Atmosphere: Letters from the Road

Slug and Ant are the lords of the underground. As Atmosphere, they have pioneered the proof that hip-hop could survive in a new city, like Run DMC. They followed the blueprint of the culture: performing, similar to KRS-One. There isn’t many Saturday nights in the year where Slug isn’t behind a microphone entertaining the masses. […]

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Slug and Ant are the lords of the underground. As Atmosphere, they have pioneered the proof that hip-hop could survive in a new city, like Run DMC. They followed the blueprint of the culture: performing, similar to KRS-One. There isn’t many Saturday nights in the year where Slug isn’t behind a microphone entertaining the masses. Beyond that, Atmosphere had innovated a type of MC’ing. While Slug has all the swagger and confidence of any MC, he also offers more of himself than most. Slug will rhyme as much of his losses as his victories. His content matter is heartfelt, which is well received by an ever-growing cult audience.

Recently, ANT and Slug dropped their fourth album together, Seven’s Travels. On the independent scale, the album is already soaring in its second month out. MTV2 and the magazines are taking notice. Atmosphere is to hip-hop what jam bands are to rock and roll. They respect the audience, they keep the music exciting, and they bear that traveling mentality that makes the group welcome in any city with a tag on a mailbox.

While ANT speaks through music, AllHipHop did catch up with Slug. On the road for the current, grueling tour, Slug offers various insights. The updated formulas, the new scenery, and those classic Atmospheric elements that make the duo one of hip-hop’s hall of famers. The new album is getting distribution from Epitaph, a punk label. On the last album you had Fat Beats doing it. Why the change, and how has it changed your audience?

Slug: Quite simply, we just needed better distribution. Fat Beats, God bless them. They’re probably one of the best things to happen to independent hip-hop in a long time. Fat Beats is the real deal for cats like us who wanna put out twelve-inches, cats that wanna get their s### to the hip-hop stores. It’s just that for us, as Rhymesayers, it’s constantly about trying to take things to another level. We went and screwed around and talked to a lot of labels about distribution. Everybody wanted a little much [percentage] to give us the distribution.. I gave Fat Beats the rights to the vinyl, I gave Epitaph the rights to the CD. Both of ‘em just do distribution. I gotta give [Epitaph] props for [being] a Punk label. And they’re interested with what’s going on with this type of a scene, this type of a movement. Beyond that, they went way beyond what they owed me as far as the money they put into advertising, and they made me a video, all non-recoupable. They’re basically spending that they’re not gonna see back. They just believe that they’re gonna sell enough records to make up for what they’re spending. That mindset is something that’s missing from the major labels, and that made me respect the f### outta Epitaph. And it’s owned by one dude, who really just wants to see good things happen.

AHH: Seven’s Travels’ production and delivery feel like an MC in front of a live band. Was that intended, or is this the product of so many live shows?

Slug: I didn’t intentionally do anything. I think what you’re hearing is just the gradual progress, if you want to call it progress. Some kids might hear it and be like, “What you’re doing now sucks.” So I don’t necessarily mean progress as a move up, but just as a growth. Let’s face it dude, in the last twelve months, I’ve played over 150 shows. So it’s like the live sound that’s on the record has probably got to do with the fact that I’ve played live so much that it’s transferring.

AHH: And you work the crowd so much.

Slug: Right, big-time. I need to make it an experience for the people there. I think that goes for any performer. It’s like this man, if you art, you make your record, you do you s###, you should make that s### for yourself first and foremost. But when you’re on stage in front of a bunch of people that pay fifteen dollars to be there, that’s f###### rent money, to see your ass, it’s your job to make them have fun. It’s your job to make them enjoy themselves. It’s your job to make them understand and relate or even hate. It’s the difference between going to see a movie or going to see a play. With a movie, you can just sit back and study, and analyze it. With a play, they have to overact, they have to do these things to make you reaction like, “Yo, did you see the thing he did there?” I think that who I am live transfers on the record, and who I am on the record, transfers live. I remember KRS-One saying going to shows [you’ll see] MC’s sounding nothing like they do on the record. And I guess that stuck in my head.

AHH: “Always Coming Back to You” really seems to mean a lot to people from the Midwest. How important was it to make that track?

Slug: When I was a kid, I would hear my favorite people shout out Brooklyn and shout out Jersey, and shout out all these places that I would someday hopefully get to go visit. When I was fifteen the Bronx was like Mecca, and I had to make a pilgrimage. I guess it’s just that proud-of-where-you’re-at s###. I didn’t really look at it like, “Oh, I’m gonna do this and that’s gonna make m############ go, ‘Oh, word! He’s reppin’.” It’s more just like, I’m gonna rep ‘cuz I have to.

AHH: It comes across as if Minneapolis is a love/hate relationship. Is that true?

Slug: I mean, I guess. But that’s got less to do with the city and more to do with some of the people I know in the city. You always have your circles. And there’s always guys who hate you ‘cuz you made out with their ex-girlfriend.

