Written by Eamon Whalen
Photo by Siddiq Sayers
To say the latest Atmosphere album, “Southsiders” is entirely an ode to the side of Minneapolis where the duo is from, wouldn’t be entirely true. Yes the album cover pictures them in front of the cemetery on 42nd street and 4th avenue south and yes there’s even a Minneapolis rap and Minneapolis rap gets song-title that reads “January on Lake St.” But it’s also about living with a south side state of mind. Finding what is yet to be uncovered, even in a place you love. Reaching “behind the breast” and “under the hair” to use Slug’s own words.
After representing for the southside of Minneapolis for nearly twenty years through seven studio albums, a slews of tapes and EPs, and relentless touring, Slug and Ant have reached a rare air for indie musicians - the relative contentment that comes with artistic and financial freedom.
On the eve of what has all the makings of the biggest Soundset yet, Slug spoke over the phone with us about a myriad of subjects, including the concept behind the new record, legacy and if he cares about it, finding a common struggle between he and his audience, the new internet bohemian, and of course, the best Sunday in May to be a rap fan in Minnesota.
GR: What inspired you to name the album “Southsiders?”
S: There was a number of reasons to do that. I’ve always tried my best to adhere to that rule of repping where you’re from in the music. I’ve never really named anything after the city, so I thought that would be cute. There was another agenda even outside of the geographical part of the fact that I’m technically a southsider. The concept of southside or southsider, I’ve fucked with that concept for a long time, in the sense of that it’s not always just about what side of the city you’re from. There’s a south side of every coin, you know what I’m saying?
Our last record, “The Family Sign,” people took that record and thought “They’re maturing musically! They’re maturing lyrically! They’re trying to be grown people now!” Instead of just taking it at face value for what it was, I made a record that celebrated the fact that I was in love with my wife, and my new kid. I’m still in love with my wife and all of my children, but I wanted to make some music that communicated that there’s a south side to that shit too. Having a family and responsibilities and reason to wake up and live, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re in some state of nirvana, because there’s still a struggle side to all of that, and I want to be careful saying struggle side, because I don’t want to imply that the south side means the struggle side, it just means the other side.
We’d always joke when we went on tour, that tonight, regardless of the city were in, this is the southside. That was a thing we used to say to the crowd and it reinforced that idea that everywhere you go there’s a south side. So this album is about the south side of love, the south side of marriage, even the south side of my career. Even though I don’t like to rap too much about being a rapper because it’s not the most relatable topic, but what people can relate to is work ethic, or not wanting to go to work. Even though I rap for a living, and someone else is a truck driver, we will share some similar feelings towards our jobs.
There’s also another subliminal thing on this record that’s about death and mortality. So to me, southside also represented death, graveyard, hell, the underworld. That’s kind of why we chose that graveyard from 42nd and 4th to be the album because you can stand next to that wall and the graves are higher than the sidewalk. On the cover, there’s dead people behind us. The graves are only six to eight feet deep, while the wall is like fourteen to fifteen. So it’s interesting we found a site where the dead people are actually above the ground, but are still underground. We just thought there a lot to communicate inside of the title southsiders.
Even though when I brought the title to the table I just thought it was cute. I did it because Anthony moved! He doesn’t even live on the southside anymore! And I’m strongly considering the same thing after last winter. I don’t know how many more of these fucking things I can do! I thought I might as well give the city one strong shout out before I leave. I’m going to Maui.
GR: To focus things geographically, how has being a southsider changed since you were growing up?
S: Honestly, I really don’t know how much has changed. I’ve actually tried to wait and watch for the change. When I was kid, we stuck together. Different neighborhoods had different clicks. All the houses I grew up in were between 34th and Columbus, to 42nd Oakland. In that particular neighborhood, you always had to look over your shoulder. When you got past 42nd, the neighborhood got nicer. The one thing I noticed in the 90s is that when you passed 42nd, you had to look over your shoulder still. The amount of looking over your shoulder, that type of geography, was spreading.
