The singing, producing and songwriting force known as How To Dress Well spoke with us about reacting to indie R&B trends and being surprised by his career. Tom Krell returns to Portland Oct. 18 at Mississippi Studios.
The recipe: The lovechild of Big Boi and Andre 3000; toss in The Roots, an extra sprinkling of Dirty South, some Philly attitude and a flow full of tongue-twisting quips and visceral storytelling. The result: Sugar Tongue Slim (STS). Of course, you don’t get STS without his collaborative partner, Khari Mateen, the multi-instrumentalist and vocalist who brings his own verve to the studio.
Slim made a name for himself going round-for-round in the Philadelphia slam poetry circles. He showed up on The Roots’ How I Got Over on “Right On” and “Hustla.” He threw down on Statik Selectah’s “Gold in 3D” with Dosage. He peppered the web with mixtapes (Demand More 1.2 and 2) and followed those with his first full-length, The Illustrious in 2011. From the jump, he pushed a unique style that combined the artistic storytelling of ATL luminaries, Outkast, with a knack for drilling down into the blue-collar details that drive the 9-to-5. With each subsequent release and guest appearance, Slim expanded his musical palate – 2015’s STS x RJD2 revealed a dexterous lyricism that easily matched the bombastic beats of RJD2, a heavyweight in his own right. Ladies Night (2016) was a return to southern-fried beats, syrupy hooks and a full cast of guest features.
Almost in parallel, Mateen built an impressive catalogue of his own. A multi-talented musician (he sings, and plays cello, bass, guitar and drums), and film/TV composer, Mateen caught his first notable production credits on The Roots’ Game Theory and continued working with the group through 2011’s Undun on which he produced the title track “Make My.” In 2015, he put out his own full-length, the eclectic and excellent Wishful Thinking. Along the way, Mateen and Slim’s paths crossed on multiple occasions, and they began cutting tracks together in their spare time.
The culmination of these two prolific artists is their first dual-credited full-length record: Better on a Sunday, which dropped in January.
Artistically, Better on a Sunday is immaculately produced. Mateen’s spacious instrumentals blend easily with Slim’s lyrical agility, giving each track a distinct and intentional flavor. With elements of funk, some soul sensibilities and well-grooved beats, the music is as evocative as the lyrics. Both Mateen and Slim describe the album as ‘blue-collar’ hip hop. The tracks weave their way through a day-in-the-life style progression. They ruminate on the grind of a check-to-check lifestyle in “Better on a Sunday,” cajole their way through a night at the club on the slightly facetious and raucous “Fake News,” say thanks for everything on “Happy Birthday Mama,” and impart some genuine advice on the weighty “Little Brothers.”
There are no wasted moments throughout the album. Either the instrumentals are popping or the lyrics are taking a trip somewhere – like to the late-night eats spot on “Waffle House” or the local watering holes on the anthemic “Little Bars.” There’s a little something for everyone, but it always comes back to a central theme: regular dudes just living and trying to navigate the day-to-day of bills, relationships, Cadillacs and temptation.
On their way through the Rocky Mountains, we got on the phone with Slim and Mateen and talked about their writing process, how they find time to make music, and bringing ‘fake news’ back to the people.
Eleven: Where you guys at today?
STS: We’re on the road to Phoenix, man – we’re about to be out of Utah. We made it through a snowstorm this morning. We’re almost … oh shit – we’re almost to Arizona. Just ridin’.
Eleven: You guys managed to catch a bunch of places with snow on your way through Colorado and Utah –
STS: Yeah! Denver, they told us the day before it was 70 degrees, and as soon as we get there, it starts snowing.
Eleven: It was. People were wearing shorts the day before! Let’s start with the new album. It’s the first one where you both are sharing the lead co-credits – Slim and Khari – can you talk about that?
STS: Yeah – me and Khari, we’ve been working together for I don’t even know how many years, since the Jam Boy days. Both of us started together, we were both working with The Roots, that’s where we both met. And then anytime they put us in a session together, we just clicked, and we just kept working together, and, you know, we both did our own thing. But we’d always be cutting records and putting them to the side. What happened was that Khari sent me “Better On a Sunday,” and we did that one, we did “Happy Birthday Mama,” and we did “Waffle House,” and that was it. We just focused in. Didn’t really mean that we stopped everything we were doing and focused in, because we’ve been working on this project for, like, four years – it’s one of those things. Honestly, that’s why it’s so good [laughs] – I mean, we really put our time into it. We wanted to get the records correct; exactly how we wanted it to sound – how we wanted to be presented, and, you know, it just kind of went from there.
