Most people identify the city of Boston according to its stereotypical makeup: the center of intelligentsia and academia on the East Coast, the city’s championship-caliber pro sports teams and local diehard fans, tourism of monuments from America’s formative years, year-long bad weather, the natives’ distinctive vowel-driven accents, and its Irish stronghold and tradition. You can also include Hollywood’s eastward migration for high budget films over the past decade. The underbelly of the city can be cited for its past history of racially segregated neighborhoods, drug trade, street gangs and violence in many of its areas.
In terms of Pop and Rock music, the city also known as “The Hub” has had its history of successful bands including Passion Pit, The Pixies, New Kids On The Block, New Edition, Missing Persons, Boston, Billy Squier, The Cars, and Aerosmith. But for Rap music, Boston-bred emcee Slaine’s credit had been paralleled for a long time to the city being underrated when Rap fans revere various regions and artists within Hip Hop’s landscape. Slaine has only added to the strong legacy of Boston music artists like Guru (of Gangstarr), Edo G., The Almighty RSO, Esoteric, Mr. Lif and Akrobatik to name a few. Yet he has continued to fight for recognition and identity on Rap’s main stage versus their New York counterparts in the Northeast region.
Since performing at open mics at age 18 in New York City, when he first stepped in the arena amongst some of the greatest emcees the genre had to offer, Slaine has done very well to bring his native city its just due. His roughneck, gritty lyrical persona has been a fixture in the Rap supergroup La Coka Nostra, and his supporting roles in two Boston-based, Ben Affleck-directed hit movies. He is now on his sixth album The King of Everything Else, set for release on August 19. We spoke with Slaine about his navigation between both the New York and Boston Rap scenes last decade, his thoughts on the gentrification in Boston’s toughest neighborhoods, his newfound sobriety and ridding himself the “drugs and alcohol” lifestyle that had both enhanced and plagued his creative process. Slaine also detailed how he got recognized by Ben Affleck to land roles in the movies Gone Baby Gone and The Town, and his opinion of the recently increased discourse on white artists in Hip Hop.
Why Slaine Says, “Boston Is Just Home To Me.”
HipHopDX: Most Rap artists from Boston break out from their homegrown success, then move to New York or elsewhere and never return. What made you return to Boston and stay?
Slaine: Basically, I’ve always traveled around since 1996 when I went to New York for the first time. Boston is just home to me. I feel grounded there, I relate to the people there and I just feel at home. That’s the only way I can describe it. No matter where I go, I always come back to Boston. Even living out on the West Coast, I still have an apartment in Boston. Now mainly it’s my son that keeps me in Boston for a bigger percentage of my time. But I just feel very part of the community.
DX: What was your best memory of the New York and Boston underground scene when you were coming up in the late ‘90s and early 2000s?
Slaine: Just looking back and doing my first open mic in New York and going into the studio with MC Shan when he was managing me early on. [I remember] linking up with Danny Boy from Lordz of Brooklyn back in the day, linking up with Edo G. and Jaysaun for Special Teamz, linking with DJ Premier, all that stuff...signing a production deal with DJ Lethal, and being signed to work with him. Once I became part of the Boston Hip Hop scene that meant a lot to me. There’s a lot of fond memories more so than events, just really relationships that I built through music. Now 15 to 20 years later, I can look back, and I still have a lot of those relationships...a lot of friendships. And I’ve made a living making music for a long time now, so it’s beautiful for what I set out to do.
DX: On this new album, you reflect on some things being raised in Boston, namely in the song “Dot Ave.” Hollywood likes to revel in the old Boston, but do you enjoy seeing the change in the recent years along Dorchester Ave? Or do you think that the gentrification of places like Savin Hill, Southie, and other sections near those areas of Boston has made it lose its character?
Slaine: Everything kinda always evolves. I think when you look back on a time period when you’re growing up on—whether it’s with Hip Hop or whatever—you always kinda glorify it. But gentrification is real, and it’s not just Boston. It’s across the country, and most of the major cities have been gentrified. That’s a lot of the culture as far as the people that live there and their backgrounds. And then also not as many different parts of stores and different shops; everything there is like corporations and stuff. So when you go to almost any city in the country, it’s all just the same fucking stores, restaurants and chains. And you lost out on the uniqueness and culture of each neighborhood. I think it’s part of the change here in America. It’s kinda being whitewashed a little bit, but I still think it’s there though. I don’t think the culture has completely been erased. Each city in America has been watered down a little bit. It’s an “it is what it is” type of thing, but I still think it’s there. Dorchester is still Dorchester. Dorchester has still kept its identity given the most of all the neighborhoods in Boston. It’s just part of life in 2014, I guess.
