Atmosphere emcee Slug has gained some much-needed perspective in the time since 2005's You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having.
"The identity that comes with [being a rapper] carries a lot of self-entitlement," says Slug (a.k.a. Sean Daley), from his South Minneapolis home. "That's a good thing. It's part of what makes a 16-year-old a dope MC by the time he's 24, that belief in self. But you can't do that forever. At some point you have to come to terms with who you are, and what you have added and taken away [from life]."
At one time cocooned in alcohol and excess, Daley has recovered from the hangover and set about his business with a renewed purpose that's evident on his latest, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold. His best-selling release to date, it reflects a change in sound and narrative style. In fact, it's arguably his most personal album.
In the past Daley's raps were primarily first-person, but he wasn't the guy who rages against his ex, Lucy Ford, in numerous songs, or stages ill-fated post-show hookups with groupies ("Hair," off 2003's God Loves Ugly). Yet the line between himself and the characters he played onstage became blurry, as he acknowledges on Lemons' "Me," which he calls one of his most autobiographical songs despite the fact that it's told in the third person.
Indeed, the entire album is keyed by narrative and is thematically linked. And that's not the only change: DJ Ant (short for Anthony) forsakes his jazzy grooves for samples created in collaboration with the live band that's accompanied Atmosphere the past few years. "We were using people instead of using records, trying to get a sound that isn't so linear," Slug says.
Much of Lemons cops the chilly funk of Prince protégés Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Which makes sense, because Daley "wanted to make a Minneapolis record with a Minneapolis sound" — and write an album that reflects the neighborhood where he grew up, from the single-mom waitress struggling to make ends meet to the deadbeat dads, alcoholics and others losing the battle each day, inch by inch.
Before recording Lemons Daley spent time rebuilding lyrical muscle that had atrophied with his success. He released three in his series of Sad Clown EPs (Nos. 9, 10 and 11) and a free download album, Strictly Leakage, to hone his rhyming into songs that unfolded more like stories than diary entries. Some songs even veer closer to singer-songwriter fare than the underground "backpacker" rap he's always been associated with.
"At a certain age you don't get to pick an identity anymore, I'm starting to realize," Daley says. "I stopped being a backpacker a while ago, when I hit 30. I'm not really anything. I'm fucking 36, a dad and a homeowner. Besides, every time I wear a backpack it fucks up my left shoulder."
When B-Sides caught up with Tim Easton, he was out of breath and hopping fences in New York. The Ohio-born songwriter doesn't sit still for long. He plays 125 shows a year, paints "folk art" guitars, runs an underground zine in his hometown of Joshua Tree, California, and has just released his fifth album, Porcupine, on New West. While his previous record, Ammunition, tossed progressive-folk firebombs at the usual suspects, his latest batch of songs hearkens back to his scrappy rock & roll roots with the short-lived Haynes Boys and evokes his enduring romantic travails. As he hoofed along the Brooklyn Bridge, Easton brought B-Sides up to date.
B-Sides: What's going on in Brooklyn?
Tim Easton: Today is my first art show in New York. You know the Porcupine 500 series of painted vinyl? New West didn't put it out; it's my project. I paid for it, and it's proving to be quite fun. I have a lot of time on my hands in Joshua Tree, so I've been painting. I bought 500 blank album jackets, and I've been silk-screening them.
The porcupine is an underrated rodent.
Not everyone has seen one. Up in Alaska you see them more often. They can be quite dangerous. They're great from a distance.
So, Impressionist paintings.
Um, yes. I'd say they're folk art, mostly guitars. It's that write-what-you-know thing, so you paint what you know. My sister paints horses. She's an accomplished artist and paints in three dimensions. I just do one dimension. I stopped getting encouraged as a painter at the age of nine. I just now picked it back up. I'm at the level of a ten- or eleven-year-old with my skills. It's like writing a song. You leave yourself for a minute or two and move into a new world. It's a different way of meditation and exploration.
New West is pushing the new record as a return to "rough Midwestern rock & roll." It's not like your previous records were all that polished.
The Midwest isn't a polished place. Companies have to spin stuff a certain way to all of us. Basically, I just wanted to make a rock & roll record, like I did with the Haynes Boys. So I went back to that location [Nashville], where I know we could have a big room and record simultaneously without too much fuss. I picked a Midwestern rhythm section, played the songs a couple of times and went for it. Kenny Vaughan [a Nashville session guitarist] would be the wild card, the ringer. He's so damn good.
Did the new songs happen quickly?
It was spread out over time. Some of the songs were written in Europe, some I had written over a few years, others were written really quickly.
Did you consciously want a less political album this time around?
I wanted it to be more about love and heartbreak. You can write that political stuff into anything. Like the song "Porcupine," with "the company man," it's a little bit topical, jabbing at the greedy world.
You're still involved in activism.
It's everyone's responsibility to participate. What I've done recently is start an underground newspaper in my hometown, The Joshua Tree Republic. You can find it online, too. It's a small zine, Kinko's-style, cut and paste literally from my old typewriter. It's not overtly political, but it's creeping in there.
You're fairly prolific. Do you have a notebook full of songs you draw from?
Right now, I have a notebook full of 30 songs, and not 30 orphans, but 30 I'm proud of. I'm going to record and release another record as quickly as I can. I'd say by February. The band I'm touring with is already scheduled to record in Florida. You have to keep working. I haven't jumped up a career notch where you can take a breath. It's work. It's beautiful work. I'm my own boss, and no one can take that away.