Butterflies and Angels: The Dusted Slug Interview
In the six months that have passed since Slug and I sat down across phone wires and discussed the year+ saga of his label Rhymesayers Entertainmentís talks with The Major Labels, much has happened. ďTrying to Find a Balance,Ē the single from Sevenís Travels, his one-off full length released through the punk label Epitaph, has a video in rotation on MTV2. Heís performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and Spin, ever with its finger on the echoes of pulses, has labeled him a ďnew sensationĒ in the same breath as they compared his brand of hip hop to, gasp, Eminem. Staring at his photo splashed large on its own page as the figurehead to their February 2004 article on ďEmo Rap,Ē I realized that it wasnít disbelief I was feeling, it was numbness. Numb to the new names, to the new categories prefiguring new sections in the record store (ďAvant Rap,Ē according to Magnet, also this month), numb to the thought: this is the beginning of the end. Long live emo rap. Here is that infamous capitalist machinery folding in dissent as it always has, never mind that Atmosphere decided not to sign with a major. After all, Indie is the new black, or havenít you heard? (Or, perhaps itís the new Raffi, which is to say it can be hard to tell sometimes.) The Shins have a video in heavy rotation, too, and all the high school kiddies are rocking low-top black Converse All-stars with the utmost pegged-pant seriousness. Sub-culture becomes mass culture and someone gets fed-up then the cycle begins again. Itís been a good ride though, hasnít it, believing that this time it was going to be different?
But at the least these various notices writ large on glossy pages showed that the time was ripe to transcribe this interview. I had started the process and stopped, started and stopped again various times over the past months, always lacking the proper motivation. This time though, I knew I had to do itósurely there was something said that September afternoon that might make sense of this bifurcated MTV/MTV2 nightmare, this disjunctivitis of a musical moment. And of course, I had promised my editors, and this time was determined to mean it.
What came out in the course of listening to Slug again was the human-ness of this story, on all sides. Itís the story of a group of people with enough confidence to remain independent in the face of tantalizing personal wealth and power. Itís about Sean Daleyís travels, and friends he made in New York and LA. Itís about staying very real with people, and old men offering advice. Itís about hip kids getting fired, and rich men and their secret networks. Itís about heads full of butterflies and angels, and what it takes to be alternacool enough to do it yourself. Ultimately what I hope it illustrates is the way in which things are different, every time, they must be different, and that no matter the power of the system in which we live, individuals will always have the power to shape their world.
So we begin at the beginning, before it all got so crazyÖ
[The labelsí names were changed by Slug to protect Slug and his friends.]
Sean Daley: It started with a phone call received from a major called Baby Sister. And, this guy just wanted to talk. Said he wanted to pick our brains and see where we were at. He liked what was going on, he liked the movement and the whole scene, but he especially was interested in Atmosphere, cause everyone was starting to notice that we were drawingÖ we were, we were stealing kids. It wasnít just if you know about this scene, and you were into this scene. We were stealing kids from, you know, very few, but we stole a few from Jay-Z, and we also stole kids from Dashboard Confessional, and from Modest Mouse, and somebodyís starting to notice. So he wants to pick our heads, cause heís interested in our whole fuck the major label approach, heís also interested in the fact that weíve said it, a lot, and he wanted to see if we were really convicted about that. Which we were, he found out. But he was very real with us. It was almost as if he knew what we were going to say and so was prepared to respond to everything we said but all of his responses seemed very fucking genuine. So by the end of it he was just like ďI like what youíre doing, and there might be a creative way to help you guys do what youíre doing. If youíre ever in town come and talk to me.Ē He also kinda said like, ďget ready. Cause the reason Iím calling you is cause everyone is going to be calling you and I wanted to talk to you before you go through the mess that youíre about to go through.Ē
DTG: That almost sounds like a movie scriptÖ and not one of those happy movies where everyone gets their major label deal and lives happily ever after. ďI want to get to you before everyone else doesÖĒ It just sounds like a spiel.
SD: Ah, it did kinda sound like a spiel, but it wasnít. He wanted to get to us before other people did to find out what our deal was cause he knew in a minute we were gonna be sick of talking about this shit. Not only that, he walked away from it saying, ďit isnít for me, cause it isnít for you. But if you ever have any questions or advice about anything, feel free to call.Ē Which we did take him up on, after other people got in touch, we asked him what this or that meant, or even just what he thought about someone. He remained a good resource, a good source of information. He never really did try and give us a deal though. Heís the only one that never presented us with a deal. He just walked away saying good luck and let me know if you need any help. And the cool thing about was that he was the guy at the label, like the man.
