RH Interview: Atmosphere’s Slug On Becoming An OG

RH Interview: Atmosphere’s Slug On Becoming An OG

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit down with Slug, an independent rap legend behind Atmosphere and the Rhymesayers label. Last year Atmosphere celebrated the 20th anniversary of their debut album Overcast! and they are currently touring in anticipation of their next album Mi Vida Local. I grew up listening to Atmosphere’s records on repeat (when I told Slug this he said, “Oh man, I’m sorry”) so I took the opportunity to ask him questions that I’ve had for years. We met up about an hour before his set at Riot Fest and talked about how the game has changed in the 20 years he’s been a part of it, when he realized that he is an OG, and what that means for him.

rubyhornet: The first time I saw you was at Mile High Music Festival and I remember you had some live instruments with you as well as a DJ. Do you prefer having a DJ over a band?

Slug: That’s a good question. I don’t know if there’s an easy answer to that. When we switched to the live band, a big part of that was because we needed to find some challenges to face. I had been touring for a long time with a DJ and I didn’t really have enough imagination to see how much higher we could push the ceiling with a DJ so I thought to push the ceiling of creativity higher we had to start bringing live instruments on stage, and it worked. It was a lot of fun, and it definitely made me learn new tricks. It made me learn new ways to approach music. It even taught me a lot about myself as a performer and what my range really, really was. Cause in your head you’re like, “Oh I could do that” and sometimes you can’t, and in your head you’re like “I can’t do that” and sometimes you can you know what I mean? So it gave me a lot more insight as to what I was capable of. And then after learning a little bit more about different interfaces, we discovered that if we fucked with Ableton we could push the ceiling even further than we could at the time with a band. And we had done the band thing at that point for about 6 years so it kind of felt like, okay this is a good time to figure out what’s next. It fucked us up because there was a learning curve. Going back to turntables is one thing, but after having the wall of sound that you can have with a band how do you do that with turntables? So we had to figure out ways to fuck with that, you know? And we’re still learning. Especially with technology and all the different types of tools they give you now to paint with. It’s been a lot of fun learning that shit. And traditionally I’m not a very computer savvy human being, I’m not good at technology – I would still record on a 4 track if they let me – and so for me to get my feet a little wet fucking with this stuff has also been really fun. I think it’s preparing me to be able to hold conversations with my children in the future so they don’t think i’m just an old man singing songs for a bowl of soup somewhere.

rubyhornet: Are you still trying to find a balance? If so what are you trying to balance?

Slug: The thing is whenever someone even puts those words together as a line [in an interview], I cringe for obvious reasons, cause it’s cute to ask that question but of course I am. I’ve found a lot of different ways to plug in and keep myself happy, and keep myself enlightened and I feel fortunate that I have found those things and I haven’t hit a wall or a tree yet. It would be disingenuous for me to say that I have found it. But I’ve found things that help. I think when I originally was on that mantra I was definitely a lot more confused about how to help myself. I only saw a few different avenues to do what now-a-days we refer to as self care or self regulation. It was like, drugs, booze, party. Whereas now, as a much older person, I’ve definitely found ways to plug in and still keep myself healthy, so if that means I’ve found some balance… I don’t know, I don’t know how to answer that question. I mean I’m not content with life, you know, I’m happier. Here’s the problem with happiness, when you achieve some of it you start to find other stuff that you want to fuck with or fix. When you fix a problem you’re not just going to go, okay I get to sit on a beach now and do nothing, you find new problems that you want to try to fix. I hope that’s how life’s supposed to feel, cause that’s what it is.

rubyhornet: I guess what I’m really trying to ask is would the young Slug understand the things you are talking about and music you’re making today?

