Interview by Ray Adornetto
When I was fifteen years old somebody gave me a cassette tape with a song called Scapegoat on it. I had never heard a rap song like it. My cousin had played me the Mama Said Knock You Out record many years before and so I was already in love with rap music. Then came Snoop and the khakis and flannels. The rest is history… I couldn’t remember shit for tests in school but I could memorize a rap song in a day. It was my everything. When I heard this song Scapegoat it changed my life forever. It was honest and real and the first time I heard a rapper being vulnerable, even though I didn’t know what that word meant at the time. It inspired me. I can trace being a writer back to that. And writing and hip-hop saved my life.
Slug from Atmosphere wrote that song Scapegoat. Fast forward 18 years later to the present I teach a writing class every Saturday at juvenile hall in Los Angeles. It’s the greatest thing that I’ve ever experienced. And I’ll tell you this, hip-hop is the ONLY thing that all of us can agree on. Hip-Hop can change the world, Kendrick can change the world. Black, white, Latino, Transgender, Blood, Crip, rich or poor, we all know every word on All Eyes On Me by heart…
I’ll bring lyrics into class and we’ll analyze them and they’ll write based on the theme. A few weeks ago I brought in the Atmosphere song Little Man and they wrote about their relationship with their fathers. Not an easy thing.
This is a conversation I had with Slug a few years back. Thank you for giving me hip-hop, man. It’s the only culture I’ve got…
What’s your earliest memory of being really affected or influenced by music?
Slug: Like most people my age, I grew up with parents who loved music, and loved records, and eighttrack tapes. As a kid, I remember music in my house. When music was playing, everything was good.
It was one of those things where workingclass parents are struggling and stressed out, but if the music came on, that was them trying to relax and trying to vibe out. To me, when the music comes on, it’s an event but not necessarily an excitable event, but just an event within itself that took everybody’s mind off their problems.
I think that’s how I learned how to use music myself. It was passed down to me from my mom and dad to use music as a means of escape.
Slug: I don’t know how old I was, maybe eight, nine, seven, six. I’m not sure. When you’re a really little kid, all you love is what is whatever is on. You love children’s songs. You love whatever your parents play.
It’s not until you hit probably like 11 or 12 that you start to form your own identity and decide on what you want. That for me, 11, 12, that was all RunDMC and Prince. We’re talking now 1984.
At that point, especially in Minneapolis, Prince was a really big deal. The, “Dirty Mind,” record, the first RunDMC record, then later on, the 1999 album, these were my first tastes of things that early on started to mold me.
What was the first concert that you ever went to?
Slug: That I remember, was Prince. I went to the Purple Rain concert, and that was the one that I went to as a young teen, I guess you would say. I was probably 13 or 14. I went to the Purple Rain tour.
Prior to that, my parents dragged me around to concerts. They used to tell me, “You saw this or that.” I don’t really have any recollection of them. Do you know what I mean? I was there, apparently.
I guess I saw Earth, Wind and Fire. I guess I saw Parliament. I actually talked about this with family members, I do have this really faint memory of a huge skull on stage that had a big old cigarette hanging out of its mouth, and when they lit the cigarette with a torch, the skull’s eyes started to glow red.
As a kid, I thought it was a cigarette. Obviously, it was a joint. I guess this was part of the Parliament tour, but I don’t really place it as a concert or a thing. I just have this memory of seeing a big old skull…
Slug: …getting its joint lit.
Was there a particular artist or album that made you say, “This is what I want to do. I’m going to write songs with my life”?
Slug: It’s funny. I guess Slick Rick, which is a weird answer because I don’t know why. I didn’t want to be a rapper. I didn’t care enough to want to be a rapper, but I rewrote the words to “La Di Da Di” when I was in junior high to suit my own purposes, so it was like, La Di Da Di all about me. I would just spit it for fun to make my friends laugh and shit because La Di Da Di was a hit at the time.