Instead of it becoming more hopeless, watching some of the younger kids in my neighborhood now, they still carry that stick-together aesthetic. Like these kids are still proud of being southsiders, much like the kids on the northside rep the northside. So to be honest man, not a lot has changed that hasn’t changed nationally. It’s not like we had some shit change on the southside that isn’t changing everywhere. It’s still working class, there’s still broken homes, there’s still single parent families, its still the home of brown babies with white moms. The only thing that’s really changed, is the technology.
GR: You’ve inspired a lot of kids to think that rapping was possible in Minnesota, for better or for worse. How do you feel about that? Do you care about legacy?
S: Of course I do. I don’t necessarily want to run and around and scream it, but yeah man, everybody wants to be appreciated for what they contributed to this planet. Even if we don’t think about it regularly, I think most of us do want to leave the world in a better place than how we found it. If my legacy could be me adding something positive or progressive to the mix, then yeah, I’m all about that. Who wouldn’t be? Then again I don’t want to dwell on it, because I think that’s when it becomes a caricature of itself. I don’t think you can aim to be a legend. The people make you that. You don’t get to run for that. You can’t campaign for that. Either they make you that or they don’t.
So when you say for better or for worse, maybe at the end of the day they’ll look at the books and say “it’s too bad Slug happened,” because it made things worse. You never know what they’re going to say about you when you’re gone. I do my best to be myself, and to talk my talk and walk my walk, and hope that it translates to something positive.
GR: It seems like you make a concerted effort on social media to put people on, especially local up and comers. Why have you chosen to do that?
S: I think that it’s important for beautiful people to be able to extend what they’re trying to communicate to other beautiful people, and if I can somehow be a conduit in that, that’s just natural, of course I want to be that. To be fair, I don’t put on everybody. There’s plenty of artists in our city that I’ve never tweeted about or mentioned or spoke to. I do my best to stay in tune with what’s going on. In the same breath I tend to only fuck with artists that I’ve met that I’ve been able to be like “this guy is great guy.” That goes further to me than “this guy is dope.” We have plenty of dope artists in our city, but I don’t care about who is dope. I’m more concerned about who is good as a human, and who has a good message and who is trying to do some productive, progressive shit. I hate coming back to that word. I apologize for that.
So it serves a handful purposes. Of course, there’s probably some agenda there. Like yo, I’m friends with Haphduzn. I’m friends with MaLLy. Not only do I think they’re dope people, not only do I think they’re dope artists, but they’re also my fucking friends. So that’s just some normal put your homies on type shit. I’m not stupid, I know tweeting their songs isn’t going to do a whole lot. There might be a couple kids who follow my twitter and might click it, but in this day and age that doesn’t give you a career. It just adds to the synergy of the whole situation. It shows my audience that this is the kind of music I like. You can get to know me better. In the same way that I went and saw Dallas Buyer’s Club or some movie and been like “check this out, I liked it.” It shows my audience who I am, when I’m able to show the type of art I appreciate. It reinforces a bond I have with my own audience. It works on various levels, to be able to have this outlet where I can share art and information.
Its funny, this is a great example. You work for a magazine. You do it because you got love for writing, love for music, love for culture, and you want to make a buck, you want to eventually be totally self employed, and have a career where you don’t have a boss and all that. You never went into it saying “I want to be a gatekeeper. I want to be a tastemaker.” Those weren’t part of your agenda, but they accidentally become attached to what you do. So even though you weren’t trying to be a gatekeeper and your magazine isn’t trying to be a gatekeeper, you have this power and position, you accidentally become a gatekeeper. That’s something that I had to learn the hard way. Like the people I don’t tweet about might be looking at me like “you don’t fuck with us?” Even though thats not what you or I set out to do. You still can’t help but feel a certain way like “ah man I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to leave you out.”