Slug: No. I don’t think so. I think that a young Slug would probably be like, “Yo, I respect the hustle and the grind you guys put into it but I don’t necessarily relate”. If Slug was 25 today he would probably have some face tattoos. He would be part of the movement that’s occurring today just like what I was at 25, I was part of the movement that was happening, I was another clone. And I’m not using clone in a negative context. I was just listening to the audio book that J Prince put out recently. He said something that really struck me. He was talking about sheep and shepherds, followers and leaders, and he was kind of like, what the followers don’t realize is that they are actually stronger than the leaders, cause the leader ain’t shit without the followers. The leader needs the followers to do the work. The leader is actually more dependent on the follower than the follower is on the leader. It got me to thinking about when I was younger. I was a follower when I was 25, I rapped a certain way because that was the protocol. That’s what was taught to me, how you’re supposed to be if you want to fit in. So I would still be that, I would just be today’s version of that, I would sound like what today is supposed to sound like instead of making what me and Anthony make. Some kind of throwback to old rap, well it’s not a throwback we are fucking old… But if I was making the music that I’m making today back then we would have murdered the game. Because we were so primitive then, our tools were primitive and our execution was primitive. It was the right feeling, but now we’re able to execute these things in ways that are just superior to what it used to be. But the times have changed, so we don’t make music that fits in with whatever they play on the radio. It’s a good space to be in I think. I could only wish this for everyone who’s 25 right now who gets their foot in the door. Stop and think about where you want to be in 20 years because if you don’t want to still be making music and you want to live on an island, go for it. But if you still want to be making music in 20 years think about how you lay that path out, how you present yourself to it because that’s how it presents itself back to you – not on some hippy ass shit, you can’t come to Riot Fest and be a hippy – but it is really what you give the game the game gives back to you.

rubyhornet: One of the things that you’ve done is you’ve had incredibly honest lyrics, which is interesting because we’re in a time where if you said something 20 years ago, and if you contradict that now people will pull up what you first said and then you’re done. As an artist that presents what it seems is the truth about yourself, how do you balance that with change?

Slug: Here’s the thing, I said things 20 years ago that I would never say today just because of personal growth. And I can only imagine that if what you’re saying is applicable to all of us then someone out there should be calling me out on some of the shit that I said 20 years ago. I had far less perspective, I had far less insight, I was also part of the crowd and I was just doing what the crowd did. So there were words that I used in raps from 20 years ago, there are even ideas that I asserted 20 years ago that I would be hesitant to now because now I can see how toxic some of those things are. Now I’ve been able to see the long-term effects of that type of toxicity on ourselves and on the younger kids. You know, we’re OG’s now. It’s hard to admit that you’re an OG because, you know at 19 you might be able to dunk a basketball, at 39 your brain thinks that you can still dunk it but you’re body’s like, no. So it’s hard for me to come out of the mindset that I’m some kind of up-and-comer to accept that, no, I’m actually an OG with something that I’m supposed to be sharing and passing down.

rubyhornet: What was the moment that you realized that? That you are an OG and you need to take that next step?

Slug: It was a while ago I guess. I was reluctant to take that step but it was probably 5 to 10 years ago. It was kind of one of those things where we were becoming a legacy. It was right around the time where Macklemore, Kendrick, Big Sean, these guys were starting to get really big. I was like, “Man I’m not like these guys, I’m not competing with them, it’s the next generation.” So really I just gotta stay aware of what’s happening and have an opinion. Share that opinion if anyone asks, but even with social media I was able to start sharing opinions without anyone asking you know? Unsolicited opinions. I’m a dickhead when it comes to that because I give them, but I don’t think my opinions are so fucking edgy or hot-takish that they really piss people off. I think it just adds to the larger informational movement that’s going on. So it wasn’t so much like I’m an OG now, it was more like where I still am today, I have some insight and I’ve learned some shit, and if anybody ever wants to know hit me up and I’ll tell you what I think. But the problem is man, the shit that was going on when I came into it you couldn’t succeed doing that anymore. There’s all new rules about how to get in the door you know? I mean shit, I think about if we had soundcloud back then, would it have been easier or harder? I don’t know. Cause it wasn’t easy for us to get here, but I’m not saying soundcloud makes it easier for people because soundcloud is full of artists that aren’t getting noticed. It’s weird, the tools are in everybody’s hands but now you really gotta rise to the fucking top. Whereas back when I was coming in you just had to be good enough to fucking get people to say your name and get their attention, and once you got their attention you could prove yourself to them. Now I don’t know what it’s like. But like I said, I’ve got a lot of information in my head and I just wanted to make sure that I was available for people to get that information if they ever thought there was anything applicable. And that’s the version of an OG that I kinda became. Because I have OGs and when you have OGs can you be an OG? I don’t fucking know how this works you know? I’m from Minneapolis, I’m learning this shit still.  

