Sugar Tongue Slim
For STS, wordplay is a way of life; hip-hop lines his pockets, poetry feeds his soul.
Sugar Tongue Slim: Woo, alright now. Do my one two. And it go.
Never had a lot of skill we make it work man.
Now we on the road like dollar cab and church vans.
Writing about experiences from the first hand.
To judge a book by appearance might be the worst plan.
Some people search a lifetime for their calling, for others it comes early.
Sugar Tongue Slim: Hi, I'm STS, rapper and poet. I get busy.
Raised in Atlanta, STS found poetry as a high school freshman, after dropping out of school he headed north where he found new teachers and shifted his focus from poetry to rap.
STS: If I went to Columbia, it'd be a whole different conversation. Like I would probably just be a literary poet. But I didn't, I went to the streets of Philadelphia, and in the streets of Philadelphia, some kids can rap.
Yeah this how Philly used to sound
Before they threw the rock up
And they shot the block up
And they shut the clubs down
This was a Renaissance town
Full of seekers who found
A soul song in they heart
A sort of hip to they hot
A certain je ne sais quoi
A touch of jazz in the park
A saxophone in the dark
A jam session don't jam
Without a drum and guitar
drummer singing his blues
An angel strumming her harp
They all playing for change
It's hard to tell them apart
And I was holding my heart
Felt like a good place to start
In Philadelphia, STS, which stands for Sugar Tongue Slim, connected with the legendary hip hop producer DJ Jazzy Jeff, who then introduced him to Dre and Fedal, producers of big names such as Usher and Chris Brown. It wasn't long before he was signed to Def Jam Records; famously home to both poets and rappers.
AJC: A lot of poets have sat in that chair and went "I'm not a rapper, I'm a poet." What are you?
STS: I'm both. Like I'm glad that they say that too because I tell people all the time, “just because you do poetry doesn't mean you can rap, just because you rap doesn't mean you can do poetry.” It's two different worlds. With a beat constraining you as a rapper, and then you having to use couplets all the time. Poetry you're free, you can go wherever. If you wanna obey the margins you can, but most people don't, and so it allows you to do more. But to understand how to do each of them perfectly you have to really focus in on it. Like when I'm focused in on rapping, like I'm working on an album or something, then don't bother me about poetry.
AJC: It would seem that sort of the literary bar for poetry is higher than the literary bar for rap, is that a fair description?
STS: Very much so, I hate to say, people say you have to dumb down, but yeah you have to dumb down. Because literary work is for people who actually read, rap most of the time is to have a good time. Like that's what people often forget, there are those who have a message and that's good, there's nothing wrong with that, that's needed too, but at the same time, you're not gonna play poetry when you go to the club. Like you're gonna play a rap song.
I came to kick it you know
My dog is tipping Ali
Shaheed Jerobi my flow
be the golden ticket
So you enjoy the show
and I'll be back to visit
But now I've got
the spit like a spigot
Get back to business
get your hands in the air
It's time to party tonight
We gonna get down hell yeah
You have the time of your life
If you're doing it right
If you're doing it right
If you're doing it right
If you're doing it right
Got your makeup on
And because STS raps to pay the bills, his hip hop is geared towards club and radio play. His poetry though, remains sacrosanct.
STS: Sometimes I'll say stuff if I'm rapping, and I'm like "that's a poetry line," I have to take it out, because it's too deep, you have to do too much thinking. And if I'm just trying to get you to keep going on with the flow, then--
AJC: You don't wanna be distracted by meaning.
STS: If the song has meaning, then I'ma put meaning into it. But if it doesn't then it doesn't, like sometimes--
AJC: But are these your rules?
STS: Yeah. These are my rules, these are my rules.
AJC: Why are you putting those limitations on yourself?
STS: Because I respect the work so much. Poetry is special to me, that's what I first fell in love with. I wanna be remembered as a poet.
So at this grand swerve, this n-word,
this is where ghetto boys meets Ginsburg.
In a box Chevy down Lindbergh,
sitting shotgun as I pen verbs.
These lifelines are like life rhymes when I'm lighting
hues in these lifetimes, in the nighttime when the light
shines directly down in these white lines.
AJC: What won't you do?
STS: You'll never hear me talk about violence. People always say like "you do a show, a rap show, you gotta worry about this," and I say "no, why?" If the music isn't violent then the people aren't violent, because you can't do violent things to nice music. The music speaks to your soul. You cannot tear up a club to “happy,” it's just impossible.
Although he avoids promoting violence, he doesn't shy away from aggressive language.
STS: I try not to curse unless I need it, if it's needed. Sometimes it's needed. If I'm trying to get your attention off the top. Yeah, poetry, I go do a poetry slam, first thing I'ma do is curse. "Who is he," that's what everybody's thinking. I need to get your attention, now if I say "hey hey, "can I get your attention?" You're not gonna give me your attention. Sometimes you gotta curse, whether it's just what you say after it.
But regardless of what is said afterwards, STS's song "Why Can't I Say It," makes it very clear that there's one word that's definitely off limits to some.
Why can't he say it
He can say it 'cause I said it
It ain’t racist ain’t no
hatred in his heart man
He know better he ain’t
never practiced segregation
Never knew no Jim Crow
He did practice my
lyrics to sing at the show
He know to never judge a
novel by it’s cover come on
And he ain’t never said it
in reference to color come on
And if he said it it's like
saying he's my brother come on
AJC: Why can't I say it?
SLS: That's the thing man, it's just one of those things, you're like man, it's ours, we took it. The n-word was not a cool word to say. We took it, flipped it, we gonna drop the "er" gonna throw that "a,"and when I say it I'm saying it to you because you're my man. We took it and made it what we wanted it to be. So at that time it's like "oh nah," because when ya'll was saying it ya'll wasn't saying it the way we was saying it. We saying it the way we wanna say it so its ours.
And today STS is a valued collaborator for big stars such as Ciara, Jill Scott, and The Roots. He also has an international following as a solo artist. He says the key to finding happiness in the rap game is by redefining the rules.
STS: There's not gonna be a whole bunch of Jay-Zs, but if you can find your place in it and you can be successful in your place and be happy in it, then you're good.
AJC: When did you realize that was okay? Because everybody wants to be Jay-Z And a lot of people drive themselves crazy before they realize what you realized.
STS: Well I met Black Thought, when I met Black Thought it changed my whole perspective on everything.
Knocked up nine months ago
And when she finna have she don't know
She want neo-soul 'cause it's heart and soul
She don't want no rock and roll
STS: Anything that you could want, he had, and he's respected. You can never question who he is as a lyricist, as a man, none of that. And he's happy, and I was like "yo, I just wanna be happy."
STS: When I do a show, people come up to me and say "yo, you're my favorite rapper." And I'm like "me? Cool!" I'm doing my job, I'm good. Like, I'm happy.