Six years later, Slug is a celebrity in his hometown (subject of a long cover story last year in the Minneapolis weekly City Pages) and, along with DJ Ant in the duo Atmosphere, one of the brightest stars in the world of indie hip hop, selling thousands of records with no promotion, suddenly championed by legendary critics Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau and courted by major labels he doesn't exactly trust. And he'll make his Memphis debut Thursday night at the Young Avenue Deli as part of the Fill In the Blanks Tour.
Released earlier this year, Atmosphere's Lucy Ford is one of the year's best albums. Ant's soundscapes (he'll be replaced by Cincinnati's Mr. Dibbs for the tour) are sharp and tasteful but don't generally call attention to themselves. Rather, the music just sets a solid foundation for Slug's impassioned, witty flow -- a deeply personal, excursionary vocal style that may not be "tight" by conventional hip-hop standards but can snap back on beat for moments of head-bobbing abandon.
In purely vocal terms, there may be better rappers out there, but if there's a more compelling lyricist in hip hop right now, I haven't heard him. Divided equally among startlingly original story-songs and sharp, funny state-of-hip-hop meditations, Slug's pleas and testimonials can be remarkably introspective and confessional -- hip hop as "therapy on top of turntable riffs" -- but Lucy Ford may also be the most empathetic album in the genre's now 25-year history. In particular, Slug writes about women with more insight than any other male MC.
"Rappers tend to have a token girl song, and it's either 'I know how to do it, baby' or 'I love you, Mom' or 'You're my queen.' But I've always had this sort of a weird passive-aggressive thing with women," Slug says. "I thought for a while I might be a short-story writer but I never thought that aspect would come through in my rapping so much. If you listen to my early stuff, there was none of that on there, but as I got older and got hurt a few times and went through more normal-life shit with women that's the direction the music went in, and now I like those songs the best. So, yeah, dog, I got issues."
All over Lucy Ford Slug takes hip hop places it's never been before -- catching a "glimpse of religion" watching a 40-year-old woman masturbating on "The Woman With the Tattooed Hands," taking a road trip to Fargo in a "car full of anxiety" on "Mama Had a Baby and His Head Popped Off," witnessing a grain-elevator suicide on a farm in northern Minnesota on "Nothing But Sunshine."
Slug also flips emotional tones with easy virtuosity -- playful on "It Goes" and funny on the off-kilter blues "Guns and Cigarettes," deadly serious on the angry treatise "Tears For the Sheep" (which begins, "A city of fools/I want to bash whoever's responsible for this incomprehensible lack of passion") and the hip-hop-as-emo "Don't Ever Fucking Question That" (a valentine right down to the "I love you").
Lily-white Minnesota may be the last place you'd expect to find a significant hip-hop eruption, but Atmosphere and the rest of their colleagues in the Rhyme Sayers Collective (including Fill In the Blanks tourmates Eyedea and DJ Abilities, the former a teenage MC who won Blaze magazine's World Championship MC battle last year, broadcast on HBO) have overcome regional prejudice to become one of the hottest crews in hip hop's underground. After Eyedea won the Blaze battle, rumors were rampant that the entire Rhyme Sayers crew was being courted by hip-hop impresario Sean "Puffy" Combs.
"When Soundscan started showing our sales we started attracting interest," Slug says, "because people wanted to know who these guys were with absolutely no promotion who were selling records in the five figures. So that got labels talking to us, but we had set a precedent in the beginning that we weren't interested in that."
Indeed, the lyrics from the song "Multiples" quoted above continue like this: "This goes for those who eat and sleep with turntables/This goes for those who say, 'Fuck the major labels.'" And if Slug's attitude toward the corporate end of the music industry has softened in recent years, he's still managed to deflect overtures from friends in major label A&R. "I'm interested in anything that is a good move for me as a person," Slug says. "As far as where I want to take my music, I'm not concerned about it because I will always be in control of that. But I'm 29 and I've got to be able to pave a road for my kids, so I'll do what I've got to do, but I'm not going to subjugate my art just for the money."
Slug now stands at the forefront of a growing indie scene in hip hop that has become a major artistic and commercial force, a growing community that can be seen locally through the work of Memphix, an upstart label founded by five DJs, including locals Chad "Chase One" Weekly, 24, and Luke "Red Eye Jedi" Sexton, 26, who will be opening for the local date of the Fill In the Blanks Tour. Memphix has released four seven-inch singles and has been featured prominently in British hip-hop and funk magazine Big Daddy. Chase One and Memphix's Chicago-based member Dante Carfagna recently toured England on a Big Daddy-sponsored trip, including three shows with indie hip-hop legend DJ Shadow. But if Memphix's profile and sales totals are higher outside of Memphis than within the city, that may be about to change. The label's latest and best single, the Red Eye Jedi solo debut "Homegrown," which mixes samples from Dyke and the Blazers, Rufus Thomas, Oliver Sain, and Howlin' Wolf, among others, has a decidedly Memphis feel and has been the label's biggest local seller so far according to Chase One.
The indie hip-hop scene is reminiscent of the American indie rock scene in the mid-'80s, when bands like the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and the Minutemen competed directly with Prince, Springsteen, and Madonna in artistic, if not quite commercial, terms. The biggest difference in 2001 is that indie hip hop's prime Album of the Year candidates, Lucy Ford and Party Music from Bay Area duo the Coup (see Short Cuts, page 56), don't have any Princes, Springsteens, or Madonnas to compete with.
The indie rock comparison is one that Slug embraces, even if the rest of the so-called Hip-Hop Nation might snicker at the notion. "There's a big difference between everybody's idea of what rappers' lives are like and what they're really like," Slug says. "And I think that for a long time everyone was expecting to be flown in with their DJ and three of their friends to do a show for way too much money where not a lot of people were going to show up. But I think we've learned a lot from how indie rock operates. I think that the heart and emotion that go into how indie-rock kids bring their music to the people is a lesson rap is finally learning: It's okay to pile into a van and stink for a month just to get your music out there. It's okay to press your CDs yourself. Stuff like that. I think a lot of indie rappers gave up on the idea of just making demos and waiting around to be signed by a major label. I never wanted to be in a position where I had to worry about making a hit song or trying to appease this type of market or that type of market. The fact that kids appreciate me for what I'm doing really has me excited."
The Fill In the Blanks Tour,
featuring Atmosphere with Mr. Dibbs
Also with Eyedea & Abilities, Deejaybird,
Sage Francis & DJ MF Shalem B, and Memphix
Young Avenue Deli
Thursday, November 15th