In this series, we’ll be making the case for specific rappers to be included in “greatest of all-time” discussions. The more obvious choices (such as André 3000, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, 2Pac) will be ignored in favor of artists who tend to get overlooked these days, for one reason or another. Previously, our writers have made cases for Pusha T, Ice Cube, DJ Quik, Big Boi, DMX, Ghostface Killah and Busta Rhymes. Today, we’re bringing back the series to pay homage to Slug.
Atmosphere is a rare commodity in hip-hop. Even in our current era when there is generally more of everything. Even with the oversaturation of hip-hop artists, we’re somehow pretty slim on duos — especially when it comes to duo such as Slug and Ant, where truly, each one plays a distinct role. Slug raps. Ant produces. And that’s it. It’s not to say that this is what makes them avant garde, it’s simply a discernable feature.
For the purpose of this argument we will focus solely on Slug. Slug, born Sean Michael Daley in Minneapolis, Minnesota has done more for hip-hop than your average pop-leaning rap fan might have you believe. Slug managed to put Minneapolis on the Rap Map way before it was a thing you could do “at your fingertips”– before the Internet at large could break down geographical borders and spread music instantly. His was the type of grassroots push that goes unseen in modern times.
Slug debuted alongside his then-group-collaborator Spawn with the album Overcast! in 1997. While it’s an album he’s gone on to criticize in later years, it’s important nonetheless. By Slug’s own estimation he was trying too hard– but really, what’s wrong with that? For all intents and purposes, Slug is mostly trying to be lyrical, trying to paint a picture, create a scene in the mind’s eye. In the process he was getting more cerebral than many of his mainstream contemporaries.
That is one of the ways that Slug exhibits his GOAT status. It’s the details he puts into his rhymes and his mastery of the English language– he creates allegories and metaphors on a wider scale than the context of two bars (think: “Lucy Ford”), which offer a constant throughline in much of his music. There are certain metaphors or elements that recur in Atmosphere’s music, and each time, Slug offers the listener another piece of the puzzle.
On a song like “Sound Is Vibration” from the debut, the poetic and introspective touch that many of his songs are known for is on full display. The song begins with fairytale-esque chimes while Slug’s lyrics add to the feeling: “I’m sparked, waiting for the dark to hit / Cause once the moon gets above my apartment / I catch fits for starting shit”— his own intonation rising with each bar as the beat picks up fervor.
On his underground hit off the same album, “Scapegoat,” Slug details the ails of society in a templated manner with a minimal piano-key-driven beat backing his effort. The concept doesn’t make the song any less impactful, yet Slug has been particularly critical of his songwriting: “While it did get us booked on mix shows across the country, I felt it was almost a ‘cheating’ style of writing. I use the word ‘It’s’ over 50 times. That’s the hook. It’s cheating.” Though slightly masochistic in nature, his constant self-critique and analysis has ultimately allowed for his artistic growth and improvement in the creation of songs that offer more depth and variation than “Scapegoat.”
Slug takes the road less travelled when it comes to creating rap music. He’s been able to connect with his fanbase so deeply because he truly reveals himself and his person in a way that a lot of rappers simply don’t. He’s also distanced himself from some of the rather superficial yet all-too-common tropes, including those centered around materialism. These factors have not only set him apart and created a cult-like following for the underground artist, but they’ve been instrumental in building his independent label, Rhymesayers– and again, let’s be clear that Rhymesayers was founded as an independent label way before (the year was 1995) it became the trend du-jour. It’s also a feat that comes without the major label distribution too, a sort of loop-hole we seem to find many “indie” labels doing these days.
As far as the depth instilled in Slug’s pen, one of the prevalent metaphors in Slug’s music was this idea of Lucy Ford, or Lucifer— sometimes thought to be referring to hip-hop itself, other times his vices such as alcohol, or else, the mother of Slug’s child. This theme was woven through out the duo’s discography, from EPs to Atmosphere’s second studio album, God Loves Ugly, with the song “F’@k You Lucy”:
Most of this garbage I write that these people seem to like
Is about you and how I let you infect my life
And if they got to know you, I doubt that they would see it
They’d wonder what I showed you, how you could leave it
A friend in Chicago said that I should stay persistent
If I stay around I’m bound to break resistance
Fuck you, Lucy, for defining my existence
Fuck you and your differences
Ever since I was a young lad with a part-time dad
It was hard to find happiness inside of what I had
I studied my mother, I digested her pain
And vowed no women on my path would have to walk the same
Whereas someone like Eminem might be a wizard with internal rhyming and lyrical acrobatics, one of Slug’s best writing qualities is the artful and purposeful nature behind his lyrics. Slug doesn’t just put two bars together and move on to the next two, with ideas unrelated (and this comes back to his own self-affirmed idea that, at the time, he was not just rapping “to string words together.”). Each bar helps to bring a larger picture and a personal affectation into view. His penchant for constant self-reflection (as well as self-deprecation) inevitably leads to growth, too, with the development of his family life coming to affect how he viewed his lyrics in retrospect. Slug was about that Dad Rap life before Kanye West did it. If we’re tracing the lineage, it may go back to just around/after When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold (2008). The album that followed would be Family Sign (2011), the album that began to clearly mark a new era in Atmosphere’s music.
Before Slug became the Family Man he is today, he was battling demons like the rest of us– and they’re the usual suspects too– alcohol, depression, cigarettes, weed, himself, women. All of these vices fueled his early music and created some of the darkest, yet most relatable, music he’s released. On a song like “Bird Sings Why Caged I Know” the rapper adopts themes from Maya Angelou (who else??), over a haunting and impactful soul-riddled beat from Ant. It’s here we can really see Slug’s unique writing style — it’s conceptual and rife with interpretation.
It’s the bird, it must have been the bird
Disgusting critter, it must
We should have known better than to trust
This disease-infested ball of lust and carnage
Piece of garbage with wings and she has the guts to sing
Get the bird, catch her, shoot her, I don’t care
Get the bird, bring her down to the ground from out the air
Got to tear her apart, let me at her first
Sink her to the level of the rest of us that inhabit the earth
We can’t end a piece like this without highlighting the fan-favourite and perhaps Atmosphere “piece de resistance”, the album namesake “God Loves Ugly.” On the title track of the album, the rapper singles out his failings as a man and as an artist, and he offers them to the listener shame-free.
I wear my scars like the rings on a pimp
I live life like the captain of a sinking ship
The one thing that I can guarantee
I’m like a stepping razor, I suggest you stay fair with me
Been paying dues for a decade plus
Before that I was just another face on the bus
Tappin’ my foot, to the beat on the radio
Dreaming ’bout the mic and the money and the ladies
Oh mom, I promise I’m gonna be large
Some day I’ma stop trying to borrow your car
Gonna go far, with charisma and skill
Until they put my face on a million dollar bill
Atmosphere, it’s just a ten letter word
Discretion is the name of my cement-feathered bird
And if you didn’t hear, then fuck what others heard
Bars like “Discretion is the name of my cement-feathered bird” are among Slug’s defining lyrical features, in the sense that they sound cool as fuck on surface level, but they also require some unpacking. It’s the perfect example of how Slug’s lyrics are often the intersection between art and personal life and the crises therein. It’s lofty for the average rapper, yet for Slug, it might be a throw-away bar. It’s exactly this type of writing, though, that has proven Slug’s GOAT status as an MC constantly throughout his career, and why his flowers are due.