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 Entertainment’s talks with The Major Labels, much has happened. “Trying to Find a Balance,” the single from Seven’s Travels, his one-off full length released through the punk label Epitaph, has a video in rotation on MTV2. He’s performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and Spin, ever with its finger on the echoes of pulses, has labeled him a “new sensation” 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 “Emo Rap,” I realized that it wasn’t disbelief I was feeling, it was numbness. Numb to the new names, to the new categories prefiguring new sections in the record store (“Avant Rap,” 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 haven’t you heard? (Or, perhaps it’s 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. It’s been a good ride though, hasn’t 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 it—surely 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. It’s the story of a group of people with enough confidence to remain independent in the face of tantalizing personal wealth and power. It’s about Sean Daley’s travels, and friends he made in New York and LA. It’s about staying very real with people, and old men offering advice. It’s about hip kids getting fired, and rich men and their secret networks. It’s 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 crazy…
[The labels’ 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 drawing… we were, we were stealing kids. It wasn’t 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 somebody’s starting to notice. So he wants to pick our heads, cause he’s interested in our whole fuck the major label approach, he’s also interested in the fact that we’ve 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 “I like what you’re doing, and there might be a creative way to help you guys do what you’re doing. If you’re ever in town come and talk to me.” He also kinda said like, “get ready. Cause the reason I’m 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 you’re about to go through.”
DTG: That almost sounds like a movie script… and not one of those happy movies where everyone gets their major label deal and lives happily ever after. “I want to get to you before everyone else does…” It just sounds like a spiel.
SD: Ah, it did kinda sound like a spiel, but it wasn’t. 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, “it isn’t for me, cause it isn’t for you. But if you ever have any questions or advice about anything, feel free to call.” 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. He’s 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 we’ll 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 that’s when I realized that a lot of this isn’t even about the music. These guys know I don’t make hits—they think I have a hit in me, but it’s more about selling me. There’s an image that I must carry that they think is sellable. I know that it’s true to an extent, but I also know there’s a ceiling to selling an image, and if you’re 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 don’t 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 that’s 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 you’re going to spend on Eminem, then yeah, it had better do at least a million. So, I think all of them approached me like, “we’re not going to give you a car and we’re not going to put a million dollars in your pocket. Instead, we’re going to do it smart, we’re going to spend a little and make back a lot.” And that’s 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 you’re doing, do it, but do it with that safety net, where if it doesn’t fucking work, you’re not stuck owing somebody you were essentially trying to use.
DTG: So they’re not trying to put you on TRL.
SD: Well, they would try, but they’re not going to spend fifty grand to do it. They’re 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 Joey’s 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 I’d be talking to a lot of people and if I ever needed any advice to call him. So that’s the second time that I’ve had some old guy that I don’t know do that in the last six months, so I’m kinda like ok, is this the theme of Los Angeles these days? Like, “you might not work with me, but if you want dirt on whoever you’re working with give me a call.” But I didn’t take that guy like that; I was like ‘he seems cool.’
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 “look at this and tell us what you think of it.” Like, “here’s 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.”
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 don’t know how he got the number. He’s from a label that we’re 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 “I’m really confident in what I do, I feel like I do this for these people and they appreciate me for it.” And he just went for the throat, saying like “you know what man, your shit ain’t shit, but if you want to be shit, I can turn you into some shit.” I was kinda like just whatever, don’t ever talk to me again. I even sent the message to people that knew him, to let people know that I didn’t really appreciate him, I mean I know the guy could probably kick my ass, but I don’t care, I’ll 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 he’s at the bar with this chick that works over here, and they all know each other, and she says well you know we’ve 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 “here’s what I can give you, here’s what I expect in return.” 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 you’re friends with me how can you go behind his back and offer me a deal? That’s kinda fucked up. But it’s not, it’s business. They’re 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 they’re 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 they’re 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 I’d be like “holy shit, I just met the drummer from Tool,” or “I just stole Jack Osborne’s hat.” And that was fun, that was funky, and that’s 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 aren’t doing your job, cause if I was sitting on records that weren’t even selling 20,000, that I paid a million for, I’m 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, that’s too bad.
