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One could boil down the volumes of press recently written about the Minneapolis hip-hop group Atmosphere and simply conclude: "B-boys from the unlikely location of the Twin Cities make noise with emotionally wrought tales of love gone wrong, at times bordering on misogyny, while simultaneously opening the genre up to the indie-rock emo-kid demographic." But labels are weak. Not only does this spin deny due credit to one of the better groups to break out of the underground this past year but it's just plain lazy.
Consisting of producer DJ Ant (Anthony Davis) and MC Slug (Sean Daley), Atmosphere has put in serious work over the past few years with a steady stream of releases that feature top-notch beats and Slug's larger-than-life personality. Underneath Slug's veneer of playing the cocky jokester lie relentlessly self-critical lyrics about strife and doubt -- typical hip-hop fare to be sure, but it's Slug's naked candor and ability to poke fun at himself that set Atmosphere apart. The way most critics have been responding paints him as some brooding emotional train wreck, even going so far as to unimaginatively brand Atmosphere as emo-rap.
Slug laughs it off. "Whatever, man. All rap is emo. Tupac is emo."
Exactly. Critics are missing the inherent sense of fun that Slug constantly brings to the table. On Atmosphere's new release, self-deprecatingly titled God Loves Ugly, Slug begins the festivities by proclaiming, "My life is as trite as your favorite rap record/And I'm possessed with that insight that enables me to laugh better." There's a knowing wink in his pout, an ability to keep it light while still using the art form as a sounding board by which to work out his shit.
"I don't like to use the word passion," Slug relates, "because it sounds like I'm tooting my own horn. We'll say issues. I prefer that word because that's really what it all boils down to: 'Sean's got issues.' I found it was just easier to put that into my writing than it was to put it into words and actual dialogue sometimes."
On last year's breakthrough release, The Lucy Ford E.P., Slug began what was to become an ongoing series of tracks about bitter fights and emotional abuse at the hands of the mysterious Lucy. The angry tone and sheer frustration in these tracks have caused some to compare him to Eminem, or even crazier, label him with the m-word.
"I cannot understand that whatsoever," says Slug, mystified. "I've had a few arguments with very stern, strong-minded young women about that. I don't understand how I get pegged as the misogynist. I wear my issues on my sleeve. If that makes me a misogynist, I'm sorry. I just thought it made me honest.
"I knew the kids were getting mad at me because of the Lucy Fordshit -- and they don't want to hear all the girl shit. I agree with them. I used to get so mad when I was a kid and Big Daddy Kane would have three girl songs on his record. I don't know how I turned out to be that guy who put nine on a record. When we sat down to make God Loves Ugly, Ant and I both made a conscious effort not to have a bunch of girl songs. [The track] "Fuck You Lucy" was my way to get out of that."
Indeed, using weak tags like "emo" or "misogynist" serves only to underscore how little attention some people pay to the larger picture of an artist's work. Whether it's feelings of self-doubt or bad breakups, Slug is simply telling tales most of us can relate to.
"I come out of the school of excitement, identification, straight-up conscious rap. I do feel as if I'm some kind of an extension of KRS-One or of Brother Jay, only the difference now is the revolution is a little more personal. When I break down the main idea behind what I'm saying, I'm on some either 'better myself' or 'better yourself' type of shit. I do feel that responsibility."
Finding yourself as an artist and learning how to refine your craft takes time. If there's one thing that Ugly shows, it's Atmosphere's maturation as beat makers and storytellers.
"I'm trying to learn how to be a songwriter, because I know how to rap," Slug explains. "I'm not worried about that. I can rappity-rappity-rap-blah-blah all fuckin' day. Now I want to learn how to be a songwriter. I want to be the Stevie Wonder or Billy Joel of hip-hop."
New tracks like the radio-ready "Modern Man's Hustle" display this new mandate, fronting great hooks laced with slippery guitar samples that dance around a solid beat.
"Honestly, to my ears, that is the closest thing to Tupac that I've ever made," Slug says. "It's accessible as fuck, and it's not because of what I'm talking about. It's the beat and the mood. I accidentally had a real chorus. The day we four-tracked that song, we both knew from the get-go: 'Holy shit, this is the poppiest thing I'll ever make in my whole fuckin' life. Let's see what happens with this.'"
But wider appeal also brings greater notoriety. With such a rapidly growing fan base, Slug is aware of being an icon and trendsetter for younger fans, regardless of the labels being tossed about.
"It would be different if I was rapping to a bunch of 25-year-olds, 28-year-olds, but I'm not. I look out into the crowd and it's 15-year-olds, and I know I'm only a couple years away from making songs like 'Brush Your Teeth' or 'Stay in School' -- but until then, I'm just trying to use what I got to maybe gem somebody. At the same time, if I can gem you and make you have a good time and pay my fucking rent... you know, that's love. I don't need to prove to myself how dope of an MC I am anymore. Now I'm trying to prove to myself that I'm doing God's work."
Slug pauses, then quietly adds, "It sounds so arrogant to say it out loud, though."