MC Slug, the voice of Minneapolis underground rap group Atmosphere, is a slippery cipher, a quagmire of contradictions. He says he's ugly, but he's got a bigger female following than any rapper this side of Nelly. As co-founder of the Rhyme Sayers collective, he's committed to the DIY approach -- for years he sold his cassettes out of a backpack so he could personally interact with his fans -- but, for a so-called underground artist, he's absurdly successful. A cursory Web search yields thousands of hits, obsessive tributes from all over the world. His third and most recent full-length, God Loves Ugly (Rhyme Sayers/Fat Beats), debuted at number 139 on the Billboard Top 200 chart, and the album's first twelve-inch, "Modern Man's Hustle," hit number thirteen on the rap-singles chart. Though hip-hop elitists don't question his cred, his fans are, for the most part, white college kids, many of whom look as if they're into Dashboard Confessional.
The biracial son of divorced parents, Slug (né Sean Daley) is used to crossing over, switching sides, navigating the arbitrary boundaries that separate the underground from the mainstream, indie-rock from indie-rap, white music from black music. "Growing up, I always felt like a spy," Slug says, "and that always kind of did give me a sense of empowerment. But as much as it empowered me, I guess I want to use the word 'negated,' too. It took away from, like, reality. Becoming that kid who was cool enough to go to that kegger with the frat boys and also sit in the basement with the thugs kept me from being able to ever really identify with anybody."
The flip side of isolation, though, is awareness, the ability to observe other people from a distance and scope out the common ground. It's a strength that Slug's cannily harnessed for his art. Unlike most of his followers, he didn't go to college, but he's a careful student of human nature, and he understands his market. By dealing with his personal shit, he traffics in the universal. "Let's just say I didn't grow up like most of my fans grew up," he says. "But that's not to say they aren't dealing with just as much stress or bullshit. I really don't think I'm that much different from the fans. In some aspects, though, I can't really relate to them. I don't know: I love the fact that anybody can relate to something I have to say. At the same time, though, it's, like, 'Yeah, you can relate to what I'm saying, but can I relate to what you're saying? That's what I'm trying to deal with right now."
If his music's any indication, he deals with the problem by reveling in the contradictions, acknowledging the differences without trying to resolve them. At once cocky and self-loathing, he vacillates between outrageous boasts and tormented confessionals. His lyrics skid crazily between seeming polarities, one verse deconstructing the next in a crazy po-mo collision course of ambivalence. He's one part battle rapper, one part conscious rapper, a misogynist feminist, an ambitious slacker, an underground superstar. In short, he's one complicated dude.
Though he dislikes the term "emo-hop," it's tempting to compare him with those self-flagellating white boys so dear to angst-ridden suburban teens. Consider these lines from "Fuck You Lucy," a gut-wrenching ode to an ex: "Fuck you, Lucy, for leaving me/Fuck you, Lucy, for not needing me/I wanna say, 'Fuck you,' because I still love you/No, I'm not OK, and I don't know what to do." Though he claims he's just "makin' it cool to rap about love again" and urges listeners to "give it up for the women who swallow stuff," love for Slug is a dangerous proposition. On "Hair," a cautionary tale about picking up groupies, he lets a girl take him to her house, even though he's "never made a practice of introducing my mattress to women that I meet at my shows." Turns out he should've stuck to his guns: "Her drunk ass turns to look at me and says, 'You're so beautiful....'/She missed the red light, we hit a pickup truck, and we both died."
Slug insists that he loves women and identifies with them, that he's thrilled to have so many female fans, but he's definitely not an old-school feminist. He never indulges in the gratuitous woman-bashing of so many other rappers -- Lucy's no Kim, and Slug's no Slim Shady -- but he doesn't hide behind an idealized sensitive-male mask, either. "I've done a lot of ugly shit," he admits. "I'm not trying to wear it on my sleeve like I'm this mean, bad guy, because I've never gone to jail or nothing like that. But I've hurt a lot of people that have really cared about me. Now there's people who care about me that I don't even know exist. They come to my shows and relate to me so bad ... I've got to keep in mind not to hurt these people."
More than anything else, Slug seems to want to make a personal connection with his audience, to inspire them in the positive way his idols inspired him. As a kid, he worshiped KRS-One, Brother J of X-Clan, Chuck D of Public Enemy, all conscious rappers with explicitly political lyrics. Though his almost pathologically self-referential stance might seem to put him at odds with his influences, Slug doesn't think he's moving too far away from his roots. "I still consider myself a conscious rapper," he says. "I guess the revolution just became more personal. Instead of trying to save the world or my city or my community, I'm trying to save the ten square feet around me. Maybe someday I'll get over these personal politics. I might marry and have twelve kids, and then my politics might have more to do with trying to get health insurance for them. Not to sound corny or anything, but I think I'm keeping it as real as the next guy; it's just that my reality is a little bit fucking different right now."
For the past decade, Slug's reality amounts to working his skinny little ass off. Besides serving as co-CEO of the Rhyme Sayers operation, he tours almost constantly. This particular run, typical for him, crams 62 performances into a grueling 72 days -- small wonder that Atmosphere is widely hailed as hip-hop's best live group. It's quite possibly Slug's work ethic, as much as his idiosyncratic genius, that accounts for his cult following, a theory he's all too willing to embrace. "I'm not gonna pretend like I'm the coolest thing in the world," he says. "I'm not gonna pretend like I'm here because I deserve to be here or it's my right or because I'm talented. I'm here strictly because I just kept doing it, and eventually people got so sick of hearing me bang on the door that they opened it. I'm under no illusion that I make incredible music."
Whether such remarks stem from low self-esteem or false modesty, whether they represent an honest assessment or a pre-emptive strike -- well, that's anyone's guess. Slug may not know himself. Whatever the case, it's a refreshing alternative to the mindless fronting that typifies so much mainstream rap and the equally mindless positivity of the underground. By relentlessly cataloging his shortcomings, he's struck a nerve in a scene that's obviously ready for real-life heroes with real-life flaws. God may not love ugly, but the people sure do.