How Slaine Got Sober After Recording “King Of Everything Else”
DX: You discuss your sobriety a bit on the King of Everything Else on songs like “Pissed It All Away” and “Our Moment.” How do you approach your creative process for this new project without sounding too lame, preachy and alienating your fans?
Slaine: Well that one’s easy because I was completely fucked up during this album [laughs]. I actually finished this record six months ago, and I been clean and sober for four-and-a-half months. So this record was pretty much done. I tried that to record some of it when I was sober, but most of it was recorded when I was a trainwreck. As far as what you’re getting at, it’s definitely something that’s crossed my mind, with lot of the music kinda reflecting the drug lifestyle thing. When it comes to pressing records and everything that goes with it, I think really when you’re a part of that lifestyle, it’s not all fucking bad news and depression. You know what I mean? It’s self-maturity. You feel like you’re on top of the world at times, and you can feel like at the bottom of the barrel at other times. So I feel like I painted a wide picture of it. Not even so much as that I set out to try to do, but I did put in perspective the life that I was living my entire career.
I don’t think I’m ever going to be preachy. I think it’s not an accurate depiction if I don’t get to the whole picture. So I haven’t made that record yet. That’s just stuff that I’m recording now for whatever I’m recording next. I need to stay true to the formula. When I have a big personal growth period, or a big change, I think that’s going to be respected in the music. And it should be. But also it’s not really my job to think about how fans are going to react to it. Because at the end of the day, I started doing this just for me. I don’t go into the studio thinking, “Oh, people are gonna love this shit.” I really don’t give a fuck at the end of the day. And I need to keep that attitude and not care about what other people think about it.
Slaine Details Being Handpicked For Acting Roles By Ben Affleck
DX: How did you get involved in acting? What was the moment that you said, “I’m gonna do this” and move forward with it?
Slaine: There was no moment. [Ben] Affleck saw a newspaper article that Chris Faraone actually wrote about me. It was about my music, about linking up with La Coka Nostra, and Affleck was casting for Gone Baby Gone. He read that article in the paper. And even though I was starting to get a little bit of name recognition, I hadn’t really made much money yet. It was just the beginning stages of my career, and I was living in a warehouse with no hot water or electricity. But I still had access to a studio up the street. So one day I was coming home from the studio, and it was like the first major newspaper article that I had on that level. I went upstairs into my spot, went to sleep, I woke up and had 66 missed phone calls. So Affleck was trying to get in touch with me because he was trying to cast for Gone Baby Gone, and he was having a hard time with it, I guess. So I didn’t even get cast in the original part for it. I went in and did like five auditions, he cast me and I really liked it.
DX: It is easier to prepare for an album or for a movie role?
Slaine: At the heart of it, they’re both storytelling, which is what I’m passionate about. I love telling stories. So that’s how they’re kinda similar. But with music it’s much more uncomfortable because it’s you—you’re putting out all your personal shit. Every time I make a record, I feel like I’m gonna die [laughs]. You know what I mean? It’s brutal. You’re really putting yourself out there. I always feel like when I feel uncomfortable talking about something, that’s when I should be writing the most. So it’s a much more personal journal to me. Whereas acting, it’s almost like a relief because I can become somebody else and have fun with it. I actually have a lot more fun acting. Music is just something I need to do or else I’ll go crazy.
DX: When it comes to working with Ben Affleck and all these other actors that are A-listers, what is it like? Do you have any back stories dealing with them away from the camera?
Slaine: I wouldn’t really want to divulge in personal stuff about these guys. It’s tough to get into those spots to get in working with Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Jeremy Renner, and Ben Affleck. It’s almost like getting into a club. The other guys respect the craft and take you under their wing, teach you stuff if you have questions or whatever. I try to just learn as much as I can from those kinds of guys. It’s the respect that I have for them, and the personal relationship I have with those guys. Because in this society, those guys are really put under a microscope, celebrity worship with all the magazines and all that shit. Those guys are just regular guys who are artists. Most every actor that I’ve worked with, I learned a lot from all of them. I didn’t go to acting school or anything like that. This was working with all these guys, and to me I’ve gone to the best acting school I could’ve by just picking their brains and watching them work. It’s been an incredible experience. I’m really just getting serious about acting now. Music has always come first to me, and now I’m really investing myself into acting and getting better in that craft.
