Rhyme out of joint
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.
Years ago, Slug says, he took a vow of extroversion: If he was going to get anywhere in hip hop, he was going to have to be "all smiles and handshakes" with everyone he met. Which might sound like a natural and inevitable tack for anyone working retail, not to mention a room at CMJ. But for Slug, being public requires an exercise of will. Just watch him when he's switched off, and he's barely there at all: a quiet-natured south Minneapolis kid, hanging back so far into a wall that he becomes part of the building's structure.
This is the indie champ who was once adamant about selling Se7en only out of his backpack, a practice, he has said, that allowed him to see the faces of every person in his audience. To most locals who recognize his soul patch and Mark Wahlberg voice, he is the grown-up hip-hop kid at the Electric Fetus, his employer of four years until last November. He started there when he was still pulling overnights at Target to support his newborn son, Jacob--finding that old family balance between creating and providing. Though running low on sleep, he'd tune you in, feel you out, pin down your tastes.
"He makes people feel real comfortable," says JonJon Scott, a local hip-hop promoter who works at the Electric Fetus and lobbied store management to hire him. "He doesn't come off with attitudes that he's better than somebody. Everybody to him is real cool. To him, everybody is a potential customer or a fan." As a result, Slug cuts a broad social swath unique in local music: There he is at the Tulip Sweet show, or in the pit at American Head Charge, or onstage with Happy Apple, or shirtless and dazed behind the Lifter Puller merchandise table.
Outside the Twin Cities, Slug has made Atmosphere a brand name by freestyling and handshaking his way through any town with more than 7,000 people, rocking such not-spots as Columbia, Missouri; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Lake Tahoe, Nevada. With laxly enforced drinking laws, these rooms quickly fill with drunk kids, many of them fans Slug has attracted through yet another connection: the Net-savvy Anticon label, which just released Deep Puddle Dynamics, featuring Sole, members of Atmosphere, and other MCs.
Though Slug's national profile may be highest on the Net, he hasn't even bothered signing up for e-mail. Nonetheless he's a natural hero for the rapstream's largely white, exurban fan base. On last year's Anticon compilation, Slug's "Nothing but Sunshine" cast the rapper as a grown-up farm boy/b-boy returning home to imagined boyhood stomping grounds in northern Minnesota. Seems his fictional father drowned himself in a grain elevator there while grieving his mother's death. Over a bluesy piano roll, our hero winds up "getting even with life by murdering cattle."
The track is no more autobiographical than any other nocturnal discharge of violent (and humorous) hip-hop revenge fantasy--though Slug did spend lots of idyllic weekends as a kid trotting horses around a farm owned by his uncle. Still, there's a deeper emotional verisimilitude here: Like his jazz-cat grandfather gigging around the rural Midwest, or his farm-girl mother in south Minneapolis, Slug doubts his place. Surrounded by friends, supported by collaborators, he writes most powerfully from a position of isolation.
In the past year, Slug has begun leading more and more with his strengths, which is to say, his weaknesses. Like "The Abusing of the Rib" from Se7en, the best song on Atmosphere's forthcoming as-yet-untitled album, "Woman with the Tattooed Hands," begins by gazing at a woman's arms, noticing how each of her hands is inked with smaller images of herself. One night she lets the narrator watch as the tattoo creatures come to life, peel themselves off, and make love to their owner. "I didn't get turned on, I just got turned," Slug raps. "I wasn't as aroused as I was concerned/For each one of 'em I've hurt every time I've been burned/I've got a lot to teach but even more to learn."
Try to imagine any other MC drawing moral lessons from his wet dreams; this is no sensitive-boy ploy. In his own sly way, Slug is preaching to men. He has withdrawn from rap's version of the dozens--the mic battle--in favor of a less jovial African-American tradition, the cathartic jazz solo. And improvisation is his method of opening up his running conversation to the room, to the world. Slug wants to talk, not crawl into his diary and throw away the key. And though he may be uncomfortable with the contortions success demands, he demands success nonetheless.
