Unbelievably, these guys will be celebrating their 20th anniversary next year! There are not many groups or solo artists who’ve had such a consistently successful career over that many years and are still going strong. The core duo of Slug and Ant have touched the lives of not only hip-hop fans and artists in the TC but around the world, both because of the crazy touring that they’ve done and because of the content of their art and the collaborative way they have gone about it. The label they helped create, Rhymesayers, has became a blueprint for success for independent labels of any genre. It has built a base in Minneapolis that can support new artists; a record store, Fifth Element; and a music festival every year at Canterbury Park, Soundset, that has become the largest of its kind in the country.
In the mid ’90s I was doing the local music show on KFAI and another DJ there, Jennifer Downham, had a show called The Groove Garden. She was instrumental in putting on a series of shows called Freeloaded at the Front in Northeast and the 400 Bar on the West Bank that featured a lot of live musicians collaborating with MCs and rappers. Many said at the time that venues wouldn’t book hip-hop shows, so a lot of the development of these artists had to happen in tandem with different styles of music being played. Ironically, that has become a strength of the Twin Cities that has been mentioned many times—that shows are often multi-genre and artists are comfortable collaborating across genres.
Slug was famous enough within that early group of artists that I wanted him to perform during my farewell show in January 1998 at the 400 Bar when I left KFAI to join Radio K. Unfortunately for me, he had to be at Skribble Jam in Cincinnati that night. Those were his roots and he was just getting established by doing those battles outside of the city. That competitive streak and the collaborative habits have fueled their success ever since. Slug’s Headshots crew gave birth to Rhymesayers when CEO Siddiq put together a studio that they could use to record their work, and decided to go it alone instead of looking for the traditional help of outside record labels. That decision in the late ’90s was prescient, as the industry has changed so much since then and their continued independence has been the main reason for their success. We might be immune to be being impressed with our homies but there is not another label in the country that can stand by a comparable record.
As hip-hop culture grew throughout the ’90s it was as much based around the art of graffiti and the skills of breakdancing as it was wordplay. When an MC went into battle, he had to show off his best moves and cleanest strokes as quickly as he could, and to come up with big boasts and bigger putdowns of his competitors to win out and live to rap another day. It’s amazing that Slug came up through this scene but is now known more for being one of the pioneers of what is sometimes known as emo-rap. Instead of bragging and representing any one gang, he looked inward, expressing insecurities about his personal appearance and admitting weakness in his social skills. He vented his most intimate frustrations with his romantic life and his relationship with his alcoholic father in extreme detail. In doing so, he drew a fan base of like-minded interlopers on the fringes of popular culture, who related to his persona as much as they did the style and sound of his music. Emo or ‘backpack rap’ became a culture of identity politics, one that revered its unlikely heroes; it celebrated the court jesters and the sad clowns, hence the name of some of Atmosphere’s best-received later EPs.
Overcast was the debut full length in 1997. The Ford and Lucy Ford EP sets cemented their fanbase around the turn of the century as they turned serious, business-wise, opening the record store as a base for the label on Hennepin Avenue in Uptown. 2002’s God Loves Ugly turned them into internationally known artists and the big labels came looking, but they resisted—although they did collaborate with the punk label Epitaph on ’03’s Sevens’ Travels.
Sevens’ Travels was perhaps the apex of their early emo style, and became Atmosphere’s highest selling record (over 200,000 copies). It also contains as its bonus hidden track the first song that we played on The Current, “Say Shhh…” I didn’t have a role in deciding to play that track, but I think it was genius. It’s a heartfelt celebration of Minnesota that proclaims, “Look at us in flyover country, no one gives us any credit and look what we can do!” We wanted to be able to say the same about our station in 10 years!
In a retrospective interview with XLR8R in 2008, Slug (born Sean Daley) and Ant (Anthony Davis) said that their 2005 release You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having is the one they are most proud of. Both look back on prior records with a great deal of disdain. Up to then Ant had produced almost every beat for Atmosphere but hadn’t toured regularly with Slug. On You Can’t Imagine…, the pair pushed themselves to go beyond sample- and drum-machine patterns and hired a live band to recreate Davis’s beats on record and tour. This development came about because of the roots in this city, where it wasn’t so strange for a rapper to roll over live instruments. Ant has an amazing ear and would probably be happy crate-digging and building beats in his basement forever, so for both of them it was a radical move to involve live performers.
It seemed to work, too, as they continued to go from strength to strength, touring the world and helping to foster the company that built Soundset. It has become more and more important for live performance to build an artist’s career, and while rock bands have the obvious chemistry of playing live to give their shows some literal electricity, any act who has tried to go out on tour extensively without getting away from the push-the-button DJ effect has failed, unless they’re dance DJ’s with a light show and video.
Asked why he thinks he has survived in that same interview, Slug said, “I think that it has to just be that people are not just liking me because I’m a great rapper. They hear something in me that makes them think they might get along with me if they met me.”
That’s true, and a lot of the fans have met him as he is open to fan interaction at shows, comes off very well in videos and interviews, and should consider to have his own talk show when the gigs get too tough to play. But I think it’s also a bit self-deprecating, as we would expect from the king of emo-rap. He has also been able to remain authentic in every aspect of his art, and produces poetical wordplay that gets phrases stuck in your head and triggers your imagination to build your own stories about what he’s saying. Surrounded by a family of peers that can keep him grounded and still living in the South Minneapolis neighborhood where he grew up, he’s epitomized a world view that is deeply midwestern but overtly universal. And he’s managed to grow with his original audience while fostering a new one.
2008’s release, When Life Gives You Lemons…, sees him weaving much more of a story line through his work, so they are songs and less like abstract word paintings that he and others of a similar bent had plowed before. Then 2011’s The Family Sign brazenly tried to re-cast the womanizing, hedonist tendencies of his youth with the literal family he was building. And this year’s Southsiders, as its title suggests, sees him continuing to go back to his roots for inspiration, but also sees him confidently able to wordplay about some of the larger-than-life characters who he rubs shoulders with in the hierarchy of hip-hop (hence the title of one of its tracks, “Kanye West”).
Some might say that there wouldn’t be a Kanye if it wasn’t for Atmosphere, and that seems to be the highest praise possible—at least from this emo-loving white boy fan! —Mark Wheat
Previous Artists of the Month:
January 2013: Andrea Swensson on Dan Wilson
February 2013: Barb Abney on Low
March 2013: David Campbell on 12 Rods
April 2013: Jon Schober on the Jayhawks
May 2013: Jon Schober on the Hopefuls
June 2013: Jon Schober on the Hang Ups
July 2013: Jon Schober on the Soviettes
August 2013: Jon Schober on the Suburbs
September 2013: Jon Schober on the Replacements
October 2013: Walt Dizzo on Charlie Parr
November 2013: Andrea Swensson on Information Society
December 2013: Andrea Swensson on Sounds of Blackness
January 2014: Jay Gabler on Lookbook
March 2014: Jim McGuinn on Jeremy Messersmith
April 2014: Ali Lozoff on Lifter Puller