Poetic Justice: RJD2 and Sugar Tongue Slim talk ‘Blurred Lines’ and reflect on their surprising new album

RJD2 came into the game more-or-less fully-formed.

Since his ‘June’ single on Def Jux in 2001, RJ has built on a solid foundation of expertly layered melancholy samples and signature drum flourishes. The sound has mutated into pop, rock, R&B and whatever else he feels like over his career — five solo albums, a few full collaborations with Aceyalone and Blueprint, remixes for the likes of Yo La Tengo — but RJ has always sounded like himself.

In the Atlanta-born, Philly-bred Sugar Tongue Slim, RJ found a partner in reliable quality. A slam poet by trade, some goading from fellow poet Black Ice and Jazzy Jeff led STS to transmute his accordant shit-talking skills into a totally respectable Andre 3000 flow. Working behind the scenes, he’s racked up credits for artists as varied as Ciara, Stalley and Kavinsky. And while he is yet to appear on one of The Roots’ requisite poetry outros, he did swag his way into Black Thought’s Money Making Jam Boys project.

STS x RJD2, the pair’s recently-released album, is an enjoyable hunk of modern hip-hop with a few adventurous forays into slam poetry. Slim pushes the party, shouts out his mom’s rib joint back home and fixates on his love of and need for a Cadillac. When he reverts to his native tongue, he turns into a whiskey sipping, dice-shooting speed demon. It’s a refreshing change of pace, all backed by RJ’s reliably dope thump.

“It’s not like I stopped working with rappers one day or what I do stopped being informed by hip-hop.”
RJD2

Slim, how did you end up in Philly after coming up in Atlanta?

Sugar Tongue Slim: I’m born and raised in Atlanta, the influence is definitely there. I came up to Philly to visit and I loved it, I just stayed. It was around 2000. When I really moved up here it was to do poetry, I wasn’t even rapping like that. I wanted to do poetry on a Roots album. But everyone’s like you might as well rap, so Philly’s where I really started rapping.

Forgive the pun but there’s something extremely poetic about moving to Philadelphia with the goal of spitting poetry for The Roots.

Slim: I grew up on Dungeon Family, Outkast, Goodie Mob, Cool Breeze, but the crazy thing is I was into Big Rube, the poet. And his group Society of Soul with Rico Wade.

And you were paying your bills as a slam poet.

Slim: Yeah, that’s how I made my living when I first got up here! I’d just go around and do slams. I’d do slams in Atlanta. I’d do the Nuyorican [in New York City], all that. Can’t nobody touch me in poetry! I did National Poetry Slam, I did Def Poetry, I did all that stuff.

In Atlanta, there’s this woman named Georgia Me. She’s the only person who can beat me in Atlanta because she does “I’m a black woman in Atlanta” poems. But in New York? Nuyorican? That mixed crowd? Can’t nobody touch me up there. I came to one slam in Atlanta, I told everyone to sign their money so I’d know whose money I was spending after I won it. I talk cold shit!

RJ, this is your first proper front-to-back rap album in several years. What brought you back to hip-hop?

RJD2: Well, baked into that question is an assumption that there is a duality between what we’re calling hip-hop and “not hip-hop”. We could go down that semantic rabbit hole, but it’s not a simple duality to me so I can’t answer that question. The Third Hand? All of those instrumentals were literally pulled out from under rappers. The Colossus had rapping on. It’s not like I stopped working with rappers one day or what I do stopped being informed by hip-hop. It’s always been part and parcel informed by my years of making rap records and my history as a rap DJ.

Maybe a better question would be, were you itching to make a full album with a rapper or did this grow out of a special chemistry with Slim?

RJ: That really drives to the core of it. The last rap record I made was around 2006 or something. I could have made a rap record in 2009, or 2010 — I know a lot of rappers! I could get off the phone and call a rapper and plan to make a record. But it would have been an uphill battle without that chemistry.

After Slim did ‘See You Leave’ for More Is Than Isn’t in 2013, we started kicking around demos and song ideas. The chemistry was there and it snowballed – once we realized we were going to be able to make an album, I dropped everything else I was doing to make that record.

You saw the opportunity and you took it.

RJ: Yeah. I could have put it on hold, but one thing I’ve realized after doing this for 12 or 13 years is that when you’ve got that momentum, do it then. I feel like the way a lot of people in the industry work is they have a plan and they do not want to deviate from that plan even if a really great opportunity comes up. My plan was actually to jump right back into my next solo record. But the chemistry was there with Slim so I reassessed the big picture.

That’s a luxury you have because you’re putting your records out yourself.

