For the last few years, Russell Allen, aka Sloe Pink, has made some of the most engaging and challenging hip-hop in the region. His most recent release, wākup, is ephemeral and glorious, a love song to the genre that plays with form, but that never loses sight of a good hook. Pink is a dope rapper and has a smart vision and a lot to say. You can listen to his most recent album below and catch him tonight at The Cathouse with Joe Flannelly, Bree Jo’ann Flannelly, and Chris Kincaid. We caught up with him to ask him about his music, his collaborations with Touch AC, Dr. Dundiff, and others, and his thoughts on the afterlife.
Never Nervous: Was it always hip-hop for you? Did you ever play any other kind of music?
Sloe Pink: Hip hop wasn’t even my favorite genre until 5 or 6 years ago. I grew up in a musical family, and could set up my dad’s drum kit before I dressed myself. I took guitar lessons and played baritone in middle school band, but I’ve always enjoyed composing over learning other people’s music, so I quit both by high school. Most of my early songwriting experience was recording half-improvised songs with my brother and a friend on Windows Sound Recorder. And by the end of high school, I was one of those cliche singer-songwriter types playing Bright Eyes knockoffs at open mics and recording demos in my parents’ basement. I was a historically bad performer, but loved composition, so it made sense when I transitioned to just making beats around 2010.
NN: What is your earliest memory of hip-hop?
SP: It all started when this kid who rode my bus found out I didn’t listen to rap, so he gave me a copy of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. I had Nuthin’ but a G Thang memorized within the week, and I was so proud of myself for being able to spit, “It’s the capital S-oh-yes-so-fresh N double-O P, D O double-G Y, D O double-G-ya-see.” I hadn’t hit puberty or smoked weed at that point, so the subject matter of the album was eye-opening, down to the label on the CD itself.
NN: Your bio on Facebook says you’ve been at this for a while. What can you tell us about getting started? How did you get into hip-hop as a performer?
SP: It actually started as a joke. Some friends and I were bored, so we ate leftover painkillers and banged out 3 songs on acoustic guitar and a Yamaha keyboard. They sucked. One of my lines was literally: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 … 8, 9, 10, bitch … 11.” But we kept at it for a few years and I started taking it more seriously. I had been composing in FL Studio by then, so I switched my focus to making the style of beats that were popular at the time. The song that most influenced me as an early producer was Throw Some D’s by Rich Boy, and I spent a lot of time trying to make my own version. These guys I knew from high school found out I was making beats and I began contributing to their project called AMB Click. But sloe pink wasn’t born until 4 or 5 years later.
NN: How did you come to collaborate with Touch AC? Is there any likelihood of further collaborations?
SP: Touch and I worked at Book & Music Exchange in the Highlands together. He was one of the first people who got me into the world of serious instrumental hip hop. Him handing me the instrumental album for El-P’s Fantastic Damage is what I consider the single most important musical moment in my life so far. After that, I started learning to sample, but I was using the music I liked at the time, so it was indie rock, mathcore and 80s new wave. I was doing it wrong of course, basically chopping up dozens of samples into milliseconds trying to compose one note at a time, rather than letting samples breathe and finding the swing inherent in the technique. Lots of complex, overwrought concepts with no emotion.
In 2009 I got accepted to TAPIF (Teaching Assistant Program in France) and was making plans to spend the next year in France. So I put together my first ever beat tape called “Blazing in the Back Pew” and gave him a physical copy. I knew he liked religious symbolism, so I crammed a bunch of religious soundbites in the tape and even sampled obscure religious music I’d found on comp tapes at BME. (The the tofu_cherry_k0la beat is from this tape.) I worked on my beatmaking technique the whole time I was in France and made 7 beat tapes while I was there, but I had nobody to rap over them, so I wrote a handful of songs just to test out what it might sound like. This was when I was calling myself Braniac.
When I got back to the States, Touch and I started hanging out again and I shared what I’d been working on with him. He was the first person who ever heard me rap seriously. We had some Miller High Lifes one night and recorded a handful of demos at his apartment. He was still doing spoken word at that point, so I think this was the first time he’d recorded his material. I got hired at BME again, so we were seeing each other almost every day. He asked me to perform a song we wrote called “Etch-a-Sketch Cats” at Bearno’s with him, and that was the first time I ever rapped in front of strangers. I was very nervous and my mic didn’t work for 75% of my verse. Over the next two years, I hyped Touch at shows, slowly working in some solo sloe pink stuff and adding features to his songs. Mostly we just got wasted at Solidarity, which is now some type of consignment shop, and had loud block parties. There are probably 10 tracks in the vault from this era.
I don’t know if or when we’ll collab again, but it goes without saying that he’s one of my biggest influences and supporters. During my hiatus, he had a SLOE PINK hoodie printed which motivated me to write Poster of a Cat for his album, and he was the first person to hear all my demos for 27 Club. In an alternate reality where I don’t meet Touch, sloe pink isn’t even an idea.
