Here Comes a Regular

He's the DJ, I'm out of focus: Atmosphere's Ant and Slug
Dan Monick

You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having

Slug (a.k.a. Sean Daley) is the first Minneapolis rapper to appear in Target advertisements and on the cover of Urb, and be stocked on the shelves of Best Buys nationwide. But at the Duluth Pizza Lucé on September 9, none of that seems to matter. "What I'm most excited about," he says, pushing up from the bar, "is touring with that guy."

He points across the room to a tall man in a black mustache and ponytail. Ant, Slug's producer, is talking to a long-lashed woman under the red neon light. The two men have made hip-hop recordings together for 10 years as Atmosphere. But until an hour earlier, when they were onstage, the duo had never performed a full set together, as DJ and rapper. (In a pattern kept throughout the tour, Ant-mosphere's 45 minutes were sandwiched by sets from Slug with his touring live band.)

Ant has previously preferred to stay behind the scenes, but he seems to be enjoying the attention. "I can tell you guys are talking about me," he says, meeting our gaze and excusing himself to walk over, leaving the lashes behind. "She's cool," Ant says, smiling at Slug. "But in my heart of hearts, I know she's really talking to me because she wants to fuck you."

Ant and Slug have an open-book frankness between them that Slug shares, to some degree, with his far younger audience. Particularly at an 18+ show, the identification seems total, even electric. Standing with my friend Tim Nelson (guitarist of Duluth's Boy Girl Boy Girl), and watching Ant cut and scratch on CD turntables behind Slug (and backup MC Crescent Moon), we felt like Waldorf and Statler in a roomful of exploding Muppets. The kids don't know the words to 1997's "Scapegoat," but scream along to new tracks, and swarm Slug afterward like would-be acolytes. Drunk collegian: "How did you go from writing rhymes to being you?" Slug: "You just gotta say them in front of people."

Atmosphere's three-night stand at First Avenue starting Monday, November 14, will be similarly light on older, casual fans. These shows sell out like lightning, and more than a few former admirers haven't seen Slug in years. Some have lost interest in the albums since 2001's Lucy Ford: The Atmosphere EPs (Rhymesayers), in part out of backlash to his popularity. (Classic dis on the message board: "dude you and Sean hang out everyday at Muddy's, take nice bubble baths togather [sic], and talk about Husker Du.")

But hip-hoppers who dismiss Atmosphere's audience are missing half a masterpiece in You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having (Rhymesayers/Navarre), the first album in which Ant, as in the new live show, appears to share star billing. Slug's voice is mixed low--sometimes too low--and for the first time, the producer feels like a breathing presence in the studio. He cuts old-schoolers rapping the word "Atmosphere" in collage on one track (why didn't he do this years ago?), and adds loving details, such as a busted woofer passing from left ear to right on "Watch Out"--as Slug raps, "Cars drive by with the booming system/I must be getting old 'cause the bass sounds ridiculous."

Slug is old--about 85 in rap years. But he's also changing the rules of hip-hop careerism to fit his career, massing an audience behind his thirtysomething uncertainty. At Lucé, when he announced, "I was really feeling nervous tonight, but you guys made me feel all right," he must have realized it was something his hero, Boogie Down Productions legend KRS-One, would never do. Slug voices doubts with BDP's old verve and clarity, though, which might be why the national media still scratches its head. (Let's give the "emo-rap" thing a rest.) Slug is a towering, BDP-sized authority on his tiny, shaky chunk of subjective human experience. Which, he'll be the first to admit, isn't much. Skip the breakup tracks on You Can't Imagine (can you imagine the uselessness and size of his thought balloons if he ever appeared on TV's Blind Date?) and go straight to "Little Man," where he tells his son, "I can't teach much when it comes to women/I drive safe and slow but don't know nothing 'bout the engine."

The lyricist speeds recklessly on "That Night" about the murder of Marissa Mathy-Zvaifler, a fan who was killed after a 2003 Atmosphere show in New Mexico. "Paranoid of exploiting the verdict," he raps. "But in the same breath, I got thoughts that I want to express and let surface." Slug was more revealing in an Albuquerque Tribune interview that ran shortly after the incident, admitting that once he heard about the tragedy, "the whole fantasy of being just this rap guy went away," and his son back in Minneapolis "probably needs me there when I'm out here chasing a dream."

You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having is, in part, Slug's giant apology--that most un-hip-hop of human communications. And "Pour Me Another," the standout classic, ratchets sorrow up to pathos. "Pour me another, so I can remember how/True that I am to this addiction of you," goes the chorus, as if the Replacements' "Here Comes a Regular" had been given the most bumping-ever blues remix.

Reached over the phone a couple of months after the tour kicked off in Duluth, Slug is open about the autobiography of that song. "I was drinking 14 cans of Budweiser and then getting up onstage and doing my set like it's no big fucking deal," he says. "Shows have been the places where I've totally self-medicated to the fullest. But with Ant on tour, it keeps me incredibly sober for the shows. It's given me the opportunity to actually be too afraid to drink."

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