"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.
Collis even sings sweet and soft backup, beautifully crooning "Papa said he'd bring a brighter day" over an added intro to "Scapegoat." Heiruspecs had already perfected Ant's beats, but the new approach seems purposely looser, and risks corniness. There is one clinker in the set, in fact: "Woman Tonight," in which Collis's "Be my/woman tonight" refrain rides its steel horse into Bon Jovi territory.
I ask Ant about the tune, identifying it as "that groupie song."
"They're all groupie songs," he says, laughing.
Turns out the track is from a forthcoming release by Felt, Slug's duo with rapper Murs, but produced by Ant. It's based around a vocal sample.
Ant agrees that the chorus is wack. "I'm going to tell him not to do that song anymore," he says. His authority is apparently final.
DAY 3: THURSDAY
The band keeps playing "Woman Tonight," anyway.
Everyone at First Avenue is calling this "Slugfest" by now, and the rock feel of that title fits. There are rock openers almost every night, from the Dames to the Swiss Army. Slug's band opens its set every night with the drowsy, scratchy, Flipper-like burial groove of "Cats Van Bags."
This week is also about the very "rock" idea of the cover song. Word-for-word hip-hop covers of anything are, in fact, so rare that until Brother Ali's ferocious live update of Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue," which he performed earlier this evening to a sample of the "Mannish Boy" guitar riff, I could not name one after the Run-DMC-Aerosmith "Walk This Way." Slug's whole set is basically "covering" his own songs with Ant.
When the band plays "God Loves Ugly"--an obvious crowd favorite--they take it down a notch from the album version. When Slug raps, "Go to sleep, my little time bomb," Collis and drummer Armitage quietly exchange clicking sounds.
"This is my job now," says Slug, ad-libbing during the slow build of "Shrapnel." "And it turns out that every single one of y'all is my boss today."
He riffs on this idea for a while until the band kicks in loudly, and he thunders, "Where's my dental plan?!"
DAY 4: FRIDAY
During his opening set, P.O.S. raps an a cappella song about his uncle, who was killed last year in a hit-and-run. When Musab performs, he has a verse that goes, "You ain't never missed a meal in your weak-ass life."
Somehow, the headliner's romantic masochism seems more ridiculous against a backdrop of genuine hard knocks--and he knows it. During the opening bars of "F*@K You Lucy," Slug asks everyone to turn to the person on his or her right and say, "I love you." (Fortunately for me, the person on my right is actually a woman I do love very much.) "Now turn to the person on your left and say, "Fuck you!" (Unfortunately, the person on my left isn't my landlord, but she takes it good-naturedly, anyway.) "Now you're as dumb as I am."
The band finds its legs tonight, helped along by the front-loading of high-energy songs: After "Cats Van Bags" Slug veers into "Always Coming Back Home to You," a customary show-closer. The audience fills in the line: "South side is my resting place!"
And hey, "Woman Tonight" gets a reggae outro!
DAY 5: SATURDAY
Slug seems to be fighting a bad mood tonight--or maybe it's the crowd. At one point, he addresses somebody, "You, get over there. And you, stripes, get over there. You're interrupting my shit."
Later, the tiff on the floor spills into a brawl with security, and Slug stops the show cold until it's over. "We're still friends," he tells the guy being hauled off. "Just come back when you haven't had too much to drink. Where's his boy at? Are we cool? Good."
Someone offers Slug a drink, but he turns it down. "I'm not drinking. That's the realness."
Behind me, a guy is yelling loudly and repeatedly, "More keyboard!"
DAY 6: SUNDAY
Having caught a sore throat the night before, I'm in a feverish blur tonight, slam-dancing breathlessly to Dillinger Four. Suddenly I'm seized by a pillow of a woman who happily swings me in circles before depositing me onstage.
"Everybody here got in for free, so I expect you to have a good time," Slug announces during his set, but I'm exhausted, and the band seems to be letting their cocktail jazz mellow rather than flushing it down. I leave early.
DAY 7: MONDAY
Reportedly, Slug gained momentum after I ducked out, his neck veins bulging to their usual proportions. Tonight he starts slow again. "It's like a fucking lounge band," says the guy behind me during "God's Bathroom Floor."
The rapper's voice is skirting hoarseness, and the energy feels lower in the room for unknown songs.
"You guys actually like the old stuff better, don't you?" says Slug.
Besides revising the music of "Scapegoat," he had added a new last verse, which includes the punch line, "The problem with drugs is they're too fucking good now." But even as people cheer, they must know the MC means the line as a critique.
Maybe Slug senses he's being lost in translation. "I've always been curious what you guys think that song is about," he says after "The Abusing of the Rib."
Someone answers inaudibly. "Snowboarding?" he laughs.
(This song, an Atmosphere cornerstone, doesn't send chills up my neck the way the recorded version does. It's one of the few places where the guitarist doesn't quite seem to know what to do with himself.)
Before the encore, Slug decides to get to know the crowd better. "Maybe we should talk for awhile," he says. He attempts to have a conversation with his audience. "Where did I grow up? About three miles south of where we're standing right now. My favorite Ghostface song?"
This goes on for 15 minutes, and turns out to be the truest connection of the evening.
DAY 8: TUESDAY
It's an all-ages crowd tonight, but I see something you won't find at most teen centers: a young man puffing on a fat stogie.
The band launches into "Cats Van" before Slug takes the stage, and he raps most of it from the crowd--a big entrance.
"No more of this Justin Timberlake screaming," he says to the front row once he's onstage. But these are Slug's kids. "You'll get to vote for me in about 20 years when I run for governor," he jokes.
"Mark my words," says a fan standing next to me. "In 10 years, this guy will be Dr. Dre."
I laugh. "I've already been waiting seven."