Prior to that, I had made friends with a guy who in some weird way I met through an ex-girlfriend, and who became a fan, from a label weíll call Joey. Anyway, eventually he got me to meet his boss, who was a very nice dude, stayed very real with me, did not try to give me any misconceptions, did not try to fill my head with butterflies and angels, just told me that he thinks that he could sell me, that he thinks he could sell a lot of records. And thatís when I realized that a lot of this isnít even about the music. These guys know I donít make hitsóthey think I have a hit in me, but itís more about selling me. Thereís an image that I must carry that they think is sellable. I know that itís true to an extent, but I also know thereís a ceiling to selling an image, and if youíre going to do the image and music together they have to go hand in hand and be fucking perfect for it to work. The band No Doubt works perfect. Justin Timberlake is perfect. The image and music go hand in hand. Whereas I donít think they could force my image and my music to go together, one is always going to out-do the other.
Some of these labels were telling me, you know, that they did this album with this guy and it sold 160,000 copies, and they were very happy with that. But thatís cause they only had to spend so much to do it. You know, not every record has to be Eminem eight million, but if you spend as much on it as youíre going to spend on Eminem, then yeah, it had better do at least a million. So, I think all of them approached me like, ďweíre not going to give you a car and weíre not going to put a million dollars in your pocket. Instead, weíre going to do it smart, weíre going to spend a little and make back a lot.Ē And thatís the way to do it, to try and hit that back-end. Cause even if you feel like you have it in you to make a million people love what youíre doing, do it, but do it with that safety net, where if it doesnít fucking work, youíre not stuck owing somebody you were essentially trying to use.
DTG: So theyíre not trying to put you on TRL.
SD: Well, they would try, but theyíre not going to spend fifty grand to do it. Theyíre going to hope that my shit is alternacool enough to just do it, you know what I mean? So yeah, I met with the guy from Joeyís boss, and the boss wooed me with stories of all the people that he had worked with, but stayed very real about me, and what I would be capable of if I were working with him. He also offered his advice, told me that Iíd be talking to a lot of people and if I ever needed any advice to call him. So thatís the second time that Iíve had some old guy that I donít know do that in the last six months, so Iím kinda like ok, is this the theme of Los Angeles these days? Like, ďyou might not work with me, but if you want dirt on whoever youíre working with give me a call.Ē But I didnít take that guy like that; I was like Ďhe seems cool.í
Now some people are sending us deals without even talking to us much. You know, like they talk to us a little bit on the phone and then fax over a contract and go ďlook at this and tell us what you think of it.Ē Like, ďhereís what we would offer, let us know if that would work, and if not, make whatever changes, you know just write all over the contract.Ē
There was one kid who called me about three years ago and talked to me by accident. He called the store looking for Atmosphere; I donít know how he got the number. Heís from a label that weíre gonna call Pacific. When I spoke with him, he seemed pretty cool, but we got talking about the confidence that I have in what I do. I was like ďIím really confident in what I do, I feel like I do this for these people and they appreciate me for it.Ē And he just went for the throat, saying like ďyou know what man, your shit ainít shit, but if you want to be shit, I can turn you into some shit.Ē I was kinda like just whatever, donít ever talk to me again. I even sent the message to people that knew him, to let people know that I didnít really appreciate him, I mean I know the guy could probably kick my ass, but I donít care, Iíll get my ass kicked by him, just to prove a point.
Suddenly, one of these contracts that came was from him, like a year and a half later he showed interest again. But it was only because suddenly everyone wanted me. And the thing with these people are, once one of them wants you, then you know heís at the bar with this chick that works over here, and they all know each other, and she says well you know weíve been thinking about blah blah blah and word gets around, and everybody goes well if those guys are interested, maybe we should be interested. And so they do the research, and they realize that they are interested, and so they come at you. So this guy heard that people are starting to talk about me, so instead of even trying to like fuck around and get caught up dissing me again he just went straight to the offer and said ďhereís what I can give you, hereís what I expect in return.Ē And I was basically like I will do a deal with you if I get to fuck your girlfriend. No, actually, if you suck my dick, and I get to videotape it, then I will do it. I will go there. I will do the homoerotic thing just to fuck you up, you fuck. Needless to say he never responded.
