Some rappers build their careers by being the hardest of the hard and the streetest of the street. Others are tough and party on the outside, while the inside is about redemption and fragility. And some, like Minneapolis-based emcee Slug (aka Sean Daley), of the famed backpacker duo Atmosphere, are emo all the way through.
You don't need to listen to Slug's lyrics to figure that out. Just assess his production style. Notice the surfeit of piano melodies, or the fact that almost every song occurs in a minor key. Or take note of his discography: God Loves Ugly. Sad Clown Bad Dub 7. Sad Clown Bad Summer 9. Sad Clown Bad Fall 10. Sad Clown Bad Winter 11. Sad Clown Bad Spring 12. Strictly Leakage. And the ever-uplifting When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold.
"I've been emo my whole life," Slug said, reflecting on the near-maudlin qualities of his current album, The Family Sign. "I invented that shit." He paused a beat. "I guess that's a good thing — to be called emo. Like being emotional. Like Tupac, right? I mean, he's got a better voice than me."
To be fair, Slug benefits from having a sense of humor. And his most sad-clownish tracks are often a veiled metaphor for something else. Take the song "Bad Bad Daddy," ostensibly about an abusive, negligent father. (Now let me celebrate and get drunk/'Cause my wife missed her period again this month).
Actually, those lines are deceptive, Slug said. "The 'Bad Dad' song is about my embarrassment and disappointment at the indie rappers I gave birth to," he explained, elucidating the lyrics thus: "It's like, 'I'm sitting at the bar, looking at my nine kids — I don't really have nine kids — and saying, 'Look at these fucking kids.'" He clucked in mock disapproval.
In other words, Slug wanted to try a new spin on an old hip-hop trope. The song boils down to a simple contention: "I'm fresher than you."
Perhaps he's right. Though he never quite achieved mainstream popularity, Slug has enjoyed phenomenal success — and staying power — in the indie hip-hop scene. As co-founder of the record label Rhymesayers Entertainment, he helped launch the careers of Eyedea, Evidence, and Brother Ali, among others. After dropping more than twenty albums — both under the Atmosphere moniker and with his main side project, Felt — the 38-year-old emcee has a big-enough draw to headline the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, where he'll appear this Saturday, May 7, with co-frontman Spawn and other members of the Rhymsayers family. Aesop Rock, Rob Sonic, Budo, Grieves, DJ Big Wiz, Sab the Artist, and DJ Abilities will round out the bill. Slug promises not only a real piano but a real guitar, as well, to help bring his sad melodies to life.