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Atlas likes to talk about his relentless work ethic.
The 22-year-old local rapper works every day as a middle-school teacher's assistant, then works afternoons and nights for the Glendale Parks and Recreation Department, racing home to spend whatever quality time he can squeeze in with his 4-month-old son. On weekends, the real work begins: Atlas heads to the Tempe residential recording studio run by the three-man production team known as The Lab. Listening to the idiosyncratic beats they generate 'round the clock, Atlas hustles to keep up, often writing a complete set of lyrics within a day of hearing a new track.
"I'm a workhorse," Atlas says. "I learned at a young age, if you want something you've got to work for it."
Part of Atlas' commitment to work involves the idea that you have to keep setting new goals and pushing to achieve them. Since graduating from high school five years ago, Atlas has hustled a series of demo CDs at clubs like Anderson's Fifth Estate and Dan Ryan's. His routine was always the same. He'd record some tracks, make 50 CD copies, and when he'd given all the CDs out, go back and record some more music.
Early this year, Atlas was MCing at the Hard Rock Cafe when he hooked up with local hip-hop manager and promoter Miko Wady of Dezert Heat Entertainment.
Wady had been focusing most of his attention on out-of-state talent, developing a small stable of rappers in California and on various parts of the East Coast. He wasn't too eager to work with anyone local. But Atlas changed his mind.
"I saw the potential that he had," Wady, 26, says. "He's a positive guy, he's not into all the nonsense. He's got his head on straight, and he wants to take an all-business approach to music. He's got content and a message, he's not just rapping about gold chains and fly cars."
The connection between Atlas, Wady and The Lab is generating strong interest from both Def Jam and Jive Records, and has both the rapper and his manager optimistically talking about dropping a debut single and album by the beginning of next summer.
One of the most intriguing components of the musical collaboration is the wide range of sonic textures and lyrical moods created. The most obvious single, "It's Ridiculous," lives up to its title: It's a galloping, sitar-driven Indian raga track anchored by a rubbery hip-hop beat. "Hood Famous" finds Atlas spinning street vignettes, accented by orchestral fanfares and timpani crashes.
Atlas' pop-culture literacy and The Lab's ear for aural surprises come together on "Diary." Poking fun at MTV's celebrity show of the same name, Atlas compares himself to everyone from Penn & Teller to Destiny's Child, before hitting the chorus, where his spooky, electronically deepened voice intones: "You think you know, but you have no idea."
Wady says he's in daily communication with Def Jam about Atlas, and sees the pioneering hip-hop label as an ideal fit for his rapper.
"I'd like to see him go to Def Jam, because it would get him in a family of rappers he wants to work with," Wady says. "He aspires to work with Jay-Z and it would put him under the Universal umbrella with him."
An Air Force brat as a child, Atlas and his family settled in North Texas in the late '80s. During this period, he first felt drawn to the idea of life as an entertainer, an adolescent transfixed by R&B-pop acts like Another Bad Creation and Kriss Kross.
When Atlas' parents split eight years ago, he and his mother moved to the Valley. At Desert Sands Junior High, he became a certified hip-hop junkie.
"I got started rapping here," he says. "At Desert Sands, there were some guys that used to rap. They used to get these big circles together and people would gather around and listen to 'em rap. And I wanted to get in, but I was shy and I was the new kid, so I never did it.
"I never really took it seriously that I could do it until Method Man's CD came out my freshman year of high school. He was the person who inspired me to write my first rhyme. Once I heard that, I knew that this was what I wanted to do."
Much as Method Man's verbal flow motivated him to take up rapping in the first place, these days Atlas looks to Jay-Z as the model for what he'd like to accomplish.
"I like the way Jay-Z transcends the music, his position now," he says. "I'm a competitive guy. When I played basketball, I aimed at where Michael Jordan was at. And right now, Jay-Z is on top. His style of delivery isn't really commercial, but the concepts behind his songs make them commercial, make them cross over. He's really the one cat who inspires me now. I aim to rub shoulders with the best."
Atlas' competitive, uncompromising nature can raise hackles at times. Temporarily part of a 12-member hip-hop collective formed by Power 92 DJ William "Big Willie" Walker, Atlas bolted the group when he began to feel that little was being done to advance anyone's career. His decision to work with Wady instead caused a minor fissure in the local hip-hop scene.