"I am in this for the big record deal," Slug declares one day, swilling a bottomless mug of coffee at Pandora's Cup on Hennepin Avenue. "Everybody is, in a sense. I've never been crying about trying to get one, but deep down, we all want to be Tupac. Not just to get rich. I want kids to hear me. I have to admire the way he was able to touch people so hard. That's not Ricky Martin 'Livin' la Vida Loca' shit. [Tupac's] touching the ghetto, the people that are hurting the most."
For Slug, reaching hip hop's urban constituency would complete a circle he began tracing some 20 years ago, when a six-year-old Sean Daley became entranced by the funny yet gruff voices and robot beats coming out of his radio. "It just seemed like it was always there," remembers Valerie. "It was like this irritating noise in the background, constantly."
As a son, Slug is hardly dutiful when it comes to cards or phone calls. But his mother, along with his father and his stepfather, Kevin Skogen, speak of him with unguarded pride. This is tempered only by concern: Mom worries about his sleeping and eating habits. When I meet her, she offers me a dozen freshly hatched eggs from her hobby farm, shortly before she and Kevin head for their second-shift jobs at Honeywell--Bill Daley's old employer.
Valerie says Sean was always shy around strangers, and quiet as a toddler--more likely to take toys apart than jostle around and make war. But he grew remarkably articulate for his age, easily making friends in the area around 42nd Street and Oakland Avenue. By the late Seventies and early Eighties, this working-class neighborhood of south Minneapolis had absorbed a mix of families: African Americans, Hmong, Vietnamese, South Asian Indians, and Norwegians.
As a kid, Slug thought of himself as black--if the issue came up at all. He was into drawing and music, and hip hop seemed a natural expressive outlet, a passion he passed on to his much younger brothers. The form also arrived just as his parents' life together was coming apart. "That hit Sean the hardest," Valerie remembers. "He was the oldest. His way with the divorce was to try to talk us into getting back together."
By the time Sean was 11, he had been under the spell of New York street culture for nearly half his life. After months of practicing on cardboard in the back yard, tying bandannas around his jeans and tightly lacing his Adidas, Sean was persuaded by his father to enter a break-dancing competition. "Here's a kid who didn't want to be in the public eye at all," remembers Craig. "He didn't do that well, but he liked it. From then on, some of his introvertedness dissipated."
Sean saw his first rap shows in one rousing 1987 weekend, when UTFO played the Saints Roller Rink, and then First Avenue. He remembers the local openers, Style Posse, featuring future Urban Lights store owner Tim Wilson on the mic and tables, and Almond Joy, a kid Slug remembers as "the dude to be" on the south side. Minneapolis's I.R.M. Crew had already released their own 12-inch singles, nationally distributed by K-Tel. Soon friends were moving on from breaking and graffiti-writing to rapping and DJing themselves.
Sean paid close attention. He listened and adopted the slang, even learned a New York accent. He began painting his tag, "Jest," on anything "government-owned" (though it's been years since his last piece was erased). For a little while he grew his straight black hair into Jheri curls. It was like some crazy uncle had moved in, he remembers, and young Sean was hanging out with him more than with his mom or dad.
As a teen, Slug began to notice that his skin color and accent were "white" enough to earn him treatment different from that of his black friends. For white girls, at least, he was black, but somehow "safe." "I went through this huge Afrocentric phase, a lot of it induced by hip hop," Slug remembers. "I was trying to find myself, finding all these thing about black feelings. My father was black, and Native American too. And I went through this whole 'hate white people' thing. That was probably really annoying for some wide-eyed kid, to come up to me and say, 'Hey, you seem cool, what's your name?' and for me to be like, 'devil!' But at the time, all of my friends were going through the same phase."
In a way, hip hop became a way for Sean to assert his blackness, dovetailing with the more immediate urge to rebel against his mother's authority. In his senior year, he left to live with his dad, though he returned within months, missing home.
"He was very hard to argue with, because he would win," Valerie admits, shaking her head. "I thought he should be a lawyer."
But how, I ask her, could a kid win against his own mom?
