisions when it’s based on art. If you’re trying to figure out how much money to put into marketing of the new Brother Ali album, don’t even bother asking me because I will tell you shit. But if you say: « hey, this is gonna be the cover of the new brother ali record’. I have an opinion because that’s art related.
We were wondering, how come you guys are so prolific ? I mean, there’s almost an Atmosphere album coming out every year.
Indeed, it’s start to be embarrassing because there’s so many albums. We stopped counting after 7. That’s why we have been saying for the last 5 years, every time we had a new album, it was our 7th album (laughs).
Making music is what I love to do more than anything else. When I was a kid, it was all about cars because my father repaired cars. So, I could have been obsessed about that. My father also did carpentry. One of my brothers is obsessed with carpentry, plumbing and electricity and he is an artist about it. Me, I fell into music and it became an obsession too.
But I think that, regardless of what I fell into, I would have become obsessive about it because it is just the type of children that our parents raised. Plus, you know, people tell me that I’m a professional virgo. I’m not the astrology type of person but I do recognized what they mean by that because I’m obsessed with…things. For example I have a MASSIVE record collection that I keep meticulously organized, you know, with sections by alphabetical order. Music is just what I happened to choose.
Speaking about this huge record collection, we heard you used to work at a record shop, right ? So we were wondering what do you think about the rise of digital music (SoundCloud, Spotify, Bandcamp…) ?
I think it’s fine. I mean, it’s never gonna go away so there’s no reason to complain. I feel like the only time I complain if it’s gonna make an impact. There’s no need to complain if your complaints are gonna make an impact. The digital era of music is perfect for the digital era of music listeners. You know, you gotta remember, popular music is to make young people wanna fuck. That’s what it is. You know if you can make a song that makes 19 year old wanna fuck, that’s a hit song. So whatever, the 19 year old wants, whatever the 17 year old wants you have to let room for that. You can’t just be old and bitter and say « Ah, these kids don’t know what they’re doing. » They know exactly what they’re doing just like I knew exactly what the fuck I was doing when I was 19 and I was shopping records. Now they have all their music on their fucking phone. Who am I to stand in the way of their future. Let the kids fucking go !
I don’t have a negative opinion about it but at the same time, I’m glad it wasn’t there when I was kid. I’m glad I collected all these artifacts. Because they are, artifacts, they’re things that I can pass down or give to somebody. To me, that’s just as important as the music that’s on them. The picture, the info, all of that stuff is as important as the music.
In France, HH heads are really digging this alternative rap from the early 2Ks as a genre (you, CunninLynguists, Doom, Del…) Do you feel like y’all belong to the same sort of movement or sub genre ?
Well, I’m friends with all those guys. Musically speaking, all of us are different from each other. Del (ndlr: Del The Funky Homosapien) has idiosyncrasy that is different from what Doom does. Doom is different than me. But, the bond between all of us that I think we all share is that we all rap for ourselves. We all make music for ourselves. If anybody else likes it, cool ! But if you don’t like it. It’s cool too. Whereas, other parts of this tree make music for clubs, for hits, to dance. If you look at our music, it’s not for that.
You know, Doom is writing songs to make his friends laugh. He’s trying to find things to say to make other people, who are like him, go « Oh, I can’t believe he said that ! ». Same for Del and for me. We are making music for people who are like us.
In that regards, I do think there is a bond between those artists you named but, I think the reason why our fans have a sort of connection with our music it’s because they know how personal the music is to us. If they can listen to it and feel it, it becomes a personal things to them.
Whereas a lot of times, rap music on the radio is not so personal. The beat makes you wanna move or the chorus stuck into your head but it’s not « oh my god, this song, it’s talking about me ». It’s a different kind of connection. It’s like the difference between The Rolling Stones and Tom Waits. You don’t play Tom Waits to parties, you play it to listen, you play it to think. But, The Rolling Stones makes you wanna fuck (laughs) !
Now that you are in your 40s and you have kids. Did you change the way you make music ?
Not consciously but I’m sure that my kids, my age, my wife all influence it. For instance, one critic said something about our last record: « in this song is talking about baby birds, in that song he compared himself to a polar bear. What’s up with all the animal references ?! » Yeah ! I have a fucking 4 year old animal references in my world right now ! So, it did make into my lyrics. Of course I didn’t mean to put animal references in my songs but naturally it just came.
If you take my music, from the first record to the last one, it has always been influenced by wherever I was in that time. Maybe that’s one of the strength of our music. I’ve never had to lie, to pretend to be anything. I just write about whatever I’m thinking about. And I couldn’t imagine how difficult it’d be to write playing a role and even worse to write about the same shit over and over like some of my favorite rappers writing about the same stuff than 20 years ago.
Man you’re still rapping about selling drugs ? You’ve been selling drugs for 20 years and nobody is giving you a better position ?! You’re the worst drug dealer in the world man ! You should be the kingpin, not on the corner selling purple top vials of crack ! (laughs)
Obviously they’re not selling drugs. They just think « oh, my audience liked me for this song I’m gonna stick being like this ». Sometimes us, is the audience that don’t allow artists to grow because we want that…
I was influenced by Prince, by Tom Waits and some other things outside of rap that showed me that I had to grow, to evolve. And there might be some guys saying, I was a fan of Atmosphere when they did God loves Ugly and that was the stuff I like. You know what, that’s fine, there’s plenty of other rap groups doing God Loves Ugly type of music in 2014. Just because I evolved doesn’t mean you have to evolve. And honestly, I’d rather have the pure connection of my fans with what I’m making now than worrying about holding on to my audience.
Bonus: Take a look at our photos of Slug and Ant rocking the crowd of Machine du Moulin Rouge in Paris. © Antoine Monégier