RJ: And this is exactly the reason that I started the label. I didn’t start the label so I could be an A&R and stay up all night pounding the SoundCloud pavement to find people to sign. It was so I could do this — so I could change my plan on a whim if there was a great opportunity.

“Most of my quotes are from great rappers. And if they get mad… they all quoted everyone else!”
Sugar Tongue Slim

‘Cruisin’ has that 80s vibe that’s big right now and has been percolating for a couple years. Was that a conscious attempt to make a song in that lane?

RJ: It definitely wasn’t reactionary. If you go back 10 years, I put out a mixtape that was all 80s boogie around 2007 or 2008, when I really started falling in love with that stuff. It was just what happened to soul music after synths and keyboards took over. And all the artists in that lane today are basically doing some kind of homage to that era. It’s real clean. But we didn’t sit down like “I love this song by Aurra, we should do something like it.” It’s more just like parts of the beat were informed by my love of that type of music.

It’s a legally dicey time to do an homage to anything else. What’s your opinion on the ever-expanding writing credits for ‘Uptown Funk’ and the ‘Blurred Lines’ lawsuit?

RJ: Without getting too into the weeds, [adding the members of Gap Band as writers on ‘Uptown Funk’] makes sense because — and I feel comfortable saying this because the writer’s share reflects this — the first time I heard “Uptown, funk you up” it was the exact same cadence of “Oops Up Side Your Head” by Gap Band. That’s at the very least a nod. Then the chord change on the string synth in the chorus is lock, stock and barrel your boilerplate 84 Prelude Records move. A bunch of records from that era have that exact major 6th in the same voicing in that exact part of the song. But should that song have 11 writers or should it have two? I don’t know.

To put on my songwriter or my composer hat, there’s a point at which the letter of the law and the intent has to diverge. I look back to when Sisqo said “Livin la vida loca” [in ‘The Thong Song’] — Sisqo wasn’t trying to jack Ricky Martin. The intent was not to co-opt any writing prowess of the people who wrote ‘La Vida Loca’. He was making a nod to a cultural moment.

Right, like when any rapper name-checks a celebrity.

RJ: Exactly. So to give the writers behind ‘La Vida Loca’ a credit on ‘Thong Song’…

They did?

RJ: Yeah, Ricky Martin owns a portion of the song! So point being, that’s a scenario where the letter of the law overrode the intent. On the ‘Blurred Lines’ thing, I’m like… nobody’s hands are clean here. Robin Thicke and Pharrell shouldn’t have pre-sued! That’s a stupid fucking move. At the same time, all they did was take a song that was based off the vibe of a Marvin Gaye song. People have been doing that since the beginning of time. This is how music works.

Do you find yourself thinking about this in the studio now?

RJ: Honestly, the original hook on ‘Cruisin’ was “Girl get out my mind, girl get in my car,” and when I sat with the demo I thought of “Get out of my dreams, get into my car” [like the Billy Ocean song] and I thought, this is close enough that in the super off-chance that the song blows up, somebody could make a claim. We didn’t need a whole rewrite, but we put the sound of a car in instead. But the only reason I felt comfortable solving the problem that way was because not only did it solve the problem, it was also a cool idea. I wouldn’t have brought it up if I didn’t think it would add to the song.

In a scenario where you would be taking away from the song for the sake of legal liability you have to think about what you care more about, art or commerce. If it’s a zero-sum game out there between art and commerce, somebody has to choose art. Don’t get me wrong, I like to make money! I’m just saying, if everybody in music is always choosing commerce, that’s not serving art very well.

Slim, I’m gonna assume you aren’t like “I can’t mention Kyrie Irving in a rap because Kyrie might come for my publishing,” or something.

Slim: Nah, you really can’t come at me for a word. Nobody owns these words. You may own the phrasing of it but if I change one thing, you don’t own that. When I take something, when I pull somebody’s line, I look at it like paying homage. Most of my quotes are from great rappers. And if they get mad… they all quoted everyone else! Leave me alone. Let me live my life!

Did you guys gets paid for the Jack Daniels song, ‘Tennessee Whiskey Revival’?

Slim: Ha ha, nah man, it’s actually based on the story of Jack Daniels. It’s on Wikipedia!

RJ: Bringing up the Jack thing – if we were on a major label, that would have been a thing. They would have to go get clearance, or the label’s first thought would be to get with Jack Daniels and get some money out of them. I just loved that it just came out and even though it’s in essence giving Jack Daniels free publicity, it’s just a song about an idea. And the potential may or may not be there for some branding tie-in.

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