"He could outtalk me."
Slug might have been cocky, but his artful, circular lines of B.S. never fooled Siddiq Ali, a fellow rap fanatic with two years, and an eternity of cool, on Slug. Today Siddiq (born Brent Sayers) is best known as the crocodile-voiced namesake of Rhyme Sayers Entertainment, the label he and Slug run with a close circle of performers. Sean met him at Washburn High School through Derek Turner, a mutual friend from around the block. Together the three formed the core of what would become the Rhyme Sayers Collective, copping similarly monosyllabic nicknames: Stress (for Siddiq), Spawn (for Derek) and Slug (adapted from "Little Sluggo"). Sean's alias might have seemed the perfect, malleable fit for a still-developing identity, equal parts self-deprecation (as in terrestrial gastropod mollusk) and cool (as in bullet).
After high school the group grappled to find their new hip-hop roles. Spawn rapped for a while with Slug on the tables, gigging as Urban Atmosphere. A DJ himself, Stress took to the business side of things. As his circle squared to encompass producer ANT (Anthony Davis), MC Musab (then Beyond), rapper Mr. Gene Poole, and the Abstract Pack--all joining in the mid-Nineties crew Headshots--Stress became the patriarch, someone sought out for approval and guidance. "He's very precise and rational," Slug says. "I'm flaky."
Twelve years after they first met, Slug and Stress remain at the center of each other's personal and professional lives. One Wednesday night in March, Slug is slumped against the wall on a barstool in the Red Sea, once again sleepless, droopily "working" the door as various Rhyme Sayers nod their hellos. Abilities and fellow DMC champion IXL take turns at the tables. Tall, impossibly handsome Musab studies the geometry of the pool table as female admirers look on. Members of the Native Ones filter in. But as the breakbeats hiccup in the air, no one says much. The Rhyme Sayers keep the strange, warm silence that develops between people who've spent hundreds of hours together.
Stress walks in and greets Slug in that barely audible croak of authority that is so at odds with his slight build and soft eyes. Stress's nom de hip hop is particularly fitting this week: His girlfriend and their new daughter, Sumayah, just came home from the hospital, though doctors had induced labor a full five days earlier. As with all Rhyme Sayers releases, the delivery had been delayed.
"Bringing a life into the world is a humbling experience," Stress says simply.
It's been an unusually heady season for both fathers. On Friday night, Stress left the hospital to cohost the first installment of Break-a-Dawn, a four-hour hip-hop show now airing every Saturday from 2:00 to 6:00 a.m. on KFAI-FM (90.3/106.7). And for months Slug has been manning the Rhyme Sayers' new Uptown hip-hop shop, Fifth Element. Back in December, Stress and Slug huddled at First Avenue with T-Low, of R&B superstars Next, to weigh major-label possibilities. "We haven't said no to anything yet," Stress says. Now the New York-based Fat Beats will internationally distribute the new Atmosphere album, to be released initially as two 12-inches.
There's money in the air, if not on the table. Yet no one here seems too eager for a corporate fix. Slug might genuinely believe he can go Tupac: "I promise you that once somebody gives me that big chunk of money--I probably won't pay them back--but I will prove to the world that [he smiles] they. Can't. Fuck with me." But he doesn't grin at all when I mention the Sprite spot showing a boardroom full of Hollywood suits, who market a Godzilla-like movie called Death Slug using a rap crew called "Slug's Life."
The idea that hip hop might become a Godzilla remake of itself was both remote and anathema when Slug's DIY values were taking shape in the Eighties. "Nobody knew you could make money off it," he says. And like most b-boys, the Rhyme Sayers watched the boom spanning Biz Markie's Beethoven wig and Jay-Z's cruise ship full of hos with a mixture of hope and dread, their perspective inevitably shaped by the commercial isolation of our giant Paisley parking lot.
