UP FROM THE UNDERGROUND
Slug is having a moment, and he'd like to share with the rest of the group. On the tiny stage of the Cincinnati club Annie's, which barely contains his rangy six-foot-three-inch frame, the Atmosphere frontman leads an audience of about a thousand underground-rap loyalists through a fist-pumping round of "Total Eclipse of the Heart" -- with apologies to Bonnie Tyler and Conor Oberst. Your average hip-hop head may take one look at the self-deprecating, yet oddly charismatic, headliner (modestly outfitted in a white tee and cargos) and write him off as a patsy. But this isn't MTV hip-hop, and these aren't its fans. Instead, led by a coterie of ladies who look like they got lost en route to a Death Cab for Cutie show, the crowd fervently shouts along, eventually drowning out the 31-year-old pied piper onstage. "Turn around, bright eyes! / Every now and then, I fall apart."
Every August since 1997, thousands of backpackers from the Midwest and beyond have converged on Ohio's third-largest city for Scribble Jam, the closest thing the independent hip-hop scene has to a yearly convention. The 2003 edition features vendors hawking bedroom-made albums, T-shirts advertising labels that barely exist, and battles of all forms -- B-boying, DJ'ing, rapping. But the big draw this year is Slug and producer Ant's Minneapolis crew Atmosphere, here to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their Rhymesayers label with an all-night concert. For the assembled fans -- disaffected, middle-class, and overwhelmingly white -- Slug is Chris Carrabba and Justin Timberlake rolled into one. And Scribble is his Giants Stadium.
On this and every other night, the Atmosphere set sounds like the private agonies of a lovelorn coed. "What do you do, feed your issues to fucking vampires?" Slug asks the crowd between songs. "Well, I fucking rap." During the heart-on-his-sleeve screed "Fuck You, Lucy," he screams, "I want to stand on top of this mountain and yell / I want to wake up and break up this lake of hell." After the self-loathing "God Loves Ugly," he wraps the mic cord around his neck in a mock hanging.
"So what -- you don't like us," he concludes. "Your girl probably does."
In 2004, the hottest thing going in below-the-radar hip-hop is that most foreign of rap concepts: feelings. Feelings of love. Feelings of insecurity. Feelings of despair. For an increasingly vocal niche of the underground, rap bravado is a relic of the past -- fear and loathing have replaced bitches and money. You could almost call it emo.
This taboo strategy has been responsible for some of the most exciting music of the past five years and hints at what hip-hop may sound like -- and look like -- a generation from now. Of the new wave, Sean "Slug" Daley is the best known. He began rapping in earnest in the early '90s, around the time a number of like-minded artists (Rhode Island's Sage Francis, Ohio's Doseone, Nova Scotia's Buck 65, and Maine's Sole) were also testing hip-hop's boundaries. For years, they toiled in relative obscurity, but the loosely connected scene is now threatening to break through. Atmosphere sold almost 100,000 copies of 2002's God Loves Ugly and, after eliciting interest from half a dozen majors, are distributing 2003's Seven's Travels (which has spawned the MTV2 hit "Trying to Find a Balance") through punk stalwart Epitaph, which also has signed Francis to a three-album deal. Buck 65 has been a surprise success for Warner Canada (selling 25,000 albums to date), which has reissued his back catalog and recently released his latest head trip of an album, Talkin' Honky Blues.
But don't let the moody introspection and the light skin fool you -- these aren't art-school dilettantes or irony-rich post-punks. They're hip-hop kids raised on Public Enemy's political bromides and the feel-good bohemianism of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul -- hip-hop that was humane and bookish, not mookish. And they've built their new template on a solid foundation of sampled breakbeats and polysyllabic rhymes. The music can be noisy and agitated, minimal or soulful. Ant cuts Atmosphere's tracks with buoyant, warm soul samples. Buck 65 deploys a steel-guitar player. But even at its most avant-garde, it's definitely hip-hop. And if rockers chafe at the term "emo," these rappers are twice as nervous. "It's a cage," says Francis of the tag. Slug echoes the sentiment: "It's like saying, 'Yo, call me a bitch!'"
