Atmosphere's Slug Clarifies Role At Rhymesayers Entertainment, Talks Storytelling
Exclusive: Slug breaks down his day-to-day role at the label that's released hit albums by Brother Ali, Evidence and MF DOOM. He also says that he writes his verses to make his influences proud.
It's less than an hour before showtime at Atlantic City, New Jersey's House Of Blues. Fans have flooded the Riverboat Casino to see Atmosphere, Blueprint and B. Dolan, and there is a line building at the upstairs entrance to the massive two-level indoor venue, above the slot machines, gift shops and karaoke.
The line is moving slow for two reasons. It's a large crowd, especially for a Thursday night. Also, one of the headliners, Slug, is personally thanking everybody who walks in. This is not a V.I.P. meet-and-greet or a photo op with a tour sponsor, it's just one of the most successful independent Hip Hop artists of all-time being himself. In a camouflage Minnesota Twins cap, black t-shirt and some crisp red Adidas, the emcee, label founder and storyteller born Sean Daley holds court. He photo-bombs, humbly receives compliments and jokes around with fans. Still a jester, but seemingly no longer the "sad clown." Slug has found a way to write songs that have parallelled his personal growth and life changes, and he still packs a house.
Several hours before the show, Slug is hanging out in the backstage green-room with tour-mate and friend B. Dolan. Ant enters the room and leaves several time, but the highly-respected producer/deejay maintains his signature low profile. Well over a year removed from the Top 20 debut of The Family Sign, there isn't an album to promote or the usual talking points. Instead, HipHopDX and one of the site's long heralded emcees share a moment in time to discuss RSE, storytelling and even Arby's.
Slug As A Storyteller
DX: I've spoken to Ant a few times since, but the last time I interviewed you over the phone was 2003, it was Seven’s Travels, it was the day Elliott Smith died and I remember talking to you about that. And I’m curious--
Slug: Wait, it was the day Elliott Smith died?
DX: Might have been before. This was October.
Slug: I think that must have been ’04. No- yeah, yeah I think that may have been ’03 actually.
DX: You were at Arby’s, I don’t remember where. But you and I were talking about it--
Slug: In Arby’s, that was ’03. ‘Cause that was the only time I’ve ever eaten at an Arby’s.
DX: Oh okay.
Slug: Nah, I’m just kidding.
DX: [Laughs] At the time I was interviewing you and I’m thinking you know, what a tremendous emcee you were and I thought you were at the top of your game at that point, not in a negative way, but I was like this is it. And it’s amazing to me that both in terms of commercial success and just art, you’ve only gone further than that. I want to ask you, as a storyteller - because I think you deserve to be in the same circles as a Slick Rick, Dana Dane or Ghostface Killah, how do you stay so sharp and able to constantly have more to say?
Slug: I don’t know. ‘Cause I feel like I haven’t really made conscious efforts and decisions to try something new. But I know or I’m aware that it’s only new to me. Just because I’m trying something new doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to get perceived that way, and so I’m always cautious to ever publicly claim, “I’m trying some new shit over here,” ‘cause there’s always room for a perspective to go, “Nah, you’re still just being you,” and then I know there’s truth to that, you know what I mean? So I can’t say that I’ve ever... I know that I wanted to go into more storytelling as just a means to strengthen my abilities at storytelling, but I didn’t know I was going to have a whole album full of that shit. You know, it’s just that as we were forming the album, we started shaving off the songs that didn’t necessarily fit the direction it was going, you know, next thing you know, you’ve got a record full of stories. Then after the fact you could be like, “Yo, I totally made a record for the stories,” you know what I mean? But I can’t say that I’ve ever woke up one day and been like, “This is what I’m gonna do.” You know, I do know when I sit down and write a song that is more of a story or some kind of wannabe-parable or some shit like that, I know I think about Slick Rick, I think about Buck 65, I think about different people who I liked their storytelling styles and I think like, “Would they like this?” You know what I mean? Like, how would I feel if I played this in front of my friends, I Self Divine, you know what I’m saying? ‘Cause it’s easy to make some shit on my back porch and be like, “This is awesome.” But the minute you gotta try and put it in front of someone you respect, is when you really get to see how you feel about it, you know what I mean? So it’s like, I try to do that in my head because I don’t have access to reach people. I mean, I can’t just e-mail Slick Rick the track and be like, “What you think, bro?” Yeah, maybe I could. I should try.
Slug's Role At Rhymesayers Entertainment
DX: You're touring in between albums. What’s it like for you and Ant to do that between albums in between creatively working towards something? Does it always get creative?
Slug: The projects and tours are very separate from each other. You give them a different way of thinking, and with that in mind, we don’t spend a lot of time on tour actually working on future projects. We discuss and talk about things, conceptualize things, but Ant’s not getting on the bus and making beats... and for the most part I’m not getting on the bus and rapping, mostly for me because I’ve done that in the past. You know, I did two whole records while on the road, and I’m displeased with the results of both of those records in that I see through [them], and I see how spotty that shit is and how random, and scattered and whatnot it comes out, and I don’t like that, you know what I mean? I want more focus with my announcements and with the things I want to say. So we don’t, we don’t spend time actually physically making music on the road. Just talking about it and listening to other peoples’ stuff and talking about it and a lot of talking about it. So what happens is when we do start to sit down and start making stuff, we both already have like a direction that we wanna go: it’s like [Ant is] gonna get home, he’s gonna start pulling out things with violins on ‘em. And I’m gonna get home and I’m gonna, like, start trying to pull influence on the shit that we talked about.
DX: You mention listening to other peoples' stuff. On Twitter, you big up a lot of your peers, new and old. I know Rhymesayers obviously has an extensive roster that you've helped build, and also has the Fifth Element store. How do you discover stuff to listen to, which seems like a silly question, but I know for artists, it can be challenging...