Now everything has changed, even many of the Rhyme Sayers faces. Abilities and Eyedea were among the kids that the crew pulled out of the younger, increasingly white hip-hop audience won by the collective's postering in local high schools. With a nod from Stress, the duo became official members of Atmosphere last year. Meanwhile, Spawn left to pursue his own beatmaking; he stuck around just long enough to be mentioned in Minneapolis's three paragraphs of The Vibe History of Hip Hop.
With hip hop's "underground" proving suddenly lucrative for major labels--witness Common, Jurassic Five, Mos Def, et al.--it's not far-fetched to imagine a major signing a Rhyme Sayer out from under the imprint, which operates on only handshake agreements. Stress brushes that possibility aside. "Our whole shit has always been more or less based on people, not anything else," he says. "If it wasn't this hip-hop thing, we probably would have just been hanging out, doing whatever."
Slug has cast his fate with his crew, and if the world becomes his, in gangsta-rap parlance, then he'll dutifully divvy it up, a guerrilla heroica who still runs the people's bank.
In a way, the plan makes not just emotional but practical sense: Nothing that the Rhyme Sayers do now--not touring, not producing--would need to change should that big chunk of money roll down the chimney. Yet, in a more basic sense, Slug seems hardly prepared for the implications of reading this portrait in print, much less someday appearing on the cover of Vibe.
"You didn't tell my mom about the song where my parents die, did you?" Slug asks nervously, taking another of a thousand coffee breaks from another of a thousand shifts at Fifth Element.
No, I didn't. "You should call her," I add. "She brought me farm-fresh eggs."
"I don't have long-distance access."
"That's what 1-800-CALL-ATT is for, kid."
Slug chuckles. No counterargument there. He tells me that "Nothing but Sunshine" is about not blaming "your upbringing for the fact that you're an asshole," an admirable sentiment from someone who keeps a friendly distance from his father and rarely sees his mother--especially considering that Slug's hang-ups are a source of continual self-fascination. Still, for someone who mines his interior life so freely for songs, he has erected walls between art and family that seem curiously high. Doesn't he think Mom will hear the song one day?
Perhaps, for Slug, diplomacy and compartmentalization are head and tail of the same dog. Hard to tell: Slug has welcomed me into his life as a reporter, but only to a point. He doesn't want me to see his home, which is then a south Minneapolis shared house that has lost its lease. By all accounts, Slug is a loving, if permissive, father to his five-year-old son, whom he sees one day a week. But he's nervous about exploiting the relationship. All of which belies the utter nakedness with which he routinely, almost obsessively, renders his private life in rap song.
"My real issue in life at the moment is where do you draw the line," he says. "Because I'm having problems drawing lines in a lot of different areas and wondering where I'm overstepping." He sips his cup. "I've yet to hurt anybody, so I know I'm not a bad person."
Clearly the lone writer compelled to spill himself on the page hasn't reconciled himself with the rapper spilling himself on the audience. Like the bilious MC he's inevitably compared to, Eminem, Slug traffics in white-trash iconography (for more on Eminem, see p. 55). The hidden final track on Atmosphere's debut full-length, 1997's Overcast!, pictured Slug living in Hinckley, Minnesota, barking orders at his trailer-park wife, "Fix the antenna, act your age, and spread your legs...I'll put a shadow over your sky/Now shut the fuck up and fix me turkey pot pie." He stopped performing the song live when he saw hundreds of teenage boys screaming along to every word.
Slug wonders who these children are: He feels some of the ambivalence the other Rhyme Sayers--most of them men of color, most of them parents--must feel about the giddy white teens pouring into the crew's Soundset parties at First Avenue. JonJon Scott remembers ragging his co-worker once about the Rhyme Sayers's new audience. "I was like, 'Slug, every 15-year-old has your fucking record. When are rap people gonna buy it?' All these little kids were coming in with their parents."
The MC's response: He hoped every eighth grader in the city picked up Overcast! "All the black MCs respect Slug," says Scott. "But he knows who his fans are. He doesn't like to admit it much."
