“It’s not a fear of death,” Slug insisted of the theme, invoking the album’s powerful, slow-burning centerpiece track, “Fortunate,” which includes the lines: “No amount of time will ever be considered enough/ I’m trying to tether it up and live forever through love.”
He said, “What I’m obsessing over is: What sort of things are you going to leave behind when you die? What kinds of bills will you leave others to pay? What kinds of memories and experiences? Are you going to leave the world a better place before you came into it?”
Slug on the block
It’s no coincidence that the album cover shows Slug and Ant standing on a street corner next to the wall of a cemetery, with graves literally above their heads. The shot was taken outside Temple Israel Cemetery, near the corner of 42nd Street and Oakland Avenue S., where Slug lived during most of his youth.
“It was the kind of neighborhood where you could just sort of be yourself, whether you were white or black or Native American or whatever,” he recalled. “I didn’t really worry about fitting in until I got to high school with kids who lived south of the creek [Minnehaha], which I liked to call the Promised Land.”
It was also a neighborhood where “none of the kids were afraid to work,” he said, recounting his first job when he was 12 or 13, cleaning up Petals & Stems flower shop. “I’d get paid right away, and then I’d go across the street to the laundromat and blow it all on Centipede and Ms. Pac Man, so it was a complete waste of time.”
Slug was only 21 when he had his first son, Jacob. That’s right around the time he met Ant, who was raised in a military family that moved around.
“I wasn’t even thinking of being a rapper anymore,” Slug recalled. “I had a kid. I was only thinking of keeping a job that had health insurance.”
Egged on by local rap pioneer Musab, and later Rhymesayers co-founder Siddiq (Brent Sayers), he and Ant started making music “just messing around, really,” Slug said. Then they started performing on multi-act bills in town and working on the now-legendary “Headshots” cassette tapes. Then they hit the road.
“When we started playing shows out of town, that’s really when my business acumen kicked in and I thought, ‘If I did this, this and this, I might actually make a little money off this,’ ” Slug remembered.
“The validation from the audiences really was the biggest thing, and that wasn’t just about us as performers. It was more about this music and this culture. To this day, with Soundset, I don’t think people are coming out just to see us. They’re coming out to get away from their parents or blow off steam or just come together to enjoy the music.”
“Southsiders” marks the return to Atmosphere being just a duo. The prior two albums and subsequent tours featured a live band with guitarist Nate Collis and keyboardist Erick Anderson. “Everything has a shelf life,” Slug said, adding that Collis and Anderson were the ones who suggested whittling it down to a twosome again.
For more reasons than that, Ant was freed up to produce beats and arrangements like he never has before. “Southsiders” is largely made up of loops and live instrumentation he developed with musicians around Berkeley, Calif., where Ant now lives for half the year (he followed his girlfriend out there).
“Out there, I don’t have to be careful,” Ant said. “Here, I work with people I’ve known for years, and you have to worry a little about hurting people’s feelings or whatever. There, it’s all about doing the work.”
That new work pattern suits Slug’s personal life, too. He and his wife, singer Jessi Prusha (ex-Roma di Luna), welcomed their second son together (his third) on New Year’s Eve. Slug said they debated taking the 2013 tax write-up or taking the free supply of diapers that comes with being the hospital’s first newborn of the year.
“He was six minutes shy of getting the diapers.”
Becoming a family man defined the last album, but it also plays a role on the new one. The tracks “My Lady Has 2 Men” and “Kanye West” each can be traced directly to Slug’s home life (the latter has nothing to do with its namesake “other than it’s about passion,” said Slug, who also has songs titled “Bob Seger” and “Rick James”).