There was this other guy over at a label called Tragic. I met him through the guy at Joey. Out of the blue the guy at Tragic decided to place an offer, which was kinda slighting the guy at Joey, because everybody knew that the kid at Joey was friends with me, and if youíre friends with me how can you go behind his back and offer me a deal? Thatís kinda fucked up. But itís not, itís business. Theyíre still friends, and there was nothing too weird about it. Anyway, this guy at Tragic also stayed very real with me. And not only that, but he was responsible for a few artists getting signed to Tragic, artists that I had a lot of respect for, artists whose records I own, who I go see when theyíre in town. And these artists are doing their thing on a major now, when they both started on indies. For one of them the move was incredibly successful, and theyíre huge now, and for the other the move was successful enough to get over, but no big deal. The cool thing about that was this kid would bring people to my show, where Iíd be like ďholy shit, I just met the drummer from Tool,Ē or ďI just stole Jack Osborneís hat.Ē And that was fun, that was funky, and thatís Los Angeles, I guess.
So he had us flown out to New York to sit down with the head of the urban department, and what it came down to was realizing that they had no fucking clue what we were doing. This one kid did, the kid that wanted to sign us, but the rest of them were clueless that there are 100,000 kids following this movement. So that alone made me think, well, you guys arenít doing your job, cause if I was sitting on records that werenít even selling 20,000, that I paid a million for, Iím going to notice when someone is moving 100,000 units and only spent 10,000 to make the goddam record. So that alone made me go whatever. I still respect the kid, but later found out that he lost his job.
DTG: Oh, thatís too bad.
SD: Itís tragic. See how far I went for that fucking joke? See, thatís the problem with me. My delivery is tight and everything is great, itís just overkill. Oh god, another song about Lucy.
Ok, so then this guy from Michael records wants to talk to us. He found out that we were in New York, through that weird underground system that all those rich guys have where they just know everything that everyone knows. I donít know how the fuck he found out that we were in New York. But he A) found out we were in New York and B) found out a way to contact us. So he says, ďhey youíre in town, why donít you come holler at me.Ē So we go to holler at him, and he had been responsible for a lot of cool hip hop getting signed up, and I thought that was awesome, and he was interested, he was like ďwell, I canít really do with you what Iím doing with these other guys, cause itís a different audience, however I think that I can do something with you guys.Ē And he was actually mad cool, I appreciated him, if I was in the business of trying to sign a deal, heís one of the ones I really would have contemplated. A few months later he lost his job too, and thatís too bad.
DTG: Just to digress for a bit here. You say if you were in the business of trying to sign a deal. So, when you were going through all thisÖ
SD: I didnít want to do it, at all.
DTG: So why did you do it?
SD: I would have been dumb not to listen to what they had to say. Cause there was that off-chance that one of them would have presented us with the situation that we were looking for. By now we had already put it out there that the only reason that we would sign Atmosphere to anybody would be to secure world distribution rights for Rhymesayers as a label. If you take Atmosphere for a three to six album deal, you are also pledging to let Rhymesayers use your vehicle and your resources to get the rest of these records out. You donít have to sign them, you donít have to put up huge advances or anything, but you do have to let us use your avenues to distribute the records. And everyone was interested, but we still ended up turning them all down. The thing with Michael records and the dude that was there was not that it was a bad idea to do it, it was that he got fired, and at that point there was no doing it, cause I donít think I would have talked to anyone else there.
Next we end up sitting down with one of the big power structures of distribution, just distribution, there in New York. That guy was just a fucking dick, period. He definitely could have done for us what we needed, but he was just a dick. I donít believe in him and I donít believe that he believes in what he does, and that just turned me off. And that was too bad, cause had we done it, it would have been one of the better avenues to get distribution, and I wouldnít even have had to sign Atmosphere, it was just a straight-up distribution deal, and so itís just too bad that they didnít have us talk to the chick instead, cause the chicks always impress me. So we left New York again. All of this happened over the course of two trips to New York, I think, where they just bought us tickets and told us to come talk to them. That didnít make much sense to me. I was like, if I do a deal with you, are you going to then charge me for these tickets? And if I donít, do you just charge it to the game? We could have had these fucking conversations over the phone, and I would still have my girlfriend.
Anyway, so now things are bubbling back home. Everybodyís talking about Atmosphere, theyíre gonna be on a major and blah blah blah. A week later itís all bubbling on the message boards, kids talking shit, fuck them, they would sell out, other kids talking shit, fuck you for calling them a sellout, if they can get it they should do it cause itís not like their music is going to change. All these fucking kids that I donít know either criticizing me or having my back, I love all of them, cause I had no idea my life was so fucking important. You know what I mean? Those dudes really helped me through a lot; I love them.
