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Emo Rap: Up From The Underground

Slug is having a moment, and he’d like to share with the restof the group. On the tiny stage of the Cincinnati clubAnnie’s, which barely contains his rangy six-foot-three-inchframe, the Atmosphere frontman leads an audience of about athousand underground-rap loyalists through a fist-pumping round of”Total Eclipse of the Heart” — with apologies toBonnie Tyler and Conor Oberst. Your average hip-hop head maytake one look at the self-deprecating, yet oddly charismatic,headliner (modestly outfitted in a white tee and cargos) and writehim off as a patsy. But this isn’t MTV hip-hop, and thesearen’t its fans. Instead, led by a coterie of ladies who looklike they got lost en route to a Death Cab for Cutie show, thecrowd fervently shouts along, eventually drowning out the31-year-old pied piper onstage. “Turn around, bright eyes!/ Every now and then, I fall apart.”

EveryAugust since 1997, thousands of backpackers from the Midwest and beyondhave converged on Ohio’s third-largest city for Scribble Jam, theclosest thing the independent hip-hop scene has to a yearly convention.The 2003 edition features vendors hawking bedroom-made albums, T-shirtsadvertising labels that barely exist, and battles of all forms –B-boying, DJ’ing, rapping. But the big draw this year is Slug andproducer Ant’s Minneapolis crew Atmosphere, here to celebrate the tenthanniversary of their Rhymesayers label with an all-night concert. Forthe assembled fans — disaffected, middle-class, and overwhelminglywhite — 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 soundslike the private agonies of a lovelorn coed. “What do you do, feed yourissues 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 wantto 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 mockhanging.

“So what — you don’t like us,” he concludes. “Your girl probably does.”

In 2004, the hottest thing going in below-the-radar hip-hopis that most foreign of rap concepts: feelings. Feelings of love.Feelings of insecurity. Feelings of despair. For an increasingly vocalniche of the underground, rap bravado is a relic of the past — fearand loathing have replaced bitches and money. You could almost call itemo.

This taboo strategy has been responsible for some of themost exciting music of the past five years and hints at what hip-hopmay sound like — and look like — a generation from now. Of the newwave, Sean “Slug” Daley is the best known. He began rapping in earnestin 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 isnow threatening to break through. Atmosphere sold almost 100,000 copiesof 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”) throughpunk stalwart Epitaph, which also has signed Francis to a three-albumdeal. Buck 65 has been a surprise success for Warner Canada (selling25,000 albums to date), which has reissued his back catalog andrecently released his latest head trip of an album, Talkin’ Honky Blues.

But don’t let the moody introspection and the light skin foolyou — these aren’t art-school dilettantes or irony-rich post-punks.They’re hip-hop kids raised on Public Enemy’s political bromides andthe feel-good bohemianism of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul –hip-hop that was humane and bookish, not mookish. And they’ve builttheir new template on a solid foundation of sampled breakbeats andpolysyllabic rhymes. The music can be noisy and agitated, minimal orsoulful. Ant cuts Atmosphere’s tracks with buoyant, warm soul samples.Buck 65 deploys a steel-guitar player. But even at its mostavant-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 Francisof the tag. Slug echoes the sentiment: “It’s like saying, ‘Yo, call mea bitch!'”

For 25 years, hip-hop has protected its burly, bulletproofimage against just this sort of vulnerability. But times have changed.Representing the burbs or the boondocks, these MCs wouldn’t feel rightrapping about a thug life they haven’t experienced. Instead, they filltheir records with lyrics about family troubles, self-interrogatingtherapy sessions, or love notes to the ones that got away. On his 2002album, Personal Journals, Francis, 25, floated sentiments like”I played connect the dots with your beauty marks, and I ended up withpicture-perfect sheet music” and rapped about a girl who cuts herselfbecause she can’t reach out for help. “That’s what I’m most comfortabledoing: the stuff that felt like a diary entry,” says Francis. “Ifpeople feel vulnerable listening to my music, that makes sense to me.”

Though emo rappers often cite black hip-hop stars likeTupac, Scarface, and Ghostface Killah as avatars of the confessionalstyle, the obvious touchstone for emo rap’s mass appeal is MarshallMathers. In 1997, Eminem was just another anonymous tape slinger atScribble, the runner-up in the annual rhyme battle. Months later, hewas in the studio with Dr. Dre and cleaning out his closet.