Khari Mateen: It felt like the perfect time – right now.
STS: Yeah. We put everything together, and we started to put it out independent, and then Steel Wool [Entertainment] got wind of it, and they wanted to get involved with it, so we ended up doing it like that. You know, just pushin’ it. That’s it.
11: You guys have worked together for a long time. How does the collaborative process work?
KM: So, when we were in Philly, Slim would come over on Sunday. During the week was pretty treacherous because we were doing our own thing, and we would cut records – we would do our thing. That was pretty much the collaborative process. I would work on films I was doing during the week, and sometimes during those breaks I would make some music and present it to him on the Sundays when we would get up together.
11: Why do you think you guys work so well together? It sounds like you really had limited time, but you were always clicking when you had that time.
STS: The chemistry was just good from day one. We just automatically clicked from day one. The crazy thing is that we’re both from Georgia, we both moved to Philly, and then we both moved out to LA, and none of that was planned – we didn’t even know each other. Khari was out in LA, and I came out there to do some work, and he was staying like right down the street from me. It just kind of made sense; everything was lined up. It’s kind of like – I dunno man – it’s one of those things that just works. Most of the time in the studio, it’s just me and him. We don’t have anyone else in the studio. If we want a feature on it, then we’ll go get that done afterwards. But when we go in the studio, it’s just us, so, if anything, it’s a 50-50 effort. You know, if we like this, we like that, and if we don’t like something, we sit down and figure it out together, which is easy, because it’s just me and him. If anyone else got something to say, you know, kick rocks.
That’s what kind of made the project easy. It was just easy to do because we’re both about making good music and about getting it done. It just worked out.
KM: Some people, they don’t really know that. You gotta put your ego aside and get to the beat. The “A” is there, get to the beat so you can get to the next letter. When I work with an artist, you just gotta be clear about what you’re doing, and Slim’s clear about who he is and what he’s doing, so from my position, I’m clear too. I’m clear about where I want to go. I know I want the music to be of a certain caliber, and because he understands who he is, his writing perspective fulfills that side of where he’s coming from, and it just makes it that much easier. We don’t really fuckin’ run around in circles because we know ourselves – know what I’m saying? We know what we want, and we know what we want to be. And we know what it takes. So, you know, if it’s hitting the road and getting out here, shit, and doing what we need to do, we’re going to do it. With the same effort we put in the studio.
11: Something that you mentioned is that you know what you’re trying to accomplish and are comfortable with yourselves as artists. Each album is really different, sonically, in the way the instrumentals play off the vocals. On Better On a Sunday, the instrumentals are really lush and have some funk to them. Is there a conscious effort to make each album different or are you both just naturally musically curious people that have a lot of influences?
KM: I think the latter is where I am. You want whatever you put out next to, in my opinion, to be better than the last, so if it sounds a little bit different, and it fulfills who we are… There’s still beats, it’s still got drums, it’s still hip hop, and it still has all the things that would qualify it to be in the genre that it is. And if it does feel more lush, or more sonically viable or whatever, that’s just the time we put into it. I mean, we worked on it for a while! We got Ryan Schwabe to do the mastering – he’s an engineer who has a great ear – and he helped with that, too. So, if I brought a mix where he was like, ‘Ah, you could do something a little different here…’ We were listening to a very select group of people that made this what it was. We know who those people are, and it ain’t very many of them. It’s been a cool process to see where it lies and how people are receiving it. Yes, it does sound different from some of the stuff that came before, but we are doing this tour show with songs we’ve done in the past – it fits really well.