DX: With rappers and movie producers now, they know the strength of Hip Hop, and in many cases it might be a bigger draw if they cast a rapper in their movie. Do any rappers get dismissed on the set because you were deemed as untrained or a new guy on the block?
Slaine: I think I’m aware of it maybe. When I went into Gone Baby Gone, I think a lot of people there were like, “What the fuck is he doing here?” because I literally had no acting experience. But Ben saw something in me, which I’m grateful for, and it ended up being something I love. I’m in a different position than guys like Ice Cube, Ludacris, 50 Cent, Eminem, or whoever you can name. Those guys have big mainstream successful Rap careers. So they already had a track record when they got into acting. My situation is a bit different than them. I was an underground rapper, and I didn’t have my first official record out through a label yet when I got cast in Gone Baby Gone. I kinda ended up pushing forward with both careers separately. I didn’t get the benefit of a platinum album before being cast in the movie. I think if anything, I’ve been pushing them both separately and independently at the same time, working in both careers, trying to come up and get bigger roles or get wider recognition with my music. So I don’t think I got that benefit like other rappers I mentioned did.
DX: Obviously with La Coka Nostra, you’ve proven yourself as a great artist, beyond just being a solo artist. What’s next for the group?
Slaine: We’re actually recording new stuff now for La Coka Nostra, so I think people are going to see a new album much sooner than they think. I don’t have a date on it yet, but we’re making progress through the album right now. Me and Ill Bill just spent 10 days together working on some shit in L.A. We are doing some touring coming up, including Australia this August, and I think we will probably doing some US dates too. Like I said, this album [King of Everything Else] was finished six months ago, so I never stopped recording. I been recording, and I have other projects too. The Internet is so fast, and my career came in right when the Internet exploded almost. And the whole business changed and everything. I don’t even promote projects until they’re almost done. Like I talked to Madchild about doing a record, and the day we agreed to do it, and now people are like, “Oh, where is that record?” It takes time to make a record. Let them know when it’s almost done because people was a record now, thinking that an album get made in a week or something. That’s just not how it goes down, especially in a group because everybody has different schedules.
Slaine Addresses The Big Suburban Contingent In Hip Hop Today
DX: There has been a lot of discussion lately in newspapers and blogs about whites in Hip Hop. What’s your opinion about this, being that you’ve always worked with black artists? You were managed by MC Shan early on in your career, so does this talk rub you the wrong way at all?
Slaine: It’s been much different now. When I was coming up, it was much more difficult to make it as a white artist. And I think that’s kinda reversed now, like there’s tons of white artists now…almost like it’s oversaturated with white artists. Hip Hop is so weird now, man. I don’t get it anymore. I guess I’m getting a little bit older. I kinda feel like a dinosaur in it, and I got my sixth album coming out now. I’ve been around for a minute and I’ve watched it change. At the end of the day, Hip Hop has just grown and has become bigger than it was before, for better or for worse. Like Chuck D said that it was “the CNN for black America” back in the day. It’s changed in which it’s more than just street culture too. I think it went from being “the CNN for black America” to street culture that was more inclusive as far as faces, not just with white people but Hispanics and you name it across the board. But it was kinda still street culture, and now it’s really been gentrified just like you were talking about with the neighborhoods. Now there’s a big suburban contingent in Hip Hop. For whatever it’s worth, it’s just what it is.
DX: Do you feel that it gives more variety to Hip Hop?
Slaine: I think you take the good with the bad. I think in some cases on it’s good because it’s inclusive. And I think it’s bad things about it. I feel like it’s lost its edge in a lot of ways. I like edgy shit. Not to say that those artists that blow up are from Berklee or whatever, they’re talented. I went and saw The Barrel Brothers, Skyzoo and Torae, perform. I’m thinking, “These guys are just master emcees.” They were great and honestly there were only like seven kids there. It was just like, “Wow, man. These guys are not being put on their pedestal like they should be, and somebody else has taken that spot.” That’s a shame. Other people are getting that spot that these guys deserve. Because of the change for what’s happened in Hip Hop the past 10 years. That’s a shame. In other ways it’s good too because people are more apt to be themselves now. The pressure is not on to be a “superthug” or get shot nine times and to get street credibility. The pendulum swings, and it goes too far in that way I think for awhile. And if everyone had to be a gangster, they wouldn’t exude themselves for who they really are. It’s a different animal. It’s more American culture than it is street culture.
Slaine photograph courtesy of Evidence.
Slaine's latest album, King of Everything Else will be available for purchase August 19 via iTunes and other retailers. You can pre-order the album here.