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Slugging it out at Slim's

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Noah Zimmerman checks out the Brother Ali/ Mr. Dibbs/ Eyedea/ Abilities/ Atmosphere concert at Slim's in San Francisco.

Slugging it out at Slim's

The line curled around the block, something I had never seen at an underground hip-hop show before, nor have I heard of such an impressive bill: Brother Ali, 19-year-old boy-genius Eyedea and DJ Abilities, Bicasso from the Living Legends and Atmosphere, comprised of native Minnesotan Slug, backed up by hype-man Crescent Moon and Mr. Dibbs, touring in support of their new album God Loves Ugly. All performers that I wanted to see, all at the low, low price of 15 bucks and at a great venue to boot. I’m there.

Brother Ali, unfortunately but somewhat understandably better known for being an albino Muslim from the Twin Cities than for his lyricism, opened the show and was the victim of inexplicable billing. Single-handedly outshining all of Bicasso’s limp second-billed set with one song (“Picket Fences,” from his forthcoming album), Ali would have been better served setting up the crowd for Eyedea and DJ Abilities, who should have been second-billed. Good performances by Ali and Eyedea (who thankfully put aside his philosopher’s hat and let his voice rip) were surprisingly upstaged by the two DJs of the night, Abilities and Mr. Dibbs.

“Damn!” exclaimed a skinny kid next to me about one minute into DJ Abilities too-short set-in-miniature after Eyedea left the stage. It was the easily the best set I heard all night. Something clicked, as if everyone at Slim’s realized this guy was For Real. Listening to (more like battered by) DJ Abilities in a live format is something that could never be translated on record. You have to hear it in its full volcanic glory. This is what dance music is all about: jaw-dropping fades and crescendos on half or even quarter-beats that screw with your head just when you think you’ve caught up to him; technically perfect cuts and booming basslines that straddle the line between hip-hop and drum-and-bass. Abilities is the bully who shoves those artsy laptop nerds into lockers and urinates on their blueberry-colored iMacs. To quote the skinny kid again, “Goddamn!”

On the other end of the mixing board is Mr. Dibbs, a less technical and more-noisy DJ who is an excellent complement to Abilities. The logo on Mr. Dibbs’ tour shirt sported a pair of brass knuckles and I figured out why. Obviously raised on a diet of metal, Mr. Dibbs didn’t hesitate to decapitate anyone standing too close to the speakers with power chord after power chord, leaving the crowd giddy with energy, even slyly mixing in “War Pigs” at the end of his set. An interesting first: people flashing those devil horns at a hip hop show. Hopefully, the good folks at Rhymesayers will put together a tour featuring these two in the very near future.

At 29-years-old and with countless appearances on compilations, several EPs and full-lengths to his credit, Slug is a granddaddy in a scene which usually chews up and discards an MC after producing one or two good albums. The frat-boy-at-a-kegger energy that Slug still exudes at his age is remarkable: he’s running around on stage, making kissy-kissy faces at girls in the audience and generally acting like a charming asshole until he launches into old favorites like “God’s Bathroom Floor” or “The Woman with the Tattooed Hands,” songs plumbing the depths of semi-consciousness, with meanings folded over themselves again and again like origami.

“Modern Man’s Hustle,” from the new album, is a new spin on a subject Slug has been mining for years, a fresh take on the motivations of relationships. A born entertainer, he has a sixth sense about his audience. To lighten the mood of the crowd after the darkness of some of his songs, he starts goofing on Trick Daddy (“Baby, ‘cause I’m a Slug…”) and Eminem (“Hi! My is name is Sean Daley!”). If anything, Slug is a small antidote to the teenage insecurities that leak into our twenties. Anxious about his place in the world but able to express them with first-rate skills on the mic, he is reminiscent of a grittier David Eggers when he is at his almost pathologically self-conscious best. His characters, such as the creepy war veteran driving around in a truck, or the bruised admirer of women from afar, are the people we see almost daily but usually fail to notice. Slug is smarter than hell and knows it, but there is a certain, perhaps Midwestern, shyness about him that emerges when he realizes that everyone—everyone in the audience—is entranced, bobbing their heads along with the beat, singing the hooks with him. He freezes, peers out from under his mesh hat for just a moment. “Give it up for Crescent Moon,” he asks the audience humbly in a voice that has retained his one-of-a-kind timbre over the years. Deflecting praise from himself: “Give it up for Eyedea. He wrote that hook.” It’s a great relief to know that he’s human, too. Saying he stole the show wouldn’t do him justice.

By Noah Zimmerman

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