Information is the new Breathingby Phumlani Pikoli / Images by Joshua Schave / 23.02.2012
Atmosphere are easily one of the foundations of my musical childhood. One of the points of no return you reach in musical taste. Slug, a story telling rapper matched by very few, made me feel hungover and disorientated in some or other woman’s bed every morning when I woke up to go to school. The albums I listened to were much like novels to me at the time. I would get lost in the world of the promiscuous alcoholic performer researching his philosophy at the end of every binge. While Ants production guided me through every imagined drama. Almost ten years later and I’m finally about to get the chance to see them perform at the Cape Town Jazz Festival. Which is great, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get an actual interview. last week I got to speak to the man Sean Daley (Slug). After some introductory awkwardness we got into it.
Mahala: So how did the Jazz Fest come about?
Slug: Just the simple fact, they asked us if we would. I would never turn down the opportunity to go to some place that I’ve never been. To play music nonetheless, it would have been really silly for us to have said no.
Do you know how they got to the decision of inviting out?
I do not. I have to imagine that there’s a panel of people that make those decisions of inviting people out. Maybe they pull name’s out of a hat. [Laughs]. I’m just glad to be fortunate enough to be chosen.
At the Jazz Fest, when Mos Def came down he was doing a lot of jazz renditions of things. Which was okay cause he does sing quite a bit. But when he didn’t rap enough we were really disappointed. So are you coming down with the intention to rap?
Well yeah cause I don’t know how to sing. I’m coming down there to do what I do. If you’ve ever stumbled upon a YouTube video or um… even if you’re familiar with the music we make, that’s what I’m coming to do. I do have live instruments on stage, but only to recreate and give depth to what we already do. We learned over time that we could give a better show if we separated some of the noises and make it less linear as a musical set. But me myself, yeah, I’m still just a rapper.
I read an interview where you expressed your frustration with working with instruments, stating that you were a fan of sampling but not a fan of getting sued.
[Laughs] Yeah that sums it up pretty much. I’m not a big fan of lawsuits, I don’t like courts, I don’t like lawyers.
Would you be down to mention the names of some of the biggest ones that you’ve gotten on record?
No. But I appreciate you asking. But no I won’t speak openly about that. You know it’s one thing to admit you’ve been beat up by somebody, but you don’t necessarily have to tell people who it was.
So moving onto running your stable and still being an artist and juggling a family as well, how are you handling all of that?
I think as you get older you gain perspective and you need that perspective for everything. I apply to my business, I apply to my family and also I apply to my art. And I don’t think any one of those things has necessarily more influence over the others. Those things are just a part of me that work in tandem together. So you know… I guess you know… maybe having kids makes me pay more attention to the mathematics that go on behind the scenes. I’ve always had a kid, I feel like I’ve had a kid since I was born. My oldest son is almost eighteen, so for a long time I’ve been very business minded because I always knew that I would have to jam the baton onto him. So just getting involved early on I already came with a business mind, with an entrepreneur’s mind. Now in time I’ve learnt to separate the business and the art more. So that I can go right: I’m gonna think strictly art and right now I’m gonna think strictly business. Rather than letting the two converge as often as I used to. Because when you’re wearing too many hats it can become easy to get distracted and maybe slip.
So you don’t become a jack of all trades and master of none?
Exactly. And it to go back to the question about the sampling and I didn’t mean to steer too far but the reason I didn’t want to name those who’ve sued us is because: You get sued for a sample, but that money doesn’t go to the artist that you sampled. A lot of the time the artists doesn’t see anything cause he sold off the rights. Or he somehow got the rights stolen from himself. So what’s really happening is a bunch of rich guys who own the music you sampled are suing you for music that they didn’t create. They’re basically going, “hey man you didn’t create this so I’m gonna sue you for it cause I own it.” But it’s like, “look man you didn’t create either. You just bought it.” You know what I mean so it’s a thing that I don’t like to shine too much light on cause they’re snakes. Cause they playing no part in the art at all and it’s like they didn’t create it and here we are trying to recreate it with samples. Stuff that we believe in, stuff that means something, stuff that communicates to people and so you wanna sue us for that. When really, when all you’re doing is playing the part of the slave master, you know what I’m saying. So I don’t wanna name any slave masters. Fuck that.
It almost makes you wanna start an Occupy Samples.
You know… I think there needs to be an Occupy Art Space. Like the copyright space. Cause I think with some of the copyright laws going on, especially here in the U.S and in some other countries, I think some of these copyright laws are stifling art. You got people who have the ability to try out new ways of art and we’re telling them that they’re not allowed to because of copyright laws. The problem is we’re in the digital age where we’re dealing with a lot of shared information. Information is like the new breathing, it’s moving at such a high pace that it’s like how can you not expect that to influence what else is being informed? There was a time when it took a lot to be a musician, now we’re at the point where you can start your own record label in your basement. Are we supposed to stifle that? For the good of the people who came before us? I don’t think so. I think doing that kind of defeats the purpose of this communication. Cause it’s like you communicated something through a song and now I’m trying to build on that and communicate to the next kid. Why would you take the opportunity from these children? And I feel like that’s who you’re really hurting our children, who’re trying to learn how to communicate.
It’s almost like you’re not allowed to retell a story…
I mean don’t get me wrong I wasn’t ever fan of taking a whole song and recreating it. But when you can creatively twist a noise or an image or a sound… then that’s a new sound. I would take what you communicated to me and I would turn it into something brand new and different.
Can I attribute that to the fact that you’re running your own indie label and making your own music, instead of being dictated to on what direction you should be taking with your music? Cause you turned down Interscope and shit, which would have been interpreted as a crazy move in a lot of eyes.
The thing is this, and the reason I don’t care so much about the money that the labels were offering is because I knew I could earn my own money. Like I don’t need a bunch of money that I didn’t earn. I didn’t need a bunch of headaches that I didn’t earn. You know what I mean? I wanna own my headaches I wanna own my own problems. I mean I look at some of my contemporaries who are on major labels and who are even rich, but I look at some of their lives and I think my life is just as good if not better than theirs. Cause I don’t have as many problems and I don’t have to hire a bunch of people to take care of all of my problems. I would never criticize anyone for going with Interscope or signing with a major label. It just wasn’t what I wanted to do. I had a different vision for what I wanted my life to be.
How does it feel to put a whole place on the map?
You see you gotta remember how old I am. In my head Prince did. I grew up on Prince and Prince having such an influence on contemporary black music, including hip hop. In my eyes I’m one part Prince and one part LL Cool J. But that’s just in my head. I know there’s people that would try make fun of me for saying that. But in my eyes in my own world that’s my mom and my dad. So I don’t think I put this place on the map. Without Prince I don’t think people would care about Atmosphere.
How does it feel to make a global impression?
I do think that my name is in the book of hip hop. It’s a small mention on a small page in a really big book. I’m not claiming a lot of credit. But do I have a small name on a small page in a big book for what’s happening in the independent movement. And it’s validating. Cause as a child we were all afraid hip hop was a fad, cause the adults kept going it’s a trend, it’s a fad. So I’m glad I played a small role in making sure it didn’t go away and I also played a small role in influencing and getting others to get involved. So that’s very validating.
*Catch Atmosphere at the Cape Town Jazz International Festival on 30/31 March 2012.
**All images © Joshua Schave.