Well then Epitaph comes along. And those dudes knew the deal, and they knew we were talking to tons of people. Theyíre not really in a position to go balls out for something, but they were very interested, and for the right reasons. They wanted to be a part of this scene because they liked the scene that was being made, they liked it and wanted to see it cultivated into something. I liked what they had to say, but we tried to come up with a creative way of distributing Rhymesayers and making it work, but with what they got going on for them it would have been a lot to pile onto their plate, and I completely respected that, and I agreed with it. But I made some pretty good friends over there, and so it was cool, that we had gotten together and talked.
And so the very last one finally, weíll call it Listerine, it was like the very biggest one, the big one, it was like holy shit weíre going to sit down and talk to that guy? The kid that brought us to the table on that one was a great fucking kid, like honestly if he had his own indie label Iíd give him a record to put out for fucking free, I really liked the kid that brought us to the big guy. The big guy is overwhelmingly intimidating, like in my head Iím sitting there, and heís not physically big, by no means, but his presence, and his smile and his energy were huge. Have you ever sat next to a rich guy and just known like holy shit youíre rich. Itís this energy thatís just emanates off of them, you can see it in their eyes, itís like theyíre fucking rich and they donít have the same reality as you. Anyway, I really liked the dude. He said a lot of real nice things to us and then he basically just broke it down, like you know what, you sign a deal with me, fuck everybody else, nobody can do what I can do for you, Iíve proven it, my track record is strong, blah blah blah. And if anybody could do it, it would have been him. But for what they wanted us to give up, they werenít willing to give up enough in return.
DTG: What did they want you to give up?
SD: Multiple albums. I believe it was a five or six album deal. In return theyíd give distribution to Rhymesayers, including up-channeling anything that started to sell well into the label, so that itíd actually get pushed from the label, instead of just catching the distribution through the label. But the catch wasÖ six years? You know? Youíre not going to let me make more than one album a year, you know. Iíll make six albums this week, but six yearsÖ Thatís a long time. So I asked for ten million. Cause I wanted to see how serious they were. For six records youíre talking some shit dudeÖ You want me to work for you for six fucking years when Iíve worked for myself for six years, and suddenly Iím going to have a boss? Shit, if thatís the case letís see how serious you are. So yeah, we asked them for ten million. And fuck no, theyíre not going to give us ten million. We knew it when we asked. You gotta be some underground, nobodyís ever heard of you, down south bounce rap to get ten million dollars from anybody, and we donít fit that bill. So they said no, they told me if I had an accent and I bounced more maybe. They didnít really say that part, and not only that but they ended up getting rid of the kid that I liked over there.
DTG: Wow, that was kinda the theme of this whole thing.
SD: Yeah, thatís what I started to see. And I wonder how much of a role I played in people losing their jobsÖ Like, I donít think so, for instance the guy over at Michael records, that dude was way more important to that label than me, they really made a mistake in getting rid of him, but whatever it was that caused that it certainly wasnít me. Whereas the dude over at Tragic, I feel like I may actually have been partially responsible for that cause the kid worked for over a year and a half trying to woo me, and I donít really know how it works for these guys, I know they work on shit for a long time before they get it, but just imagine being paid for a year and a half to do something and then not successfully doing it, so I wonder what kinda role that played.
So then I went back to Joey records and was like hey, hereís what Listerine is offering me, can you offer me something that will make me happier, and he got so pissed off, like I was sitting there with him at dinner, and he had been this gentle soul for so long that I took for granted thatís how he was, I swear to god I think he even turned red, and he started saying all this mean shit about the guy over at Listerine, and these guys know each other! That was the first time I ever saw someone really talk shit about another guy, and thatís when I saw the nature of the beast, and realized that I didnít want anything to do with any of these dudes. I canít believe we just wasted more time in LA. You know, all this traveling Iíve been doing has been fucking up my life, so if Iím going to do it I at least want the pleasure of shaking some 19-year-oldís hand and saying thanks for buying my album. Why should I come sit in a hotel room for four fucking days just to end up becoming bleh from all of it. And that was pretty much the gist of it. When it was all said and done I thought, well, I can always go to Fat Beats, and theyíll distribute my record through BMG, like God Loves Ugly, or I can call Epitaph, I like those guys, so let me call them and see what they think, and they said they were interested in licensing this record and putting it out as a one-off with key distribution, and so they said send us the record, I sent it to them, they liked it, and pretty much within a matter of days it was done.