Slug: Well I’ll actually definitely be honest about the whole running a label thing: like I’m not very hands on. I’m hands on when it comes time to vote on situations or ideas or when you want some input like if you want some artist-friendly input, I’m the guy you bring in because I can tell you what the artist is going to think about what you’re gonna say, you know what I mean? I know to wear my hat. In the past I’ve been more involved and I have a tendency to not be the most productive; I crack jokes at the meetings, you know what I mean? You don’t get a lot done when I’m around, and eventually you get frustrated and you ask me to fuckin’ leave. So I know my place and I know when to show up. That said, I’m also still a very, very important part of the process, but just, I don’t need to necessarily be there to count pebbles. I don’t need to be there for your marketing meetings, unless you wanna bounce some artsy ideas off of me, I can tell you if that’s corny or if that’s cool. Now with that said, what was the fuckin’ question?
Slug On Sharing New Music The Old Fashioned Way & Via Twitter
DX: No, I was asking about where – where is your pull or finding stuff that you want to listen to too?
Slug: Most of the time now people reach out to me and go, “Hey check out my shit.” Or friends of mine... honestly Twitter plays a huge role now in what I find. Once in awhile I’ll watch a video [on YouTube] and I’ll actually click the sidebar that’s got other videos that [are] being suggested to you, sometimes I’ll find some shit that way. But really, you know I move around look at other peoples’ Twitters. I mostly do Twitter off a laptop I haven’t really figured out how to use my phone correctly for that shit, so it’s easy with that auto-fill space that’s at the top of my browser if I’m on Twitter’s site and now I want to put in “Aesop Rock Wins,” all I gotta type in is the “A-E” and I can go straight down, so now I’ll just like- you know 500 rappers in my Twitter that I’m not really following, but they’re in the thing so all I gotta do is remember the first couple letters of their thing and I can see what they’re talkin’ about. And they all talk about their friends records or you know, this, that, and so I go and I look and I listen.
And I feel like I really don’t spend too much time pushing the stuff on to other people. Like if I had more time I would love to be a stronger vehicle for music that I think is cool to be pushed out to the people that follow me on Twitter, but I just don’t have that much time to do it, so when I do have time I try to make the best of it.
DX: You came from an era where there wasn’t a Twitter, and I’m sure it was a very different aesthetic of trying to trying to get somebody to check you out.
Slug: Well I worked in a record store my whole fuckin’ life, pretty much. Even before we had The Fifth Element I bounced around record stores in the city. So I’ve always been the guy that people come in and go, “Hey, what should I buy?” And I can make a suggestion to you and you’ll buy it without even having to check it out. Some people asked me to put it on the listening station, but I grew a Twitter following, not for my raps but for my suggestions, so just imagine pre-Twitter it was still people who trusted what I had to say you know? That’s why on Twitter I still try to use it like that because I still like that part of the game, you know what I mean? That’s always been a part of me that’s me- even in high school, even before I worked in a record store I bought records. So kids would be like “Hey, I heard you playing this song,” and I’d be like, “Yeah, I’ll put it on a tape for you,” and then when I give you the tape I still got like nine other songs on the tape of shit that I like because that was just my way of like, “You know, if you like that, I think you’ll like this shit too,” you know what I’m saying? Do you know how many Done By The Forces Of Nature by Jungle Brothers I’ve probably helped sell? You know, and that’s always been kind of part of my role in whatever environment I’m in.
DX: Rhymesayers puts a lot of effort and money into the fan experience. Whether it's P.O.S.' "Optimist" video or it's the elaborate packaging to MF DOOM's MM...Food or Freeway & Jake One's Stimulus Package. As an artist, and as somebody founded Rhymesayers Entertainment, how important is it for you to keep that that fan-artist relationship, especially in a digital age?
Slug: I guess I’ll just speak on behalf of myself, because that kind of covers both. I think that it wasn’t always like that. When I was a kid I didn’t depend on artists to keep me engaged. They just had to make records and maybe it would be cool if I could stumble over an interview of theirs in a magazine or some shit like that. I think that it’s important to me, because that’s what made me, you know what I mean? As a fan, I never expected it. But as an artist, I mean, let’s face it, the mean reason people appreciate Atmosphere is because they feel like they know Ant, they feel like they know me. And in a sense they kind of do maybe, because in a sense we make ourselves maybe somewhat available, you know what I mean? We fuck around, we talk to people. I hang out front before the show, Ant’s at the bar, you know, whatever. And it’s always kinda been like that, even when I was showing up in your city in a rental car to play for 50 people. You know, I’ve done my best to continue that. I don’t mean that to sound like a chore, but it’s been a part of my experience with this. As a fan, it wasn’t there. As a rapper it’s just been part of being a rapper you know what I’m saying? It never went away. I used to troll the bar looking for people to party with after the show. Even though I don’t do that anymore, I still feel comfortable around these kids, I don’t feel like I need a fuckin’ security guard with me, I feel like these are good kids, you know what I mean? So I think it’s really important that people can have fun with the videos or have fun with the [social media], or now I’m doing this Instagram shit and I’m having fun with that. You know, and it’s like, for people to be able to possibly have fun back with you and interact with you.
Four hours later, following powerful opening sets by B. Dolan and Blueprint, Slug, Ant and band mates (guitarist) Nate Collis and (keyboardist) Erick Anderson play their first ever show in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Atmosphere highlights fan favorites and rarities from 15 years of albums and tapes alike, with Slug being the consummate showman during and between songs. A Rhymesayers Entertainment shimmery Disco medallion spins through the set, overtop - a long way from the Headshots days' wildest ambitions. But below, covered in sweat, it's almost 90 minutes of life on display before Slug finally raises the lights. Like the family, the dream is in tact.