To some another way to make some extra millions, to others indispensable if they plan to make a living off their music, touring is possibly as old as pop music itself. Live gigs provide a musician with some of the most intense moments of his or her career. Touring is essential rock ‘n roll, even for the top entertainers with their meticulously choreographed shows. Never are you closer to your audience with your music. Never is the feedback stronger, multiplied by the crowds. But touring is also known to give you the blues. Your days are filled with travelling and doing promotion, your performances short outbursts between boredom, your encounters often limited to promoters and groupies, you get sick of your own songs, you miss home and start to hate your surrogate tour family. Bands are known to break up during touring or immediately afterwards.
In the past few years, rap act Atmosphere has become the epitome of the indie hip-hop crew that slowly but surely builds a strong fanbase by playing hundreds of live shows. Being on the road has become an Atmosphere trademark, to the point where they began to press up material exclusively sold at shows. If rapper Slug (who also calls himself Seven) now presents “Seven’s Travels”, it wouldn’t seem a stretch to call the album a tour log, seeing as how its first song, “Trying to Find a Balance”, wastes no time introducing the topic with lines like “Gotta journey the world in a hurry / cause my attorney didn’t put enough girls on the jury” and “You can’t achieve your goals if you don’t take that chance / so go pry open that trunk and get those amps.” But since we’re dealing with a fairly advanced songwriter here, “Seven’s Travels” has more to offer than tales of “hangovers and late checkouts.”
Still, this time Slug’s rhyme book is laced with tour snapshots. He initially prides himself in being “guilty of settin’ my fire in all fifty,” but soon falls victim to tour routine, “navigating through this basement that masquerades as a nation / practicin’ my acetate masturbation.” There’s only one explicit tour track, however. It’s the noisy “Cat Van Bags”, where Slug comes to the simple conclusion: “I love my son and my music, so I gotta keep it movin’,” while fellow Rhymesayer Brother Ali squeezes “the Midwest sweat out of my shirt / and leavin’ with my life essence embedded in your dirt.” “In My Continental” is placed on a more abstract level, but still makes it clear that for Slug, touring is a mission, with or without the wordplay:
“Take the care to build a familiar foundation
Speak to the youth that keep the truth sacred
Free the, free the good inside your heart
Your neighborhood, it needs you to travel with your art
From New York to Cali, some day they’ll all know
Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Chicago
Now I’ve come a long way from the younger days
When I used to look up curse words in my dictionary
If life’s a game, gotta choose a side to play
If I gotta pick a position I’ma pick missionary
I’ve had a little bit too much to think tonight
But it’s cool, I be alright
Just make sure that I keep travellin’…”
But what makes touring so essential to Atmosphere? Especially for rappers like Slug, who aren’t instantly hot on the streets or commercially visible across the nation when they start out, going out there and seeing people’s reaction to their music can be most revealing. It can help them realize that they really have a chance, even as an insignificant indie rapper from an insignificant city. By now, Atmosphere are clearly beyond that stage, seeing as how they successfully tour the US. But the ability and willingness to stay in touch with the audience is the very bread and butter of indie artists, regardless of the genre. And as a rapper who often seems to hold a deeply intimate conversation with the listener, Slug is predestined for this type of interaction. This is fanbase building a major label could never achieve.
There’s another thing that makes live shows essential, and that’s the feedback. There are many rappers who think they got something to say, but it takes them a while to figure out how. Putting yourself out there and actively searching for somebody who is willing to listen is something few rappers seem to do. You got people who claim they are street, but if you dig a little deeper, you find out they copped their entire style from some other rapper, and not once have they thought about what it really means to express yourself. On the other hand, you have people who seem to merely rap for themselves, often penning the most abstract lyrics. It’s no coincidence that “Seven’s Travels” starts with a song named “Trying to Find a Balance”, because at age 30, Slug knows about the importance of such a quest. On “In My Continental”, he discloses how he found the balance as an MC:
“See, nowadays cats think they on some next
And they sacrifice they voice just to go over heads
If I felt as if I had somethin’ special to tell
why would I work against myself and hide it under my belt?
I used to try to lace the phrases with magic tricks
every paragraph needed translation attached to it
They saw the style, respected the craft
but all I did was confuse em, would try to get em to laugh
Painted pictures in the primer, no one got the pulp
Found the humor, the anger and the insult
Why should I waste any oxygen
tryin’ to find the in-between-the-lines that they get lost within?
I’m out there for the craft, for the cause
The laughter, the applause, the passion for the flaws
The fact that I’ma draw some heads to what I’m feelin’
lift ’em all up until they try to touch the ceiling”
Clearly these noble motives alone would not yet make Slug an interesting rapper. In fact, they seem only part of his motivation. It’s become well-known that Slug loves to rap about and, let’s face it, for the ladies. Playing the part of the reluctant sex symbol almost to perfection, he caters to the female gender in a way probably no other rapper ever has. Miraculously, his ‘I’m ugly, I have no self-esteem’ shtick works. Apparently in real life as well, but more importantly in his songs. Because while Slug is as self-centered as any MC (or male, for that matter), he also takes others serious. Be cynical and call it a particularly fiendish form of game, but even the suspicious “Good Times (Sick Pimpin’)”, where he confesses to have “a thing for the women that don’t love themselves” is definitely more than just a cheap way to enlarge an already sizable groupie reservoir. Because Slug never writes about just love, he writes about relationships. And that’s where, as we all know, things start to get complicated.