It goes both ways. On one hand you should see the amount of people that send me shit now, like “hey retweet this for me.” I have to be like, “I’m not a media outlet bro. You don’t have to have your publicist try to contact me for a retweet.” Even with rhymesayers, we never tried to be gatekeepers of the city or any of that. We had our own aspirations about who we are, and what our art is, and our culture is. You have no control over what box people put you in. I do my best to be as Switzerland as possible, but in the same breath, if I’ve had experiences with people that are not necessarily positive, I’m not going to hype their fucking music for them. You can be dope as fuck, but if I think you’re a prick I’m probably going to walk away.
GR: In the trailer for the documentary “Adult Rappers,” you say that after years of involving yourself in a culture that is in some way based around not giving a fuck, at a certain point you have to admit to yourself that you do actually give a fuck. Can you speak to how that applies to the new record and where you’re at right now?
S: I was in Los Angeles with Siddiq (CEO of Rhymesayers) a couple of weeks ago. I was talking to him about some shit I had watched on the internet about the ocean dying. I was just making small talk. but he’s like, “if you can’t sit there and think about the ocean dying, you must have a pretty good life right now.” He didn’t really mean that, he was being sarcastic, but the power behind his point really struck me. I was like, “wow you just defined my album for me,” and I never even thought about it in that light. Point blank, this is a music that was born out of struggle, out of kids trying to make some shit out of nothing. That’s where this comes from. Everywhere it travels, you can trace it back to making something out of nothing. You could take BDP, Black Eyed Peas, Geto Boys, and Atmosphere. You could take Chief Keef, all these artists are rooted in trying to make something out of nothing. Here we are thirty years later, and it’s not always easy to see that anymore. I have to look for it in my own music to an extent. I have made somewhat of a success out of myself. I’m no longer struggling to pay the rent, to put food on the table. Twenty years ago, it was a different story. I had to do all kinds of dumb to pay my bills and to ensure that my kid had some food. Now, all that shit’s taken care of, so wheres the struggle?
Take some of the most famous artists out right now, and they’re probably not talking about a struggle. If they are, they’re talking about a struggle twenty years ago. Jay might talk about sellin’ dope, even though he hasn’t in a long time. He still has those experiences he can fall back on. Now when he talks about things that are contemporary to him, its about art or buying cars. The life of being rich, where’s the struggle in that? Not that it can’t be traced back to a struggle, but his world is very insular. I didn’t want to be that. I’m not rich by any means, but I can’t talk about trying to find a place to sleep, or where I’m going to get my next meal because that’s not my life. So, what are the struggles I can rap about now? I’m not going to rap about the ocean dying, or at least not yet. My mind has been opened up to think about other struggles in the world, not just my neighborhood or my community, it’s not so insular. It’s more wide open. There’s a lot of struggle out there, I might not be going through it, but we’re all connected through this pain and sorrow of the world. I’m not disconnected from the world, and that’s where I’m at with the writing. It would be ingenuous for me to write about getting drunk at a bar, and waking up in a stranger’s bed, and trying to figure out who I am. I can write a song about getting wasted on my basement floor, and waking up, and trying to figure out what the fuck is wrong with my city.
GR: Thats make me wonder. You’ve had a pretty consistent output of music over the years. It’s never seemed like writer’s block is something you’ve had to deal with. Is it because of this strategy of opening up your perspective of topics to rap about?
S: I wish it was that easy. I wish I could say “what should I rap about?” I could sit here with you and the responsible people in us could listen ten things about what I should rap about because I have an audience. And if I have an audience I should do the right thing and give them these topics and issues to think about. When I actually sit down to write, it doesn’t go like that. A lot of the times, I find myself writing about shit that I never would’ve thought I should’ve wrote about. When I write, I write to the music. I do whatever the music asks for. So Ant will give me a beat, and that’s where I tend to go with it. I wish he could give me a beat, and that’d make me research cybergenics, and write a song about it. It’d be great if I could become one of these people that is smart enough to start communicating really important shit to the listeners. I wish I could be that. I just haven’t been able to be that yet, because I’m still wrapped up in the shit that I’m thinking about and worried about.