That, and then Eddie Murphy had a song called, “Up Your Butt,” and I rechanged all the words to Up Your Butt to make my friends laugh. To me, I was doing it more for comedic or classclown purposes than to want to be a rapper. I was the class clown. I loved attention. I wanted to crack jokes and pull gags on people and shit like that.
That was my first step into getting validated by my peers. Through that, rap started to creep in as a means of achieving that validation throughout the years. But I would say Slick Rick and Eddie Murphy were probably the first guys that got me to rewrite some shit or to fuck around and try rapping.
But it wasn’t until I got a little older. I always loved rap, especially considering that it was an identity for me and my friends and shit. When you’re a teenager you need that. Rap, basically kept me from joining any of the gangs in my neighborhood. Because I could get this identity from rap, I didn’t have to get it from the Vice Lords or from the Disciples, or any shit like that.
But I didn’t think I was going to be a rapper. I can’t think that this is what got me into songwriting. It wasn’t until I was like, 19, 20 that I started really being like, “You know what? I want to be a rapper.”
I wanted to be a DJ really first and foremost. DJs are the coolest people in the world. They control what people like. I had a turntable from Record Pool, got all the promos from people and I could rap on the side, I could freestyle. We would just drink a couple of 40s and freestyle and shit, but I wasn’t trying to be a rapper.
It wasn’t until later when I basically gave up on my dream of being a DJ that I was like, “Fuck it. Rap is the easiest of all the elements.”
Slug: I went through all of them. As a little kid, I was trying to be a breakdancer. I just never really elevated. I never figured out how to spin on my face.
I was always into drawing, so naturally graffiti fit right in, plus I loved to write on shit. Because I was a kid but then I was like, “Man, I ain’t trying to be that fool that has to call my mom to come get me out of jail for writing on a goddamn garage.” You know what I’m saying?
Slug: I worked my way through everything and I ended up with rap because basically rap was the easiest. Truthfully, I received validation from my peers. With the money involved in rap, rap became the main part of hip hop.
Tell me about the first time you performed in front of a crowd.
Slug: High school I was doing talent shows and shit, and I was rapping and DJing, and whatever because I just loved hiphop. In high school, I was doing some things. In fact, recently some YouTube footage surfaced of me rapping in like the 11th grade, I think, on stage in high school. It’s pretty fucking ridiculous.
It’s cute, like, “Even back then, I could do it.” I was like, “Oh, shit.” It’s 1989 and I’m up there rapping trying to sound like I’m from New York.
Do you remember the day you wrote, “Scapegoat”? Where were you at? What was going on in your life?
Slug: It’s funny you asked that because I was just talking about that with Anthony. We were talking about when I wrote that. I don’t remember exactly what year it was, but I remember it based on where my kid and his mom lived at the time.
They lived over northeast Minneapolis off of Central and Broadway. I would go over there during the day, while she was at work and then when she came home from work I would leave and I would go to work, because I didn’t live with them.
But I would watch him during the day and he would take two naps, a morning nap and an afternoon nap. When he would lay down to nap I would go in the kitchen and write raps. I wrote Scapegoat during that time when they lived over there, so I would guess and say it was like ’95. I wrote it to, “Reasonable Doubt,” so maybe it was ’96, I don’t remember. Whenever Reasonable Doubt came out…
Slug: …that week was the week I wrote Scapegoat. I know that because I wrote it to his record. I don’t remember which one of the records on that album I wrote it to, but I wrote it to his beat, so whatever week that Reasonable Doubt came out, that’s the week I wrote Scapegoat.
But I don’t really remember when it was. But I remember sitting there, doing it, because I remember writing to the JayZ record. I’ll be honest, I remember not really being super impressed with that record. [laughs]
But I remember thinking there was a couple of pretty cool beats on it. I had no idea at the time that JayZ was going to end up becoming one of the most important people in the industry. At the time, he was just another hustle rapper. He was good, don’t get me wrong, but none of us had any idea he would become what he became.
Back then I used to just write to anybody’s beats and just rap right on top of them rapping because I didn’t care. I was just using their beat as a metronome. One of the records on there, if you can find whatever the slowest song on that record was that’s probably the song I wrote Scapegoat to.
