Calling Slug an icon of backpacker rap would if anything be an understatement – he’s more like the poster boy. The antithesis of an image oriented music business, this rap anti-hero is proud to proclaim that “God Loves Ugly” and let the chips fall where they may. By the standards of holier-than-thou hip-hop purists, no self-confessed white boy from Minnesota who loves making conceptual albums should succeed. To them Slug’s views and his writtens aren’t authentic to the urban experience. Even Slug recognizes the “oh shit not again” reaction that he gets from a lot of rap heads to the conceptual and often esoteric nature of his intense records. Despite these odds Slug and his Lucy Ford” to “Seven’s Travels” are a throwback to hip-hop’s earliest DIY days, where making the music mattered more than making millions. For that reason Atmosphere receives acclaim from their fans and music critics alike. Love it or hate it Slug, his producer Ant, and DJ Mr. Dibbs are about two things – hip-hop and honest self-expression.
“Headshots – Se7en” may be the most raw and honest of all their releases to date. The songs on this album are all 4-track productions dating from the late-90’s, at a time when Atmosphere was on the verge of national recognition with their “Overcast!” album while simultaneously drifting apart as original member Spawn either didn’t fully commit to the group or couldn’t keep up with Slug’s torrid writing and recording pace (his description from the album’s liner notes implies both). As a way to vent his frustration and put out new music, “Se7en” became the exclamation point at the end of a series of “Headshots” mixtapes from the Rhymesayers camp, a series that in Slug’s mind had stopped at the sixth installment. If you weren’t down with the Rhymesayers or from the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) you probably didn’t know about these tapes, let alone cop the seventh volume. Recognizing that fact, Slug and Ant decided to remaster and release this historical turning point in Atmosphere’s career on CD. From the opening “Sep Seven Game Show Theme” onward, the beats are boom bap and Slug’s rhyme attack unrelenting. In it’s own way it’s reminiscent of the raw unpolished “in your face” feel that the Wu-Tang had back when they debuted nationally in ’93, sans the martial arts samples of course. In this case Slug creates his own samples and splices theme – a phony game show where hip-hop heads make the wrong choices while Slug MC’s the proceedings both figuratively and literally:
“The style of track recorded here in Minne-snow-ta
Tastes like ambrosia and disinfected pet odors
Yo let’s hold our breath and show ya chest, if you’re proud of it
And wake me back to safety if you see me fallin out of it
Under a full moon, the color of my jism
You can see her in the distance, the image is vivid
And given the way the clouds moved, it fucked with the lighting
Grabbed me by the thoughts, pulled me tight like a kite string
— Alright, let’s hear it for contestant #1, what’s your name son?
Yo, I’m MC Famous Killer
— Okay Mr. Anus Driller, do you wanna play the next round
— for a new Lexus, with matching socks?
Oh my God, yo!
— Or appear in a horny Miami Bass video?
All a bunch of Baywatch bitches, yo
— Or do you just wanna take the phony lookin $50 bills and run with the money?
Yo yo, I want the sex man, just gimme the chicks man, let me touch ’em”
To say these are the best produced tracks you’ve ever heard would be an exaggeration, but it’s surprising how dope some of what they did is on such limited resources. The piano break and tap drum track of “Tracksmart” are type nice headbop ish. “The Jackpot/Swept Away” is a swing joint which seems to simultaneously draw from 1960’s R&B and folk music, as Slug spills verbals about how much his ex-girl ticks him off and how he’d rather keep his pride and love hip-hop instead. “@ it Again” echoes off walls and floats flutes and scratches over the beats in a purely instrumental and refreshing break. “The Stick Up” has that broken “D. Original” quality to it, and Slug is certainly the song’s dirty rotten scoundrel:
“How is it you feel as if you can afford to ignore the visit?
Come and catch a glimpse of persistance
The momentum builds and the allied forces get stronger
The breathing lasts longer, beyond the patterns of you
The team designated to replace the jaded emotions of all these player haters
Brainwashed in this ocean, the new devotion is the same as the old one
Lyrical bliss, lyricist
Tryin to get up in every city like Twist – wait wait wait
Break me down to a science, bitch save your energy
One part stress, one part Jacob, one part destiny
And I’m here, and those that knew me, knew I would be
‘Overcast!’ was a must, big ups to all of those that took me
Now look me in the eye and tell me y’all ain’t high
Cause I believe there needs to be some fists in the sky
Put your hand up bitch”
Things bounce on “To the Break of Sean” (Slug’s real name) as both the song and the rhyme seem to reflect a mental breakdown punctuated with a chorus where he says “tell everyone I’m doin alright mom.” Sometimes the concepts like this are easy to get, at other times they can be lost in a cloud of obscurity behind Slug’s rapid fire verbals, although on “Deer Wolf” he seems to be pointedly talking to the critics who “say I talk in circles, but I write it line by line” with his rhymes – and in doing so he accidentally reveals the simple truth of Atmosphere’s dopeness: “I spit rhymes hopin that someone who thinks like me/relates to the emotions interlocked within the psyche.” Of course any MC could simply bare his soul verbally, but Slug crosses that barrier from just saying how he feels to making you feel what he says, through a combination of impeccable breath control and well chosen words, making him more than just another hip-hop nerd rapping over a 4-track (even though you may doubt me when you see he has a song titled “Dungeons and Dragons”). His penchant for complex punchlines puts him in the same league as Pharoahe Monch and Ras Kass, even if he’s not given props as often or as loudly as they are in the rap community. Still it’s hard to front on the intricate dopeness found within personal songs like “The Abusing of the Rib”:
“I wanna follow the footprints across my lover’s stomach
I wanna call out her name before I plummet
I wish I had a map of the terrain so I could step around the landmines
Avoid the beasts under the bed that bring they bad times
I wanna find this here so-called treasure
The pleasure, the trinkets, the never-ending weekends
Acknowledgin that I’m still just a piece of the sequence
But seein these different footprints got me needin to show my weekness
The timeline, the time zones, I cross them with my eyes closed
Memorized the landmarks and learned the cycles
The weather patterns, how the seasons affect
the East and the West of each region learned the cycles
Forget about the fact that many trails have been tracked
Maybe it’s a plus that there’s a path
If this was some uncharted land I’d have to be a smarter man”
For your enjoyment “Headshots – Se7en” also comes with a bonus disc of even more obscure classics from the Rhymesayers collective, like Dynospectrum’s songs “Industrial Warfare” and “Fuck the Bullshit,” and remixes of Atmosphere’s “Travel” and “Multiples Reprise.” It’s another 40 minutes on top of the almost 72 offered on the first disc, which makes for a nearly two hour long experience from start to finish. That may be too much to absorb in one sitting given how heady Slug can be, even though the closer you examine his rapid rhyme flow the more down-to-earth it becomes. For the Atmosphere fan though “Headshots – Se7en” is easily a must have, and not near as amateur or demo quality as Slug would lead you to believe. The seeds sewn here show that the man who became the poster boy for DIY indie rap didn’t just stumble onto the stage unprepared or unready to be the man profiled from URB to The Onion; rather the self-described dysfunctional b-boy knew all along he’d become a well known rapper and was just biding the time until his quirky style found an audience outside the frozen tundra of Minne-snow-ta.