If I could get older and become some sort of wannabe rap philanthropist, maybe I could start delving into how to present that sort of information to people. Right now, I’m so much more concerned with sticking true to my gut. A lot of times, the gut follows the music, and the music takes me places that have been more informed by own experiences. I’m fortunate enough to do that. My identity has never been in a crisis. I’ve always been able to be myself in my music, for better or for worse. There’s other artists, that if they deviate from what they’ve been doing for twenty years, they might lose their audience. I’ve gotten lucky enough to be myself, do what I want to do, and people will at least check for it. I’m in a lucky spot.
I can’t really name a ton of artists that have been doing this for as long as I have that haven’t had to figure out a way to stay contemporary. Me and Ant just kind of get to roll with the times. I don’t have to compete with Danny Brown, or Action Bronson. I don’t have to compete with Mike Eagle. I can enjoy watching them do their thing. I don’t have to compete with any of the vets, either. We’re in a weird lane. But south side of that is that we’re never going to be the big thing. We’re never going to be huge. We’re never going to be Kendrick, or Macklemore. I don’t even know who to compare us to. The closest I can come up with is The Roots. I’m not saying we’re as good as The Roots, but in the sense of having our own lane, The Roots have their own lane.
But also I have fans that come and go. I guarantee today some kid will tweet at me saying I need to make “Overcast” again. Then I look and see that the kid is 19 and it’s like of course you want “Overcast” again! I don’t even want you to listen to “The Family Sign!” You’re not ready for that. I don’t mean it to belittle you, I mean, it doesn’t even bother me, until you get to be old and bitter. And then, it might cheer you up. We’re fortunate, like I said I can’t name too many groups in rap that have that relationship with their audience.
GR: How were you able to get to that position of, maybe artistic security is the right word?
S: I’d love to say it’s based on the fact that we’ve always been able to be ourselves. I never wore bells and whistles, so nobody expected me to put them on. The other thing too, is that we never blew up. That’s a blessing now. In 2003, we were like “fuck.” We were just on the cusp of being able to make ends meet and make rent. It looked like it might go there, but it didn’t go all the way, just enough for us to make rent. At the time, I’m like, “Why didn’t it happen? What went wrong?” but now I’m like “nah b, that was perfect.” I’m glad it didn’t blow up because the moment you blow up is the moment you’re expected to continue blowing up. What kind of pressure would that be? I like how we’ve done it. It’s been a slow cook. We’ve been slow cooking this meat, and our life is full of fucking nutrients.
I don’t have a Bentley, thank God. You know how freaked out I’d be if someone keyed my Bentley outside of 5th element? I drive a shitty ass truck, key that shit. I don’t care! I make enough money to handle the bills, but not enough or too little to where I’m stressed out about money. My friends who I’d classify as more successful than myself, they gotta deal with a lot of shit. I’m glad that I can still live a somewhat regular, Minnesotan, humble life. I can go buy a sandwich at the deli, and no one will talk about rap music, they’ll just ask me if I want onions on my sandwich. I’m into it.
GR: How has the creative process changed with Ant over the years? From going from that raw signature kick-drum to bringing in session players for more layered instrumentals.
S: We’re not over thinking it anymore. We used to over-think it. To be fair, we didn’t have a lot of resources. Our resources were our minds, and so we’d naturally over think songs, instead of going with the feeling of it. So I think that I’m guilty on a lot of albums of over-writing. Trying to fit too much information into a sentence. Painting with too many colors. Over time, both of us have morphed. I’ve learned how to do the less is more, painting with less strokes. Anthony has always made beats that were based in moods. He’s learning how to take moods and manipulate them through one song.
It’s not that different from what we used to do but we’re just not over thinking it anymore. We quit worrying about criticism. I don’t really care anymore. I don’t care what Pitchfork says. Music critic means you listen to music and you’re critical. Do your thing! I don’t care about that shit. I like what I do and I wouldn’t put it out if I didn’t like it. I like these songs, that’s the best way to describe the place were at. I’m not as worried about validation or selling records as I used to be. I just don’t want to do a disservice to this music, I want to represent the culture in a way that’s both respectful, and that I stand my ground.