Was there an existing scene in Minneapolis when you guys were starting out? Were there older cats that laid the foundation for you or do you feel like you guys did it?
Slug: Definitely, yes. Early on, like when I was in junior high we used to go to park parties and XTC Crew was the name of one of the groups that used to throw parties in the park. Then there was another guy named LST, who used to throw parties at the Y.
On a Friday or Saturday night, you could go and pay two bucks, and go stand around against the wall and watch kids breakdance, or you could get bold, and try to scoop up phone numbers from girls, or whatever. Then afterwards we’d all go out and fucking tag on shit.
But, yeah, LST and XTC Crew were some of the DJ things that were going on. But there were rappers here. I’m not going to sit here and run down a whole history of Minneapolis hiphop for you. But I would say the ones that were most closely tied to us was a group called The Micranots. They were doing shit here like ’93, ’94. They were the shit.
Then they dipped to go to Atlanta to go to school, both of them did. When they went to Atlanta, they left an open hole. We came in and filled that hole. We were already trying to do it, but we would just open for the Micranots, if we were lucky. You know what I’m saying?
When the Micranots left, actually it was like, “Fuck it. We’re just going to start throwing jams, and see what happens.” That’s when it started up for us. I would definitely say The Micranots were a huge inspiration.
As well as, when they would ask us to open up for them, it was a big deal, because they were big around here. It was validating that they would ask me and Spawn to come and rap before them. You know what I mean? But, yeah, The Micranots to me, they’re the most important Minneapolis group to happen.
Kind of like how you might take a young kid now, and go, who’s the most important? They might say, “Atmosphere or Brother Ali,” or something like that. But to me the Micranots were the most important group to come out of Minneapolis.
Interviewer: For sure. I remember the first time I went to see you play at Top Cats, and the lady that ran the place wouldn’t let me in, because I was like, 15. I snuck in after the show, and you were selling merch. You gave me two for the price of one, “Headshots,” cassettes, because you felt bad that I couldn’t get in to see you play.
I went from watching you play bars in Cleveland and Cinci, with 20 people in the room, to Terminal 5 in New York, to a hundred thousand fans screaming your lyrics at Rock the Bells. Seeing that growth has been amazing for me as a fan.
When you looked out at that crowd on Sunday, what went through your head? Do you fucking realize the magnitude of what you’ve accomplished?
Slug: Once in a while you do take a second to kind of breathe it in, and look at it. For the most part it’s only once in a while, very sparingly. I try not to even think about it, because at the end of the day, counting your chickens, or counting…I don’t know how the expression goes, but I would rather spend time and focus on what’s next, than stop and spend too much time looking at what’s already happened.
Do you know what I mean?
Interviewer: For sure.
Slug: I know the lessons, and I know my past is important for my future. I don’t necessarily think that’s important for me to fucking suck my own dick, and drink my own KoolAid. You know what I mean? I try to stay away from thinking about it too much.
Unless it’s relevant, when I need to go, “OK, I need to reflect on something else that we’ve done,” to help me figure out a puzzle that I’m currently working on. Yes, that’s pretty consistent. But I don’t try to spend too much time really thinking about, “Whoa, we used to be this, and now we’re this.” Someday, if I get to write a book about it, then I’ll probably try and go through it all.
Right now, there is just as much shit in my past that I would like to forget as there is that I’d like to remember.
You’re a pretty prolific writer. Are you the type that sits down at the same time every day, on a schedule to write? How do you approach it? How has the process changed over the years?
Slug: When I can, yes. I’m a firm believer in muscle memory, I guess I would call it as a metaphor. I’m a firm believer in having things organized. At the same time, even in the same place. I like to sit in the same spot when I write, because I feel like you get into a place or a zone, where it becomes bigger than you. You’re just another part of the song.
The overall song is you, your imagination, but also your surroundings, the things around you. You know what I’m saying? I do it like that. I try not to write while on tour, because it’s just too sporadic and there’s too much shit going on.
