Portland, Oregon’s Sleep probably didn’t realize how appropriate his name would be when he chose it. Despite being a founding member of the hip-hop collective Oldominion, and being one half of The Chicharones with Josh Martinez, Sleep could be considered one of the most slept on emcees of the past fifteen years.
Fifteen years is how long he’s been releasing music, and connecting with his dedicated fan base. The ride has rarely been easy, but according to Sleep, whenever he steps into the recording booth it makes all the heartaches, and headaches, worth it.
Hot on the heels of the release of Sleep’s most recent release, Oregon Failure, RapReviews caught up with him to find out more about the album, some of the shady characters he’s dealt with over the years, and the tour he embarked on early in his career that was beset with a comedy of errors he can laugh about now only because he was lucky enough to survive them.
Adam Bernard: Your most recent solo effort is Oregon Failure. Why did you put failure in the title of the album? That’s a word people normally like to shy away from.
Sleep: Yeah, I know that, especially in hip-hop, that’s something that you don’t find a lot of emcees doing, embracing failure. I had just gotten home from Warped Tour, and I’d had a really rough summer on the road. My personal life was sort of collapsing, I was having financial problems, I hit a couple of rough patches, and I wasn’t really feeling that much like a winner at the time when I made this record. I started writing it as sort of a personal therapy session, and it actually worked. It started getting me out of the funk I was in. Instead of dwelling on failures, I started thinking about benchmarks for success. All of the successes that I had, they may have been small, but they were still accomplishments for me. I started realizing that I’m the kind of a person who learns from their failures, and I was looking at that Michael Jordan quote when he talked about how if he hadn’t failed this many times he would have never have been as successful as he was, and I started feeling like maybe I should embrace failure a little bit.
The album’s not about failing as much as it is about success, and about overcoming failure, and learning from your failures. I named myself The Oregon Failure. Obviously I’ve been sort of stuck in the smaller scale of things as far as being an independent artist goes. I’ve managed to continue to put out records, and to tour, but my growth has been slow over the years, and I was looking at all the reasons why it’s been that way, and trying to learn from my mistakes, and embrace my failures, so that way I can get them off the table and start moving forward.
AB: How tough is it when you’re doing Warped Tour, which I’m assuming you leave for thinking you’re gonna hit all these cities, there’s all this potential new audience, and you come back like, “Oh crap, life isn’t good” when you get home. Was that a rock bottom situation?
S: You know, I’ve probably been at rock bottom so many times that I’ve learned kind of how to exist there. It’s always disheartening when you envision something having a more positive effect in your life than it actually does. At the end of the day Warped Tour was a really good experience, and I met some people who have definitely been helping my career out, so it had its plusses, but it was very expensive for us to go on the tour. Everything that we were making was going right back into that tour, and everything extra was going to keeping my house afloat, because I have a family, so when I go on the road I have to keep everything going at home.
When I came back from (Warped Tour) my pockets were empty, and I was feeling sorta stuck, not really knowing where to go. It’s disappointing, but also, I’m the kind of person that when I’m down I actually work three times as hard, and that’s what happened. I was feeling down, didn’t know what to do, didn’t know where I was gonna get money, and the only thing I knew how to do at that point was to make some music. I locked myself away in my basement and started recording. I recorded Oregon Failure, I recorded another Chicharones album, and I recorded another solo album, as well, so I got a lot of music done in that little period of time. Oregon Failure was sort of the catalyst for that. It sort of opened the doors for me to feel creative again, and I’ve been cranking out music consistently since then.
Everything always comes back around, and I know that, so when I’m feeling down I just know it’s a matter of time before I’ll be up again, and when I’m up I know it’s just a matter of time before I’ll be down again, so I just roll with it, and try to give it my all no matter what the situation is.
AB: Oregon Failure is a very personal record. What would you say people learn about you from listening to it?
S: I really wasn’t considering what they would learn about me. Every time I make a personal record I’m more concerned I’m kind of airing out my whole life for everyone to sort of analyze, but I do it in the hopes that maybe people kinda share struggles, and we all go through hard times. I feel like we’re only unique when we’re having good times, and I feel like we’re all very similar in our struggles, so when I write this music it’s more like, like I said, it’s therapy for myself, but also I hope that the listener, whenever they hear it, it can help them when they’re going through a rough patch in their life, and can kind of give them a soundtrack, or a voice, a reminder that other people go through the same things.
S: He makes phenomenal beats. I really like his beats a lot, but I think it was just the way we get along as people, in general. We’re good friends, and have been good friends for a really long time.
He had this project called Death By Thr33s, and he wanted me to be part of it. He was producing three songs for different artists, and I think he ended up giving away 40+ songs. When I recorded my three songs, they were three songs that stuck around with me for a while. I really enjoyed them, and they came out well, and I felt like we had a really cool aesthetic together. It reminded me a lot of when I was rapping over the Christopher instrumentals produced by Smoke, and Pale (Soul). It just kind of brought me back to that era. It has a more modern twist to it, but it was right in the pocket that I felt really comfortable with.
