Throughout his celebrated career as an emcee in Atmosphere, Slug has explored pain and hope with critically acclaimed lyrics. On the group’s forthcoming Southsiders album, due in stores tomorrow (May 6), the Minneapolis rapper remains in search of answers to several questions he’s faced in life.
“I guess I’m looking for some sort of promise that everything is going to fucking be okay,” Slug says in an exclusive interview with HipHopDX. “We’ve put in a lot of time and effort into chasing these fucking dreams and you reach a certain point where you’re kind of like, ‘Why? Why have I put so much time and effort into chasing this dream? What am I trying to communicate? What is it that I am trying to say?’ Not only that, but, ‘How much time do I got left before I have to stop? Either because they’re going to fire me or because I’m gonna get hit by a bus? At some point, it all has to stop and when it does, will I have said it all? Will I have got it all out there?'
“So this is the record where I’m like, ‘Well, what am I supposed to make a record about now?’” he adds. “I already am in my 40s. What am I supposed to rap about now? Like ‘Oh, maybe you should rap about the things you’re thinking about.’ Nowadays, I don’t have to worry as much about the phone bill, so I have time to start thinking about things like the ocean. I have time to start thinking about things like gentrification…There are a lot of things I hit on this record. It’s just the stuff I’m thinking about. That’s definitely different shit.”
Slug Details Writing Evolution, Misinterpretations Of Atmosphere Lyrics
Slug’s lyrics on Southsiders may focus on what he’s been thinking about in recent times, but the Minneapolis emcee’s writing has been critically applauded at least since Overcast! was released in 1997. His work as a lyricist has been celebrated for its “poignant self-awareness, intelligence, razor-sharp humor and the ability to address the opposite sex better than anyone,” as said by HipHopDX in 2005. In 2011, Slug was also acclaimed for having a “serious claim to Hip Hop’s storytelling throne” by HipHopDX.
Many of Slug’s stories, like “The Woman With The Tattooed Hands” off 2001’s Lucy Ford: The Atmosphere Ep’s, or “Became” off 2011’s The Family Sign, have been coded, often times left for the listener to interpret the cut’s meaning. Sometimes, fans have interpreted songs to mean something other than what Slug intended, a fact that used to bother the emcee. Now, he says, he views things differently.
“There were times when I would have got frustrated with some of the interpretations because I use to think that I was saying really important shit,” Slug says. “Once I embraced the fact that the stuff I’m saying is not the end of the world, the stuff I’m saying is just me…People don’t got to hear it. People don’t got to listen to it. I got over it.
“I’m fortunate people would even take the time to misinterpret or misunderstand my shit so I’m cool with it,” he adds. “Let me put that out there. I have no sort of anxiety [about misinterpretations]…I don’t resent it or regret it. Also, with that said, not only am I cool with it, but there’s elements to it that I really appreciate, because mostly one of the reasons I am fortunate to be in this situation is because some people take the shit I say and apply it to their own life and their own world, in which case they have to misinterpret it, because if I wrote it in a way that was exclusively meant for myself then why would I bother playing it for you in the first place? So in essence, just the act of me putting it out there and making it public, is me kind of giving it permission to be misinterpreted. Once you put out some art, I don’t care if it’s a painting, sculpture or song, once you put it out, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It belongs to the listener. It’s now theirs to make it whatever the fuck they want to make it and you kind of have to accept that and it’s okay… That’s what it’s for, man. It’s for other people to take and apply to their world and their lives. Whether it’s just to make their drive to work better that morning, or if they are smoking weed and listening to it late at night and actually applying parts of it to their lives to help them to do something, or whether they are just having a good time with it. Whatever it is they are doing with it, it’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful fucking thing.”
Slug Discusses Evolution Of Storytelling, Rejecting Labels
Although much of Slug’s work has been coded, he’s also been known to give away the meaning of a song on occasion. Take “Yesterday,” for instance, a 2008 cut off When Life Gives You Lemons You Paint That Shit Gold, about making amends and reliving memories. At the end of the track, he reveals the song is about his father, providing concrete subject matter where he may have been more abstract in the past.
“Maybe there’s a part of me that still is not giving the listener enough credit as a listener,” he says. “Like, ‘Oh, I have to spell this out for them’ or something. Who knows? A lot of it comes from insecurities as an artist. You know, art is sensitivity.”
Although the song is about Slug’s father, the rapper says listeners can still pull many different things from it.
“Somehow, the whole song was about me trying to make to make amends with my father who passed away,” Slug says. “Yet the premise was about when somebody dies, you feel like you see that familiarity of them and you feel like you recognize them in the faces of strangers. So it came from seeing people around my city saying, ‘Dude, that’s my dad.’ But really the song itself was about trying to make amends to the dead. I should have done that when he was alive. And I think that’s where, ultimately, no matter what you hear when you hear the song, it’s really about you as a listener. That song is there for a listener to pick up things for them, like, ‘I can totally relate because my mom passed away’ or ‘my brother’ or ‘my friend’ or some shit like that. Or you could just take it as being a song about making amends.”
The subject matter revelation also takes place on Southsiders’ “My Lady Got Two Men,” a cut that features the following in its chorus: “My lady got two men / One's a stranger and the other's a friend / She keeps us both ‘cause she needs us / Zigs-zags back and forth in between us.” In the end, Slug explains what the two men are symbolic of. “My lady got two lovers / One for the funk and the other for the comfort / I’m trying to understand / But I gotta figure out that I'm both of them.”