Not only that, but I’ve seen how writing on tour has a tendency to make what you write be shit that’s on tour. Truthfully, that’s kind of exclusive, not a lot of people can relate to touring. I had a record once, called, “Seven’s Travels,” that I don’t really care for too much, because when I reflect on it now, I can see how much of that was written while traveling and while on tour.
For fuck’s sake, we called it Seven’s Travels. I feel bad about a lot of that record, because a lot of that record I feel like was very un-relatable to normal people.
Interviewer: Yeah. But I feel like it was still part of your experience and that time in your life. I think people that saw you grow to that point, that was the first point that we really saw you get out there. When, it was on Epitaph, and it was really where you opened and crossed over to a larger audience. For me it was like, “Holy fuck, this is getting big.”
Slug: You’re right, but that was because of a couple of songs. You know, “Balance”, or whatever. There was a couple of songs that helped it get big. But when you really look at the meat and potatoes of that record, and look at songs that nobody mentions, I did a lot of bullshit on that record. Like, a lot, you know what I mean?
It’s almost a record full of filler. I hate to say that, because you’re not supposed to dis your own shit. But I’ve got to be real. When I look at that record, I’m like, “Man, there’s like six solid songs on there.”
I ain’t going to call it garbage, because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but to me it was like, even I don’t relate so much to some of the stuff on that record anymore. Whereas, “God Loves Ugly,” I can still stand next to that record, and be like, “The statement this record was making was really who I was at the time.”
Seven’s Travels was not who I was. Seven’s Travels that was me becoming a caricature. I created this thing that was lovelorn and drunk, and chasing after pussy, and whatever. Then I started to actually become that in my real life. I will always look back on that record with a little bit of disdain.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad it happened, because that’s what it took for me to get where I got. As far as, even as a human being, I had to go through all that dumb shit to get the knowledge that I have now, so it is what it is.
What do you attribute your success to?
Slug: I’m fortunate. Anthony corrected me. He says, “Stop saying you’re lucky, because you’re not lucky, you’re fortunate. There’s a difference.” I’ve worked hard and I’ve positioned myself in certain places at the right time. It hasn’t all been like the stars are smiling on me thing.
I just say, “I am fortunate to have the people around me that I have around me.” They’re a huge part of it. The team that I work with. Rhymesayers are an amazing team of people. Anybody that’s ever worked with them will tell you.
Even the people that used to work with us and left, can’t really knock the way that that company is run. You know what I’m saying? I’m fortunate to be a part of that. I’m fortunate to be one of the guys that helped build that. But also just the fact that we all, we’re magnetized to each other.
That’s really good. That’s really it. I’ve got to say that the people around me are the main thing that I would claim for success.
I have to ask, what’s, “God’s Bathroom Floor,” about to you?
Slug: That was about fatherhood. That was about trying to embrace the fact that you can’t be a fucking idiot that you’ve got to make sure to take care of your responsibilities, and realize reality, confront reality.
Even though I wanted to just run around and like anybody else, just be high and enjoy myself, and have a good time. That song was about how I had to embrace fatherhood and embrace the fact that I’ve got to be a workhorse. I can still figure out ways to have fun and kick it, but I can’t be somebody that they find passed out on the floor.
What’s the best advice you can give me about women?
Slug: Don’t lie.
Interviewer: [laughs] Fair enough.
Slug: Don’t lie. That’s the best advice that I can give you about anything. Don’t lie with women, career, life. Don’t lie to nobody. Because if you’ve got to lie to get something from somebody, you ain’t really getting it. You’re going to get it taken away from you. Hustle, but don’t lie. Make people accept you on your terms. Don’t try to trick them on theirs.
Musically, if you had to choose, what artist has inspired or influenced you the most?
Slug: That’s hard. I don’t know. I don’t really know. Probably Prince, I guess, if you were forcing me to just pick one. But otherwise, I would say just all of ’80s hiphop, late ’80s, the era of Big Daddy Kane, Public Enemy. That era, that’s when I was 17. That’s that pivotal year for most of us. Music saved our life. Music is the most important thing in the world.
