"Please don't put that I said I was Jesus' poop."
Slug, who has just performed eight consecutive nights in the 7th St. Entry, is trying to find words for his audience's frenzied reaction. With a new band backing him under the old name Atmosphere, the Minneapolis rapper filled the tiny club to capacity every night between January 4 and January 11, a stunt reminiscent of the Replacements' historic five-night stand on the same stage in 1985 (see "Waiting to Be Forgotten").
"We put the band together for touring this year," he says, speaking shortly after the final show. "This seemed like good preparation."
But the event is obviously a big deal to Slug, born Sean Daley, and his fellow Rhymesayers. The hip-hop collective recorded the shows for a planned DVD release. Commemorative posters were printed up in advance and out-of-town openers booked. Every gig sold out within days, leaving 50 tickets per night at the door. Lines formed for every show, except for an invitation-only party with Dillinger Four. On the freezing morning of the first day, one fan from Fargo showed up outside the club at 8:00 a.m., waiting outside (and wandering up and down First Avenue to keep his blood circulating) until the door opened at 5:00 p.m. Two other fans who had read about the concert online made the 18-hour Greyhound bus trek from Oklahoma City to catch the final gig.
What started as a release party for the Rhymesayers' CD reissue of Atmosphere's 1999 cassette, Se7en, had grown into something bigger and weirder. Here are some highlights from the week, remembered through a haze of secondhand smoke and my own cold-induced fever.
DAY 1: TUESDAY
"Are there any heavy hitters here tonight?"
Blueprint, a rapper from Columbus, Ohio, is talking to the audience about his preference for fat women.
"You are?" he asks, incredulous, staring at someone in the audience. "That's real. I never thought I'd hear anyone in Minneapolis say yes to that. Especially a young girl."
As the MC observes later in his set, "There's a healthy splash of girls here." The gender ratio suggests some of what sets Atmosphere shows apart from much underground hip hop. Slug makes owning up to male pathos look sexy to women--ladies love uncool Sean. More Robert Cray than Slim Shady, Slug has 99 problems, and a bitch is every single one of them. But he gets over on startling candor and humor, making it tough to believe he's the asshole he plays on CD.
That's one reason Atmosphere is the gateway drug to hip hop for so many rockers. Another is the music made by his longtime producer Ant, which provides a suitably bluesy corollary. As fans must be tired of explaining by now, Slug is the rapper, Atmosphere is the crew--in the studio, this means Slug and Ant. Onstage, Slug and whomever he's performing with: In recent years, projectile-vomiting Mr. Dibbs has emerged as his DJ costar. But Slug also performs with Heiruspecs, the live hip-hop band.
Tonight, Slug takes the stage with an entirely new "Atmosphere": Patrick Armitage on drums, Erick Anderson on keys, Brett Johnson (Dropnickel, Kid Vengeance, Rada) on bass, and Nate Collis (Helva, Kid Vengeance) on guitar. Anderson has performed with Eyedea and Abilities, and Collis played on Atmosphere's Seven's Travels (Rhymesayers). There is no DJ at all--a rockist's rap dream.
This band proceeds to lay down a monumental set that will repeat itself in various permutations over the next seven nights. (For now, my first impression is: "Medeski, Martin, & Slug.")
"My mom is here so I can't do any songs with curse words in them," the MC announces near the start, receiving a loud Booooo.
"Shut the fuck up," he answers.
DAY 2: WEDNESDAY
I walk in on a freestyle jam between three rappers. Carnage and Masta I are trading human-beatbox rhythms and improvised raps, as Eyedea looks on from the side, smiling. Suddenly, with Carnage still rapping, Eyedea walks over and whispers something in his ear.
Soon the trio is changing up, going slower and softer: "I need to take it down a notch so I can talk about what's inside my fucking skull," Eyedea raps.
Later tonight, I track down Carnage and ask him: How can he possibly listen to what Eyedea is telling him while rapping, never mind freestyling, at the same time? "It's not 100 percent comprehension, but I got it," Carnage says. "It's like separating tracks in a studio."
Speaking of the studio, one Groundhog Day aspect of these shows is seeing producer Ant in the back of the room every night--he's the tall guy who looks a little like Antonio Banderas with a mustache. "I'm here to make sure it doesn't get too weird," he says. All of the music the band performs is based on Ant's samples, so he has a degree of authority here.
"But it is weird," I tell him.
"Yeah, but good-weird," he says.
The band's most radical re-creations are "Scapegoat" and "Bird Sings Why the Caged I Know." More than the recorded versions, they now emphasize patches of quietness, and sudden surges of guitar, like Fugazi covering John Lee Hooker.