“I wanted to be the rap equivalent of David Lee Roth. I wanted to be a star.”
— Slug, MC for Atmosphere
“We’re just gonna rap, rap, rap,” says Slug through the crackle of his cell phone.
He really shouldn’t be talking. As the sole MC of the indie-rap group Atmosphere, his voice determines the success — the survival, really — of the group’s entire tour. Slug, along with his producer Ant and DJ Mr. Dibbs, has been on the road for just over a month, and the effects of constant touring are beginning to show. Slug’s voice is slowly getting more and more raspy … not that any of that stops him from talking.
Especially once he gets on stage.
“I do a lot of stuff off the new album,” he says about Atmosphere’s current stage show, “and I do a lot of stuff off the old albums. I don’t really have any plans; there’s no real organized set [list] anymore. We used to try and do that, but by the time we go on, everybody’s drunk except for the DJ. So he, like, uses that as an opportunity to make us look like fools.
“Whatever he throws he throws,” Slug muses after a pause, “and we have to stay on our toes.”
Though the group’s been performing for years, it wasn’t till the release of their critically praised album God Loves Ugly (Rhymesayers, 2002) — which sold 20,000 copies in a matter of weeks — that Atmosphere became a buzzed-about group outside of underground-rap circles. Over the carefully laid foundations of layered funk samples and soul-groove beats, Slug raps about themes such as loves gone wrong, the darkness of his own inner world, and his feats and failures both on and off the stage. Obviously a departure from rap’s archetypal braggadocio, Atmosphere’s relatively new approach has saddled the group with a label that Slug, for one, isn’t altogether comfortable with.
“The term ’emo-rap’ is thrown around a lot,” he says with a sigh. “I understand that people have to pretty much describe something to a bunch of people that don’t know nothing about it. It’s comparable to a lot of that whiny, pussy, indie-rock s••t, because I’m a whiny, pussy rapper.”
Given his self-deprecation, it may come as no surprise that Slug, a performer whom a Rolling Stone reviewer referred to as “a poet of romantic dysfunction [with] star potential to spare,” doesn’t exactly fit the model of the stereotypical MC. For one thing, he’s from the decidedly non-hip-hop hot spot of Minneapolis. For another, Slug sees his success thus far — which includes sharing the stage with acts like L.L. Cool J, Prince and the Living Legends — as being based more on effort than innate talent.
“It’s not like I’m a great rapper or a great performer,” Slug hoarsely explains. “It’s more that I think people actually relate to the dedication that me and my friends put into it. It’s easy to believe in someone when you know they are actually busting their ass.”
But even after years of touring in the U.S. and abroad, Slug is still a little shocked that Atmosphere has come so far. “None of us ever expected that some day [we’d] be touring, or doing national tours, or flying overseas to play shows,” he admits. “None of us ever expected that we would come as far as we’ve come. Not to say that we’re on top of the world — I mean, I’m no Ja Rule, but even where I’m at is f••king ridiculous.”
Slug repeatedly acknowledges the support of his group’s dedicated followers, who exhibit an interesting mindset that combines jam-band loyalty with indie-rock elitism.
“I’ve got, like, weird little rap Deadheads that will drive eight hours to come see me play, and tell their friends about me,” he says. “But not too many of their friends, because if too many people like me, then I’m not cool anymore.”
Like many independent acts, Atmosphere goes out of its way to ensure that fans get exactly what they want from the group’s live shows: namely, exclusive stuff. “I usually have one or two records that you can only buy at the tour that I only press, say, 5,000 copies of. Then I hand-number them all — which really sucks, to hand-number 5,000 copies of anything. But, it keeps these kids super-interested.”
Likewise, a typical day on the road, even for this relatively successful underground group, is definitely more work than play.
“I wake up,” says Slug, “and get yelled at by the tour manager. Pack up whatever beers are left that we didn’t drink. Get in the van with a bunch of stinky-ass dudes. Sit there and daydream about what it would be like to be there with a bunch of stinky-ass strippers. Drive to the next gig; show up with enough time to throw those extra beers back in the hotel room. Go to sound check. Check sound and get yelled at by a sound man who doesn’t like rap to begin with. Go upstairs or to the backstage areas. Drink some more beers. Call my kid. Go rap, rappitty-rap-rap-rap. And then watch my friends hit on groupies.
“No,” he adds, “I made up the last part. We don’t have any groupies.”
He’s looking at more than a month left of shows to get through on a barely-there voice, which begs the question: How does the dream of being a touring rapper stack up to reality?
“I wanted to be the rap equivalent of David Lee Roth,” says Slug. “I wanted to be a star. But, as I got older and realistic, I realized I don’t want that. I don’t want the kind of lifestyle where I can’t go into a Burger King and order some fries without the girl behind the counter freaking out that I’m in there. I don’t really care about the fame at this point. I’m really happy with the amount of people that know about us. If could keep it like that for, like, another five years … cool.”