Certainly Slug embodies the ethos of self-expression at hip hop's core. But to the culture's black and Puerto Rican originators, expression and the self were embattled terrain with clear, external enemies. This is why often silly questions of hip-hop authenticity still carry moral weight. And why the mutterings in the local community about Slug's pale audience--not to mention the Rhyme Sayers' Kenwood store--sting more than if Fifth Element sold metal or country music.
Self and expression aren't any more settled for Slug: His enemies are internal. Perhaps he has looked to hip hop as his own mixed Keokuk peninsula, his own peaceable plain. Which may be why the surest clue to Slug's ambivalence about race is that the MC--so intent on spewing forth every other sliver of spleen--rarely raps about the topic explicitly, and never "reclaims" the n-word.
"I always stood strong on the fact my dad's not white, just my mom. My dad got himself a white girl. Eventually I figured out what all that crap was about. Dealing with my father and mother's issues, the fact that they weren't together. I'm sure on the way there were questions at first when I entered other people's neighborhoods. Now I hear a lot more questions about it than I ever did then.
"It's not really an issue to the point that I'm going to hold it against people that do come to the show. But at the same time, how am I going to get the message across to the people I want to hear it? Nothing is better than having a black dude come up to me and say, 'That was dope.' I don't know why I hold that so much stronger, but I do. It's like, 'You're the dude that I want. I was you. You were me. Ten years ago, we were the same kid.' The kids that come to shows now, we weren't the same kid."
Like Slug's rhymes within rhymes, his search for legitimacy seems embedded in his hopes for fame. He can only hope the contradictions between those poles don't translate into hypertension. As Slug puts it, "I constantly have this voice in my head going, 'You fucking loser: Do something with yourself! You smoke too much pot.'" (Actually, sess might help.)
And so Slug sweats the details, obsessively listening to his own tapes, breaking them down, finding problems, mentally fixing them. Indefatigable in public, he takes his campaign into his own skull with as much zeal, endlessly crafting new pieces that will never make it onto a demo tape, much less an album. He knocks off 13 songs a week, with the notes to prove it. And he worries about where to draw the line with his drinking, which he indulges every night, late into the a.m. hours.
Slug is such a relentless self-critic that it takes an outside voice to prioritize the complaints. "This 17-year-old is telling me what's wrong with my life in song," Slug says, referring to Eyedea. And perhaps he couldn't find a more perfect temperamental foil.
"I can't see unless I'm asleep," Eyedea muses. "Sometimes, people don't even know it, but they hate themselves because there is something that happened or some type of thing holding on that they can't see. The reason why everybody is tired all the time is because they have something in their subconscious that wants to come out and it's telling them, 'Dream, because I want to come out.' Yogis bring that into awareness. They listen to every molecule in their body. It's like listening to your heart. And the benefits are amazing."
And has he converted Slug to this philosophy?
"No, you know him: He's a drama freak. He calls me weirdo, and I am, you know. I'm me and that's cool. He's having all this girl drama, and I don't care about the girls, or him for that matter. I can say, 'This is how it looks from this side.' But no. If Slug didn't have issues he wouldn't be Slug."
It's about an hour into the eve of Christmas Eve, and the other MCs have cleared the stage to finish their drinks and say their goodnights. But Slug keeps going, his eyes glazed, a mic raised to his lips like an upturned glass. He squints into the lights of the 7th Street Entry and glances back at Abilities, who is crouched against the wall wearing a wide, expectant grin. A DAT tape plays in place of the broken turntables, and something in Slug seems similarly impaired. He's reeling more than swaggering, and when his DJ dashes off, he's alone in front of an attentive crowd that has dwindled from hundreds to dozens, remnants of a First Avenue showcase held by the local label Groove Garden.
Slug begins to kick some freestyle, a hip-hop rite usually likened to improv in acting or solos in jazz. Except that rap jams rarely feel truly off-the-cuff: Rhyme dealers seem to reshuffle pre-marked couplets, and the smoother the freestyle, the less authentic the effect. By contrast, few rappers teeter on the edge of saying nothing quite like Slug. "When the beat rolls/I can feel it touch my soul," he rambles, jiggling the o's. "Maybe I can try to develop some kind of contro-o-ol/What the hell?/Where 'm I gonna go-o-o?/I don't know-ow-ow..."