STS: Here’s one big thing, too – we’ve both also worked with RJ [ed: RJD2] – RJ’s the only feature on the album – and Khari was saying how we got Ryan Schwabe to master it, well, Ryan did the project with RJ, too [ed: STS x RJD2]. We just kind of keep it all in the family. Everybody brings something unique to the table. The sound that we have is something that we keep building on – we keep building on to what we do! Me and Khari are both southern, and that’s an aspect that we can kind of delve into deeper. Both our moms is in Atlanta – so on “Happy Birthday Mama,” it makes so much sense. We’re both always gone, so when we both get to go home to Atlanta, we’re going straight to our moms. We know that feeling. I’m rapping, but I’m speaking for both of us. That’s the thing – we hang out together. We’ll get up in the mornin’, go to the gym, go to the studio, and then after the studio we treat it like a regular day of work. We don’t need to be in the studio all night. If we want to go out, hit a bar, get some inspiration – that’s where a lot of it comes from, just us being out together having conversations about what’s going on. That’s where the songs come from – everything we talk about is real life stuff.
Even on this road trip, we’re sitting here listening to music, and you hear all this hip hop: everybody is talking like, ‘My money, my car, my things, my dope,’ and we’re sitting here like, ‘Damn, we don’t talk about none of that!’ Most people ain’t got that shit. Why you want to listen to someone talk about how much money they got when you gotta go to work? We make songs that are like, ‘Hey, we gotta go to work too. We’re gonna make our bills up when we go to work!’
Our music, we’re trying to make it relatable. So, when we went in on this album, we just wanted to make it relatable – even, god bless, if we do blow up and get a bunch of motherfuckin’ money, we probably still wouldn’t rap about it! [laughs] It’s just not who we are. Especially coming from where we come from. We’re basically offspring of The Roots and RJ, and those are two entities that are, you know, they’re important people – they got money! They both got money – they probably got more money than most of these dudes talking about how much money they got. When you’re around people like that who are really into it for the music and for the art and creativity, that really rubs off on you, and makes us want to keep that going and tell our side of the story. So, you know, that’s kind of where we’re at.
11: So, speaking of things being topical and relatable, can you talk to me about ‘Fake News’? It’s great – I think it’s hilarious!
STS: When we heard – just keeping up with what’s going on, and politics and everything – and everyone was using ‘fake news,’ but nobody had flipped it into a song, so we just kind of went in and sat down and came up with the whole idea, the whole mood for it. It was one of those things where we knew exactly what it was and what we were trying to do. We just had fun with it. Everyone was so serious with the ‘fake news’ stuff, but our thing was, let’s flip it on some girl stuff. You know, relationship things, where people say, ‘I saw you at the club with somebody,’ and, you know, it’s not true – that’s fake news! If Trump can say it, we can use it. We just went with it. It ended up being a jam. It was one of those things, we kind of knew what it was once we got going. Once we started going it was like, all right – it’s church! It gets you going, and when we shot the video, that was so much fun. All we did was get drunk and walk around L.A.
KM: Slim said that one day! He was like, ‘Man, people don’t realize we just walkin’ around drinkin’!” [laughs] That’s what we did. It’s cool though. The song is fun. Obviously, we have our own stance on all the things that are happening politically, but at the same time, you always need that relief. Having that element of comedy really lightens up the mood so people can understand what our real personalities are and what we’re going for. We’re not, like, trying to change the world in the sense that –
STS: — We’re not Talib Kweli. And that’s no diss to Talib, because, you know, we love what he does, but that’s what he does. He’s a political rapper. We’re not political – we know politics, we keep up with it, but that’s not our focus. Our focus is making good music, having fun, and we slip those type of things in there so you know that we know what we’re talking about. At the end of the day, our fans are educated people, so they already know what ‘fake news’ is, so they just want us to flip it and have fun with it. Then, at the show, they’re laughing and singing along to ‘fake news.’ The rest of the world is going crazy, scared of ‘fake news,’ but, you know, we’re laughing at it because we know what it is.
KM: We don’t get wrapped up in that. The song really is – it’s about the facts! The facts of what we feel. The purpose of the song, I mean, it is that we do understand the politics of what’s happening – it’s all of that.
11: What’s on the road trip soundtrack so far?
STS: Oh man! A little bit of everything. You know what it is? Whoever’s driving gets to determine what you’re listening to. I think we’ve listened to every Migos song on the radio… at the same time we’ve had some Steely Dan, we had a Rolling Stones moment –
KM: We played Son Little’s whole album!
STS: You know what’s probably next? RJ just dropped something today – that’s probably going to get some spin [ed: Tendrils – The Insane Warrior feat. RJD2]. We just listen to anything. If it comes on the radio, one out of the five of us knows the song, and if someone starts singing, you gotta leave it there!