Slaine gives 'em the crazy eye
Drugs and booze for years kept Boston-based rapper Slaine from shedding his reputation as a mixtape legend and taking his place among hardcore hip-hop royalty. The 34-year-old rapper admits he came late to the game, but he has redeemed the time, with a solo album hailed as one of the best true-school rap records of the new decade, and much-heralded collaborative work in Special Teamz and La Coka Nostra.
The Weekly caught up Slaine this week. He's in his hometown, preparing for the July 31 drop of La Coka Nostra's latest, "Masters of the Dark Arts," the day the group hits the Constellation Room in Santa Ana. He's as cool as his Boston accent is thick.
OC Weekly (Josh Dulaney): Before we get started, you know the Lakers are better than the Celtics, right?
Slaine: Not historically, but maybe now, slightly. Celtics just went to the Eastern Conference Finals and the Lakers were out in the second round. They got [Steve] Nash, but we still got one more championship.
La Coka Nostra produces records that hit hard, but have an old-school bounce and soul to them. Is that an accurate description, and what separates LCN from what other artists are doing today?
Yeah, I mean, I think everybody in the group has such a variety of influences that they grew up with, and just given the age range within the group. When Everlast was in the group it went from, at this stage, from 44 to 34. When La Coka started, I was 28, and these guys were 38. And everybody listens to everything from metal to hip-hop, and we obviously grew up on hip-hop. Basically our musical influences are all over the place. But I think it's rooted in that classic hip-hop. I think that's what we do, even though a couple members are from Cali, it's very kinda New York hip-hop.
The song "Mind Your Business" was produced by DJ Premier. How did that collaboration come about and do feel any kind of special pressure when you're working with a guy like that?
Yes, I do. He's probably the only person I feel pressure working with as a producer. I'm less relaxed working with Premier than anyone else because he's literally my favorite producer.
I'll tell you a funny story. Back in 1997, it may have even been 1998. I stood in line when [Gang Starr's] "Moment of Truth" came out, and I wanted to get my LP signed at the Tower Records. It was one of favorite groups, Gang Starr. Guru was from Boston, so he was a big influence on me. So Premier was just my favorite producer ever, everything from Nas to Biggie to Gang Starr, to you name it. So I stood in line, and it was a long line, and I got to the front and wished him well with the record. And I told him, "I'm gonna work with you one day man." He was like, "Oh, you think you got it like that, man? We'll see. We'll see."
So, fast forward six years, 2004. I was working with a group I'm in called Special Teamz, with Edo G, and we bumped into Premier in the studio. He had just moved into it. It used to be the old D & D and he renamed it The HeadQCouterz. So we go in there and he asks Edo, "Who's the young guy in the center?" And [Edo's] like, "That's Slaine." And he goes into the studio for about two hours while we sat there, and I was like, "I don't think he likes me, Ed." And he's like, no, it's fine. And another hour goes by, and he's like, "I don't think he likes you."
So anyways, we recorded a track, and it was the first single we put out, called "Main Event." When I'm touring, I'm in London and Premier is DJing at this club and we go over to check it out. We went backstage and Premier and Melle Mel come walkin' out. And Premier's like, "Oh shit! What up!" And he starts spitting the verse from my song. He starts spittin' the verse with the Boston accent, and I guess he likes it. He's like, "Oh man, come here, I want to introduce you to this new artist I'm workin' with." And then he introduces me to Melle Mel. And I was just blown away. And me and Premier have been friends ever since that, even though this is the first time I've worked with him since then. So I worked with him in 2004 and 2012, but have kept in touch, texted him and seen him around a little bit. He's a good dude, man. I have a great relationship with him, but he's someone I get nervous to work with. He has that persona. I used to have pictures of him on the wall when I was a kid.
"Mind Your Business" and "Malverde Market." Are those two songs similar to what people can expect from the rest of the record?
