Though it probably started with the Beastie Boys and Pharcyde, the self-deprecating rapper is a relatively new development in hiphop. Along with such underground peers as Aesop Rock and Busdriver, Anticon's Alias (who performs this Fri at Meow Meow) sums it up on his new record when he laments, "Let's play who's got it worst: I keep losing. Abusing the things I value most; what's my problem?" Like anything in the underground, this breed of soul-baring, often openly insecure emcee is a response to years of the opposite in the mainstream--the man with the mic and the big nuts. However, when critics and fans started identifying what they saw as a trend, underground hiphop's most emotive started turning on itself. (Aesop Rock countered by switching his classic lyric, "Life's not a bitch, life is a beautiful woman," to "Life's not a bitch, life is a beeee-yotch!")
Along with Aesop Rock, the Minneapolis duo Atmosphere resides at the epicenter. Consisting of emcee Slug and producer Ant, Atmosphere garnered much acclaim from the content of 2001's Lucy Ford, a strikingly good collection of three EPs that, endearingly, centered around how Slug's ex-girlfriend messed up his mind--a total break-up record. This year, Atmosphere released God Loves Ugly, a biting, battling record that declares, "From this day forward, I'll be the voice that you wait for/ the one that you paid for, or the one that you hate more/ Whether you drive a Ford, a tugboat or a skateboard/ Put my tape on, open up and face forward." (But God still follows Slug's romantic drama: "Fuck you Lucy for leaving me/ I wanna say fuck you because I still love you/ No, I'm not okay, and I don't know what to do." He appears to be in the "anger" phase of recovery.)
Slug explains, "The Lucy Ford record was a little too real, even though it's ultra-conceptual and fucking art faggy. But it's close to home. For Christ's sake, she just left out the front door, and she's pissed. God knows why. So yeah, it's like, I don't need to listen to that record, son; I live it. Lucy Ford is just like a tangent I went off on for a second--albeit it got me a bunch of fucking press. Now I got Trail of Dead fans coming to my shows."
Which brings us to the next point: the crossover factor. Namely, while innovative crews like Def Jux, Anticon, and Rhymesayers are doing wonders for hiphop, they've also inherited an unexpected audience: white kids from the suburbs. The reason for this rests equally on the shoulders of the lyrics (rapping broadly about alienation is probably something more indie kids can identify with than glocks and bitches) and the beats (which often tend towards the avant-garde).
Slug calls it a dichotomy, mainly because he "didn't grow up the way a lot of my fans grew up." He posits, "I think that a lot of kids aren't necessarily going through hardship in the sense of 'ghetto life.' But, like the cast from the Breakfast Club, they all have that suburban-issue thing. A lot of people, especially young people, find their identities through music; I think independent hiphop is somehow becoming a strange little voice for suburban youth the way that maybe Pearl Jam and Nirvana did ten years ago."
While most underground hiphop fans get territorial about this, Slug sees it as a way to open the door for other types of hiphop; that kids shuffling around in the "A"s for Atmosphere will grab an Afu-Ra or Abstract Rude record, as well. But what concerns Slug is the current lack of ethnic diversity he sees at Atmosphere shows.
"When a couple of black kids come to the show, and they see there are 500 white kids and six black kids, it's gonna be a little harder for them to feel as comfortable as if it was a lot more mixed. 'Cause there aren't enough people who look like them, and shit, half the people performing tonight don't look like them. What are they gonna relate to? What the fuck are Aesop or Slug going to say that has anything to do with their life? So there's kind of a polarization going on, and it's obviously a natural one, because nobody could have even predicted that it would go down like this--that underground rap was going to suddenly cross over to the 'burbs. But it's happening and we have to deal with it."
"I think hiphop's got low self-esteem right now," he continues. "That's why you hear so much of it that says, 'I rap; I rap real good; I'm a rapper, rappity rap rap rap.' Rock went through the same shit in the '70s: 'we rock, we rock all night, all we wanna do is bang on the fucking drums, rock, rock all day." And they got through that and rock became interesting again. Hiphop's gotta do the same thing."
The Next Nirvana
Underground Hiphop's Increasing Audience by Julianne Shepherd