That's not what he raps at all, actually: Like Slug, I'm reeling a bit myself, and not taking notes. I scribble down these lines a few weeks later when he appears live on KFAI, with Eyedea there to whip him into shape. Solo tonight, Slug's confidence game seems off. His wording is crisp, but the calculator that slots this rhyme here seems down, even given his usual mistakes-allowed approach. What's he trying to prove? I wonder. He trips over the space where a rhyme should be and flashes a mischievous smile. Without missing a programmed beat, he starts rapping about how he's too drunk to rap. The rhyme clicks and the audience laughs, a subtle tension lifted. The calculator is back up.
That anyone but a few indulgent friends would stick around for this little show of nerve says more about Slug than a thousand condom-tight gigs. For a few minutes, he has a room hanging on his every "deep"/"sleep," "laughter"/"rafter," "calluses"/"psychoanalysis."
Then, quickly as it came, the moment passes. Slug nods his bow. "Thank you for letting me deal with my personal shit in public," he says under the applause. "Those of you that know me know this is something I do all the time."
Back in the Day
Roller rinks and animated cats: Revisiting local hip hop's early booms and busts
If the local hip-hop scene were a CD, most fans would know only the bonus tracks. But before local rap began getting national media play three years ago in the Source and Blaze, MCs, break dancers, graffiti artists, and DJs had been rocking the Cities for more than a decade. So let's spin a few select early cuts of Twin Cities hip-hop history.
Seven-odd years after surfacing in the Bronx, hip hop is sighted in Minnesota. "King of Rap" Kurtis Blow plays a legendary show at Duffy's in July, and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five follow in October. Future members of the I.R.M. Crew (Immortal Rap Masters) take mental notes on clothing and rhymes. City Pages critic Martin Keller reviews the Flash show in rap form: "Cowboy Mike then called for a freeze/Was he talkin' nuclear thang or weathermanese?" Yikes!
St. Paul teenager Frederick Schmid returns home from a family trip to NYC and begins spinning hip hop at the Oz, Sugar Daddy's, and the Roller Gardens. The future techno whiz and Fatboy Slim collaborator christens himself DJ Fresh, then Freddie Fresh, and launches a career in production. In 1987 he'll contribute a track to A Man and His Music, an album dedicated to the late Scott La Rock of Boogie Down Productions.
In the year of Beat Street, Breakin', and, yes, Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, the Minneapolis B-Boy Organization holds break-dancing battles at Powderhorn Park. Meanwhile, St. Paul's Grand Old Days hosts its first b-boying contest, with Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" played in continuous loop. Hundreds of future rappers are photographed in embarrassing clothes.
Brooklyn native Travis Lee, a.k.a. Travitron, launches Hip-Hop Shop on KMOJ-FM (89.9), the first local rap radio show. Travitron begins throwing his first hip-hop parties at Coffman Memorial Union, and he forms the TNT Breakout Crew, notable for featuring one of the first local female MCs, Sugar T.
North Minneapolis's I.R.M. Crew, including beatbox battler I.B.M. (later Truth Maze), achieve immortality by releasing one of the first Minneapolis rap 12-inches. A nationally distributed single on Cchill Records, "Unh Baby," predates Master P's "Ugh" by a decade.
An engineer for Paula Abdul's debut Forever Your Girl phones local dance label Wide Angle Records seeking a Twin Cities MC to add rap flavor. Delite, of the crew Soul Purpose (and later, KMOJ) is enlisted as MC Skat Cat in the duet "Opposites Attract," and given animated form in a 1989 video. The single is a smash, and Virgin releases a Skat Cat TV special and album (which is not a smash). Universal Pictures develops--and drops--a feature film for Abdul and her feline partner.