DTG: So it sounds like the way it went down with all this, youíd meet some young, hip kid who knew what was going on with the scene, that kid would bring you into to meet the big boss, less hip, older, more power-suit, then youíd meet with the boss, then the guy you knew at the label would get fired.
SD: Yeah, it makes me wonder how they could be so blind. Donít sign me, hire me, I can do A&R for you, I wonít do a record for you but Iíll bring you people that want that, that want to be famous, Iíll be that hip guy, but I wonít depend on you, I make my own money you know, so there wonít be that point where you have to fire me, Iíll do it like freelance, on spec, like if you need some rap, call Slug, Iíll find someone for you. I have no problem with trying to get good music out to a lot of people, Iím all for that, I just have a problem with compromising what Iím trying to accomplish. Iím not trying to be famous. If it comes, so be it, but Iím trying to establish something for myself that Iím going to be proud of forever. I donít know. If I can quote that writer that took too much fucking acid, Iím still humping the American Dream. I think we all are. You know, you can achieve a goal, but the minute you do you have another goal. Iím not accomplishing the American Dream; Iím just humping it. In the morning sheís gonna go home.
DTG: So you want something you can stay proud of.
SD: Yeah. And I donít want to depend on making records.
DTG: Is it weird for you to have the fan base that you do?
SD: Sometimes. I go in and out of questioning my fan base. I think itís just because the fan base reinforces to me so often how well they relate to me, sometimes Iíll literally be standing there doing my thing, wondering whether Iíd be able to relate to them. They relate to me, but Iím watching them and just going I have no fucking idea who you are, I donít think I would be able to relate to them. If my fan base was just one person or ten people, itíd probably be ten people like me, and thatíd be easy, but now itís a shitload of people and soÖ it gives you issues.
I remember reading once that Kurt Cobain, there was a situation where a girl was getting raped, and they were singing one of his songs to her, taunting her, and it wasnít even ďRape Me,Ē it was an earlier song I think. But thatís something you have to take into consideration. Not everyone in this room thinks like me. Some of the people in this room are pieces of fucking shit that I would kill my damn self. But theyíre here cause they see something in what Iím doing. And thatís where I feel like I need to be more responsible. Iíve let too many things slip into my music, you know? Like Iím a feminist, big time, and I think my songs are pro-women, but there are women come to me and say ďhow can you think that, youíre so misogynistic!Ē Iím like, where do you get that from? Because I cracked a joke about putting it in your asshole? Is that what it is? Cause if Iím being that direct, donít you think thereís something tongue-in-cheek, no pun intended, about what Iím saying? If you really listen to my body of work, can you not see that thereís some third-person sarcastic shit going on there? But some people might only hear one song, they might not hear it all, and if that one song reminds someone of being raped, then I fucked up.
DTG: Did you? Can you control that?
SD: No I canít, but dammit, I want to try. I might not be able to control it, but I donít want to enable it. If I donít try then my mom wonít be proud of me.
DTG: Well, to come back around full circle, Iíd imagine that for someone thatís conscious of that sort of thing, the prospect of being on a major, and having yourself as a person packaged and sold in the way that they do, and then expanding your fan base even further, that would have to be kind of scary.
SD: Itís very scary. And thatís why it never happened. I think everyone around me has realized now that I am doing this the way Iím doing it for the sole purpose of opening a door for everyone else that Iím down with. I could stop doing it now this way, stop touring so much, get my life together, get a house, and keep making music and do feasibly well for another few years, but what the fuck would that do for anybody besides myself? At this point I feel really proud of the fact that I employ my siblings. I feel really proud of the fact that Brother Aliís album is doing really well. I feel really proud that I played a small part in that, and I want to keep playing that part. Every time I go on tour I bring someone else with me, so they can see what itís like. I feel really good about what Iím doing, I feel like Iím doing something positive in the world. And the personal shit that I get out of it is great, itís all fine and dandy to have a little bit of money, and to have beautiful women love me just cause I fucking rap, but these things are not timeless. Iíd rather just be part of a fucking movement, one that gives back to the movement that inspired me. In the name of Big Daddy Kane, I want to pave it for the next kid. I want to be an inspiration. I want to be important. Thatís what it comes down to. Iíd much rather be important than be rich. Iíd much rather be important than be famous.
By Daniel Thomas-Glass