GR: As far as representing the culture, I think Soundset has grown into something that shows the diversity and represents a fuller picture of the culture each year. You wrote a great response on facebook after the line-up was posted.
S: Oh yeah, those kids crying about 2Chainz! Give me a break. But to be real, when I was 16 I thought everything I thought was right. So when I find myself criticizing a bunch of 16 year olds for saying 2Chainz ain’t hip-hop, I have to step back and think that those kids think that they’re right. Everyone defines this shit for themselves. There is no way around that, especially for the youth. 19 year olds are supposed to point at me and call me a sell out because of the song, “Bitter.”
It’s not because we’re sellouts, it’s because that’s the identity of a 19 year old. You’re supposed to hate on shit because that makes you who you are. Over time, kids shed those skins and become more fluent with the world, but we have to realize that we have to let kids think like that, and have those opinions. You have to give these kids room to do that, and we can chuckle behind their backs because we know that they’ll eventually outgrow that. We all went through that. Not one of us didn’t draw dotted lines around something.
GR: But also I do think Soundset represents a new togetherness of hip hop where there wasn’t a lot of festivals before doing the same, where someone with the stature of Wiz Khalifa and 2Chainz was on the same bill as you and DJ Q-bert, Jonwayne, and Roc Marciano.
S: That’s very real. It does represent the mind of the internet bohemian. There’s a whole book that could be written about that in regards to culture and art. The internet bohemian is this new thing that’s not so...judgmental. We romanticize the underground and look at it like “oh that’s the root of it,” but we forget that all these motherfuckers were wearing horse blinders. The underground was wearing blinders that wouldn’t allow them to see the quality in certain mainstream shit. The internet bohemian is open to a whole bunch of different shit, and it happened when they broke down the genre barriers.
When I was younger, you picked one team. I picked hip-hop. Maybe the kid down the street picked punk rock, maybe another kid picked Madonna. We didn’t cross zones. The new kid is into all of that, their iPod has rap and this and that and all types of everything! I feel like that’s where it is now. Kids won’t be forced to pick a team. They can customize and create their own team, and I think Soundset is in line with that. We didn’t start and say like “we’re going to make sure and rep all of hip hop!” It was actual natural baby steps up to that point. We slowly evolved into that. That’s a part of this culture and that had to happen. We had to eventually bring it all back.
In ’89 I repped all of hip hop. I had Chuck D and X Clan and Poor Righteous Teachers giving me all of my smart shit. I had De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest giving me all my fun shit. When I wanted to dance, I had MC Hammer. Then in the 90s we had to separate all the branches, because that’s when the industry decided to fast-track identities to these kids. And it worked. And it wasn’t just in rap. Anytime culture and industry get together that’s what happens. There’s no way around it.
Now that that system is broken and the “music industry” sort of broke down, it’s not there anymore. Kids are actually able to be free and be who they are. And look what it’s doing to rappers! Lil Wayne and Kanye West became pop icons. Them two dudes are fucking weird [laughs] ! In a good way. You couldn’t have had that ten years ago. The pop icons in hip-hop were tough, they were 50 Cent. Even Eminem, he had to either be tough or be a class clown. He didn’t get to let his freak flag fly. Lil Wayne came along and made it okay for urban youth to be freaks. I’m not saying he’s the only one, but at the time he was on the top of shit saying it’s okay to be weird. And kids felt it and it reverberated. Look at where ASAP Rocky and Odd Future and all these kids started coming. It freed shit up for all these kids to choose something other than being a tough guy, or a basketball player. You can be anything.
When we were younger, the homie Musab was one of the weirdest dudes I knew! He would try to express his weirdness through his music, and people didn’t how to take that shit man. But I’ll tell you what, if Musab’s first couple records would’ve come out now, it would fit right in. He was so ahead of his time. People now would be like “yeah, aliens, you’re rapping about aliens.” In the mid-90s, nobody wanted to hear a tall black dude rap about aliens.