To tell you the truth, originally we were going to make an EP. Danny Boy was breaking down the history of Malverde and the whole culture that was going on down there, and we were going to do an EP based around that. And then we decided to make a full length and thought it was too much to go a full length, so that's when we switched it to "Masters of the Dark Arts." So that stuff is still on that album. So I wouldn't say the entire album is slow and dark like that. It's not. "My Universe" and "Malverde," the reason we leaked that first is because we thought it would be interesting to fuck with the fans, because people are used to hearing that rah-rah-rowdy shit from us, and we wanted to go in an opposite direction from what people were expecting. But there's still some up-tempo stuff on the album, and then there's also some storytelling stuff like on "My Universe" and "Malverde Market." It fits conceptually, but there's a lot of different records on the record that are up-tempo.
Can you talk about how much Everlast is on the record? I know he left the group to care for his daughter.
Yeah, Everlast isn't on the record at all. It's our first one without him. Everlast has been a mentor to me. I have a personal history with him. And he has the situation with his daughter, and it takes a lot of time to do this stuff and tour it, and he has his solo career too. I just think he couldn't make that time dedication anymore because he had something more important. Family first, you know? With that being said, from an artistic point of view, I just think the group, it's like any time a team loses a great player, the team changes. A-Rod leaves the Mariners, you don't try to plug somebody in who's gonna be A-Rod, cuz he's not A-rod. You have to use the strengths of the rest of the guys on the team. The team is gonna be different obviously, but you have to find a way to make the team a winning team, even without that guy. So we went in a different direction on this record because of that. And it's something we intentionally did, or it's something that happened naturally when we refocused the talent around a different core. I mean, I think people are gonna be really happy with the album.
When you're working with another artist like Ill Bill, are you competitive, as far as the lyrics go, or do you focus on pushing yourself?
You know, it's funny, because I was just was in the studio with Termanology the other night. Me and Termanology has been friends. We're both from the same place and came up in the same time. And he's just like, a competitive dude. That's what he tries to do. I had this discussion with him the other night. He tries to beat the other rapper on the tracks. He wants to have the best verse on the track. I have a different philosophy, especially with my group. I try to be what the other guy isn't, kinda. For instance, on the "My Universe" track, Bill comes really aggressive on it, and he killed it. It was dope. And I didn't think that I needed to be very aggressive on it. And I didn't want to speak first person, and I decided to go with the narrative, the story, and take a completely approach on the flow, and I think that made the track better.
To me, I'm just trying to make the track better. I don't even mind playing second fiddle if that's what it means, know what I mean? But by the same token, I want what I do and what I choose to lay on that track to hold weight with what the other guy is doing, and I want to be equally as good in what I'm trying to do with it, know what I mean? To answer the question, I don't feel competitive with the other guys in the group, but that's just me.
So how's the collaboration experience different from the solo work?
I think that's a perfect example of it. With my solo work, I think my solo work is a lot more introspective in certain ways. There are certain things I would say on my solo records I wouldn't burden the rest of the group with. Sometimes I'm saying really personal stuff. Unless everybody is talking about personal history on a group record, it's hard sometimes because when you're talking about something personal, it's very specific to you. So I save that stuff for my solo stuff. The hard part is, I might love a beat that comes on in the studio and I'm rah-rah about it, I wanna get on this beat, and Bill doesn't like it, or the rest of the guys in the group don't like it. So there's a compromise in a group.
It's funny, because I'm making another album called "The Boston Project," that I'm making at the same time as this album, and it sounds so much different. I just thought it was interesting because I'm making them at the same time, and you would've thought, wow, he is in a really dark place, but at the same time, I'm simultaneously making this other record that sounds completely different. Especially in this era of music where you have to wear many hats, you kinda have to compartmentalize projects and emotions.
You were a mixtape legend for years, and saw success at a later age than the average rapper, with "A World With No Skies 2.0." How did that struggle to get there later in life shape you as an artist?
I think it took me a lot later. I had been trying all the time, but I think a lot of it was my drug use. I just wasn't savvy enough and I was high a lot of the time. I didn't put out my first release until I was 26. MC Shan was managing me when I was 21 and I almost got a record deal for that, but things fell apart with me and him. Basically, he wanted a 360 deal...I was advised not to do that. I was trying to get record deals because that was Shan's mentality and I kinda adopted that, so I was always trying to get a major label deal, which was stupid.
