Atlanta X Melbourne Hip-Hop Collaborators Suggs: “Artistry in the world is on the brink of coming back to a place of rediscovering what it means to be punk”

Original photo: Jamie Wdziekonski. Handmade collage by B.

Suggs is a hip-hop project from Melbourne musician Zak Olsen (Traffik Island/ORB/ Hierophants/The Frowning Clouds) and Atlanta multi-instrumentalist and rapper Sheldon Suggs. Their first release We Suggs was conceived from collaborating over the internet to create a thrilling alternative, psychedelic hip-hop that’s a real triumph. With lush sounds, a refreshing adventurous musical approach and an exciting original voice gliding the beats, Suggs hasn’t left the Gimmie HQ stereo since it dropped in September.

How are you going?

SHELDON SUGGS: Pretty well. It’s 8 o’clock here so I’m just chilling out [laughs]. Today I took it easy. It’s raining here and the seasons here in Atlanta are changing… just trying to keep sane with my dog and my cat and working on some other stuff here that me and Zak are working on.

What’s it like where you live? Did you grow up in Atlanta?

SS: It’s the South… I grew up between a couple of different places. I was born in California, went to high school in the Chicago area, my mom lives in Atlanta. Though I’ve always moved around a lot, Atlanta has always been a home base. It’s nice, I love Atlanta! It’s a US metropolitan city, probably one of the bigger ones these days. One of the coolest parts about it, for better or for worse, is that you get a good pulse on how people are feeling that are out in the street, dealing with each other and doing things, you kind of get more of a personable, accurate representation of how people are feeling.

How did you first discover music?

SS: Hmmm… I want to think about it and give you my absolute first trigger for music. I can’t necessarily give you the first one but I can get close. The first CD that I ever bought was NSYNC’s No Strings Attached [laughs], I was so happy about it! I knew all the songs, I used to perform for my parents, it was the funniest thing. Besides from that, I was in a band in school, I played a number of different instruments, I still do. As far as rap’s concerned, the first rap CD that I bought was probably either Common’s Be album or Kanye’s College Dropout—both were very, very important for me. They gave me a lot of inspiration! I’ll never forget when Kanye West dropped his single ‘Jesus Walks’ and when I heard it I freaked out!. I think I was in 7th Grade. I heard it on the radio with my mom in the car and I was like; stop the car! What song is this?! I demanded to know what song it was because I thought it was so crazy and so different, someone was on the radio talking about a topic like Jesus! [laughs]. All the knowledge I had of Jesus at that point was my parents taking me to church. To hear this rapper rapping about Jesus in a way that wasn’t corny, it was crazy!

It’s a powerful song. I love that era of Kanye. All the stuff he was dropping was really cool and different. When Kanye came out he was so different to everything else that was happening.

SS: That was totally a different time, for everybody.

So were they the albums that inspired you to start rapping yourself?

SS: Yeah. I heard ‘Jesus Walks’ and then I heard Common. I love that Be album so much because it elaborates on the kind of aesthetic and feeling Kanye had on ‘Jesus Walks’—nice, good, soul food! It’s nothing special or flashy but when you eat a good home-cooked meal, as long as it sits in your stomach well, it tastes familiar and gives you that feeling of satisfaction, that’s what that did for me at that time.

My older cousins were big into Jay-Z, I was pretty into Jay-Z too at the time, ‘cause that’s who was the biggest star. When Kanye started coming around and you started hearing about his solo stuff and how he’s produced this, that, and the other… it’s crazy looking back on it because that was my champion, so to speak. My older cousins are super cool and I was trying to be like them, trying to catch up and then Kanye comes along and now I have something that I can grab onto and call my own.

As an artist, what are the things that you value?

