"I'M SORRY, BUT THE ART-FUCK vegetables—the eggplants, the zucchinis—don't do anything for me." Sean Daley, a.k.a. Slug of indie hip-hoppers Atmosphere, is talking about last year's South by Southwest, Austin's annual music schmoozathon, where he and bandmates Eyedea and DJ Abilities were scheduled to perform. As has been the case for three years, a major label wanted to sign the group; as has also been the case for three years, Atmosphere weren't interested. "The majors respect us, but we don't really need them to do what we're doing," says Slug. "It's cool, though, because they always buy me dinner."
In Austin, though, the carnivorous 27-year-old rapper's free meal turned sour. "We went to a vegetarian restaurant, and there wasn't anything appealing on their menu. So I talked the waitress into ordering for me." Not a minute after leaving the restaurant, Slug returned his dinner onto the sidewalk. "Needless to say, I did not get signed," he shrugs, knowing full well he wasn't planning to sign anything in the first place. "But we kicked ass that night."
Paradox Theater, Saturday, February 3
It wouldn't be the first time. Since 1993, Atmosphere have gained a devoted following among underground rap fans for their skintight live show, tightened by abundant touring and fueled by an endless array of releases, both on their own (1997's Overcast!, 1999's cassette-only Se7en, the new Lucy Ford, which comes out in March) and in collaborations with other independent-minded collectives like Deep Puddle Dynamics and Anticon.
Slug has become a cult figure among both serious hip-hop heads and college-rock fans; his relentlessly searching and frequently lovelorn lyrics are tinged with audacious metaphor and twisted humor, striking a chord similar to that of indie bands like Modest Mouse. In "Woman with the Tattooed Hands," the title character's ink stains come to life and make love to their owner. "The Abusing of the Rib" examines heartbreak by "Acknowledging that I'm just a piece of the sequence/But seeing all these footprints got me needing to show my weakness. . . . If I could show you/You would never leave it."
"I quit writing 'rap' a long time ago," says Slug. "I don't even try to write songs anymore—now I just sit down and try to write life. I think a lot of the time that's what people like about it."
Lucy Ford is a result of this confessional bent. "The last couple years have been a big motivational force in my life; there have been a couple of relationships," Slug says. "The album is a story from beginning to end: I get fed up with my woman, my city, myself and decide to leave before realizing the problem is within myself. There's not a lot of braggadocio on it. In fact, I don't think there is any."
ALTHOUGH ON RECORD Atmosphere consists solely of Slug and producer Ant, he's joined onstage by a pair of ferocious young talents. Twenty-year-old DJ Abilities, a.k.a. Max Keltgen, lived up to his moniker by placing first in the Cincinnati semifinals of Disco Mix Club's prominent annual DJ competition last June. Even more impressive, the 19-year-old Eyedea (born Mike Averill) cemented his wunderkind status on November 2 when he won the Blaze Battle, a high-profile MC contest with highlights broadcast on HBO and judged by none other than KRS-One. Not bad for a couple of white guys from Minneapolis.
Eyedea also stands alongside Slug as part of Deep Puddle Dynamics, which includes underground luminaries Dose One, Sole, Alias, and DJ Mayonnaise. The group, whose superb debut, Taste of Rain . . . Why Kneel, was released last year, are also integral members of the celebrated Anticon collective. Their 1999 anthology, Music for the Advancement of Hip-Hop, is not only a wonderfully cohesive collection of left-of- center hip-hop, it also contains Slug's "Nothing but Sunshine," the best song he's written yet. Over a bluesy, rolling piano hook, the rapper drops a sly critique of people who blame their personality defects on their upbringing. "I'm going to be all right/And you're going to be all right/You don't have to hold my hand/Just walk with me tonight," goes the chorus. "Sunshine" has caused confusion among some fans; Slug's vocals are so guileless the song feels lifelike, but it's completely fictional—for instance, his parents didn't die in a grain elevator, but are alive and well, albeit separated. And no, Slug doesn't really take out his aggressions by "murdering cattle," as he announces toward the end.
Or does he? That declaration is followed by what sounds like . . . something. "Actually, if you listen to that song, you can hear that I'm actually raping a pig," Slug deadpans. "Well, not really, we just made it sound like I was. But I do think that's one of my better- conceived pieces. It got across everything I wanted it to lyrically, and musically it's one of the happiest beats in the world. It has a message, and at the end of it, I rape a fucking pig!" He chuckles. "I should be famous."