The Twins are on their way to their first World Series win, but the I.R.M. Crew have a different take on Major League Baseball. One of the strangest dis songs ever recorded, "Baseball" slams Darryl Strawberry--who'd taken a shot at rhyming on UTFO's "Chocolate Strawberry." (On a vaguely related note, 13 years later Dilated Peoples will rhyme "fuck it" with "Kirby Puckett.")
King IXL defeats Josh Virgin in one the Cities' earliest DJ showdowns. Virgin recovers by becoming a storied host of hip-hop parties, at which kids from Highland Park and seasoned rap fans alike are witnessed in the act of getting funky.
Prince begins his ambivalent relationship with hip hop by rapping on "Bob George" from the so-called Black Album. He subsequently hands the doomed Paisley mic to other MCs, including T.C. Ellis and Tony Mosely.
On August 20, The St. Paul Pioneer Press ponders hip hop in an article headlined "Bad Rap": "There is concern in the black community...and even in the rap community, that some rap is having a detrimental effect on its youthful audiences, as well as dividing the community with its rampant braggadocio."
Reopened as a club in May, the Varsity Theater hosts weekly all-ages hip-hop parties, drawing crowds of more than 1,000. Police report no serious incidents as a result of the "Peace Parties," but neighbors and business leaders complain of noise and vandalism. The theater soon discontinues the event, though owner Aaron Keith charges his neighbors with racism. In defiance, he books a 2 Live Crew show in October.
St. Paul native DMG (Detrimental Ganxta) brings his demo tape to the Minneapolis hotel room of the Geto Boys' Scarface, who signs him to Rap-A-Lot and releases his Rigormortiz album in 1993. Sporting such cuts as "Kiss Yourself Good Bye Bye," the CD peaks at No. 40 on the hip-hop charts--making DMG both the most menacing and best-selling local rapper to date.
The City of St. Paul launches St. Paul Graffiti, Inc. ostensibly to encourage taggers to paint legally on murals. Some artists involved in the project are subsequently busted after city officials learn to recognize their styles and tags.
A rap poem written by Shannon Bowles is used as evidence to convict him in the 1992 murder of police officer Jerry Haaf. Critics charge the prosecution with "criminalizing" a black art form. The Micranots, among other crews, condemn the prosecution.
Not to be outdone by St. Paul, Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton announces an anti-graffiti blitz with the slogan "Don't Deface My Space." Cleanup crews and cops converge on "the Tracks" and the West Bank "Wall of Fame."
Hip-hop parties at the old Franklin Theater in Phillips revive all-ages hip hop in Minneapolis, with some 300 kids packing the former porn house throughout the summer. The SuperAmerica across the street from the festivities becomes what the Minnesota Daily calls "a temporary police station."
R&B hopefuls Next chase down Naughty by Nature's KayGee at the Mall of America Food Court, and eventually convince him to produce the group. T-Low subsequently becomes an aspiring hip-hop impresario himself, courting Minneapolis crews Raw Villa and Atmosphere.
Rockers take belated notice of local hip hop when former Como Senior High b-boys Phull Surkle team with longhaired fusion jammers Casino Royale, opening for Guru at First Avenue. The tag-team begins a string of gigs at the Red Sea, encouraging scenesters the Sensational Joint Chiefs and KFAI-FM (90.3/106.7) Groove Garden host Jen Downham.
On October 8, the Rhyme Sayers' Beyond, Slug, and Stress appear on National Public Radio's All Things Considered as torchbearers for "positive" hip hop. They are described as striving to "reclaim hip hop from the corporate rappers and record labels that, [Beyond] says, have stolen it away." In the piece, Slug exhorts rappers to come to the Twin Cities, "because we'd like to battle some real MCs."
Top Tone (formerly Apostrophe Tone) scores national distribution for his disc What Part of the Game Is This?, selling more than 15,000 copies.
Twin Cities hip hop mourns the car-crash death of Headshots star and Abstract Pack member Sess (Herbert Ford Foster IV), a St. Paul freestyle hero widely considered the best MC ever to emerge from Minnesota. The Headshots compile the History tape in his memory, and Abstract Pack remember him on their classic debut, Bousta Set It (For the Record).
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