What I should've been doing was what Bill was doing at the same time, which was putting out independent records, putting out vinyl and growing the fanbase, which is what I tell kids to do now, which is the only way to do things now. But coming up in Boston, it wasn't a lot of guidance. I thought that was the only way to make music, was to make demo tapes and try to get a record deal. It took me a long time to learn. I've always been that kinda person. I gotta slam my head off the sidewalk over and over and over again before I realize it hurts. So it took a long time. And my first album, the Special Teamz album, came out when I was 29 years old. I'm a little thick.
I tell you what though, I don't think I would've been as good an artist. I think the thing I was going through at 21 with Shan, I don't think I was ready to deliver the kind of material that I was capable of. I don't think I was there yet. So I'm glad, because I feel like everything I put out from my first mixtape on out, I can be proud of all of those. They're not perfect, but I think I was mature enough as an artist when my first release came out to actually have impact, especially locally, because I didn't have any money to get out, to get further, and I was late again on the Internet stuff. Everything has changed constantly. The entire technology revolution has happened during my career. The way to become known as an artist from the time I came up until now is revolutionized. I mean, everything's completely different. But, it is what it is, man. I also think I would have been dead if I did come out and have a lot of success when I was 21 or 22. I wouldn't have been able to handle that money.
Your lyrics also could offend anyone from feminists to preachers: "You're like what's he think? Cuz a milk and Kahlua is a pussy drink/What's a dime piece worth if her pussy stinks?" Is there anything you won't write about or use in a metaphor?
I'm sure. I don't have anything specific in my head. I mean, it's gotta be real, that's all. To me, I don't like caricature, cartooning shit. I can appreciate it, like certain people can do it really well. It's funny. It's just not my thing. I wouldn't make fun of sick kids. I have kind of a street corner sense of humor, so I can't say that I'm never out of bounds. I try to just be who I am and try to be a respectful person in a lot of ways.
Talk about the craft. Do you carry a notebook, or do you wait for a beat, or both? Do you get writer's block sometimes?
I haven't had writer's block in maybe 15 years. But it took me a long time, it took me like three hours to write a verse two months ago. But I don't really consider that writer's block though. My writing process has changed a lot. I used to write on barroom napkins. I used to have little loose pieces of paper in my pocket that I would bring with me. And then around 2005 or 2004, I started working in the studio. I had access to the studio all the time, free of charge. So I started writing all the time in the studio, to beats. That was a major change, to go from writing without a beat and actually always writing to a beat. Once I started always writing to a beat, I stopped writing at home to beats, because I would get sick of a beat if I was writing to it, and listening to it for a month or something.
So now, I never write anywhere else except in the studio, where I'm writing to a beat...at that moment. It's actually kinda liberating, because at this stage of the game , I've been writing for 25 years. I've been writing since I was nine years old. So I feel confident enough that I always have something to write about. I kinda just live life and keep my experiences inside myself, then when I put a beat on or find a beat I want to work with, I feel like I have a wealth of experience to write about. And I know how to write it, and I just write it right there.
And you're open in your lyrics about your struggles with substance abuse. What's that fight like today, and is there any concern on your part that a kid might take the lyrics the wrong way?
I hope not, but the way I've written it has always been from every angle of it. Sometimes you celebrate it and that's just out of being an alcoholic or an addict or whatever. You feel good doing drugs, you feel great. So if I just wrote about being depressed from them, then it's kind of a betrayal of what it really is. It's very up and down. You know, I've written plenty about the negative aspects of it. You look at some of the stuff and say that's glorifying it. But it's been one of the main struggles of my life, sure.
And it's weird, I've been back and forth between detox and AA and all that stuff. Not that I don't have my moments now, I don't know. Maybe it's just because I'm 34 now and I'm getting a little older and my life is just really busy and it's really fulfilling. I do what I love for work. I have a beautiful son. I love spending time with him. I still drink...but the craving to drink destructively is gone. Not entirely. I'm not saying I don't get hammered once in awhile, but I mostly drink in the studio and then go home afterwards. I don't drink destructively like I used to. I don't know any other way to try and describe it. But I know the difference, like the urge when you can't have one, you have to have 15 and I end up in some fuckin' grimy neighborhood at six in the morning with people I don't know and doing fucking coke or whatever. That does not happen to me anymore, you know what I mean?
