Minneapolis-bred Atmosphere aptly fits into that "old-school" indie rap category. Since 1989, the group has released six studio albums and 10 extended plays, touched base on some deep societal issues, and has kept a fanbase while consistently evolving; difficult to do during a time like the 90s when musical consistency was everything.
Atmosphere consists of rapper Slug (Sean Daley) and DJ/producer Ant (Anthony Davis), and the latter has produced every Atmosphere record with the exception of a few tracks on the album Lucy Ford. Former member and co-founder Spawn (Derek Turner) left the group three years after the release of the group's first album Overcast.
Slug is famous for his introspective style and allegorical usage of women and relationships in his rhymes, most particularly in his earlier songwriting. But Slug doesn't feel it's important to explain his reasoning behind his work; he prefers to leave that interpretation up to the listener. For example, his ongoing character "Lucy." In his earlier works, it's believed that Lucy was a reference to ex-girlfriends.
Atmosphere's 2001 album was named Lucy Ford: The Atmosphere EPs, with a heavy concentration on ladies. One time Slug himself even said that Lucy was a representation of the dichotomy between himself and women; maybe even translating from "Lucy Ford" to "Lucifer" as a demonization between himself and his dependency on drugs, sex and alcohol. Make sense, when you think about 2002's God Loves Ugly song "Fuck You Lucy."
His 2008 album When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold is perhaps one of the band's most well-known albums, less of a navel-gazing experience and far more dark. Last July, Atmosphere dropped their new single "Bob Seger," and on May 6 the new album Southsiders will be released. Other track names include "January on Lake Street," "The World Might Not Live Through the Night" and "Kanye West. It's quite the progression from the act's last album, The Family Sign, which was about Atmosphere's growing family (he's now a father of three).
Along with the duo's relentless touring habits and their label Rhymesayers, Atmosphere is pushing the boundaries of what indie rap can be.
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Even with Slug's prominent lyrical themes, I wasn't expecting the rapper/songwriter to be such a character on the phone -- and I say "character" in a good way. His lengthy responses intrigued me, and he embraced controversy with enthusiasm and measured thoughtfulness.
Prior to Atmosphere's performance this Saturday at Tempe Beach Park (where they'll co-headline an outdoor concert with Iration, Rebelution, and others), Up On the Sun talked with Slug about the meeting point between mainstream and indie rap, how (and why) the duo's sound has evolved, and why he would live in Tucson but not Phoenix.
You guys will be playing with Iration, Pepper, and Rebelution. What do you think is a common thread between those bands and Atmosphere?
I would suggest...you have people who just want to enjoy themselves and have a good time. In different scenes and genres you get different types of personality traits. One of those things that separates us from some of our rap contemporaries is that a lot of our audience doesn't really care about whose wearing what clothes or whose got brand new shoes on and whose cooler than who.
People just come to dance and let it out. That's not to say that doesn't span across hip-hop, but with underground rap where we come from, or the indie world of rap, there's a lot of people who don't really want to let their hair down. So we've been fortunate enough to not get stuck inside of. I don't care about what I'm wearing or how I look, so we're fortunate that we have an audience that relates to me like that.
Now, when I see that...we went on tour with Slightly Stoopid last summer and I saw how our audiences were similar in that way. They were there for good music and vibes and a buzz. And probably hopefully get laid that night! So as opposed to when we tour with you know independent rap groups there's a coolness factor there.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not trying to shit on that. I relate to that coolness factor because I grew up in rap. But as I've gotten older and had more experiences and met more people I've abandoned that and learned how to embrace people for the pleasure and the pain that comes with it and not worry so much about self.
So that's a long way to answer something I could've been more direct with. But a show like this one is the fact that none of us are trying to out-cool each other. I think these are all bands that realize that the sum of the parts of the greater than us. We're just another part to the sum.
You guys are more grassroots as opposed to mainstream Kanye West.
Yes, but we connect to that as well. He comes off as caring so much that it appears he doesn't' care. He loves what he does so much and is so into what he's doing that it gives people the impression that he doesn't care about anything. That's a very interesting fascinating place to be.
I feel like that's a place where...there's elements to that that all of humanity could benefit from, in the sense that it's maybe like, embracing your insecurity to the point where you are secure with those insecurities. You don't care what people are thinking. So I'm not trying to draw a line between us in mainstream, you know. We used to play underground shows and the audience was full of people who were making mad statements. Like, don't step on my shoes or stand next to me. It wasn't about love or about people happy to be in a room together.
We've been fortunate enough to grow beyond that as a couple of artists. We've grown past the underground rap identity crisis. And that is why we can play shows with punk bands and reggae bands.
Can you tell me about the track "Kanye West"?
So can you tell me anything about Southsiders?
