“I’m an artist. I’m not a hustler,” says Atmosphere rapper Slug, somewhere toward the end of a conversation we shared that was somewhat on the record, somewhat off, somewhat confessional. He was on point as hell, as he’s proven to be in every previous chat I’ve had with him.
“I mean, I do sell magic water. I sell magic beans. I sell the snake oil. My carnival travels from city to city,” he admits, a day before pushing out on tour and a week before visiting Montreal again this weekend.
“I’m not pushing anything on anyone. If you want it, you want it. I’m not forcing anyone to take it.”
We weren’t overtly discussing the Minnesota hip hop legend’s newest album, last December’s total surprise drop Whenever (a 15th LP, produced as always by his musical partner Ant). Our talk was less a formatted interview than a trading of notes about where the group stands today versus certain moments in the past.
Whenever and a day
Slug: What are we talkin’ about today?
Darcy MacDonald: Let’s talk about music, man.
We haven’t spoken in some time.
Slug: Yeah, when was the last time, like 2016? Man, last year feels like a decade ago, and a decade ago feels like last year. It’s like the time continuum is glitching the fuck out.
DM: Did that inform the title of Whenever?
Slug: No, that’s a total coincidence. But the one thing I liked about that title was that it opened it up for way more interpretation than normal, for us.
I always try to pick titles that are not too obvious and that allow you to go, “So how does this interact with the material?” and etc etc. Sometimes they’re a little more obvious, sometimes not so much. But this one, I feel like, woah — this is great. Because I literally meant nothing by it. Yet it still is open to interpretation.
So it’s like, this is my painting where I just spilled some paint but then looked at it and liked the way it spilled.
Because when I turned it in to the label, they were like, “What’s the tentative title and when would you like to see it released?” And I was just like, “Oh, whenever.” I wasn’t thinking about the title, I was just having a conversation with them so that they could get their ducks in a row. Then I thought, “Oh shit! That could be the title!”
Element of surprise
Slug: Originally (the record) was for a television series that never happened. It fell through at the last minute. But we had made this. And I mean, we weren’t due to put out a new Atmosphere record. We were still working on (2018 release) Mi Vida Local.
I guess I don’t really know what era we’re in. As an artist, am I supposed to put out a record every year? I’ve been doing records every two years for so long, that’s just what my muscle memory was on. So unbeknownst to everybody except for the lawyers and Ant, we were making a soundtrack for a TV show, and when the lawyers couldn’t sort it out, I just collected the music and said, shit, we have a project. Let’s put it out.
And that’s how it came together.
Even the label was like, “We’ve still got money moving around in Mi Vida Local, we’re still working that a little.” There was still a video coming out, even.
I feel like they’re glad I did it, but at first, not so much. They weren’t excited about me pressuring them to put out another album. Especially because they had to figure out how to do it and work around other artists that are putting out music, too. Atmosphere is not the only artist on the label even though you might not notice that sometimes because I tend to get the lion’s share of the looks, if you will. Nonetheless, it worked out.
And it also explains why this came out on the fly. We didn’t put a bunch of money on the marketing, we didn’t put a bunch of money on the front end. They were marketing a Brother Ali album and working on other shit. So I was like, just drop (our album). And they had just dropped the Brother Ali album, and I wasn’t expecting that. So now you got two “just drops” in a row. Is that healthy? So I was worried about that. What’s the look? Does it look like Rhymesayers is becoming a Soundcloud label?
Slug: But no! Everything has gone great. I’m so pleased with how this worked out. I’m a creature of habit but now I’m like, fuck it! I wanna do just-drops forever now.
I really enjoyed how much I didn’t have to feel pressure before putting it out. You know, when you start hyping a record and running through the cycle for three months (before a release), that’s a long time (to spend) getting people’s hopes high. And if the album doesn’t meet what people’s hopes have been raised to, the album has no choice but to be a disappointment. If you just drop an album when nobody’s expecting it, the odds of it being a disappointment go way down! (laughter)
It’s just like, “Oh! This is a nice surprise!” And I was like, oh shit, that felt great! It felt way better than to be like, lemme string these guys along while I’m also wrestling for space in that big world of hype.
Fuck all that shit! I’m too old for that shit! That ain’t fun. I want this shit to feel fun! And this was the funnest release I’ve done in a while. I’ve really enjoyed the last couple of albums, I liked touring them. But sometimes that pre-work can just cause a lot of anxiety and frustration trying to figure out how to tie in things. Like, okay, I gotta do press, I wanna hang out with my kids before I leave for the tour. This time I get to do the press as I’m leaving for tour. And that’s way better, I’m already gone. I took you because you have a deadline. Everyone else, I pushed off until after the bus leaves.
DM: That’s all really interesting, because most people now are planning their surprise record, which seems ironic.
Slug: Those people are way ahead of the game! If you can plan a surprise record, then you’re really gonna get the biggest bang outta your record. Beyoncé did it and it blew the whole fucking world away! I wish everybody did it like that. It really allows you to hear an album with no bias, no preconceived notions, it’s just the music. You don’t know what the artist was going through, what they were grappling with. It allows you to look at things with a clean slate. It’s like the same vibe as when you discover an artist that’s brand new, only this way, you’re already a fan of the artist. It gives us the latitude of having a chance to be blown the fuck away. ■
Atmosphere: The Whenever Tour with guests the Lioness, Nikki Jean and DJ Keezy is happening at Corona Theatre (2490 Notre-Dame W.) on Saturday, Jan. 18, 8 p.m., $25/32