NN: Speaking of collaboration, how do you engage with other artists creatively as either an emcee or producer? Is it a conscious choice to collaborate on any particular narrative in a song, or do both artists just freestyle?
SP: Since so much of my early emceeing career was defined by my relationship with Touch, it’s been a big focus of mine to establish sloe pink as its own thing. That’s the main reason 27 Club and wākup had no features. My main collaborators really are Corey and Louis (of Beacons) and Stsy (DJ/producer). Together, the four of us have been able to really give sloe pink a cohesive sound and establish an identifiable aesthetic. Louis is my producer, manager, videographer and hype man. He fills in the blanks when I can’t and makes all my ideas better. Corey’s guitar work adds a musicality to our sound that not only helps us stand out, but improves the beats we use. Stsy also breathes life into the beats with live automation and scratches, which ensures a unique experience every time we perform. We are working on incorporating way more of Stsy’s production moving forward, and relying less on outside producers.
Upcoming collaborations for you to look forward to:
- sloe pink ft. Dave. (prod. by Stsy) – “hype”
- sloe pink ft. Shadowpact (prod. by FiXXiNS) – “Crush”
- Ja Sun K ft. sloe pink – ???
NN: Likewise, how do you know when a beat is perfect for Sloe Pink? There is a remarkable cohesion to your sound given the fact that you yourself do not produce every beat. How do you keep that consistency when working with other producers?
SP: Well for 27 Club, Dundiff gave me free rein to loot his Month series, so I had a year’s worth of his beats to select from. (There are two songs I even scrapped from that album because they didn’t fit the narrative.) wākup is all original beats by me, so I had my entire back catalog to go through. But if you’ve seen us live, I agree that a cohesive aesthetic is our goal. I troll Soundcloud often looking for the perfect beat to fit my mood or abilities, and that’s how I’ve gotten in touch with and worked with a lot of producers locally, nationally and even internationally. I listen to instrumental music more than songs with lyrics, and I’ve always been a big fan of track orders on albums and mix CDs, so I am very careful with what reaches the public and what gets left on the cutting room floor. I wish more artists would do the same.
NN: Did you start first as a producer or an emcee? Did you have any stage anxiety or anything like that when you started?
NN: What can you tell us about your first show? What about your best show? What about your worst?
SP: My best show was opening for Project Pat, who is one of my early hip hop idols. The crowd was live, a bunch of my coworkers came and got sloshed, and plenty of strangers were asking about me afterward. The only letdown was that Pat rapped over prerecorded vocals. My worst show is definitely from my previous life as a singer-songwriter: the one where I threw my guitar down and ran off stage because my ex brought her new boyfriend to come see me play.
NN: Ideally, how would you like to be perceived as an artist? What do you hope people take away from your set?
SP: I’ve been selfishly making music for myself for almost 20 years now, so the fact that there is an actual audience listening to me is still a fresh concept. In a year’s time, I’ve gone from a rapper with an audience of 20-30 to a four-member band that is gaining respect in the local music community. I would rather people not focus on me at all and instead focus on the art only. I like music a lot. I hate the hype machine. I just want to entertain and make people think. So if I could pick one thing I want people to take away from our music, it would be HOPE. Because in my darkest hour, I always reach for songs that bring me comfort. And I derive comfort from the emotions or thoughts those songs provide. If I can help someone who is depressed feel motivated, someone who is anxious feel calm or someone who is hopeless find a reason to get out of bed, then my mission is complete. Life is probably meaningless. If our music helps someone find meaning, then I’ve established meaning in my own life as well. The relationship between artist and audience is intimate, and I like to think songs are just secrets I whisper (or yell) into your ear.
NN: How would you identify the persona of Sloe Pink? How is it different and how is it the same to your personal identity?
SP: It’s not necessarily a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing, but it can feel that way sometimes. Because I work in marketing, my social media profiles nowadays are pretty buttoned up. So I don’t post publicly from my personal profile, but I will occasionally speak my mind using sloe pink as a medium. It’s weird to compartmentalize thoughts and feelings that way, but for anyone else used to living with anxiety, it is a normal part of our day. sloe pink is definitely an outlet for me to say what I want to say, but it has gotten me in trouble sometimes.
For example, some people have taken my twitter account way too seriously in the past. I am amazed at how I will spew nonsense on there for weeks with no engagement and then all of a sudden, someone will take offense to what I say and want to start beef with me. It’s my fault for passing imperceptibly between sarcasm and honesty, but as a whole I must say people need to stop confusing sloe pink with me personally. sloe pink is cooler than me and more confident than I am. But I think he is prone to the same insecurities and hypocritical thinking that I am. We’re definitely the same person, but sloe pink allows me to forget about societal norms and share my true perspective on life.
NN: Is image important in music? How have you worked to shape your image?