Sure, but I don't give interpretations no matter what even after it comes out. My interpretation tends to not be as interesting as yours. I don't want to pull the curtain back because often your perception is far more grand than mine was. I prefer to let the songs breathe on their own. I don't want anyone, or force anyone, to have that same relationship with the material that I have.
What are a few of your favorite tracks on the album?
You know, the majority of the album is pretty close to my heart because they are very personal. The first single "Bitter" is more of a logic song than a personal or emotional song. Um, But the majority of the album I would suggest is very personal. But that's not necessarily awkward or odd. I think people are accepting of that from us. I don't know what our strength is. I don't know why we haven't been fired yet from our jobs? But I'm happy to continue it.
My favorite song is probably "Fortunate." But I don't know how to explain what the song is about. It's me musing on where I'm at in my life. And not so much in a way that is excluding the listener. It's more of a song talking about how the listener is fortunate; not because you're hearing the music; but because you're hear and you can listen to anybody's music. You can do anything. You're fortunate. We all have a tendency to put life on a pedestal and we probably shouldn't do that. Life doesn't do that to us. Rather than putting life on a pedestal I think this song is maybe...I can explain it by saying...it's musing on how I feel about being alive. To be fair, 95 percent of my material could fit under that description.
Do you guys come through Arizona often?
We do! We really appreciate Arizona, the kids there. You know, I don't think I would ever live in Arizona because it's a little too hot for me and there's certain political qualities about Arizona I don't necessarily agree with. But as far as the scene and the movement there, and the people that come to our shows, man, it's some of the best connecting I get to do in my job. I don't know what it is about it; I'm assuming it's the west coast so there's open mindedness that is there with these kids that you don't necessarily find in the colder parts of the world. But there's too many rules. Even though it's beautiful.
Yes there seems to be something always going on that's in the national news.
Yes. But if I had to move to Arizona I'd move to Tucson. Because when I'm in Tucson I almost feel like there's an old West kinda vibe to it. Like there's a little less rules and it would be easier to hide from the cops.
How do you feel Atmosphere's sound has evolved since the last two albums, The Family Sign and When Life Gives You Lemons, Paint That Shit Gold?
Not to overuse the word fortunate, but I feel fortunate to be able to change and evolve with every record. I wouldn't necessarily say any two are similar, now, there is obviously a common theme that runs through all of them. And that's me. The albums are always a look at my world and my life. But as far as how we approach it and the colors we choose to paint with, we've been lucky that we can let the music and the words grow at the same pace that we've grown as people.
For example, we've been known as the group that has made a lot of music collaborations relationships. But's that's just a surface observance, because when you actually look at those particular songs most aren't really about relationships. I've used the concept of relationships as a metaphor to highlight other parts of life in the world. And that's huge part of what we are and what we do. Fans come and go.
I'm 41 and our first record came out when I was 25. That is 17 years of making music and that doesn't even count music I was making before people had ever heard of me. So the fact that I'm still doing what I do, but not having to rap about the same stuff I rapped about in 1997, is a testament to how accepting people are of the growth. You always find some fans who wish you sounded like you did on your first album.
I can appreciate that opinion. But at the end of the day, if I was still rapping that way, I wouldn't be here still. How many people have you been listening to for 17 years that are still doing the exact thing they did then? In the 90s crack rap was a big deal. Now imagine if I rapped about that for 17 years wouldn't you start to feel sorry for me? I'm rapping about selling drugs for 17 years? Not only that, he hasn't even escalated to being a king pin? If you spend 17 years on the corner you are a horrible drug dealer. Laughter.
How would you describe Atmosphere then and now?
My description would've changed every year. But this year? I would suggest....I don't 'even know if I should be allowed to give a description of it. I feel like people who try to describe themselves are breaking a rule. With that said, I guess the first word would be "humble" or...damn but that's weird? I have no answer. That's my answer.
Maybe describing what it means to you, not what you think you're projecting?
Well it's a vehicle that I and my musical friends use to get their messages out there. That's always been really important to me as a musician and a co-owner of the record label.
So an artistic vehicle for music.
And not just music; graphic designers; people who illustrate and do the t-shirts. Most the people I work with are my friends. Most of the people I've gone to for any sort of artistic direction or reasoning are people I believe in.
I'm sure that creates a really amazing energy in the space.
It does. It has created a foundation in our city to show other artists that it can be done and you can do it on your own terms. I feel like that's a part of Atmosphere that none of us really discuss or talk about. But as an example, we lived by example to show how it can be done. Prior to me learning this about myself, even I used to think that you had to send demos to major labels, get signed, blah blah blah. It wasn't until we decided to jump in to the ocean and swim we figured out that it's possible.
Atmosphere is scheduled to perform on Saturday, March 15, at Tempe Beach Park.
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