Naturally, just like anybody else, that’s what I will always…That’s what I keep in my car, when I’m driving around, I’m not even listening to most of that new shit. I’ll study the new stuff once or twice, but when I want to hear something that I like, I play X Clan. That era of music was it for me. But if I had to pick just one artist, I would say Prince.
That was my next question. Have you ever met Prince?
Slug: I’ve never actually spoken to him. But there was a time back in the ’90s when me, and I Self from the Micranots, and Gene Pool, and Musab and Eyedea, and a couple of other MCs used to do this thing called “Fresh Squeeze”, where we would link up with different jazz players, and we would do improv shit.
It was like ’96, ’97. We were all doing improv stuff at this bar called The Front. It was called, “Freeloading Wednesdays,” it was a thing we did every Wednesday. It started to get popular here.
At first it was all musicians that would come watch, other rappers, other musicians, then everybody wanted to see if they could come up and take their turn and freestyle with us and whatever. But when we started to get popular amongst the “cultural elite” of the city, there was a night when this woman that we were all friends with, she brought Prince down. She was friends with him.
Slug: Yeah, I remember sitting onstage with I Self from the Micranots, and he was like, “Yo, is that Little Dude over there?” I looked and I was like, “Oh, that is Little Dude over there, Prince is here!” We were bugging.
Now, we’re like “Well, shit, we’ve got to freestyle in front of this motherfucker.” I shut my eyes and started freestyling. I used to be longwinded. Me and Eyedea used to be known for not shutting up. I’ve got my eyes closed, and I’m freestyling, and then I start to hear John, who was on the keyboards, just fucking going crazy on the keyboards. I’m like, “Come on, I can’t rap over you when you’re just fucking virtuoso soloing the fuck out.”
I give him a look, like, “Chill out so I can finish my rapping,” and it wasn’t John. It was Prince. He had gotten up there and started playing while I was rapping. That was an amazing moment for me. I got to actually freestyle over Prince on the keys. Then I shut up, obviously, to let Prince do his thing. When he finished, he hopped off the stage and beelined right out the front fucking door.
Slug: It was fucking hilarious. We were all just like, “That little motherfucker showed up, hopped on the piano for five minutes, and then bounced.” He was there for probably a total of 12 fucking minutes, man. But you know I still rushed home afterwards to call my mom and wake her up at 3:00 in the morning to tell her that I just rapped over Prince.
Interviewer: Dude. That shit’s crazy. Tom Waits, have you ever met Tom Waits?
Slug: No, not in person. I met him over the phone, though. We had a great conversation over the phone, we spoke for probably about 45 minutes. I remember I was in…What city was I in? I was in Flagstaff, Arizona, in a hotel room, waiting for his phone call. He called, and we talked about the Kanye West record that had just recently come out. We sat and chopped it up for, like, forever, talking about Kanye West.
Interviewer: That’s crazy.
Slug: Yeah. Well, his son is a friend of mine, and he’s also a raphead.
Slug: His son is always turning him on into whatever he likes, whatever’s going on in hiphop for him. That’s how I got hooked up with him to begin with, was through his kid. I shouldn’t say kid, because he’s a grownass man, but it’s still his son. Tom is actually pretty knowledgeable about what’s going on in contemporary hiphop.
Interviewer: That’s amazing. I think I’ve seen his son play with him before, like, the only time I’ve ever seen him play in Cleveland was, I think his son was playing drums for him.
Slug: Yep, that’s him. Yeah, his son, he raps, too. It’s a trip, because when he raps, he tells these stories. They’re not like Tom’s, but you’re just like, “Fuck. How cool is that, that you have these two storytellers?” The dude’s raps are super dark, and it’s all kinds of little corners and nooks and crannies of different types of meanings and analogies and shit. It’s really, really intense, and really good stuff.
