By Noah Hubbell
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Slug, the primary rhymesayer behind the Minneapolis hip-hop duo Atmosphere, is feeling like something of a prognosticator these days. He predicts that once Christina Ricci listens to his song "The Bass and the Movement," from his new disc, God Loves Ugly, she'll be unable to resist his charms. On the track, he pays the plucky Pumpkin actress this tribute: "All that matters is the bass and the movement/From the top of the Fiji to the bottom of Christina Ricci."
"She's going to think it's hilarious. That's my Father Guido Sarducci prediction," says the rap prince of the Twin Cities, laughing into the phone from somewhere in Los Angeles. "She's going to know me and love me. She's going to be my übergroupie. She's going to be my Winona Ryder."
Female fixations are the norm for Slug, aka Sean Daley. Atmosphere's last record, Lucy Ford/The Atmosphere EPs, dealt almost exclusively with the MC's problematic relationships with women -- most notably, his former love. Despite the pain that the subject matter may have caused him, the record validated Atmosphere's standing in the indie-rap world. Its popularity extended to the many critics who put Lucy Fordon their 2000-2001 best-of lists. Luckily for Slug's sanity, Atmosphere's new joint finds the rapper in a much better head space than the one he was in when he recorded Lucy Ford. Instead of duplicating what he calls the "Oh-a-girl-hurt-him" type of rap, Slug and producer/partner Ant (Anthony Davis) work a variety of angles this time around.
"The last record was like, 'I'm a confused little boy in a big world,' whereas when we made this, we were just like, 'We're two little boys trying to have fun in a confused world," Slug says. The last record, he adds, "dealt with one particular issue that I didn't get a chance to clear up." On God Loves Ugly, the pair explored "a more diverse range of topics and made songs that were actually fun for us to listen to. We realized we don't have to take ourselves so serious, because we're not that serious."
Listening to Slug, you sometimes get the sense that you've stumbled onto an episode of The Twilight Zone set in a rap universe. The album abounds in the same kind of deadpan humor that first surfaced on Atmosphere's 1998 debut, Overcast! "Hair," for example, features a hijinks-happy narrative wherein the narrator -- a thinly disguised Slug -- finally falls for a groupie wannabe, even after explaining to her that "bands like us don't get groupies/I mean, have you heard our songs?" On the way to her apartment, they hit a pickup truck and both die. Elsewhere, his tracks take on a confessional air and sound as though the MC is in the midst of a self-analytical therapy session. Songs such as "Fuck You Lucy" come across as honest attempts to exorcise the demons -- and the ex-girlfriend -- that torment him. Slug says that track is a "response to the fact that I've allowed myself to become so obsessed with one particular food group. I had to quit being so excessive and get on with my life."
When he's not diving into comedy or matters of the heart, Slug, like many of his indie counterparts, seeks refuge in the ideals and sounds of hip-hop's past. On tracks such as the catchy "Modern Man's Hustle," he and Ant present an old-school vibe that takes listeners back to a time when MCs could enjoy rapping without putting on some tough-guy, screwface front. Ant's Superfly-smooth beats perfectly complement Slug's tone when he raps, "I will love you through the simple and the struggle/But girl, you got to understand the modern man's hustle."
Likewise, on "Blame Game," the two-man crew conjures a feel that's as familiar and fresh as a pair of shell-toed Adidas. Slug name-checks the legendary Juice crew and, in the style of those Queens legends, slays underground backpack fiends who always complain about the state of hip-hop. "This supposed to be the new school/Your guns are aimless and your songs are nameless," he raps on the track.
"That was kind of just like an ode to old-school shit," Slug explains. "Lyrically, it was kind of like a dis to my peers, where everybody's like, 'Oh, fucking hip-hop sucks,' and everybody's got something or someone to blame for it sucking. To me, it's a feel-good song about making fun of people that complain so much about not feeling good about what they're doing."
Despite such feel-goodisms, Slug isn't about to start some Up With People-type of movement within rap. (He's more likely to start Slugs Anonymous, where members swill beer and bond over coming to terms with their own ugliness. His line "I wear my scars like the rings on a pimp," from "God Loves Ugly," could serve as the club's inspirational motto.) The rapper still has plenty of bile to hurl. It's just that, right now, life is pretty good.
"Oh, man, I think I've gotten more respect than I deserve," he says. "That was the whole concept behind God Loves Ugly -- like, the fact that me and Ant have come this far is proof that God fucking loves ugly."
The music industry apparently loves ugly, too. After the positive response to Lucy Ford, Slug and Ant fielded many offers from big labels before eventually signing with Fat Beats, one of the major players in the underground. The bi-coastal labels puts out the records while behemoth BMG takes care of distribution. The relationship allows Slug and Ant full artistic control, though Slug admits, "This is the first time that we ever put out a record where somebody actually paid attention to sales." So far, reaction to the new record has been positive, and the bean counters at BMG haven't complained.
Slug's affiliation with Fat Beats/BMG has also upped the profile of Rhymesayers, the name of his label and also of the affiliated multi-racial crew of Minneapolis rappers and DJs who take turns filling out Atmosphere's sound. The Rhymesayers' Eyedea (the 2000 Blaze Battles Face-Off World Champion) and Brother Ali are among those who've intermittently shown up on Atmosphere albums, Overcast! and 2000's Sad Clown Bad Dub II.
Despite the guest stars who sometimes fall under the Atmosphere umbrella, it's ultimately Slug's show in both a performance and political sense. As much as any rapper this side of Eminem, he's helped to bridge the often unspoken racial divide that exists in hip-hop. Born into a biracial family -- his mother is white, and his father is black and Native American -- Slug says he's also had to deal with the way audiences project racial expectations on to him. He made that clear during an Atmosphere show in Boulder last fall, when he stopped in the middle of his set and warned the audience not to brand him as "your great white hope."
"I wasn't trying to be condescending or as much of a dick as it might have come off," he says. "I guess the point was, 'I hope you guys are not here just because I'm the white guy you can relate to. I hope you're here for the same fucking reason I'm here, because I really enjoy the vibe of these type of events.'"
Since his initial involvement with hip-hop culture, Slug has witnessed the changing demographics of rap audiences firsthand. As he's established his own identity, he's also watched hip-hop go through its own transformations.
"When I first got into rap, it was almost a novelty for my friends, because there was a guy at the fucking parties that wasn't black, and so there was a whole identity thing through that. I basically established my identity, my corner of the world through hip-hop," he says. "But when hip-hop got super accessible and college music jumped all over it with De La Soul and Public Enemy, it became acceptable, and more non-black people started going to shows. I no longer had to confront the identity side of it.
"But now it's starting all over again, because now the shows are all white," he continues. "If you see a black kid at a show, that's a novelty -- and, granted, I'm being sarcastic -- but it's been a complete turnaround. It's forcing a lot of artists, especially white artists, to once again look at the role they're playing in this. They're probably facing the same identity issues that they had to face when they first started going to shows -- only this time they're feeling weird, because there are too many white kids and not enough black kids at shows."
Some of Slug's immediate goals are perhaps less socially charged than others. Sure, he'd like to bring diversity back to indie hip-hop. But he's also keen on the idea of exploiting the spoils of fame.
"The next step for us is to get more notice and recognition so that I can actually go to more cities and flirt with more girls," he says. And, oh, yes, he's got a message for Christina Ricci, should she decide to come calling: "Make sure to brush your teeth before you kiss me."
We'll see that she gets the memo.