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Sugar Tongue Slim: Playing With Words.

July 19, 2013

STSouttake01smallText by Chris Malo. Images by Michael Bucher.

STSouttake05smallMagicians make things disappear, then reappear. Working in the opposite fashion is Atlanta native and longtime Philadelphia MC, Sugar Tongue Slim. Slim makes spliff after spliff appear, then disappear. Every magician has a good assistant and Slim’s is producer and DJ, Bear One. Bear pulls the same trick but with beer after beer.

Working in reverse is something that is not completely unfamiliar to the MC. While most rappers see music as the end to the means, Slim views rapping as the means to an end. He identifies as a writer even with his roots in poetry and notoriety from rap. The goal isn’t platinum plaques, celebrity or even buckets of money. Well, maybe the money but only insofar as that it will provide the financial freedom to pursue what he holds closest to his heart – writing.

“I can write,” says Slim, exhaling equal parts of carbon dioxide and cannabis smoke. “That’s just what I do. Rapping ain’t nothing but just staying on the beat. At the end of the day you can take that away and I can write. A lot of the stuff I write, I write without the beat.”

Slim sits on a loveseat in Bear’s studio dressed in jeans, a Dub Ceaser T-shirt with an Eagles’ logo, an Eagles hat. Within his tattooed arms’ reach are his iPhone, Macbook, rolling papers, an ashtray and weed grinder. The cadence of his speech is slow, owing to the facts that he is from the South, he is high and he thinks about what he is going to say before he says it.

“The thing about writing with me is it is the one thing that nobody can ever take,” Slim says with conviction. “It’s my belief in writing that makes me good. It’s the belief that I am meant to be one of the greatest writers. I believe that shit. If I didn’t believe it, then I’d stop doing it and chase a check. My belief is that there is a reason why I feel this way and why people tell me this.”

The ‘people’ he refers to are a who’s who in the upper echelons of rap. There were meetings with L.A. Reid and Jay-Z, which lead to a brief stint on Def Jam, and talks with Paul Rosenberg of Shady Records about a deal there. He got a co-sign from KRS-One and he recorded music with Nas. Mark Pitts (who co-founded Bad Boy Records and managed Biggie Smalls) has been a longtime fan and supporter. Kanye West asked him for poetry advice. Slim is managed by Riggs Morales, who signed 50 Cent. And he became part of Black Thought’s collective, the Money Making Jam Boys.

It is his association with The Roots that has been the most significant stamp of approval from Slim’s adopted city.

“Yo, I run with the Roots, Money Making Jam Boys,” Slim states with pride. “Them muthfuckas rap. They jack beats and they do hip-hop shit.”

“He’s an MC first and foremost,” says Pitts, CEO of Bystorm Entertainment and President of Urban Music for RCA. “I think he just has stayed true to that. He’s a true MC to me. I’m really big on lyrics, especially based on my history working with Big, Nas, Shyne. He’s a lyricist but can make records. It could be time for him. A lot of stuff is about timing.”

STS0505013Slim appeared on The Roots’ How I Got Over album on the track “Right On” with Black Thought. It’s not just anyone who gets to put down with The Roots. The two first crossed paths at the long-gone and sorely missed Black Lily showcase at the defunct Five Spot. A then-fresh to the city Sugar Tongue Slim sold a lighter to Black Thought, who was a regular at the weekly series. Later, when Black Thought pulled up to Uptown Flavor record store at 11th and Market, Slim, who was a regular at Uptown ever since he got off a Greyhound for the first time in 2001 and never left, put his music in The Roots’ frontman’s hand. Not that Black Thought listened to it.

It wasn’t until Slim’s manager put it in the hand of Rich Nichols, manager of The Roots. Nichols put it in Black Thought’s ear and things went into motion. After Black Thought finally listened to Slim’s music, he called Truck North to get Slim in the studio. That night they cut “Ill Street Blues,” featuring Truck North, Dice Raw and Sugar Tongue Slim following Black Thought. No easy task. The song then made it to the MMJB’s The Prestige mixtape, as well as Slim’s Demand More 2.

“He’s going the direction of AZ mixed with a little OutKast,” says Pitts. “I like that direction, what he’s trying to do.”

Despite the list of co-signs and collaborators, when listening to Sugar Tongue Slim’s catalog there are surprisingly a small number of guest apearances or features. This is not accidental.

“I think it fucked up the game,” Slim says, addressing rappers who put on talentless associates. “Now everybody thinks they can be a rapper.”

He continues, “You wasted a feature. You wasted my time by making me sit hear and listen to this shit. You wasted the budget by putting an album out behind this muthafucker. It’s a waste because it devalues the art. It oversaturates the market and it gives others the idea that ‘Yo, I’m going to put my homies on.’ ”

STSouttake04smallThe frustration comes from having to pay dues the old-fashioned way. The road from Atlanta to Philadelphia has been long and far from straight.

