STS and RJD2 have built up substantial reputations in hip-hop on their own, but their new self-titled album is a clear statement that these two men were destined to work with each other.

RJD2 is one of the most respected producers in hip-hop having been a pillar of the underground rap scene for years. Getting his start in the MHz crew, RJD2 ventured out into solo work with his 2002 debut, Deadringer. The LP, regarded by many as a classic instrumental hip-hop album, was just a taste of what would come in later years. RJD2 explored more styles and ambitious sounds in his later solo work, but hip-hop remains the backbone of his music. During his career he’s crafted critically acclaimed albums with underground favorites like Blueprint, known together as Soul Position, and West Coast legend Aceyalone, whose collaboration “A Beautiful Mine” would later become the theme to the hit show Mad Men. Now through his new partnership with STS, RJD2 looks to continue that trend.

STS, a.k.a. Sugar Tongue Slim, grew up in Atlanta but cut his teeth in the Philadelphia hip-hop scene, which helped mold him as an artist. Most have likely heard of Slim through his work with the Roots, who he’s been collaborating with regularly since their 2010 album, How I Got Over. Slim was part of the Black Thought-led supergroup Money Making Jam Boys and established his GOLD brand over the past five years with a couple of free releases as well as last year’s underrated We Can Talk Politics and World Affairs EP. But Slim is also a gifted songwriter, penning tracks for the likes of Ciara and Jill Scott. And as seen on their new LP, Slim’s well-rounded skill set clearly meshed with RJD2’s production.

We had a chance to talk to the duo as they discussed their newly released album in great detail, taking us behind the scenes into how this project, and friendship, was developed and created.

Justin Ivey is a writer living in Baton Rouge, La. Follow him @JustinIvey_.

How did you guys first meet and end up collaborating?
RJD2: Slim was obviously on my radar and then when, I can’t remember who I met Khari [Mateen] through, but I knew Khari. And through Khari when I was working on this [2013] album More Is Than Isn’t, I had this idea of Khari and Slim doing a song for it. So, I reached out to him through Khari to do that. And after that, I think we had an idea. The chemistry was there, and we were like, Let’s do a song or two.”​ Then we kept doing them.

STS: Yeah, “420” was the first one. That was the very first record we cut. That was actually the first time I got in the studio with Jordan [Brown] too. So, “420” was the first one, and after that we just kept going. We were gonna do an EP at first, gonna do like five songs, but everything just clicked.

RJD2: I gotta mention that I think the main reason this thing snowballed into doing a full record together is normally, my usual experience working with rappers is I’ll pitch them tracks and they’ll just write to one or two. But Slim would write to so much of the stuff. If I sent him five tracks, he’d write to three or four of them. And if I sent him eight, he’d write to six of them. He was just so prolific that it became really obvious right away that doing a full-length album was totally feasible.

So you were able to build a rapport quickly and the work ethic really got your attention?
RJD2: Yeah, the work ethic in conjunction with the quality of music was just so high. It was good stuff. We had keepers. Right off the bat, we had multiple keepers.

STS: I think “Hold On, Here It Go” was the second or third song. We was just going. Like the music, I think everything was just a perfect fit. Everything he was sending, it allowed me to say what I wanted to say. It spoke to me. I don’t know. I sometimes think back on it and I don’t know how we did that. It was just there. We were in tune. All the records are there.

Slim, you grew up in the South but came up in the Philly scene. Do you feel like that shaped your style and helped mold you into the MC you are now?
STS: Yeah, definitely. You take the rap style, the way that I rap, you put me on a beat and I could just go all day cause I can rap. That’s what Philly is and that’s what rappers in Philly do: They rap. Down in Atlanta, it’s more about the hook and the beat. You blend them together and both Atlanta and Philly have a soulful background. So, this album is pretty much everything I ever wanted to do. It’s soulful. It’s where I am. That’s me. Spending time in Philly with the whole neo-soul, I’ve seen all that, and it definitely transfers in the music. But yeah, I like to be up North as a rapper. It just gives me that vibe. Philly does that to me. Philly makes me feel some type of way.

Listening to the album, it felt like the production really played to Slim’s strengths. RJ, were there any specific stylistic choices you made based on Slim’s previous work?
RJD2: Yes. There’s definitely an eye to it. He’s got a real soul-oriented, Southern cadence to both the mentality of his writing and the execution of his rapping. So that would be in my mind, but at the same time, it wasn’t like I was sending him all tracks that just sounded like “420” all day. It wasn’t super, uber-soul, Memphis Stax [Records] vibe type of thing. I was naturally trying to branch out and give the album some diversity. There’s stuff that we cut for the record that didn’t make it that’s, I wouldn’t say weird, but I think there’s some variety there. There’s certainly more variety to the material. We recorded like 22 songs for this record. I look at ones like “Cruisin” or “Fuck With That” that are, I guess you could call them deviations. To me, it’s just variety. 

As far as the beats go, how much of it was you sampling versus bringing in live instruments? 
RJD2: There’s one sample-based track on this record, and I’m not gonna I.D. it, but everything else is live.

Was there any specific decision that took you in that direction, or it just sounded right for what you had here?
RJD2: At this point for me, there’s numerous things that play into that decision. One is there’s the obvious legality around it. Two, there’s just more that can be done. I look at some of these songs and I look at the depths you get out of building them out as live instrumentation pieces. You just can’t get that when you’re using samples. When you’re working with samples, you get a thing that is unattainable anywhere else, but at the same time it’s also limiting. I don’t even need to name names. If you go back and look at any sample-based rap record, there’s an immediacy and urgency to great sample-based rap music that cannot be duplicated with live instrumentation. But at the same time, inherently it forces you into a more loop-based thing. You have a loop and as soon as you want to deviate from that loop at any point in the song, you either need to have another part of a sample to use or you have to write something yourself that complements it. So in ways, it’s also kind of limiting.