For 25 years, hip-hop has protected its burly, bulletproof image against just this sort of vulnerability. But times have changed. Representing the burbs or the boondocks, these MCs wouldn't feel right rapping about a thug life they haven't experienced. Instead, they fill their records with lyrics about family troubles, self-interrogating therapy sessions, or love notes to the ones that got away. On his 2002 album, Personal Journals, Francis, 25, floated sentiments like "I played connect the dots with your beauty marks, and I ended up with picture-perfect sheet music" and rapped about a girl who cuts herself because she can't reach out for help. "That's what I'm most comfortable doing: the stuff that felt like a diary entry," says Francis. "If people feel vulnerable listening to my music, that makes sense to me."
Though emo rappers often cite black hip-hop stars like Tupac, Scarface, and Ghostface Killah as avatars of the confessional style, the obvious touchstone for emo rap's mass appeal is Marshall Mathers. In 1997, Eminem was just another anonymous tape slinger at Scribble, the runner-up in the annual rhyme battle. Months later, he was in the studio with Dr. Dre and cleaning out his closet.
That kind of potential -- as seen at Scribble Jam, as well as on the Internet and college campuses nationwide -- is pretty exciting, but it can be jarring. "Everybody's kind of freaked out about it a little bit," admits Slug. "They feel they might be doing a disservice to hip-hop. They didn't know the white kids were going to relate to white rappers, and suddenly, unjustly, Slug is outselling [black underground rappers] Murs and Jean Grae." "Slug is ushering in a movement that can gain real traction," says Craig Kallman, copresident of Atlantic Records. "We want to sign acts that appeal across demographics, and he can do that." Says L.A.'s Busdriver, a black rapper who explores similar themes in his music: "It's just an easy point of entry to latch on to one of these acts. People who seek out this kind of music are kids who are trying to rebel, college kids, mostly white kids, and there's a class issue as well."
"My whole life I've always been a white kid who, for the most part, didn't think like a white kid," says Slug, who is of mixed-race parentage. At 2002's post-Jam barbecue, Slug and Sage faced off in a friendly half-hour rhyme battle. But these weren't your usual barbs. "You're a studio art fag," Slug needled Sage, who countered, "What are you gonna do when your fans find out you're not white?"
Buck 65 will never have to worry about such a dilemma. Hailing from Mount Uniacke, a rural outpost near Halifax, Nova Scotia, Rich Terfry always felt like an MC in search of a scene, putting out traditional hip-hop albums but feeling out of step with the music he loved. "I'm almost 32," he says. "I'm white. I grew up in a very rural and remote place. I love to read Russian novels. I have a university degree. That's not your typical hip-hop experience. But the more comfortable I get with who I am, it shines through in my music."
By the time he released Vertex, his third full-length, in 1998, Buck discovered that the standard Native Tongues-style rap he'd been doing just wasn't going to cut it. On his next album, Man Overboard, he dedicated one suite of rhymes to his mother's struggle with cancer. "The emotions were so real, so raw," he says. "The stuff people responded to and which made the most sense is the stuff you really feel, so I made it a rule not to write unless I had passion for it. Ever since, writing songs has been easy."
As Buck was self-distributing an early, cassette-only incarnation of Vertex in the late '90s, similar pockets of resistance were developing in other out-of-the-way locales. In Maine, rapper Sole, of the crew Live Poets, was laying the seeds for what would later become Anticon records, the main source for the scene's key releases. And in Providence, Sage Francis was trying to figure out how to combine the naked emotion he conveyed in his spoken-word performances with his braggadocious hip-hop. (Francis, a Scribble Jam regular, skipped the 2003 edition to participate in the National Poetry Slam.)
"When I was 20, I was filling out an image, rocking the Iverson jersey and fatigues and steel-toe boots," says Anticon's Doseone (a.k.a. Adam Drucker). Now 26, he's tried everything from stutter-rap confessional poems to jokester narratives about hanging in a cafe with Jesus. "I didn't relay any personal truths [in my lyrics] until I met Slug," he says. Indeed, much of Dose's best work has been free verse -- rooted in hip-hop, but not stuck in it. "There's no room for sanctimonious hip-hop selfishness," he says. "We have a certain education and opportunity. I find myself rapping about personal truths, and people are attracted to that."
Until the Anticon collective's breakthrough release, 1999's bombastically titled compilation Music for the Advancement of Hip-Hop -- which includes a Buck 65 track and one of Atmosphere's most moving songs, the Midwest-melancholic "Nothing but Sunshine" -- the emerging scene was little more than a casual network. Not surprisingly, given its demography and distribution points, this hip-hop splinter group would soon come to be known as "Internet rap." Says Francis: "I attribute a lot of my success to the Internet, to Napster, and to free music trade. It was huge for me. I was touring, and I didn't even have an album out."