rubyhornet: Rhymesayers has always repped Minnesota, is the album Mi Vida Local an homage to your home?

Slug: That’s a hard one. Cause the record is really about kind of finding where your baseline is today. I’m from Minneapolis and I’m surrounded by Minneapolis, that’s my life, that’s my family, my family before me. I feel like I’m in a weird space in Minneapolis because the younger younger kids look to us to be like “What should I do next?” but there’s a generation between us and them that’s like, “I’m looking at you like I need to compete with you. I need to go bigger than you” I’m sitting here from where I’m at looking at everybody like, man I’m not competition. Don’t compete with me, shoot higher. Go compete with fucking Kanye, don’t compete with Atmosphere. Like, why set your sights there? What a fucking Midwestern way to do this shit, shoot for the stars.

rubyhornet: It seems like a lot of people have followed the Rhymesayers method, growing from a crew to a label and then on, from Odd Future to Stone’s Throw. Why do you think your method works so well?

Slug: It’s hard to say man, cause we didn’t invent that wheel. We took a wheel from before and interpreted it and did a version of it.  You know what i’m saying, look at Wu-Tang or Native Tongues you feel me? We just took the version that was available to us. One, we wanted a posse. Two, labels were all in New York or L.A. and they didn’t want to hear shit from a rapper in Minneapolis and there were a lot of us rappers in Minneapolis so we were just like fuck it let’s start our own label and see what happens. There’s no way we knew it would work, we just knew we had no choice. So when you look at it like that we’re definitely just another notch in a long line of notches of people who made decisions based on the fact that they didn’t have no other choice. I see that more as a strength to what we are. We didn’t have a plan. Odd Future, I feel like their shit was definitely more thought out and more strategic. Our shit was just like, a decision would come up and we would have to make it and then we would grow through common sense. That’s the difference – if we had strategized it, it probably wouldn’t have worked. We’re from Minneapolis, who the fuck is gonna give us the time of day? We just didn’t have a lot of choices. We did what we did out of necessity, and I feel like that is like I said another notch in a series of notches in this culture of people making something out of nothing. And I feel like we’re more on the tail-end of that than we are on the front end of this new branding and creating conglomerates of art and media. I don’t think we’re so much on the front of that than we are on the tail-end of making something out of nothing.

rubyhornet: You see that as the new step in Hip Hop?

Slug: In a way. The thing that I like about it is that it’s got more to do with the culture and not just music. The music’s a part of it but there’s art, there’s fashion, there’s slang, there’s a lot more at play inside of those types of families. There’s more influence going on there. And I find it to be more representative of the culture. Because there’s a lot of people in this culture that don’t rap, you know what I mean? So what the Odd Futures of the world are doing today – are they the right ones to use? I’m just gonna arbitrarily pick them – what they’re doing in this movement now and what others like them are doing I feel like touches the full culture. Like we did our best to make sure we represented graffiti in our photos and things like that. But we made a record label that put out music, we didn’t put out books and clothes and things that could be there to give these kids something they identified with and something they can communicate to other kids with, which is what this whole culture is. So I don’t want to take any credit for inspiring the greats of today as much as I would say I was inspired by the greats that were before me.

rubyhornet: Standing on the shoulders of giants.

