But don't put too much stock in a postmark. Appearances deceive.
Ask Atmosphere, the Minneapolis-based hip hop duo comprised of MC Slug (known to his parents as Sean Daley) and DJ/beat-maker Ant (Anthony Davis). Ant and Slug are among the leaders of a rising underground hip hop scene, part of the Twin Cities' Rhyme Sayers collective, and the men responsible for the just-released God Loves Ugly, one of the best albums in hip hop -- any kind of hip hop -- so far this year. Of course, you'll probably never hear the record, and that's a shame. As the Minneapolis City Pages puts it, Atmosphere's music is "hip hop for people who don't like hip hop."
"Yeah, that's awesome," says Slug, laughing. And? "And I completely disagree with it. I mean, I can see where it's possible that I might be one of the doorway drugs for people. You know, you start smoking a little Atmosphere, and before you know it you're shooting up Company Flow and the Micranots," he says, name-checking two of underground hip hop's brightest stars. "But I don't know. There's a lot of issues that come with how I accidentally became the guy that has a bunch of indie rock kids at my shows."
For starters, there's Slug's charmingly urgent flow (the kid sounds like he's being chased) and his funny, thoughtful lyrics, which avoid both the mo' money clichés of so much mainstream hip hop and the one-love preachiness of too much underground rap. "Just been making it cool to rap about love again," he rhymes on "Give Me," before clarifying, "Not that hippie stuff/ I'm talking 'bout that bitch that gets you nuts/ Did he say bitch?/ Yeah I'm sorry, don't tell my baby's mommy." And then there's Ant's head-moving beats, spare but melodic -- not slick like his mainstream counterparts', but not so minimalist as those of underground hip hop icon El-P.
Most obviously, though, there's Sean Daley's pale face, for better or worse a likely draw to plenty of indie rock kids. Like Eminem says on "White America," "Let's do the math, if I was black I would've sold half." And while Daley is actually the racially mixed grandson of a black jazz trumpeter and he has always identified as black, he looks white. Slug Shady, they call him.
"Let's face it," says Daley, "Eminem is a fucking icon right now for a lot of fucking people. So [the comparison] is flattering. It's almost ludicrous, though."
But not totally ludicrous. Eminem is, after all, on top of the rap world, while Slug -- along with Atmosphere -- rules his own little corner of that world, the corner Daley affectionately calls "like, Internet art-fag rap." As one wag put it, Slug is what Eminem might sound like if he'd "worked through his homophobia, violence, and misogyny in therapy." Still, if Marshall Mathers has made a name for himself through a cartoonish and self-deprecating exploration of his own psyche, well, Sean Daley's got the same thing going for him. "Most of this garbage I write, that these people seem to like," he rhymes on "Fuck You Lucy," about an ex-girlfriend, "is about you and how I let you infect my life." You want self-deprecation? Check this quasi-boast from "Saves the Day": "See I'm not the best, but I'm in the top two."
It's the kind of attitude that pervades God Loves Ugly. Ask Slug how the duo named the new album, and this is how he explains it: "There's no reason why me and Ant have been able to come as far as we've been able to come. The only excuse I can think of is that God must love ugly."
Of course, God loves talent, too, and now we've got a real link between Slug and his (way) more famous colleague. Talent, and a certain motivating need to be accepted.
"I'm sure that the people who surround Eminem appreciate him, love him, respect him, and feel like he's on his right path," says Daley, "and I kind of think that I'm surrounded by people that also appreciate and love and respect me and my personality. And I think that that's what it comes down to, that neither of us are probably assholes."
Well, OK. Though Eminem has managed to develop a rep, in many circles, as maybe this country's biggest asshole.
"Yeah," Daley says, "that's the public perception. But I'm sure that there's a handful of little 15-year-old suburban white kids with dreadlocks that think I'm a fucking asshole too. But they aren't the ones that know me from day to day. My great illusion in life is that nobody thinks I'm an asshole. ... And I'm doing pretty good with that illusion right now."
This from a guy who named his album God Loves Ugly.
"Well, yeah. I mean, you can't lie to God, Holmes."