SP: Image is very important in modern music, but I don’t have the time to cultivate one. So ultimately, I have done very little to shape mine. I believe in letting the music speak for itself. I believe ours does. I created a more elaborate cover image for wākup, but scrapped it in favor of the simplistic smashed alarm clock. Like I said, I work in marketing, so I could do a better job marketing sloe pink, but there’s nothing worse than taking work home with you. Making music is still really fun after all these years and I’d rather spend time obsessing over lyrics than obsessing over what I’m going to wear. I’ve never liked music videos that much. I’ve never been a big fan of singles. I like albums. I like closing my eyes and focusing on the sounds. I don’t really like shows. I dislike the hype machine. I dislike when people tag me in a Facebook post and it’s the same song they’ve been marketing for weeks. I make the music I like and I am happy when others like it. But music is one of the rare times I get to be 100% authentic and I don’t take it for granted. I am insecure.
NN: What can you tell us about both the 27 Club and wākup? Is there a consistent narrative theme to each album, or are they comprised of track-by-track vignettes?
SP: 27 Club is an existentialist album through and through. It’s not a chronological story, but it follows a narrative that centers around suicidal thoughts and domestic life. If you are into schadenfreude, you should get a lot of pleasure listening to me lose my mind track by track. For anyone looking to decode this album, I suggest you think of it as someone deconstructing himself completely and trying to build a new persona, but falling short every step of the way. I knew I was building a newer, better version of sloe pink but I had so many conflicting ideas about who that would be. The internal struggle is apparent throughout.
In Lost in the Snow, the snow represents the monotony of daily life, like “snow” on a broken television screen. In Iceberg, I denounce every belief I could think of in an attempt to establish a foundation for myself, which ended up only being that there’s a sun and there’s an Earth. In Sidewalk Ends, the “shell in the sea where the sidewalk ends” is a metaphor for a funeral. In Five Sevenths, my anxiety was so overwhelming that I couldn’t hide behind layers of meaning anymore, so I just start shouting “Kill myself, become something else.” In Suicide Note, I pretend it was all a joke, but only to falsely assure the listener that everything’s okay. The album cuts short intentionally to reflect the ephemeral nature of life.
wākup is poking fun at the modern hip hop crowd’s sensibilities. We studied the mixes of popular rap and mastered the album to sound as much like that as we could. I like to think of it as a sloe pink radio station, because the songs are short, concise, catchy earworm shit. We sing, but not like they’re singing in current hip hop. I incorporate lots of trap flow as a way of saying to the audience, “Is this what you like?” And in kraken_c0des I self-aggrandize in the vein of other current rappers, glorifying drugs and misogyny before literally saying, “I don’t give no goddamn fucks” (about what I’m saying). I wanted to use the weapons of the current atmosphere (over-compressed music, redundant subject matter, mumbling triplets and speaker-rattling bass) to continue spreading the kind of message I want to spread.
The beats we used were mine, but Stsy, Louis, and I played with the mixes a lot to make them sound more “modern.” The result to my ears is a record that sounds current but alien at the same time. And we made it only 17 minutes long because modern listeners have very short attention spans. The titular track using live instrumentation is my favorite symbolic middle finger to the hype machine. I wanted that track to stand out as a capstone to the message that we should be taken seriously, and that a lot of other hip hop acts are half-assing their output. I want to rally others to make albums again and stop spamming songs or generic videos on Facebook. Breathe life into the genre. Stop being musical tourists and appreciate what is being crammed into your brain.
NN: What connection do you see between ultimate frisbee and hip-hop?
SP: I’ve always preferred subculture to mainstream culture. Ultimate frisbee and hip hop both appeal to that side of my personality. In ultimate, I am a very creative and pensive player who is not afraid to take chances. In music, I feel the same way. I will say that both cultures can be very political though. There are a surprising amount of semi-insular cliques/crews in the local hip hop scene, and the same goes for ultimate regionally. I’m selective with my friendships. I don’t have a lot more time to waste before my age makes me irrelevant athletically and musically.
NN: What happens after you die? We need definitive answers.
SP: Life is an acknowledgment of death. Death is an acknowledgment of life. Without one, the other has no meaning. I’ve thought a lot about suicide in the past, but I’d prefer to keep living for the time being. So I don’t think about the afterlife at all to be honest, and I don’t have any salvation anxiety anymore. I just hope that by the time I do die, I can be buried directly into the ground. The idea of them filling my body with chemicals, sewing my eyelids and mouth shut, and then putting me on display sounds awful. At least dump me out of a helicopter into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
NN: What non-musical things are getting you fired up lately? Have you eaten, drank, watched, or read anything that has you motivated of late? Get into it.
SP: My dog is the main reason I get out of bed every day. Because she is hungry. And licking my face. She can jump very high and catches frisbees better than me. I can eat an insane amount of food. Recently I ate 10 La Bamba tacos in one sitting. I’m going to go for 20 next time I am hammered.
I like craft beer. Stillwater Artisan Ales are my favorite. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is the best show ever made. Community and Parks & Rec are #2 and #3. I really don’t like serious movies or shows.
NN: Tell us about your top three desert island albums and why.
SP: In no specific order…
- Modest Mouse – This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About
- Why? – Oaklandazulasylum
- Sigur Ros – Takk