This may sound undeniably beyond the pale of heterosexual male behavior, but it's the truth: Sean "Slug" Daley, the MC of hip-hop duo Atmosphere, is the only rapper you'll ever hear who'll make you wanna hold him in your arms and tell him everything's gonna be all right. It's a statement the performer greets with a combination of flattery and shock. "Oh, wow! I can't believe you just said that!" exclaims Slug. "Well, thanks, I appreciate that. I think that it's cool of you to be so honest with me, because it's possible that other people have felt that, but just didn't wanna say it because you're not supposed to say shit like that to a rapper."
It's his third and latest album, God Loves Ugly, that brings these maternal/ paternal instincts rushing to the fore. As boisterous and ferocious an MC as he can be, a lot of Slug's lyrical content finds him wondering if a humble, witty guy like him still matters in this bling-bling world of overprivilege and overcompensation. "I'm that cat that used to sit in the back and study," he raps. "Looking for some proof that God loves ugly." Calling on such unorthodox, untapped rap resources as compassion, sympathy, optimism (P. Diddy may rap about being an optimist, but Slug lives it) and self-deprecation, Ugly is 18 tracks of hip-hop braggadocio leavened with existentialism. If Kierkegaard collaborated with Prince Paul on a hip-hop album, chances are it would sound a lot like Ugly.
Of course, Slug knows that this sort of introspective hip-hop could be a letdown to those rap fans who just wanna hear a rapper talk about big-bootied hoes, endless bottles of Cristal, haters who need a good bitch-slapping -- you know, the finer things in life. Even worse, Slug could be perceived as soft, an MC not to be taken seriously. "I mean, it's very easy to listen to [Ugly] and go, 'Man, what the fuck is this dude talking about?' " he says. " [But] to me, this is an extension of what KRS-One used to do or Brother J from X-Clan -- some conscious rap. The only difference is, the revolution changed, and my revolution is a little bit more personal. I'm not necessarily trying to save the community, I'm not trying to save the world, I'm trying to save, like, ten square feet around me. I'm trying to save my people that are here, my friends."
Atmosphere with Murs and Mr. Lift
The Engine Room, 1515 Pease
Monday, October 7; 713-629-3700
But do not get it twisted: Slug is no punk! When he isn't rapping about tortured love affairs, his purpose in life or just requesting "a pound or a hug" from people on Ugly, he also gives big-ups to "the women who swallow stuff." (He may be sensitive, but he's still a man.)
Respect has always come hard to Slug, considering how he hails from Minneapolis, the lovey-dovey home of Prince, Kirby Puckett and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Despite the fact that he is the co-founder of Minneapolis's burgeoning, multiracial Rhyme Sayers Collective, it took him a while to shake off the excess hate. "When I first started getting to know a lot of my peers, yeah, I did get that vibe from a lot of them," says Slug. "But the thing is, once cats got to know me, it would be all good again. I mean, I wouldn't necessarily become friends with them, but I think that a lot of people had a better understanding of where I'm coming from after they actually held a conversation with me."
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Yet even with the respect of his peers and a steady fan base, there are still some things Slug is trying to get straightened out about himself. His biggest concern is audiences and critics who label him an emo rapper. Apparently, if you don't rap about getting drunk or getting laid all the time, you're lumped in with Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional. "Maybe these suburban emo kids can relate to what I'm saying because I'm not really talking about the ghetto," he wonders. "I'm talking about head trips. I'm talking about shit that's real in my body and my head, and anybody can fuckin' relate to that!" He's quick to point out that he's not the first rapper to fall in that category. "When I asked somebody, 'Yo, why do you call me emo?' They said, 'Well, your songs are always emotional and you get way into it and whatever.' Well, I'm like, fuck, 2Pac was the biggest emo rapper in the fuckin' world! Yeah, so hell, I can't really be mad at that either, 'cause all I ever wanted to do was be 2Pac."
While Slug admits he emulates many old-school pros like KRS-One, Grandmaster Flash and Run-DMC, there is another pale-faced, continually stressed MC he keeps getting compared to. You almost feel like an asshole for bringing it up, but it's easy to see why other folks would: They both look white (Slug is the offspring of a mixed marriage), both are single parents, and both continually bitch in densely packed rhymes about their pain-filled lives, their exes and their mothers. "I ain't even mad at it no more," Slug says about the constant size-up. "A couple of years ago, when I first started hearing people say that shit, I was like, 'Whatever, man.' But at this point, if you wanna compare me to Eminem, I'm cool with that. I would prefer to be compared to Rakim, but whatever. Eminem is tight, so I can't really fuckin' get mad at people who compare me to him."
And if anything, Slug is an Eminem with hope, which is to say, not Eminem at all. Unlike Slim Shady, who just wants you to feel his pain and doesn't give a fuck about yours, Slug wants you to feel his pain because it is, in essence, your pain. The alienation, awkwardness and lack of purpose Slug raps about isn't that far off from the alienation, awkwardness and lack of purpose most of his fans feel. Is it any wonder disillusioned suburban kids dig him more than the average hip-hop head? "I just think that I'm an artist," he explains, "and I think that I'm like that because, let's face it, my favorite rapper in the world is KRS-One, and even when KRS was full of shit, he sounded honest. And so, I think that's where a lot of that comes from in my music. I always wanna be honest -- I don't wanna lie."
A rapper who's honest with himself -- why, that's almost unheard of.