I look at some of these songs and I look at the depths you get out of building them out as live instrumentation pieces. You just can’t get that when you’re using samples. —RJD2

Now I don’t want to add any pressure or unwanted hype, but listening to this record and being so familiar with Slim’s discography, it feels like this album could be a breakthrough project for you. Slim, was there a feeling on your end that this might be your best work to date?
STS: There was no thinking: This is the best work to date that I have ever done! As soon as we started doing the music, I was like, yeah, this is it. Me and my man [DJ] Bear [One], he recorded me and everything. He’s been there with me forever and he was like, “Yo, this is it.” I think everything that I’ve done before, it was good. But to actually have a sound that people get, it’s where I feel comfortable. In the rap world, you either got to be some kind of character or you have to do certain types of songs, especially being from Atlanta. But to actually make music that I’m proud of, like I go out and perform. Basically, yes this is the best joint ever. I’m smiling ear-to-ear. This is crazy. It’s a work of art. That’s what it is, a great work of art.

I want to break down a couple of the tracks with y’all. One of the early standouts to me was “Trunk of My Computer.” Can you tell me about that one and your process behind it?
RJD2: That track was a thing that I cut when I was making this album The Colossus, which came out in 2010. It was a song that I wrote and had a whole vocal part that I demoed. I’m not gonna name the name, but I pitched it to a singer in a band that you would surely recognize. I just happened to know the singer, and the song just didn’t congeal. It didn’t come together. I was never really happy with the vocals, so I stripped off the vocals to it, and so I just had the instrumental. I was sitting on it and never really knew what to do with it. And then we were working on this record and it popped up in the context of where we were at in the recording. I was thinking it’s a long shot, but this might actually work. So, I sent it to Slim and then he wrote to it. It just fit so well within the context of the album. We’re like, oh, this is brilliant. We gotta keep it. In fact, we put it at that place in the album because we felt like it told an important story. As a piece of the puzzle of the album, I feel like it’s a pretty critical statement.

Slim, can you touch on your writing with that one?
STS: On that one it was like before this, like any other rapper, I was chasing a deal. When it broke down, there’s really a lot that goes into this project. RJ’s really shown me a lot on how to do this thing. There’s a lot that I’m learning from this project. So when we was doing it to go the independent route, especially nowadays, means you’re gonna sell it off your computer. It’s mostly digital downloads. Back in the day, I used to work at a mixtape store. I went to jail, well…I got locked up, I didn’t go to jail. But they had me for bootlegging and everything. But we wasn’t bootlegging; we had a mixtape store. Back then, everybody’s thing was selling it out the trunk of their car. Nowadays, it’s out the trunk of your computer. So, just to bring them together. And it really tells you about it. I think my favorite line in that whole song is “If you really listening, this’ll be the one.” That’s exactly what I’m saying. If you really listen to this project and you mess with me and you mess with the music, this is the one. 

Another one I wanted to hit on was “Tennessee (Whiskey Revival).” I thought the placement of it at the halfway point of the album really worked well. It wasn’t just Slim rhyming; it was really spoken-word style. 
STS: Back in the day, me and my homies used to sit around and play with this song idea of [begins to sing] “Tell me what you drankin’ on.” When RJ sent me the beat, as soon as I heard it I started singing it. Then I started adding stuff to it like, “It’s the Tennessee Jack.” So, I said, you know what, let me really research Jack Daniels. That whole story, the little poem part, that’s the story of the real Jack Daniels. I just researched what Jack Daniels was about. I remember RJ came over, and we had the song part of it done. We were sitting there and he was like, “You gotta tell the story. Take them to church.” Being from the South, of course I was raised in the church. I preached the sermon back in the day. I just kind of felt the spirit and that thing just came out. Man, listen here. That record right there is just funky. RJ, you take it.

RJD2: I first sent him the track, and it was just a loop. It was just a loop of the guitar part and had some bullshit drums in it cause sometimes that’s how I’ll do things. I’ll just put together a super quick, shitty demo that gets the idea across but is nowhere near the execution of what it should be if it’s gonna become a song. I’d send over like a thumbnail sketch of what the track’s gonna be like, and if Slim wrote it, then I’d have a direction of what the song is gonna be. 

So with this one, I got the demo back and went back and did live drums, a guitar solo, beefed up the guitars, bass lines, and kind of maxed it out to really function like a song cause you gotta have all those dynamics across the course of three and a half minutes. We get together to actually cut the stuff, and what happened was, somewhere along the lines the idea came up that this was gonna be like a sermon. Instead of it being a poem, what if literally there’s a church somewhere and it’s a church where you drink [laughs] and the sermon is about whiskey. It seemed so hilarious. Me and Slim talked about this before but kind of on some Ray Charles shit. Just like funny and blasphemous, but good-hearted and silly. That’s why there’s the background vocals that’s supposed to sound like a congregation responding. And I don’t think you’d ever come up with that idea if you were just sitting around in your bedroom writing a rhyme or making a beat. You know what I mean?

Obviously y’all did a lot of great work and built some real chemistry, so will we see another STS and RJD2 record in the future?
RJD2: I’d love there to be.
STS: Yeah, oh yeah. [Laughs]
RJD2: The chemistry is there. We got the team.
STS: There’s gotta be.