So I've kinda run the gammut with the whole thing. My old sponsor works for me, doing merch, so he's seen me drinking at a show or whatever, and he agrees with me. He's like, "He six drinks and went to sleep." I found a way to manage it or whatever. I'm not saying it's gone. I'm just not drinking the way that I used to. I just don't have the urge. I think it's because I'm a happier person. I honestly don't know. Am I an alcoholic? I feel like I am because I always thought I was. I've definitely done a lot of the things alcoholics do. So that's where I'm at right now.
To be honest with you, it sucked--not that I'm Prince or anything, but I'm definitely famous in Boston especially, and I started going to meetings and I felt like people were being disingenuous with me. I went to an AA meeting and started hearing from everyone that I went to an AA meeting. I was pissy about that. I would raise my hand to speak and I'm thinking whatever I'm saying, I'm basically making a public statement to everybody, to their girlfriends, to their friends, know what I'm sayin'? So I caught beef with AA after that. I was like, fuck this man, I don't want to be people's entertainment.
So how do you stay hungry for success, as far as music?
I'm not hungry for success. I kinda like, just want to make music I like. I'm trying to go forward with my acting career and go forward with my music career. I've been very lucky, even though I came very late. I had to go through a lot of rough stuff...I like where my career is at. Am I pissy that I came on a little late to make serious money in music? Yeah. It's also a liberating thing, because I'm not trying to make any smash single. I'm not really interested in fame as part of my success. If it comes with that, I'll deal with it, but it's not something I enjoy. What I like is the art. I love makin' music. I love makin' movies. I just want to do both in the capacity where I can do projects that I like, and I'm turning down stuff that I don't like. Will I be able to do that forever? I'm trying. That's where I find my success, more than money or fame or anything. It's exposure.
For West Coast fans getting to know you, how important is Boston to you, as a person and an artist?
I think that it's just who I am. It's where I'm from. It's how I was raised. The stories that I tell are a lot from the people around here and what it's like to grow up here. It kinda represents this area. Not that I'm waving a Boston flag wherever I go, but my experiences and who I am have been molded very much by the city.
You're film experience includes "Gone Baby Gone," "The Town," and you've got "Killing Them Softly" with Brad Pitt coming out in September. Anything else on the horizon?
Hopefully shooting this movie called "God Only Knows" in September. It's an indie flick. The other projects I've done so far have been major studio films, but this one I kinda had a hand in it. I helped raise the money for it. It's probably gonna shoot this fall.
And the solo music stuff, is there a tentative release date for that?
Yeah, "The Boston Project" is actually an album with a lot of different artists from Boston, to get real exposure. It's more street-oriented artists. It's basically a Slaine album, but every song is a collaboration with somebody else from Boston. That record is actually just about done. Hopefully it'll come out in October. Then my next solo album comes out in February, called "The King of Everything Else," which I'm recording right now.
How old is your son now?
He'll be four in September.
So when will he be allowed to listen to his dad's albums?
I'm sure he'll hear it before he's allowed. Yeah, not for a long time. Not until he can understand certain things about the world. It's not so much the language, I think. It's more the content. But it comes from a real place and it's from my heart. When the time comes, I'll be able to explain to him everything. I just don't want to paint his childhood when he's nine years old, explaining it then, so we'll see what happens.
OK, you and me in a freestyle. Who wins?
I haven't freestyled in awhile. Why, can you spit?
I could spit 20 years ago when I was drinking.
It may get messy. I may end up fuckin' slappin' you in the face. [Laughs]
Spoken like a true Bostonian, right? What can people expect at a La Coka Nostra show?
We're just gonna bang 'em in the head. We're gonna have fun. We don't have any pre-forecasted stuff, or dance moves we do, or nothin' like that. We just grab the mic and rock.