SS: It’s kind of corny but the authenticity is really big for me. It’s not so much just authenticity, it’s something that’s kind of hard to explain because it’s an art in and of itself to express yourself, clearly, it’s an understatement. In creating, if anybody is creating, if you’re working, most of the time you know what you’re supposed to do and usually the problem, if you have one, is how to do it. Most of the time I feel that you know what to do and know how to go about doing it and that’s the skill that I believe you have to develop as an artist. What I hold near and dear is staying in the proverbial moment, not being afraid and pushing the button when it needs to get pushed and maybe letting go of it when it needs to be let go of is super important. What I value most, as far as artistry, is to know when to go and know when to stop.

When you write lyrics is it from a personal place or more observational of what’s going on around you?

SS: Definitely both for sure. I feel like my artistry has changed a lot over the years. I had actually stopped rapping completely when me and Zak linked up.

How did you meet?

SS: It was a lot of space talk on the internet! Some people like to call me humble, I totally respect that, I just think I know when to be aggressive and know when to hang back… I saw Zak posting things about hip-hop, he posted something to do with J Dilla and I was like, OK, J Dilla! I messaged him because I’m a huge fan of pretty much anything to come out of Australia to be honest—ORB, Traffik Island, anything to do with Zak, I love! We started going back and forth. I wasn’t rapping at the time but when I started picking it back up, I noticed how different it was. It’s been quite a trip witnessing it because I came from a place that I was previously into it, it was more from a place of anger, if I’ve got to be honest! It is what it is …comparison to now is that it’s coming from a place of understanding, a place of purpose and duty.  

What was it that started you rapping again?

SS: We were chatting, I mentioned that I could rap and he sent a beat, we played around with it. The ‘Silence!’ on the album was the first song we ever did. It was funny, we linked up on [King] Gizzard’s [and the Lizard Wizard] tour when it came to Atlanta. There were a couple of people coming up to me and asking me how I know Zak and I said we met online and did a couple tunes here and there, they had heard one of our songs and they were digging it. Once we made that song we never stopped.

That’s one of my favourites on the album. Sending songs back and forth to each other over the internet, you made it over a three month period, right?

SS: Yeah. When we decided, OK let’s put a project together, I’d say it took course over a three month period.

Do you have any favourites on the record? I’m sure you love all of them or you wouldn’t have put them out, obviously.

SS: I’m not that egotistical… most artists are egotistical [laughs]. If I had to say a favourite it would have to be ‘Thank Christ’. I’m not super religious or nothin’. The reason it’s my favourite is because how I’m not super religious but it’s still there kinda what it means to me… its got a special place for me. I wanted to put that song there, it’s kind of clickbait in a way. I know people would see Christ and be like; yo, what’s he talking about with Christ? The song is maybe a wake up, a flash in a moment where you’d expect to talk about the idea of a saviour, the idea that a saviour came to save you… it’s not about believing in it… I think a lot of times self-improvement, sometimes people catch themselves up on it because they think they have to change… what I have gathered from Christ… I grew up getting dragged to church Sunday morning and I wanted to go out and play basketball or do whatever I wanted to do, church isn’t my cup of tea but, what I gathered from those trips is, you don’t have to change yourself to improve yourself, in fact, when you’re improving yourself you’re probably setting the parts of yourself that you don’t want to have anyway if you could choose to. It’s abstract how I put it but that’s why that song is important to me, to refresh people’s minds and put it to them that, hey, it’s not this condemning thing; at the same time it’s poking fun and pointing a finger so to speak at people that claim to be good and do bad. There’s a line in there: I thought this century’s meme was to uplift women. That right there demonstrates to me the purpose of the song is, if we claim to be on the same page about ‘xyz’; why is it not really so?

What about the song ‘Pearls’?

SS: [Laughs] It’s funny that you said that because if ‘Thank Christ’ is my serious favourite, ‘Pearls’ is my wholesome favourite ‘cause…. Zak sent that beat to me late at night, I heard it and instantly wrote the song. I love when that happens because you know it’s going to be a good one. What’s so sick about it is, that’s the song that most people generally speaking would put as their single, we had an idea of what we wanted this album to be taken as and it shows that we can also… the album is largely heavy and heady but ‘Peals’ is like, FYI, hey, we can make a Wiz Khalifa pop single too! [laughs].