More than even the beats, he’s such a good person. We’ve been good fiends for so long it was really just a natural thing. He was patient with me before I turned on that switch. He was giving me beats, and I wasn’t really feeling inspired to write anything until after that tour. When I came back from that tour I had maybe 20+ beats that I had been collecting from him that I hadn’t spent any time working on, and I just sat down and cranked it out. A few weeks later we had most of that record done.
AB: Since you’re friends, if Maulskull were to say something about you, or your process, behind your back, what would it be?
S: That’s a good question. I think he would have positive things to say about me. I think he would say I’m an honest person, and I try to do things fair. I think he’s seen me take my fair share of lumps. We’ve had a lot of shady characters come in and out of our camp, and he’s been there through that whole process, and kind of seen me get taken advantage of. I think he would say I look out for him like I’m his big homey, and that I want the best for him, and that I’m a man of my word, and if I say I’m gonna do something I’m gonna do it.
AB: When did you feel you were getting taken advantage of?
S: I can give a few examples. Warped Tour, I got taken advantage of by a few people on that tour, (who) kind of left me hangin, and I had to end up coming out of pocket, which was a big reason why I was hurting financially. We also had a shady character, I’ll leave her name out of it because I don’t want to give her any publicity whatsoever, but she came into our camp last summer and she sold us stories about how she was working for this person and that person, and it seemed very convincing at the time. As I started looking into her background she made a couple slip ups that I spotted. I ended up finding out that she’s a very shady character, and that everything that she said was a lie. She ended up stealing a lot of money from us. Why she had access to that money, I don’t know, but she got access to it, and she stole a lot of money out of our camp.
This happened right after we licensed the “Hi Hey Hello” song to Samsung, they used it for their global campaign, so we were sitting on a lot of money. Anything was possible at this time. We were getting a lot of interest in my group, The Chicharones, and she just kinda piggybacked off that and came in right when our guard was down, because it seemed like anything was possible at that time. She took advantage of that situation and stole a lot of money from us, and this was not the first time this has happened. We’ve had people come into our camp who said they were professional managers, and (they) ended up the biggest thugs in the region, and (they) try to bully you into giving music to them, or to working for them.
You have to be careful for those kind of characters. I’ve been burned a few times and sort of learned the hard way, and I’m continuing to grow from it. The music industry is filled with legit people, and it’s filled with a lot of people who are not so legit, and they just kind of fake it to make it, and it’s hard to verify thing sometimes.
S: Honestly, I started this record with that attitude. I was like fuck it, I’m done with this shit, I’m never gonna do it again. The first song I wrote for the record is the “I’m Sorry” song. It was an apology to anybody who ever put anything into me; time, money, belief, trust. I started writing this record about quitting. That’s what it was. I quit, I’m gonna write a song about (how) I’m quitting, this is gonna be my last record and it’s gonna be about how I quit music, but as I started going down that road, and that journey, I realized I’m miserable when I don’t make music. It’s always the same thing, I get kinda cooped up, start feeling crazy, and feeling like everything’s falling apart, and I don’t want to do it, and then I start working on music and instantly I start feeling better. It’s like the cure for anything that ails me.
AB: You get back involved and you’re like “Oh, THIS is why I do it!”
S: Yeah, exactly. I love this feeling. I love creating. I love when something’s done and it didn’t exist yesterday, and now it’s here. I got the bug, and I’ve had it since I was like five years old, and I just can’t shake it. It seems like the only thing that really grounds me is making music, and being creative, and when I take that out of mix I get crazy. I can’t hold a conversation. I get in my head. Everything irritates me. I have to make music or else I’m not OK.
AB: Macklemore blew up last year, and was really the first Northwestern emcee to see success since, I want to say Sir Mix-A-Lot. From my decidedly east coast perspective, I haven’t seen this result in a huge influx of Northwest emcees being paid attention to. As someone who lives in the area, however, how have you seen the scene change since Macklemore’s success?
S: I haven’t seen a change in the scene. I’ve seen Seattle get a lot of shine since then. I used to live in Seattle, and I know Macklemore, he’s a great guy, I’ve done shows with him throughout the last decade in the Northwest. I think it kinda caught everybody off guard when he started making as much noise as he did, because, again we had never seen anybody in the Northwest see that kind of commercial success before, so all eyes were on Seattle. I think it was sort of limited to Seattle, and I don’t think the glance went outside of that region. It didn’t go into Portland, or Olympia, or anywhere else where there are really talented emcees, as well. It just kind of stayed focused on Seattle.
