He takes a left where his peers go right, bypassing ego-rich self-aggrandizement because steady self-deprecation is his personal pique. While writers genuflect at how he's flipped the pose, he professes to know that all the gold spun from his soul doesn't mean shit if you don't know his name.
Slug ('cause he looks like he's money, but he won't buy shit) threatens to change that situation with Atmosphere's latest joint, Seven's Travels. Atmosphere's last album, 2002's God Loves Ugly, boosted the rapper's profile tenfold -- literally. Sales of the album approached 80,000 copies; his previous effort, the EP Lucy Ford, sold around 8,000. Not bad for a record pushed by on-the-down-low indie label Fat Beats. And the new album's likely to get an even better push into b-boy consciousness from erstwhile punk label Epitaph.
"Thank God I'm older, because if this would have happened to me at 23 or something, it would have been all about coke and strippers and stupid shit like that," Slug, in his early 30s, tells New Times. "Here I am now starting to receive this attention at an age where I just have a little more rationalizing going on."
Single after breaking up ("for the 27th time") with his longtime girlfriend Rita, his newfound stature sparked an ethical crisis in the guise of women who sought him out after the show. "Here I am single, in a hotel room with some 24-year-old who's probably had a little too much vodka for her own good, and I find myself talking over and over again about the evils of going back to the hotel room with the band. It's almost as if I'm this antihero that's fucking it up for the rest of my peers," he says. "I was realizing how much power I actually have and the dichotomy of the situation between me and the girl from the show who came home, and becoming very neurotic about how I apply that kind of power."
A natural for the "conscious rap" movement, Slug has drawn comparisons to Eminem because of his loose-limbed flow, his Midwestern twang, and, well, his light skin pigmentation. Mostly, the comparisons end there (though most seem stuck on the latter), because his subject matter lacks the in-your-face bravado of Slim Shady. Slug replaces that with a very "real" dose of self-doubt and mocking, evident not only in the title track of God Loves Ugly, which assails his self-professed sub-average looks, but also on some of the songs from the new album. "Shoes" finds him hugging the porcelain god after a drunken evening chasing a chick. The hilarious "Suicidegirls" is a medley of answering machine messages from pissed-off ex-girlfriends complaining about cleaning his vomit from their cars, his "trail of destruction and shit," and his inability to return their calls.
Atmosphere's DJ, Ant, makes the group's musical bed with a psychedelic quilt of jazzy synth samples, scratches and a rumbling calliope of bubbling beats that Slug lays over with his manic word-salad of passion and science engineered to bring down walls. His flow slides, tumbles and trickles, body-surfing allegorical autobiography with a slippery self-consciousness that's as unsparing as it is pointblank.
Speaking from The Fifth Element, the Minneapolis record store that he runs with his rap crew, the Rhymesayers, Slug says, "I don't mind the comparisons to Eminem, though sometimes I wished I'd get compared to Rakim instead. I think a lot of times the comparison comes from the whole white boy thing, and I think that of all the white kids in the world, he's the one who should never get white boy'd, because he can actually rap his fucking ass off. So I don't know if it's the accent. I don't know if it's the fact that me and him are probably about the same age, and we grew up in this shit very similarly, you know, listening to the same rappers, following the same influences."
But Slug does believe that Eminem helped give him his increasingly broad platform.
"I got to give it to Eminem and Tupac, and Ghostface [Killah], because accidentally they paved the way for people like me," he says. "They made it okay to be emotional. They made it okay to say some shit on record that really is, or sounds like, it's fucking you up right now, as opposed to you showing me how you can fuck things up. You know a lot of rap, like destroying shit is a part of this culture.
"It's like this shit's been done, but these guys, to me, brought it to a new level of being accepted by the advocates and the audience and the fans, whereas hip-hop wouldn't accept Ice Cube crying on an album back in 1994. Not so much, Oh, that's what I'm going to do,' but like this is what I've been doing for a while, and it's been pretty cool and there's kids that like me, but now that you guys have done it. Now there's a shitload of kids that will listen to me."
Growing up in a lower-class south Minneapolis neighborhood, the young Slug found himself immersed in hip-hop culture. "I hated white people for years because of this movement," admits Slug, who is of mixed origin.
His life's been a tour of hip-hop's four elements, as he went from being a break-dancer in school in the '80s to being a graffiti artist and then a DJ until erstwhile scratch troupe "[Invisibl] Skratch Piklz came out and fucked that shit up," Slug says. "When they came out, I was, Fuck this shit.' I'm just going to rap because I'm good at this, and not only that, but I've always been good at talking to girls, and so if I just combine the rap and talking to girls shit, yeah, buddy . . ."
Seven's Travels presents itself as a concept album about touring, and the song "Reflections" touches on his groupie issue, as Slug raps, "And she doesn't seem to believe/I'm just another thief/Came to take a piece/Make you stutter when you breathe/Girl you're too smart/To be a tour mark."
For this tour, Slug's come up with a clever way to get his message across to "band-aids" without being overtly condescending.
"I'm bringing the autobiography of Run-D.M.C., and what I'm going to do is get girls to come back to my room, and I'm going to hand them the book, and I'm going to say, Read me to sleep, and do me a favor. When you've noticed that I'm sleeping, mark the page you're on, because tomorrow, somebody completely different is going to pick up where the fuck you left off,'" he says proudly. "I'm not here on some dirt trip. I'm not going to videotape myself fucking you in the mouth, but at the same time you are providing something for me that is selfish. Then instead of walking away with a fan for life, I walk away with someone going, That guy's like the Crispin Glover of rap, and that's pathetic.'
"Any of them that are smart enough will get the message that I'm trying to send without really being offended, and I get to hear the autobiography of Run-D.M.C. without having to read it because I get car sick when I read in the car."