In a sense, the career path of these artists is decidedly punk: low-budget albums, self-booked tours. For a time, when the regular hip-hop community in his hometown was rejecting him, Francis sold his tapes at local hardcore shows for $5. "My mentality changed," he says, "as did my conception of who my audience could be and how I could get to them."
"[Sage and Slug] grew up on Run-D.M.C. and A Tribe Called Quest; hip-hop matters to them, and they're not trying to exploit it," says Andy Kaulkin, president of Epitaph. "But there's more to it. Sage is lyrically a punk rocker, and Slug is socially a punk rocker. Because of that, their music is very viable on both of those fronts -- hip-hop and punk. I believe this is possibly the future of rock'n'roll."
Just before Scribble Jam, Atmosphere closed out a three-week run on last summer's Warped Tour with a date in Cleveland, playing on the same stage as emo-rock faves Coheed and Cambria and Brand New. While many in attendance clearly showed up at Warped to see Atmosphere, an equal number were curious punks, spillover from the Vendetta Red set that had just ended on a nearby stage.
Slug knows how to convert the newbies: He inspires a mosh pit one minute, a hug-in the next. At one point, he jumps into the crowd and pleads, "Do not tell your friends, your siblings. Do not tell anyone about us. This is big enough. I don't wanna have a nervous breakdown."
When he launches into "Modern Man's Hustle," Atmosphere's poppiest number, the guitarist from political punkers S.T.U.N., who'd been watching stageside, grabs an eager young girl in an intimate embrace. They don't stop kissing until the song is done. After the show, fans cluster around the Atmosphere merch table. Diminutive Vendetta Red singer Zach Davidson drops by to request a T-shirt in "youth medium." A lanky teen with plaid pants, studded belt, argyle socks, checkered Vans, and a lip ring gives Slug a pound, telling him, "You're probably the first hip-hop I've listened to," as he plunks down $10 for a CD. When the crowd things, girls angle for a moment of conversation with the weary rapper. "Sean," cries a voice from the edge of the crowd, "I want a hug, too!"
He's happy to oblige. "I don't care about being the 'lyrical miracle spiritual' anymore," Slug says, mimicking the rhymes that entry-level battle rapper spit. "I want to be Billy Joel, and I want to be Prince. Except I want to do it with hip-hop. I want to make hip-hop that when you listen to that shit, it's there for you."
Aesop Rock: A member of New York art-rap syndicate Definitive Jux, Aesop pours disappointment, claustrophobia, and B-boy bratitude into his slurry, intricate rhymes - "Life's not a bitch/ She's a beautiful woman who won't give up the pussy."
Recommended: Labor Days (Definitive Jux)
Sage Francis: Spoken-word vet turned rhyme slayer. His new group, Non-Prophets (with DJ / producer Joe Beats), brings surprisingly tight vintage hip-hop.
Recommended: Personal Journals (Anticon)
Doseone: Court jester of the avant-underground: posing for photos in leg warmers, rocking hair dye to match his outfits.
Recommended: Circle (Mush)
Buck 65: Nova Scotia's storytelling mic rocker has dropped rhymes on Sesame Street, but on his latest album, 'Talkin' Honky Blues, he's a hip-hop Tom Waits.
Recommended: Man Overboard (Anticon)
Busdriver: A junior member of the Los Angeles set that spawned Freestyle Fellowship and the Pharcyde, this tongue-twisting MC tackles politics and the contradictions of life in the hip-hop underground.
Recommended: Temporary Forever (Temporary Whatever)
Mac Lethal: Kansas-bred 2002 Scribble Jam battle champ who cracks jokes about his mom being signed by Dr. Dre and then gets deep on the war in Iraq. Once toured with Insane Clown Posse proteges Twiztid, but don't hold it against him.
Recommended: The Love Potion Collection (Beyond Space/Lethalville)
Pigeon John: An often hilarious rhymer with a gift for self-depreciation. On his two solo albums, he's played the fumbling everyman, grappling with absent parents, racial confusion, and the impossible quest for true love.
Recommended: Pigeon John Is Dating Your Sister
Awol One: Los Angeles MC who offers up throaty, free-association jams about solitude and agony. Once rapped as "Awalrus" and offered solace in lyrics like "Don't be afraid to admit your downfalls/ We all got 'em/ And I think that I got 'em all."
Recommended: Souldoubt (Meanstreet)