That kind of potential — as seen at Scribble Jam, as wellas on the Internet and college campuses nationwide — is prettyexciting, but it can be jarring. “Everybody’s kind of freaked out aboutit a little bit,” admits Slug. “They feel they might be doing adisservice to hip-hop. They didn’t know the white kids were going torelate to white rappers, and suddenly, unjustly, Slug is outselling[black underground rappers] Murs and Jean Grae.” “Slug is ushering in amovement that can gain real traction,” says Craig Kallman, copresidentof Atlantic Records. “We want to sign acts that appeal acrossdemographics, and he can do that.” Says L.A.’s Busdriver, a blackrapper who explores similar themes in his music: “It’s just an easypoint of entry to latch on to one of these acts. People who seek outthis 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 themost part, didn’t think like a white kid,” says Slug, who is ofmixed-race parentage. At 2002’s post-Jam barbecue, Slug and Sage facedoff in a friendly half-hour rhyme battle. But these weren’t your usualbarbs. “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 outtraditional hip-hop albums but feeling out of step with the music heloved. “I’m almost 32,” he says. “I’m white. I grew up in a very ruraland remote place. I love to read Russian novels. I have a universitydegree. That’s not your typical hip-hop experience. But the morecomfortable I get with who I am, it shines through in my music.”

By the time he released Vertex, his thirdfull-length, in 1998, Buck discovered that the standard NativeTongues-style rap he’d been doing just wasn’t going to cut it. On hisnext album, Man Overboard, he dedicated one suite of rhymes tohis mother’s struggle with cancer. “The emotions were so real, so raw,”he says. “The stuff people responded to and which made the most senseis the stuff you really feel, so I made it a rule not to write unless Ihad passion for it. Ever since, writing songs has been easy.”

As Buck was self-distributing an early, cassette-only incarnation of Vertexin the late ’90s, similar pockets of resistance were developing inother out-of-the-way locales. In Maine, rapper Sole, of the crew LivePoets, was laying the seeds for what would later become Anticonrecords, the main source for the scene’s key releases. And inProvidence, Sage Francis was trying to figure out how to combine thenaked emotion he conveyed in his spoken-word performances with hisbraggadocious hip-hop. (Francis, a Scribble Jam regular, skipped the2003 edition to participate in the National Poetry Slam.)

“When I was 20, I was filling out an image, rocking theIverson jersey and fatigues and steel-toe boots,” says Anticon’sDoseone (a.k.a. Adam Drucker). Now 26, he’s tried everything fromstutter-rap confessional poems to jokester narratives about hanging ina 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 beenfree verse — rooted in hip-hop, but not stuck in it. “There’s no roomfor sanctimonious hip-hop selfishness,” he says. “We have a certaineducation 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 movingsongs, the Midwest-melancholic “Nothing but Sunshine” — the emergingscene was little more than a casual network. Not surprisingly, givenits demography and distribution points, this hip-hop splinter groupwould soon come to be known as “Internet rap.” Says Francis: “Iattribute a lot of my success to the Internet, to Napster, and to freemusic trade. It was huge for me. I was touring, and I didn’t even havean album out.”

In a sense, the career path of these artists is decidedlypunk: low-budget albums, self-booked tours. For a time, when theregular hip-hop community in his hometown was rejecting him, Francissold 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 Icould get to them.”

“[Sage and Slug] grew up on Run-D.M.C. and A Tribe CalledQuest; 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. Sageis lyrically a punk rocker, and Slug is socially a punk rocker. Becauseof that, their music is very viable on both of those fronts — hip-hopand punk. I believe this is possibly the future of rock’n’roll.”

Just before Scribble Jam, Atmosphere closed out a three-weekrun on last summer’s Warped Tour with a date in Cleveland, playing onthe 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 setthat had just ended on a nearby stage.

Slug knows how to convert the newbies: He inspires a moshpit one minute, a hug-in the next. At one point, he jumps into thecrowd and pleads, “Do not tell your friends, your siblings. Do not tellanyone about us. This is big enough. I don’t wanna have a nervousbreakdown.”

When he launches into “Modern Man’s Hustle,” Atmosphere’spoppiest number, the guitarist from political punkers S.T.U.N., who’dbeen watching stageside, grabs an eager young girl in an intimateembrace. They don’t stop kissing until the song is done. After theshow, fans cluster around the Atmosphere merch table. DiminutiveVendetta Red singer Zach Davidson drops by to request a T-shirt in”youth medium.” A lanky teen with plaid pants, studded belt, argylesocks, 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 ofconversation with the weary rapper. “Sean,” cries a voice from the edgeof the crowd, “I want a hug, too!”

He’s happy to oblige. “I don’t care about being the ‘lyricalmiracle spiritual’ anymore,” Slug says, mimicking the rhymes thatentry-level battle rapper spit. “I want to be Billy Joel, and I want tobe Prince. Except I want to do it with hip-hop. I want to make hip-hopthat when you listen to that shit, it’s there for you.”