I started seeing XXL doing Seattle emcees, but what I noticed was that it was a lot of the youngsters that are doing well for themselves, but they excluded a lot of people who have been doing it for a long time, like Grayskul. I’m not sure why that happened, but I haven’t seen it really impact the Northwest, in general, the way you would think. It’s not like the grunge era where you had Nirvana blow up and then every other band from the Northwest kind of followed that trend. It’s sort of like Macklemore blew up, and Macklemore is still blown up, and you don’t see a lot of other heads in that situation.
I think it’s great that anybody from here gets that kind of shine. It’s a long time coming, because there are a lot of talented heads out here, and we make good music, and it’s unique to the Northwest. It has its own sound. The same way that East Coast music has its own sound, or Los Angeles has its own sound, the Northwest has a signature sound, and I think Macklemore has that sound, and for whatever reason he had the lane and people really gravitated to it.
S: One of my wildest, crazy tours was about ten years ago. We went on tour, and we had snow tires put onto our vehicle because we were playing mountain shows during the winter, and they over-tightened one of the lug nuts. While we were driving down a mountain path the wheel just broke off of our van. We were going 65mph, we flipped our van, completely demolished it, I broke three ribs, everybody got hurt. We still did two shows that same day. After we played our show the promoter felt like he wasn’t getting enough from us, so he decided he was gonna steal our merch. He went into one of the member’s rooms who was sleeping, grabbed our boxes of merch, and stole our merch. We had to spend the next day and a half hunting him down, trying to find him, (before) we finally got our merch back.
AB: How’d that conversation go, when you found him and he had a box of your merch?
S: Oh my goodness, man. Well, we knew he had it. Basically he got in an argument with our tour manager, saying, “I want one of every shirt,” and we’re like yeah, we’ll give you one of every shirt, that’s totally fine, but he wanted one of EVERY SIZE. He wanted every style that we had of shirt, and one of every size that we had. That’s ridiculous. We had probably like ten designs at the time. Like we’re gonna give him 30 shirts, or 40 shirts? We just told him to leave. He then stole boxes of our merch, but he left one of the boxes to (hold) open up the door while he was loading up his truck, and our buddy found it and brought it upstairs. We realized it had gotten stolen, and we didn’t know how to get ahold of him. He was ignoring us. The next day we tracked him down. We found out where he worked, we found out where he went to school, and we contacted him through his work and school. He was kind of afraid to meet up with us in person to give it back, so he dropped it off at the restaurant across the street from our hotel, and they called our hotel and notified us that it was there, and we picked it up. We haven’t seen him since then.
That tour, in general was rough, because first we get into the car accident the second day of the tour, total our van, and then we go out, we were having a couple of drinks, and I think was because my organs were bruised up, I only had maybe one and a half drinks, and next thing you know I’m arm wrestling the bartender. I go outside to get some fresh air, and I pass out outside of the club and I wake up at four in the morning in the middle of Montana. I’m in like a rayon shirt, and I made myself get up. I was like, “If you don’t wake up, man, you’re gonna die, so wake up.”
I made myself get up, and I stumbled down the road and I walked about a mile until I saw this hotel. I went in there and I asked them if they would call me a cab. I explained to them that I had gotten in a car accident, and I’d had a couple drinks, and it just didn’t sit well with me, and I ended up getting sick. I told them I’d be outside waiting. They ended up calling the police. The police came to pick me up, and they’re like, “If you can tell me where your hotel is we’ll drop you off, if you throw up in our car we’re taking you to jail, or if you don’t know where your hotel is we’re taking you to jail.” I’m like, “It’s down this road.” I had no idea where it was. They started driving, and I look over and I see the restaurant where homey dropped off the merchandise, I look across the street, it’s our hotel, and I’m like, “That’s my hotel! That’s my hotel!” I’d been calling the guys for hours. Nobody’s answering their phone. They’re hanging out with girls, and doing whatever. Luckily the police left right away, and just kind of left me in the parking lot of the hotel. Eventually I got into my room and I was super pissed for like two days.
So we get a rental car, and we decide the tour’s over, we’re gonna drive home. We hit a blizzard on the way home. We’re driving like 20mph all the way back. It takes two days to get somewhere that would normally have taken one day. Then we get out of the rental and into our van, and about two hours from home we lose a tire on THAT van.
What’s funny about this is I was documenting it all on video. I have the car accident, I have the blizzard, I have the other tire popping. It was just a mess, man. I guess I would say that’s probably my most memorable crazy tour.
AB: Holy crap! I’m glad you survived that.
S: Yeah, me too. We called ourselves The Unbreakables after that. There were seven of us in that van. We flipped it, completely demolished it, and there was a trucker behind us who pulled over to help us. He thought there were just like a couple people in there, and they were both dead.
AB: You were like a clown car at that point.
S: Yeah, we were all popping out the window. He was in shock. He could not believe it.