Slug says he sometimes enjoys giving away the plot twist or symbolism in a song, but that he hopes to always take listeners on an unexpected journey.
“I want to be the kind of artist that doesn’t have a usually,” he says. “Ultimately, I don’t want you to be like, ‘Oh, he always gives it away at the end,’ or ‘There’s always a punchline at the end,’ or, ‘He’s always so fucking cryptic we don’t know what he’s talking about.’ I don’t want to be an artist that has a usual…You don’t want to be put in a particular bucket.”
Still, Slug says he writes lyrics without worrying about how he’s going to be labeled. “I’m just following my nose,” he says, “writing these songs with Anthony, and people just keep letting us.”
Slug Explains Evolution Of Ant Partnership, Friendship In Atmosphere
Slug’s relationship with producer Ant, who he refers to as Anthony, has also evolved over the years.
“We’ve gotten closer over the years,” Slug says. “Closer as friends, closer as artists. We have a fuller understanding of each other and where we’re coming from when we create.”
Slug says this dynamic has allowed him to also view the group differently.
“That’s how I think I finally can explain that our music is about pain and hope,” he says. “There was a time that if you asked me about our music six years ago, I wouldn’t have had an answer like that because I wouldn’t have known it, but now I can see a closer look at where he is coming from and matching that with where I’m coming from.
“Now I can finally see, ‘Oh, this is the commonality,’” he adds. “This is the common thread between the sounds that he chooses and the words that I choose and I think it’s only going to continue to grow stronger.”
Slug Explains Pain & Hope Theme In Atmosphere's Discography
The theme of pain and hope, which Slug says refers to as a thread connecting the albums in Atmosphere’s discography, is also explored on Southsiders. On the album’s “Arthur’s Song,” for instance, Slug addresses the impact of agony. “We face pain with pain,” Slug raps on the track. “Everybody’s the same when you’re standing in the rain.”
“We face our pain by putting more pain on it,” he explains. “That’s kind of a reference to alcohol or to escapism. ‘Everybody’s the same when you’re caught in the rain.’ That means that out here in the storm, we’re all same. It doesn’t matter who’s got nice shoes. It doesn’t matter who has the cool haircut. You’re all fucking wet. That’s my way of saying pain is a universal truth…That is what kind of connects us all. That and hope. Pain and hope.”
Slug’s understanding of pain has also evolved through the years, even if pain has remained a constant in the rapper’s life.
“The difference is that your pains and your struggles might change,” Slug says. “Pain, that’s what evolves. If you listen to our records, I think that’s where the music kind of comes from, somewhere between pain and hope…And that evolves when you get older. It evolves and your situations change.”
Earlier in his life, Slug says that pain may have come from a variety of sources, including a lack of financial stability and the mother of his first son, Jacob. Some of this has changed with time and with success.
“I see a lot of the pain in…people,” he says. “Now, I guess a lot of my pain stems from love. It seems that the pain just comes from being human and having people that I love in situations that hurt.”
Perhaps that’s the pain heard on Southsiders’ “Flicker,” for instance. On the track, Slug expresses his pain filled reaction to losing a friend and a colleague in Eyedea, who died October 2010. “It stays in my head,” he raps. “That I was on a stage when you were laying in bed / Body was discovered by your own mother / It penetrates my chest, I still taste the regret.”
And while that pain is explored, it’s also accompanied by words of affection despite the agony of loss. “I’m missing you, but I ain’t gonna lie,” he raps. “The distance grew between Eye and I / And at the end, even though we didn’t speak enough / You were easily one of the best people I’ve loved.”
The exploration of pain on this album is also accompanied by Slug’s notion that “we’re all the same” as it’s presented in the project’s “The World Might Not Live Through The Night” selection. “Everybody want the same thing,” Slug raps on the track. “We all want the same things / We all wanna chase dreams / Celebrate trying to maintain with a little more time to appreciate this painting.”
This understanding of pain as a problem and hope as a resolution is integral to Slug’s writing. “I try to write from the resolution to deal with the issue,” he says. “I try to pick a concept or theme. I call it an issue, and I write from a place that’s about the issue and then I try to find the resolution and then offer it by the end of the song. To me, that’s the hope part. For me the issue is the pain and the resolution is the hope.”
This is even further emphasized on “Arthur’s Song” when Slug follows the line about facing pain with pain with a reference to his solution in the face of agony. “I guess that’s why I write about it,” Slug raps on the track. “It helps me wrap my head around it / No matter what the world’s tryin’ to take from you / No matter what the world’s tryin’ to make you prove / No matter what the world’s tryin’ to say to you / You gotta write your way through.”
This echoes the message on “Party For The Fight To Write,” off 2001’s Lucy Ford: The Atmosphere Ep’s, further emphasizing the importance of writing and equality that has been part of Atmosphere's discography for years. “We don't get along but we sing the same song,” he raps on the 2001 track’s chorus, “Party for the fight to write, and write on.”
Writing from pain with eyes on hope may be a common thread woven throughout the group's catalogue. Now, Slug says he is able to see that more clearly.
“I don’t think I ever realized it as much as I see it right now,” he says. “I think it’s come out of me in the past, but I feel like now it might just be the way the sun is hitting me somewhere in California and I’m just having this romanticized moment about pain and hope. But I feel like, ‘Shit, man. There might be some work I could do with that. I like that.’”