The murder of Marissa Mathy-Zvaifler forever changed the rapper Slug of Atmosphere. In June of 2003, Marissa, age 16, attended an Atmosphere concert in Albuquerque, New Mexico. That night the venue's janitor promised he would introduce Marissa to Slug, luring her backstage, where he proceeded to rape and murder her. Slug knew he wasn't responsible, but the event drastically shifted his perspective on music and life. After that, Slug says, he realized, "It's not just really about me getting on the stage and having the time of my life talking about how cool I am. It's bigger than that."
Slug's honesty has always distinguished him as a rapper. Over the last 16 years, his music has chronicled his struggle as a white rapper trying to prove himself, his dependency on substances, his need for acceptance, and his image as a role model for his fans and children. Slug says he saw Marissa's death as "my transition to try to be a more responsible artist not just to the audience but to myself." Before Atmosphere's performance this Saturday at the Greek Theatre in support of his new album, The Family Sign, we spoke with Slug about this transition, that night, and becoming a responsible figure.
How would you describe the message you're trying to convey to the youth who listen to your music?
If I had to give a blanket statement, I would say it is a message of perseverance. I'm sure you could look at different eras of my involvement and pick different times where I was trying to communicate a different message.
What were the different messages of the different periods of your career?
My first struggle was to validate myself, or even prove to my immediate peers that I'm supposed to be a rapper. I think that's many rappers 'first struggle making music, which is why many people's first records are about "I'm over your head like a raptor, I'm fresh, I'm so good at this, I'm fresh."
From there, I started dealing with some of my codependencies as far as alcohol, weed, women, and validation. I stuck with that for a while, until I became a caricature of myself. Right around You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having, that's when I started to shift and turn more into a storyteller.
I'm getting older, man. I've got a teenager and a 1-year-old. These stories have almost turned into after-school specials. I realize most of my audience is younger people. I try not to write to an audience, but when it's time to go back and edit and decide which songs are going to make the record, I'm definitely insecure about putting out anything where I'm just being a blatantly negative prick or apathetic.
What I hear is that there are three phases: 1) proving yourself 2) telling stories 3) living those stories. Now, the cycle is kind of repeating itself as you're returning to tell stories again.
The thing is that now I'm trying to tell stories that aren't so full of negative energy. There was a phase around the Lucy Ford time, post-Overcast, my stories for the most part were all self-gratifying. I was coming up with lines like "I'm bigger than guns, I want to be bigger than cigarettes." I guess I was just trying to be the cool guy, because if you thought I was the cool guy, then maybe you listen to what I have to say.
You cite "Guns and Cigarettes" as a song when you were bragging in a self-gratifying way. It seems like "She's Enough," on your most recent album, with its lyrical positivism, would reflect your storytelling change. What is a song that came between that represents the struggle for you living your stories?
There is a song that is called "That Night" that has nothing to do with drinking or any of the stuff we were talking about, but it does exemplify where I was when things started to open up to me. The song is about a show I played with Murs and Mr. Dibbs down in Albuquerque, New Mexico. During the show while I was on the stage, there was a custodian that worked at the venue who lured a sixteen-year-old girl to come in some back room where he raped her and killed her.
Obviously, this messed us all up. It showed us how close we were with the audience and each other. It was a reminder that we are all in this together. It's not just really about me getting on the stage and having the time of my life, talking about how cool I am. It's bigger than that. After Seven's Travels came out, that was the last record I allowed to come out where I was the irresponsible character. I started writing songs that were in the direction that I wanted my life to go, as opposed to the songs that were about my life, the rut.
You had your first son around the same time you began rapping. Now you have a 1-year-old, and your eldest is a teenager. I imagine with your lyrical content, you have to be more concerned about being too honest, because your son can understand your words.
It goes all the way back to the incident in Albuquerque. When that happened, my son was about eight. I really had to take a look at what I was communicating to these kids, and if I was going to be a part of their community. I also was dealing with the fact that in Minneapolis, I was considered a backpacker rapper. I was hanging around with I-Self, Beyond, and different dudes for the beginnings of my career, but I was going on tour and playing for people that didn't look like me or my friends.
What kind of audience was it?
We started getting kids from the indie rock side of life -- suburban, goth kids, getting hardcore kids that liked to push each other, and I didn't necessarily know how to navigate these people. We didn't use the same slang. We didn't wear the same shoes. It was different groups of kids. At first I was not just a little confused, I was like, "Where are the black people?"
It was that shit, and then the young lady that got killed, that was the start of me having to really start putting things in perspective. Next year I would come back to a city and it would be different kids. And then the next year it would be even more different kids.
I make struggle music, and if you can relate to struggle music, regardless of what town you come from, then this is for you. I had to get over [the fact] that I wanted this to be heard by the people from my neighborhood. I had to get past the self-validation. I had to get past the whole, "I'm going on tour so I can get some pussy, get drunk, party, and represent Minneapolis." I had to realize it's not about me. Yes, I'm making a career out of this, so I have to be smart about how it's done, but I have to view this audience from an angle that is truer to what I hope for as opposed to what I've experienced. Hindsight is 20/20 they say, but a lot of times hindsight is pessimistic. So I'm trying to go for more optimism.