Minneapolis-based MC Slug says he wants his group, Atmosphere, to be a “doorway drug.” Like an introduction to heavier substances, his smartly acerbic and confessional raps have enticed punk and indie rock fans, but he wants to get them permanently hooked on hip-hop.
“A lot of these kids who are at these shows were not involved three or four years ago,” he said by phone from his home while preparing to tour. “I don’t mind if the trend rolls and kids don’t like me anymore, but I’d like to see some kids at least still support this culture.”
Slug, whose real name is Sean Daley, has swaggered and rhymed his way to the front of a pack of new, mostly white rappers that includes New York’s Aesop Rock and Rhode Island’s Sage Francis. These artists are delivering emotionally candid music, termed emo rap by some, that has resonated with fans who are mostly white and often female.
“What Atmosphere is doing,” local rapper Akrobatik says, “is giving those kids an opportunity to listen to some new rap without feeling maybe alienated by some of the subject matter of other folks.”
Slug, who is himself biracial and speaks of all his hip-hop peers with deep respect, is conscious that he’s associated with white rappers and that many of his listeners are white kids who don’t listen to many of his talented black peers.
“I think the guilt comes in like, `Why me? Why not Mr. Lif?’ ” he says. ” `Or why not this guy or that guy, or this girl or that girl?’ I guess I just get a little worried that it’s mostly based off my lack of melanin. If I’m going to achieve and succeed, I would rather it be based on merit and talent.”
But while race has a complicated place within hip-hop, no one can accuse Daley of simply hitching a ride on a cultural trend. He has logged an average of 200 tour dates annually since releasing his first recording, 1996’s “Se7en Tape.” And he’s pushed himself to improve his breath control, delivery, and writing. Meanwhile, he and his Atmosphere cohorts, producer Ant (Anthony Davis) and DJ Mr. Dibbs, have built their own indie hip-hop base with their label, Rhymesayers, which releases a half-dozen albums each year.
The toil has paid off. Atmosphere’s fourth full-length album, “Seven’s Travels,” is a rich sonic collage built on bright beats and samples of velvety soul vocals, jingles, and conversation fragments. Those elements are played against sometimes dark, electronic effects that add a tougher edge. Over it all, Daley unleashes muscular raps peppered with double entendres and playful puns, which can bounce from funny to morbid and mean and back in the breadth of a few beats.
He woos his listeners with a complicated lyrical persona — part heartsick lover, part cheeky playboy, part societal critic. Even when he celebrates his inner Casanova, which is often, it’s with a wink and a nod. Between the catchy singsong chorus on his album’s first single, “Trying to Find a Balance,” his brassy rap includes a sexual invitation that promises emotional investment.
But the dense, 70-minute album touches on varied themes, from heartfelt mentions of his son to the song “National Disgrace,” which skewers our obsession with celebrity scandal, to “Apple,” which criticizes macho bravado. The track “Always Coming Back Home to You” revolves around one of his favorite subjects: his tormented, volatile relationship with his on-again-off-again girlfriend. Backed by a mournful loop of acoustic guitar, Slug sings a pretty chorus declaring his true intention of finally returning.
By probing his emotional ash heap, he is expanding his legion of listeners. But that also has Slug wondering how best he can use his success to affect his audience. He cites politically conscious rapper KRS-One as his biggest role model and says he is curious to see what Eminem does with his huge cultural influence.
Slug also seems a bit surprised to find the spotlight on him at all. “I feel like the kid that wants the attention,” he says. “If they all actually turn around and look, then the pressure is on to do something. [It’s like,] `Entertain us then.’ That’s when I start breaking down the math equations for them. But once I do that, it’s like, `We don’t want to look anymore. . . . You’re just like the teacher.’ I’ve got to figure out how to put vitamins in the Twinkies.”