It’s ultimately those relationships, how ever short they may be, that have Slug singing the blues. So instead of running the rap race, this rhymer decided to get down to the real nitty gritty:
“While everyone was trying to outdo the last man
I was just a ghost trying to catch some Ms. Pac-Man
Hello ma’am, would you be interested
in some sexual positions and emotional investments?
See, I’m not insane, in fact I’m kind of rational
when I be askin’: “Yo, where did all the passion go?”
Some people have wondered whether the female characters in Atmosphere’s songs, especially the infamous Lucy (who takes a timeout on this album) are metaphors or not. In a way they are, in the sense that as the significant other, they represent everything worth living for, which makes them an issue that is bigger than hip-hop, bigger than politics, bigger than most things in fact. And so we find Slug “working on my fifth or maybe my sixth / where every woman represents the meaning of existence,” as he explains on “Liquor Lyles Cool July” (as in: LL Cool J).
Obviously this can be a double-edged sword, because in most relationships, failure and frustration are just around the corner from harmony and happiness. This worked well for Slug when he was still in the process of getting over his mysterious Lucy, it’s less appealing when worked into a metaphor as in the forced “Bird Sings Why the Caged I Know”. Ironically, one single similar line from “The Keys to Life vs. 15 Minutes of Fame” is more impressive than the entire verse on “Bird Sings Why the Caged I Know”: “It’s like all of Franklin Avenue now sleeps upon my chest / I’ve used cigarette butts and loose leaves to build my nest.”
Like so many rappers before him, Slug has issues with star-struck females, but instead of dissing and dismissing them, “The Keys to Life vs. 15 Minutes of Fame”, shows him offering real dialogue:
“If you wanna sleep with me and talk about existence
We’ll need more than 15 minutes
I tell you what, let’s forget about the fame
Push pause on the game and get to know each other by our real names”
The parade of love songs on “Seven’s Travels” is far from over with the few mentioned. “Shoes” (with some nice Run-DMC references at beginning and end) characterizes a dead-end date with the help of footwear, the relationship described in “Lifter Puller” seems doomed as well, while “Reflections” again sees Slug talking up groupies, using lines like “Now girl, you too smart to be a tour mark,” only to add: “But you should still tell your people that you’re leaving with the band.” Sadly, this is an example of Slug disguising songs as something they are not. So that by the time you reach “Denvemolorado”, where you meet Slug alone at a airport bar on Valentine’s Day, you only feel pity for his obsession to go from ex girl to next girl: “Can’t help but wonder what’s over yonder / don’t know if I can get down for too much longer / everywhere I go I find at least one / and I bet it won’t die till the travel is done.”
Someone as self-conscious as Slug is probably aware that he’s overdoing it with all these alleged affairs. That’s why he puts himself on trial on “National Disgrace”, a song dedicated to “Rick James, Anna Nicole Smith, Bill Clinton and MÃ¶tley Crue and anyone else who has ever utilized their 15 minutes of fame to realize their true dreams of being an absolute jerk-off just to keep the masses entertained.” Too bad the hook’s biting commentary (“Rowdy, stubborn, loud and arrogant / as American as apple pie and embarrassment…”) sums up just another self-examination.
The sometimes too personal tour diary ends on a conciliatory note with “Always Coming Back Home to You” and a hidden track. The former walks us through Slug’s hometown Minnesota, adolescent memories serving as stops. The later takes that hometown loyalty but expands beyond Minneapolis, resulting in an admirable anthem dedicated to every non-descript metropolitan area in the United States. First, he has a has a hard time coming up with something to be proud of, but then “…it hit me, Minnesota is dope / if only simply for not what we have but what we don’t.” Later, he realizes there’s a lot to be cherished back home:
“Got trees and vegetation in the city I stay
The rent’s in the mail and I can always find a parking space
The women outnumber the men two to one
Got parks and zoos and things to do with my son
The nightlife ain’t all that, but that’s okay
I don’t need to be distracted by the devil every day
And the jobs ain’t really too hard to find
In fact, you could have mine if you knew how to rhyme”
With Atmosphere’s groundbreaking career, we certainly shouldn’t be surprised to see more MC’s from Minneapolis surface nationally. But it’s safe to assume that Slug will remain one in a million. Even among his indie peers, the ever-engaging and empathic Slug remains unparalleled. Longtime fans might detect a few changes in his mixture of desperation, confidence and irony, but to the many folks who have yet to discover Atmosphere, “Seven’s Travels” should be as interesting as any of the previous albums.