Shrouded in Simplicity
AK Slaughter's Party Rap Is Just Waiting To Cut You Down
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AK Slaughter keeps it simple. It's an idea that the old school-inspired duo of Emily Slaughter and Aran Keating, both 24, keep coming back to when describing their music and, just as much, when they're describing through their music. "Hip-hop is simple/ We show our guts in the bedroom window/ Plus our sound's so simple/ Not too complex," the pair raps in tandem on its song "Mushroom Head."
For Slaughter and Keating, simple doesn't just mean uncluttered beats, though that, too, characterizes their sound. Simplicity also means eschewing gimmicky personas in favor of being themselves. It's reflected in the group's moniker, a blending of their given names, as well as the duo's penchant for addressing each other as Emily and Aran in their songs.
"We're two separate people doing this thing together," Slaughter says. And with A Personal Matter, AK Slaughter is banking on that symbiosis of their two distinct personalities.
With a quick tongue and ready laugh, Slaughter comes off as the more outgoing of the duo. Keating is quieter on all subjects save his love for music; he has a tendency to let his words trail off into an almost imperceptible softness, though loquaciousness takes root when he discusses the merits of '70s funk. It's a dynamic you can see hints of when the group performs. Slaughter enjoys stepping into the crowd to dance or watch Keating do his thing. On the mic, she is a smart ass and a touch outrageous, purloining all manner of BS--from dreary day jobs to ego-trippers--with a self-described "playground rap style." Think: decidedly throwback, nearly singsong delivery evoking the likes of Roxanne Shanté, the Beastie Boys, and the childhood art of cracks.
Keating, though far bolder onstage than in answering questions about himself, feels he is primarily a musician still coming into his own as a lyricist. With his bent for the conceptual, he prefers being the chorus to Slaughter's more sprawling, oft-plucked from real life narratives. "That's a little bit easier for me," Keating says in his Patterson Park basement studio. "I can pull together what she's saying into something coherent."
"Yeah it's true," Slaughter adds, laughing. He "kind of create[s] a synopsis of my rage."
Keating, a saxophonist since he was 9, had spent his student years at Goucher College playing in the retro R&B outfit Poisonares and DJing house parties. "I thought that was what I wanted to do--be a mixtape DJ," he says about his move to making his own beats. "You know, like scratch and buy new records constantly. Then I got really tired of trying to be on top of hip music. So I bought a sampler."
Slaughter, too, had been experimenting with beat-making on a drum machine. During her summer breaks from Goucher, she returned to her childhood home in the San Francisco Bay area and formed short-lived rap projects with her high school friends under the names Sophistibits and New Face of Harlem. The two met a few years ago at Goucher, where they shared mutual friends. While they hung out socially and were aware each was a musician, they didn't grow close until Slaughter asked for Keating's opinion on some beats she had made. Soon after, a nascent version of the group took shape.
The duo's initial collaboration had a more freaky electro bent. Keating name-checks Afrika Bambaataa as an influence while Slaughter was then big on '80s lady rap group JJ Fad. Keating describes their early sound as "space and sex together." Laughingly, they recall lifting porno dialogue for song lyrics. "This was much more avant-garde than what we ended up with," Keating says about that incarnation of the duo.
"We became these normal people from our weirdo roots," Slaughter adds.
They performed only once, at Goucher's 2006 Battle of the Bands competition, before going on hiatus. Keating attributes the lull to a change in priorities. Still, in the nearly yearlong interim, Slaughter continued writing lyrics and Keating stockpiled new beats. While previously the two had toyed with the idea of a more theatrical presentation, emphasizing their identities as Ridiculous (Keating) and Knock-E (Slaughter), upon reuniting they started viewing their work as, simply, AK Slaughter. "After we started to get more songs together, we realized we are representing ourselves more than some weird rap persona," Keating says. "It became more about us as friends."
It is clear that Slaughter and Keating's friendship is the bedrock of their music. The two finish each other's sentences in a manner reminiscent of their rapid back-and-forth delivery onstage. It's the sort of intimacy that leaves people wondering if they are dating. "People ask us if we are in a relationship, and the answer is, `No,'" Slaughter says firmly. "But it comes up enough that we are kind of playing off that."
This ambiguity is something of an underlying theme on A Personal Matter. The eight-track release features skits riffing on the question as well as a cover image of a desperate Keating imagining Slaughter in bed with another man. The two appear unfazed that this may further the notion they are romantically involved.
For Slaughter, it wouldn't be the first time her work has stoked misconceptions. In the searing "Heartbreakerrr," off its forthcoming debut, A Personal Matter, she addresses the dudes who have done her wrong, dropping equal parts venom and sass with lines like, "I'm sorry, honey, you're just really boring/ Oh, were you fucking me?/ Please excuse my snoring."
"Sometimes [it] can get a little uncomfortable," Slaughter says, recalling an ex-boyfriend who thought she was referring to him in the song. "But, it doesn't stop me."
While the two love a party jam, neither shies from drawing on personal experience to tackle harsh issues. "It's good for you to figure out what you are thinking about [through] rap," Keating says. "It's not a preaching thing. You [have] something you need to work out and you're working it out there."
This cathartic potential suffuses the standout "Tomorrow," a searing rip on street harassers that showcases the group's subversive sense of humor. While Keating asks men to take responsibility for their actions, Slaughter snaps back at a deep robo-voice spouting off cornball come-ons familiar to any woman who's ever walked down the street. Melding insults with empowerment, Slaughter flips the script on the song's curbside playboy: "Honking and whistling and hollering and calling/ My mouth is for speaking, not to put your balls in."