Rhyme out of joint

Rising rap star Slug is a master at putting words in order. Now why won't his life fall into place?

He meets her in Keokuk, Iowa, site of a Civil War cemetery and not a lot else. The waters of the Mississippi mingle with the Des Moines River nearby, and the peninsula they carve was once set aside for the "half-breed" descendents of Indians and fur traders. By the 1950s the town's river boom and history of tolerance are a century-old memory: Every night the local starch factory empties into bars that are segregated by custom, white and black.

As a black man and a jazz man, he knows the difference between location and place: where you are versus where you belong. He plays only the black clubs between Chicago and St. Louis, a divorced father living out an old dream: to create and provide.

Her people are Irish, and she runs the Irish pub before leaving its owner to raise a child alone. Against the rules that have already failed them, the jazz man and the Irish woman fall in love. But white women and black men know better than to be seen in public together.

So they play a game. When he and his trio play local nightclubs--maybe in some roadhouse off Highway 61, or at the edge of the county, where nobody knows her--she comes out and listens. He blows through the head arrangements, then slips in a signature riff during the solo, something she can't miss. If it's a certain string of notes, she knows to meet him in some prearranged place after the club closes. If it's another horn figure, she knows to meet him someplace else. It's their secret code, an intimate conversation played out in public--a conversation that neither Bill Daley nor Vivian Andrews would talk about with the kids they had together.

The woman who tells the story, a wispy-haired Scandinavian girl, married the couple's son nearly 30 years ago. She grew up on a tree farm in West Bloomington and met her mate as a teenager on a blind date in south Minneapolis. He was 19 years old and handsome, a freckle-faced musician two years her elder. Chasing his father's dreams in the Afro era, he played bass in the integrated Minneapolis funk band Salt, Pepper, and Spice. When Valerie and Craig Daley wedded in 1973, she was two weeks from due with their first son, Sean.

The grandparents were pleased: Their children, at least, had found their place. Old Bill Daley, the jazz trumpeter, hadn't been able to get work as a musician in the Twin Cities, landing a job at Honeywell instead. He'd pull out the horn only on rare occasions, usually to jam with a bandmate from back home. Craig, his son, was just as practical about supporting his newborn: He hung up the bass and went to work for GM. Valerie and Craig had two more boys.

"But a farm girl and a city kid just could not get together," Valerie recalls. After ten years of marriage, he moved out, and he never played music again.

 

The intimacy of live performance comes easily for the grandson of Bill Daley. What follows is the hard part. Onstage at Manhattan's Downtime in September, Sean Daley, a.k.a. Slug, is so loose that his face could peel off, Mission: Impossible-style. His six-foot-plus frame looks smaller than life, bent and bobbing, his pale, pockmarked skin draped slackly over high cheekbones and around deep brown eyes. His attention is fixed on his more compact, teenage partner, Eyedea, who is kicking some freestyle for a predominantly black, and presumably skeptical, crowd of hip-hop aesthetes.

It's a pressure gig for Atmosphere, the phenotypically white Minnesotans setting foot in New York for the first time. The crew has been allotted 12 minutes at the industry-ruled CMJ Music Marathon, 12 minutes to win over hip hop's birthplace. But, after some technical glitches, the MCs step into the moment: Suddenly it's as if there were no major labels in the house, no Vibe critics, no Sudanese-born supermodels surveying the throng. There are only the mics, the DJ, Abilities, and the thick miasma of human funk.

By all rights, 17-year-old Eyedea should be terrified. But he notices the crowd chanting along to "Scapegoat," his mentor's amusingly long enemies list, which includes the police, the kitty-litter box, and, ultimately, "anything but me." And Eyedea notices the rousing shouts of approval as he reaches for the next line. It's a charge so profound that he later seems compelled by pride to shrug it off.

When Atmosphere's quarter-hour is up, Slug works the room like a shark playing his own Jaws theme on a Walkman. He hawks his homemade cassette, Se7en, released last summer on the seminal Minneapolis label Rhyme Sayers Entertainment. But those brown marbles beneath his brow look ready to roll right out of his skull and plop into someone's cocktail. Slug, and this year-old incarnation of his crew, may be better oiled than ever. But he's greasing a third rail, taking a leap forward into a public life he seems compelled to seek, yet one that is already taking a visible psychic toll.

Slug is a rapper, though he hates that word. "You can't be a 27-year-old 'rapper' just breaking in," he remarks from the club's upstairs balcony. "Chuck D can be, like, 34 because he was 23 when he broke in." (Except that the nearly 40-year-old Chuck D lied about his age from the start: He was 27, as Slug is now, when Public Enemy's first album came out.) But Slug is also a rapper in the sense of being a guy who just likes to talk. Not just to bitch or rant or bullshit--though he does all those things--but to vibe and joke and mess with people, teetering coolly on the edge of nothing to say.

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