SD: It’s tragic. See how far I went for that fucking joke? See, that’s the problem with me. My delivery is tight and everything is great, it’s 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 don’t 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, “hey you’re in town, why don’t you come holler at me.” 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 “well, I can’t really do with you what I’m doing with these other guys, cause it’s a different audience, however I think that I can do something with you guys.” And he was actually mad cool, I appreciated him, if I was in the business of trying to sign a deal, he’s one of the ones I really would have contemplated. A few months later he lost his job too, and that’s 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 this…
SD: I didn’t 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 don’t have to sign them, you don’t 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 don’t 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 don’t believe in him and I don’t 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 wouldn’t even have had to sign Atmosphere, it was just a straight-up distribution deal, and so it’s just too bad that they didn’t 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 didn’t 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 don’t, 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. Everybody’s talking about Atmosphere, they’re gonna be on a major and blah blah blah. A week later it’s 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 it’s not like their music is going to change. All these fucking kids that I don’t 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. They’re 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, we’ll call it Listerine, it was like the very biggest one, the big one, it was like holy shit we’re 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 I’d 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 I’m sitting there, and he’s 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 you’re rich. It’s this energy that’s just emanates off of them, you can see it in their eyes, it’s like they’re fucking rich and they don’t 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, I’ve 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 weren’t 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 they’d give distribution to Rhymesayers, including up-channeling anything that started to sell well into the label, so that it’d actually get pushed from the label, instead of just catching the distribution through the label. But the catch was… six years? You know? You’re not going to let me make more than one album a year, you know. I’ll make six albums this week, but six years… That’s a long time. So I asked for ten million. Cause I wanted to see how serious they were. For six records you’re talking some shit dude… You want me to work for you for six fucking years when I’ve worked for myself for six years, and suddenly I’m going to have a boss? Shit, if that’s the case let’s see how serious you are. So yeah, we asked them for ten million. And fuck no, they’re not going to give us ten million. We knew it when we asked. You gotta be some underground, nobody’s ever heard of you, down south bounce rap to get ten million dollars from anybody, and we don’t fit that bill. So they said no, they told me if I had an accent and I bounced more maybe. They didn’t 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, that’s what I started to see. And I wonder how much of a role I played in people losing their jobs… Like, I don’t 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 wasn’t 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 don’t 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, here’s 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 that’s 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 that’s when I saw the nature of the beast, and realized that I didn’t want anything to do with any of these dudes. I can’t believe we just wasted more time in LA. You know, all this traveling I’ve been doing has been fucking up my life, so if I’m going to do it I at least want the pleasure of shaking some 19-year-old’s 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 they’ll 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, you’d 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 you’d 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. Don’t sign me, hire me, I can do A&R for you, I won’t do a record for you but I’ll bring you people that want that, that want to be famous, I’ll be that hip guy, but I won’t depend on you, I make my own money you know, so there won’t be that point where you have to fire me, I’ll do it like freelance, on spec, like if you need some rap, call Slug, I’ll find someone for you. I have no problem with trying to get good music out to a lot of people, I’m all for that, I just have a problem with compromising what I’m trying to accomplish. I’m not trying to be famous. If it comes, so be it, but I’m trying to establish something for myself that I’m going to be proud of forever. I don’t know. If I can quote that writer that took too much fucking acid, I’m 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. I’m not accomplishing the American Dream; I’m just humping it. In the morning she’s gonna go home.
DTG: So you want something you can stay proud of.
SD: Yeah. And I don’t 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 it’s just because the fan base reinforces to me so often how well they relate to me, sometimes I’ll literally be standing there doing my thing, wondering whether I’d be able to relate to them. They relate to me, but I’m watching them and just going I have no fucking idea who you are, I don’t think I would be able to relate to them. If my fan base was just one person or ten people, it’d probably be ten people like me, and that’d be easy, but now it’s a shitload of people and so… 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 wasn’t even “Rape Me,” it was an earlier song I think. But that’s 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 they’re here cause they see something in what I’m doing. And that’s where I feel like I need to be more responsible. I’ve let too many things slip into my music, you know? Like I’m a feminist, big time, and I think my songs are pro-women, but there are women come to me and say “how can you think that, you’re so misogynistic!” I’m 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 I’m being that direct, don’t you think there’s something tongue-in-cheek, no pun intended, about what I’m saying? If you really listen to my body of work, can you not see that there’s 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 can’t, but dammit, I want to try. I might not be able to control it, but I don’t want to enable it. If I don’t try then my mom won’t be proud of me.
DTG: Well, to come back around full circle, I’d imagine that for someone that’s 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: It’s very scary. And that’s why it never happened. I think everyone around me has realized now that I am doing this the way I’m doing it for the sole purpose of opening a door for everyone else that I’m 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 Ali’s 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 it’s like. I feel really good about what I’m doing, I feel like I’m doing something positive in the world. And the personal shit that I get out of it is great, it’s 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. I’d 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. That’s what it comes down to. I’d much rather be important than be rich. I’d much rather be important than be famous.
By Daniel Thomas-Glass