“I’m from the South man,” Slim says without missing a beat. “Bible belt. I grew up in the church. My granddaddy, god rest his soul, was a preacher. My uncle? Preacher. My momma goes to church three times a week. I don’t go to church like I should. I pray to my lord and saviour. I’m scared to go to hell. I believe in heaven. I need God. We all need something to believe in.”

While his grandfather was a preacher, his grandmother ran a barbecue and rib shack in Atlanta that can be prominently seen in Ludacris’ “Southern Hospitality” video. The young Slim played soccer and when he wanted to buy a soccer jersey, his older brother told him, fortuitously, if he read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, he would buy Slim the jersey. From there, Slim read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which had a deep impact on Slim during his youth. Not that a strong homelife kept him on the straight and narrow.

“There are two things that I found out I’m good at,” recounts Slim. “One is writing and the other is selling bitches.”

It is from this background that Sugar Tongue Slim acquired his moniker. Drawing on what he hears and sees around him, as he so often does, when 15 pimps got pinched in one day in Atlanta, Slim put it in a poem titled “Sugar Tongue Slim.” The name pre-dates his own panache for flesh peddling but over time, his life ended up imitating his own art.  Eventually he tranistioned to the written and spoken word, and those days are left behind.

“Lord knows I don’t want to go back to selling bitches,” he says.

STStocSmall01These days, it is a simpler life.

“I’m a nerd, man,” says Slim about his life and interests these days. “People say I’m cool. I’m really not that cool. I play with words all day. I’d rather spend my time playing with words. If you spend a day with me, most of the time I’m not paying attention to nobody else except what is going on in my head. I’m trying to piece together the perfect shit.”

Piecing together the perfect shit is a process for Slim, jotting down in his phone anything that inspires him. When he rides the subway, he never listens to music so he can hear bits and pieces from conversations around him. Other seemingly odd sources have given him material for his music.

“One of the best lines I ever said was, ‘Tough as woodpecker lips/got a handle on the game like a rubber grip.’ That’s from watching one of the moonshiner shows. The hillbilly country motherfuckers? They have the best lines ever. Of all time,” Slim says with a laugh. “If you can’t understand what they say, its awesome. It makes it better for me because I understand every word. They are speaking my language. I’m southern. I have seen a woodpecker. I never would of thought to say that. Everyone knows a woodpecker’s beak is tough. But it’s a beak. Nobody would say lips. It translates better for me as a rapper to say it.”

STSouttake03smallMoments like these often get filed in Slim’s iPhone before making it into one of the notebooks that he writes in daily. Taking one out, he explains how his seventh grade teacher taught him to write on every other line so he could add or edit anything he had written. It is something he continues to this day.

Flipping through the pages of neat penmanship, he randomly opens to a page. Following the words with his finger, he quickly finds the rhythm of the rhyme. Oddly enough the bars don’t always go from page to page. Sometimes when he gets to the end of a page, he flips the page backwards to continue the same rap, while other times skipping forward a page or two. There is almost a photographic memory as he gets lost in the words regarding where the next lines are located. Without a beat, it could be poetry or it could be rap.

Slim’s poetry days began during his years living in Atlanta but he didn’t start rapping until he moved to Philly. Much of it was due to the insistence and encouragement of Valentino Huget, better known as Tino. Like many other relationships, this one between Slim and Tino was born at 11th and Market streets. It developed in a garage in New Jersey where they built a recording booth, spending many sweltering days in the booth. Slim would pick different rappers and learn to emulate their style, something that can be picked up on by closely listening to his mixtapes.

When listening to Slim’s flow on stage or on a track, you can hear him rap quickly but also be clearly understood. He has a distinct down-south twang but it is intelligible. And intelligent. It’s something that comes from his voracious appetite for knowedge and inspiration. Many of his lines can be understood but dissecting them truly reveals
their meaning.

“I put so much thought into it,” Slim explains. “There is a lot of shit people don’t even recognize when I say it. And it’s OK. Because every now and then somebody does.”

“He always stood out to me,” says Pitts. “His style, his swag. I always thought he was dope. He has a sharp tongue and crazy personality. I get his personality from his lyrics, how he talks. I always appreciate it.”

A true student to the game, Slim often answers questions by instantaneously recalling lines from songs, either his own or others. He has incredible breath control, a trait often overlooked and underappreciated, a skill he gives Tino credit for. In those early days, Tino never let Slim punch-in while recording. It was always from the top. That perserverance paid off. Not that it was all work and no play for the two.

“We did all type of drugs,” Slim says with a smile as he cocks his head back. “Anything that you can think of except the heroin and the crack rock. We had some great times.”

Eventually, Tino went a little too hard and never woke up.

“He was gone,” Slim says soberly with a hint of melcholoy. “That was my best friend.”

He takes another drag from the joint.

“T, man,” Slim says. “That’s my inspiration.”

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