If you really want to see Slug squirm, read him a line like the one a big Los Angeles publicity firm wrote to hype the new Atmosphere album:
“Atmosphere transformed the city into a nexus from which underground rap spiraled out to the masses.”
While he publicly maintains the cocky facade that comes with the “Rappers 101” handbook, the frontman of Minnesota’s most celebrated hip-hop act has actually long been squeamish talking about what he means to Minneapolis. His hometown’s knack for self-deprecation and cynicism were always some of his greatest attributes as a songwriter.
The slightly graying, black-hoodie-wearing, forever soul-patch-chinned rapper first shrugged off the “nexus” sentence as PR drivel, but then he owned up to it.
“I used to always be afraid I’d look like a [jerk] saying things like that,” Slug said.
“But then I realized certain people are always going to call you a [jerk] anyway,” he said. “So why not?”
Defining your legacy is one of the driving themes on Atmosphere’s new album, “Southsiders.” Another is not caring what other people think, unless they’re people you care about.
Naysayers who put down Atmosphere for being the big cat in town — and others who justifiably did not like their mushy, mellower 2011 album, “The Family Sign” — might have forgotten how far Atmosphere actually went in the 2000s with an almost entirely homegrown operation.
High-water moments included landing two albums in Billboard’s top 20, myriad late-night TV appearances and sold-out gigs from Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater to Hollywood’s Palladium (both on their itinerary again this summer).
On the home front, Atmosphere became the flagship act for Minnesota’s biggest record label, Rhymesayers Entertainment, and the perennial headliner for the Twin Cities’ top music festival.
“I haven’t yet gotten to a point where I can stop and look at it all and gloat,” the real-life Sean Daley, 41, said as he sat down with his chief collaborator of 17 years, Anthony Davis, at a coffee shop near Lake Nokomis in south Minneapolis last weekend.
“The older I get, the more I have to embrace the fact this will not last forever. There’s some of that on this record.”
The title of “Southsiders” is certainly intended as a homage to the not-exactly-tough but far-from-cush sections of south Minneapolis where Slug grew up, and still lives.
“Every record has abided by the rule that in hip-hop you represent where you’re from,” he said. “This one, I just finally decided to include it in the name.”
Don’t expect lyrical shout-outs to Everett’s Meats or Victor’s 1959 Cafe or any other South Side mainstays. Even the song “January on Lake Street” doesn’t offer any literal references to the area, but the lyrics do point to other avenues explored on the album:
“Claim that you ain’t afraid to die/ Then why are you afraid to fly?/ You better face the heights/ Get your bravery stripes or get your name denied/ ’Cuz you was waiting for a safer ride.”
Slug sounds preoccupied with his own mortality on “Southsiders,” which is no surprise given the spat of sudden deaths he has faced in recent years, including his dad and his protégé, Eyedea. The younger Rhymesayers rapper is movingly memorialized on the album in “Flicker” (“You know me, you know I’m a control freak/ Who told you you could die before me?”).
“It’s not a fear of death,” Slug insisted of the theme, invoking the album’s powerful, slow-burning centerpiece track, “Fortunate,” which includes the lines: “No amount of time will ever be considered enough/ I’m trying to tether it up and live forever through love.”
He said, “What I’m obsessing over is: What sort of things are you going to leave behind when you die? What kinds of bills will you leave others to pay? What kinds of memories and experiences? Are you going to leave the world a better place before you came into it?”
Slug on the block
It’s no coincidence that the album cover shows Slug and Ant standing on a street corner next to the wall of a cemetery, with graves literally above their heads. The shot was taken outside Temple Israel Cemetery, near the corner of 42nd Street and Oakland Avenue S., where Slug lived during most of his youth.
“It was the kind of neighborhood where you could just sort of be yourself, whether you were white or black or Native American or whatever,” he recalled. “I didn’t really worry about fitting in until I got to high school with kids who lived south of the creek [Minnehaha], which I liked to call the Promised Land.”
It was also a neighborhood where “none of the kids were afraid to work,” he said, recounting his first job when he was 12 or 13, cleaning up Petals & Stems flower shop. “I’d get paid right away, and then I’d go across the street to the laundromat and blow it all on Centipede and Ms. Pac Man, so it was a complete waste of time.”
Slug was only 21 when he had his first son, Jacob. That’s right around the time he met Ant, who was raised in a military family that moved around.
“I wasn’t even thinking of being a rapper anymore,” Slug recalled. “I had a kid. I was only thinking of keeping a job that had health insurance.”
Egged on by local rap pioneer Musab, and later Rhymesayers co-founder Siddiq (Brent Sayers), he and Ant started making music “just messing around, really,” Slug said. Then they started performing on multi-act bills in town and working on the now-legendary “Headshots” cassette tapes. Then they hit the road.
“When we started playing shows out of town, that’s really when my business acumen kicked in and I thought, ‘If I did this, this and this, I might actually make a little money off this,’ ” Slug remembered.
“The validation from the audiences really was the biggest thing, and that wasn’t just about us as performers. It was more about this music and this culture. To this day, with Soundset, I don’t think people are coming out just to see us. They’re coming out to get away from their parents or blow off steam or just come together to enjoy the music.”
“Southsiders” marks the return to Atmosphere being just a duo. The prior two albums and subsequent tours featured a live band with guitarist Nate Collis and keyboardist Erick Anderson. “Everything has a shelf life,” Slug said, adding that Collis and Anderson were the ones who suggested whittling it down to a twosome again.
For more reasons than that, Ant was freed up to produce beats and arrangements like he never has before. “Southsiders” is largely made up of loops and live instrumentation he developed with musicians around Berkeley, Calif., where Ant now lives for half the year (he followed his girlfriend out there).
“Out there, I don’t have to be careful,” Ant said. “Here, I work with people I’ve known for years, and you have to worry a little about hurting people’s feelings or whatever. There, it’s all about doing the work.”
That new work pattern suits Slug’s personal life, too. He and his wife, singer Jessi Prusha (ex-Roma di Luna), welcomed their second son together (his third) on New Year’s Eve. Slug said they debated taking the 2013 tax write-up or taking the free supply of diapers that comes with being the hospital’s first newborn of the year.
“He was six minutes shy of getting the diapers.”
Becoming a family man defined the last album, but it also plays a role on the new one. The tracks “My Lady Has 2 Men” and “Kanye West” each can be traced directly to Slug’s home life (the latter has nothing to do with its namesake “other than it’s about passion,” said Slug, who also has songs titled “Bob Seger” and “Rick James”).
Of course, the danger in offering these familial songs — and the songs fixated on death — is that they might suggest Slug is getting too old to stay relevant in youth-centric hip-hop world. So be it, he says.
“The great thing about me getting this job, I didn’t have to play somebody else’s game to get it,” he said. “I really got it just by being myself.
“So that tells me that to keep this job as long as I can, I have to keep being myself. When it ends, I’ll know that it didn’t end because I screwed up. It was meant to end then, and I can see it as a beautiful thing.”