the Vic – Chicago
Nowadays, a rapper can yell out that he’s proud to be from Kansas, that he loves to take mushrooms, and chant the 30 man code from Contra to peals of applause from the audience. This reaction would be just as big as if another rapper name checked the Bronx or a top-shelf liquor. Ultimately, dichotomy like this shows that hip hop has lost its cultural exclusivity. It’s a nearly universal idea that stretches from the heart of the city, to the wilds of the Midwest. On the stage at the Vic, the duo Mac Lethal started the night of hip-hop centered on the Minneapolis record label Rhymesayers. The two rappers strutted around the stage, leaning on the theatrical side of rap; playing up fake feuds, shoving at each other from the edge of the stage, and acting out the words they were saying.
Los Nativos came on second, bringing a more old school sound, heavier on the West Coast influence. A lot of their tracks utilized choruses made up of sped-up soul samples for choruses popularized by Kanye West. They were genuinely talented, despite their leaning less on the theatrical aspect of hip-hop, and more on their gritty vocal delivery. As good as they were, the crowd didn’t respond as much. Midway through their set, they performed a political number. For a moment, I was shocked, but then again I remembered who isn’t even slightly politicized under this administration. For one of the tracks, Los Ninos let the music stop and attacked a song accapella. Good live hip-hop makes the sparsity of the stage irrelevant. The strength of presence and delivery is what, at the core, sustains hip-hop. A track was introduced as a tribute to low riders, which the audience went nuts for. Even if I’ll guess that most of the people in the Vic that night took public transportation, the majority of them have probably played Grand Theft Auto. As much as they haven’t lived it, they’re seeped in the mythology.
The last opener before Atmosphere, was the curiously named Brother Ali. Now, what arrived on stage was probably the antithesis of what you’d imagine someone of that name. He looked like Uncle Fester in a hip-hop skit, a hulking bald guy with a raspy voice to match (Google tells me that he’s an Albino). To get an idea of his style, he name checked the Zulu Nation, a positive hip-hop collective that I was first exposed to by A Tribe Called Quest. A lot of his style was pulled from the hip-hop of the early 90’s, including a chorus made of chanting “Go Ali, Go Ali, Go!” (a convention I thought died with Vanilla Ice’s “Ninja Rap”) Though Ali had the bombast and stage presence down, I was left cold by the fact that a lot of his stylistic conventions were rooted in a cheesy era of hip-hop. The crowd, however, loved nearly everything he did. In a break between songs, the crowd started chanting his name, to which Ali beat boxed along. As his set dragged on, I started to get more and more eager for Atmosphere to get on stage.
The idea of Midwest hip hop comes across more serious than most, like it has something more to prove. Maybe I’m still somewhat puzzled by the staunch Midwestern pride advertised by someone like Atmosphere, whose slogan is simply “Midwestern Music.” For a group of people who don’t have the urban cache of Brooklyn or South Central to back them up, I’d guess that there is an added need to boast. Atmosphere, the duo of charismatic front man Slug and producer Ant, certainly tackle topics that do stray away from the common bravado of Hip-Hop. Many of the cathartic confessionals veer into territory that I’d hesitate to brand with the moniker Emo-hop, if I didn’t despise the term Emo. It’s obvious that Slug tends to voice his issues with the world with such a flair that makes it easy to empathize. A few moments on stage, backed by Brother Ali, ½ of Los Nativos, and Ant on the turntables, it was easy to see the charm that Ant exhuded. As he worked his way through the early portion of the set, sauntering around the stage with a sly charisma doing exactly what an MC is supposed to do: make it look easy.
When he launched into “Panic Attack,” from last year’s You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having, you can see the split that Slug has been wrestling with. How do you wrangle the schizophrenia of an up-tempo party track about mental states and medication? A lot of his newer tracks do suffer from the fact that his cynicism has lost it’s edge, the introvert is struggling against the extrovert. The set shifted to focus on older tracks, moving through snippets of tracks from the Lucy Ford-era, including my personal favorite the circular wanderings of “Like Today.” The crowd went nuts at every intro to the older material, to which Slug promised to continue working through his back catalog provided everyone could sing along.
Soon after, the tantalizingly lonely music equipment was filled by Atmosphere’s live band. Slug took to the mic, this time with it locked in on a mic stand. Whereas most MC’s would be stunted stuck in one place, Slug was able to work just as efficiently as a bandleader. The band consisted of a guitarist, bassist, keyboardist, drummer, and one of Los Nativos on bongos. As a group, they did well to recreate Ant’s soulful production in a live context. While I had been waiting the whole evening for the empty stage to be filled with musicians, the overall length of the show had finally started to drag me down. The energy of the set changed with, the music got more of a swing. The looser feel benefited both newer tracks like “Pour Me Another” as well as older ones like “God Loves Ugly.” The standout moment of the show came with a slowed down, funked out version of “The Woman With The Tattooed Hands,” a smoky, metaphysical ramble on beauty in the world. Live, they brought the tempo down and let the song boil up to a satisfying peak. Despite the exaggerated length of the whole show, the high moments of the evening made the long road worth it. Splitting the set between being an MC and a front man of a band, gave Slug a space to show off his sly versatility, further solidifying his place in the high ranks of the current Hip Hop world.
Previously published on Loose Record