Slug: Standing on the shoulders of Method Man and shit, you know what I’m saying?

rubyhornet: Which of the 3 Felt projects did you feel most passionate about?

Slug: Oh man, probably the third just because every time we did one it was another challenge. The thing about Felt that I don’t think anybody could ever see, but if you care – if you’re reading this and you actually give a shit about Felt – the thing that you can’t see is how difficult it is for us to make a record. We’re best friends but once we get going it turns into arguing and all that bickering back and forth that you would find in a 22 year old couple. That’s the real challenge, being able to figure out how to make that music. And the third Felt was produced by Aesop Rock who is also for all purposes, a very overly adequate emcee who has a lot of fucking opinions. Grouch was less opinionated, he didn’t care what we made songs about. But Aesop he had input like, that is a stupid song you guys shouldn’t make that. So that made that last Felt like we really had to figure out the puzzle, so I feel like that might have been the one. The second Felt, I love that one. To me it has some of our best songs, but it was Ant, it was my producer, so it was easier to make that work. We had such a mechanical way between us already, it’s like we didn’t even need to talk we just knew what the other one was thinking. Whereas with Aesop it was like suddenly having a puzzle without border pieces we had to analyze it to figure it out. And I think I can hear that myself on the really rare occasion that I hear those songs, but I don’t know if anyone else can hear that. It might be one of those things that’s just for me to see.

rubyhornet: Should we not hold our breath for a 4th one?

Slug: I don’t know. I didn’t know there was gonna be a 3. I didn’t know there was gonna be a 2 til we made Felt 2. So I don’t know man. I know this, I’m not getting any less busy and neither is Murs. The thing about the Felts that was important was that we only made them if our schedules matched and we had some time to make them. We didn’t ever break our backs to make one, know what I mean? It was never like “We’ll do it in August”. It was more like, “Are you on tour? Na, I’m not on tour. Want to hang out? Let’s make a record.” So whatever the odds are that our schedules would ever actually match, that’s about the odds that we would make another one. I can’t say we will, cause I don’t want to be a dick and make people think we will, but I won’t say we won’t because why wouldn’t we you know? So I would just say if we ever have time we will make another one, I think so.

rubyhornet: I don’t want to keep you too long, so I just want to ask you one more question. You have one of the most loyal fanbases in hip hop, do you feel like you have a responsibility to your listeners in the way that a preacher would?

Slug: There’s probably a little of that. Most of my responsibility to my listeners is that I want attention. I like to have people look at me. As a kid I was a class clown. I just want fucking attention, I want to make girls laugh, I want to make dudes jealous, that was always my thing. That’s where everything stems from to a fault. But there’s definitely different muscles that I’ve built, that I didn’t even know were there when I was younger. As I’ve made my moves there’s a preacher muscle that’s built a little, there’s a leader muscle that has built a little. But those aren’t necessarily good muscles because who the fuck wants to be preached at? Who wants to be lead? We naturally push back against authority, but still want authority. It’s weird you know? So I don’t like to be “Oh yeah I do this, this and this.” I just know I’m fucking human, I have these qualities, I also get preached at and I also get led. I’m not the top preacher, I’m just another one  that’s in the mix. Like I have neighbors that are preachers. Nobody cares, but they have signs in their yard for who they’re gonna vote for. But also I’m a fucking douche. The duality is real. I’m on both sides of a lot of this crap, you know what I’m saying? I’m a dude so therefor I love women and likely hate women as well. We all have this duality that we’re trying to figure out and make ourselves better humans in time for us to die so that we can come back as a grasshopper and not a fucking toad –

rubyhornet: Or a human again and have to deal with all this shit.

Slug: Good point. No one ever brings that up. Like, “Dog, I hope when you die you come back as a person. Fuck you I hope you come back as a person!”

Stephen Kaplan