I love pop! I can hear the pope elements for sure.

SS: It’s pretty cool having it on there. More often than not I attack the song when I hear the beat, that’s what will start writing lyrics for me. If I hear the track sometimes I automatically know how I want to approach it, like ‘Pearls’ it had this airy, cool, not so serious but awesome vibe. It was a sight for sore eyes because writing had been so intense. I was going so tough on a lot of stuff and being relentless that ‘Pearls’ is a refresher in a more poppy way. I like pop too. It gets spat upon, especially now days ‘cause anything poplar gets spat upon. The proof is in the pudding though.

Do you have reoccurring themes you write about?

SS: People closest to me, I’d imagine that on that list that numbers one through five would say, kind of a social philosopher type of situation. I’m very hard on myself, unfortunately; it tends to make it that I’m hard on everybody else around me, it’s something I’m constantly keeping in check. Lately when it comes to what we’re doing with Suggs and in the future, it would be this route of just taking a look at myself and the world and seeing what’s going on, that’s where I get a large portion of the topics I talk about. There’s such a huge space right now for artists to express themselves in a time where expression is being manicured. I think we’re on the front period. Artistry in the world is on the brink of coming back to a place of rediscovering what it means to be punk. Punk to me demonstrates… if there’s one genre I had to pick that is the most honest… metal and punk is white people’s rap [laughs]. The reason I say that is that it’s true, it’s visceral, it’s hard and it’s hardcore. Hip-hop and punk have very similar trajectories as far as where they were and where they are now. It’s high time for us to get back to where we were.

Both are about community and DIY.

SS: Definitely. It’s so true. It’s the raw energy and frustration being expressed in real time—that’s awesome! We need more of it.

Did you learn anything about yourself writing the We Suggs record?

SS: I rediscovered the sense of purpose and how it is intrinsically connected to creation and intuition. We all try to force stuff at times and make something happen because we think it should happen and it’s what we want to happen but, what I’ve rediscovered through this process is the things that truly effected my trajectory were things that were beyond my control; what was under my control was my choice and my action and whether or not I acted in the moment or let it pass.

You mentioned before that you’re not religious; are you spiritual?

SS: I don’t want to prescribe to being religious or spiritual. The reason is because both have connotations that are not true. Alluding to it in ‘Thank Christ’ is religion has got a bad rap as has spirituality. I’m a child of God and I’m not afraid to say it, I’m proud in fact but, that also has connotations as well… to explain that would be to explain that in my personal view, the most practical way of explaining God is logic, love logic, I’ll put it like that. That being said I operate in a way that that is void of myself; what would be the best decision? What would be the best way to react by virtue as opposed to how I feel? I’m not a religious or spiritual person—I’m myself and a child of God.

Are there any books you’ve read that have meant a lot to you?

SS: I will say this, because I’m not afraid… It’s so crazy that I even have to feel I have to be careful when it comes to these topics of God and truth, it’s crazy because I know how people are going to react… that’s why I had that whole spiel about connotations of religion and spirituality, you’ll get damned either way. What I’m trying to get forth here is the book A Course in Miracles [by Helen Schucman], once I read that, it put me on the path of a very, very, very preliminary path of understanding that it’s not my fault but, now that I know that it is on me so to speak, how I express myself and deal with internal trauma, all that stuff, A Course in Miracles was invaluable. It can lull you into an idea that thinking everything is a flower [laughs] but everything is not a flower! As a whole though it’s done wonders for me dealing with how to navigate blame and what to do after the pain.

Anything else you’d like to share with us?

SS: Zak and I have a new EP coming out. It’s going to be called Who Hurt You? We’re approaching the end of it. We’re excited about it! We’re seizing the opportunity of seeing what’s out there in the world and responding to it.

Please check out: SUGGS on bandcamp; on Instagram.