I’ve a got a kid, and if he were to grow up and be a rapper or a singer or something, that would fucking freak me out, that would blow me away. I see that his son not only plays drums, but also writes these lyrics. It’s funny because he doesn’t write like Tom, they’re not the same kind of writer, but there’s still this connection there that’s relevant just because of both of their abilities to convey shit.
I don’t know. I’m impressed with that. That kind of shit really interests me. Like you stop to wonder if that shit’s a genetic thing, or it’s just a learned behavior. It’s a trip.
Last couple few… Your greatest fear?
Slug: Oh. I guess I don’t know. I don’t like to be lonely. That’s not to say that I don’t like to be alone, I like my alone time very, very much, actually. I love alone time. But I don’t like the idea of not having a choice.
My father was alone when he passed away, and that scares the shit out of me, like, the idea of not having somebody there, caring about you, when you die.
It’s not like me and my siblings weren’t there for him, we were there for him, and obviously we loved him, but there was a little bit of…How do you say the word, is it pronounced estranged? We were all a little estranged from each other, in our own way, just because families are dysfunctional and shit.
But ultimately, when he died, I got a call, I was in DC, and I hadn’t spoken to him in a couple of months prior to that. Those things are just like, man, that fucked me up. In that regard, I just don’t want to go out like that. I’ll do whatever I can, in my power to make sure that doesn’t happen…I don’t need you to be in the room with me when I die, but I don’t want to be like, scared, and by myself, if that makes sense.
If you could tell the world one thing, what would it be?
Slug: Grow your own vegetables.
How would you explain love to someone?
Slug: I don’t know how I would explain love to somebody. That’s a good question. You know what? I don’t know. If I had to explain that shit to somebody who didn’t know what it was…Fuck, bro, you stumped me… Love is when you value something greater or equal to yourself.
Interviewer: That’s a good way to put it, for sure. I know it costs way more than 12 bucks to fill up your tank nowadays.
Slug: I just filled my tank, literally, like three minutes before you called me. That shit costs $82.
Is your car still your own personal universe, or fuck it, you’ve got something else now?
Slug: It is, when I’m in town. It’s my office. Like I’m doing the press junket. I’m doing four hours of interviews and I’m doing it all from my car. I’ll drive for a little bit, and I’ll then pull over in a nice, pretty spot next to a lake, and I’ll talk, and then I’ll drive for a little bit more, and then I’ll pull over.
When I started, at 1:00, my time, I realized I was on E, so I hit the gas station after the last interview, right before you called, and filled the tank. It was 82 fucking dollars. Listen, man, it wasn’t that long ago that I didn’t have 82 dollars at any one point in time.
For years at a time, it was like I would get a paycheck for working and that shit was already accounted for and gone.
There you go, you asked me earlier about if I ever look at where my life has gone from where it used to be, that’s the difference. At least now I can afford to put the $80 in my gas tank, whereas, before, it would have taken me twoandahalf months to come up with $80 that I could set aside for something like gasoline. It was pretty bad.
That’s really all I’ve got, man… You got anything coming up in the next year? Are you working on new stuff?
Slug: We’ve been touring a decent amount, so I’ve tried to stay away from writing too much stuff. More so, I’ve just been trying to focus my thoughts into the direction that I want to go with the new record, because obviously I have to take a left turn from the last record. I can’t repeat what we did with the last record, because that would take away from what that last record meant to us.
I have some ideas, but that’s all I have right now is some ideas. I’ve been doing a whole bunch of guest work. I’ve spent the last nine months writing verses for other people and I probably did about 150 cameo appearances, of which, probably 40 of them will see the light of day. The rest of them will probably just die somewhere.
But I’m looking forward to this fall season. I’ve got all kinds of shit dropping left and right. One of them dropped just this morning. Truthfully, I should probably see one pop up every fucking week for the next couple of months.
Interviewer: Cool cool man.
Slug: Check it out, my next interview is calling, so I’ve got to go answer that, but I appreciate the time. Thank you very much.
Interviewer: I appreciate your time. Much love, man. Thank you for the music.
Thanks to Slug for taking the time to do the interview with us, and find out more about him over at Rhymesayers Ent.