AHH: But you’re in a position to migrate to New York or LA, but that won’t happen, right?

Slug: Oh yeah. Yeah dude, I have no chances of moving. If I ever got like madd rich, I could see like sharing a place. Dropping a little money a month on a room in MURS’ house, so I gotta place to stay when I’m in LA. So I don’t always have to stay in hotels or shack up on somebody’s couch or something like that. I do spend a decent amount of time out there based on the fact I got friends out there. But I would never move out there. It’s got a lot to do with pride, but it’s also got a lot to do with the fact that I have a kid that lives in Minneapolis, and a mom that lives in Minneapolis. Now if either of them were to move. Let’s say my mom moved to Texas and my kid moved to Pittsburgh, there’s a good chance I’m gonna move to Pittsburgh to go be close to him. If his mom got a job in Pittsburgh, and I couldn’t afford to fly his ass to Minneapolis every other weekend to come hangout with me, it’s possible that I’d dip to Pittsburgh and live there.

AHH: On the record you got this “Shook Ones” satirical intro where you say, “To all my killas and hundred dollar billers, to Emo-kids that got too many feelings.” How do you feel when the media calls Atmosphere Emo-Rap?

Slug: I mean, I don’t mind dude. Like, for starters, people gotta label s###. ‘Cuz otherwise they don’t understand, or they can’t relate it to something else. They usually use the easiest possible way to label it. I mean, it don’t really bother me. Depending on the person who says it, I might go, “That’s bad. Because you don’t even have a full understanding of what’s going on.” As far as people calling me Emo, I’m cool. To me, based on the definition of what Emo is supposed to be, Ghostface [Killah] is the most Emo m########## on the face of the Earth. ‘Pac was, and if I can be looked in a category with those two dudes, I’m doin’ alright brother.

AHH: You do a lot of work that the average listener might not hear. You do a lot of limited edition releases and things. What’s behind this, is it to make hip-hop more fun and desirable again?

Slug: When me, Eyedea, and Max went out on the Ford One and Ford Two tour, we were selling the merch to help cover the cost of the tour. So I’m like, “We’re out here, and most of these kids already have these CD’s. I wanna make something you can only buy at the show, period.” [This] inspires the kids to spend money at the show, which we need. Because we needed money for gas and food. It was on some, “I wonder if I make this, will people snatch it up.” I guess it was my own experiment of seeing if we could get it done that way. And it worked. We only pressed a thousand. It moved quick. That made that tour successful.

AHH: As an artist though, how does it feel to do such great tracks, and realize that only a few thousand will ever hear them? The Sad Clown series was amazing stuff.

Slug: I don’t know if I can really, fairly, answer that, because of the type of artist I am. I make a lot of music that nobody’s ever gonna hear. Me and ANT recorded so many songs that will never be released that doing stuff like that insured that some of these songs that probably won’t make a record, still get out there. Because they aren’t the most beautiful children ever made. They might be the retarded, ugly kid with the hockey helmet on, beating his face into the furnace, it still is one of my kids. It still is something that I’m proud of even if it ain’t as cute as everybody else’s kid. It’s just a matter of making too much s###.

AHH: But you need to do that to live.

Slug: Yeah, even if I wasn’t doing this for a living, it would still be him on Sundays doing goofy little four-track songs just to make each other laugh. I don’t want to be one of those guys saying, “I need this to survive or my heart will die blah blah blah.” It ain’t on no gay s### like that, it’s more like this is what I do to have fun. This is my hobby at the same time it’s my career at the same time, I’ve been able to stay true to one thing for roughly twenty two years now. S### man, I know people who can’t even stay true to a pair of shoes for a week.

AHH: Poetry is real prevalent in your content and delivery. What role does formal poetry play in your life?

Slug: Absolutely none. A lot of times I will shy away from people using that word around me. Because I didn’t pay those dues. I didn’t study that s###. I don’t even really care about it. I mean, I get books that girls give me that I don’t ever read full of T.S. Eliot. I’m not trying to diss it, it’s beautiful s###. And when I do see a spoken artist rip it, I feel it completely. But I didn’t pay those dues so I won’t claim that title. I don’t want some poet claiming to be a f#####’ MC if he didn’t ever have to pay those dues.

AHH: On your first album you did a really meaningful track called, “Multiples.” In it, you mention “finding love and happiness inside of a mix tape.” How true was that for your life then, and now?

Slug: It still holds true to the present. I’m still a headphone freak. If there’s nobody around, I’m wearing headphones period. I sleep with the damn things on and wake up with the chord in my mouth. It holds true. I’m a person that depends on listening to other people’s music in order just to keep myself balanced. I guess it’s still holds true. That’s funny, because I haven’t really given that much thought in a long time.

AHH: How hard has it been to reach the point where you can call hip-hop your 9 to 5?

Slug: It’s funny. It felt like it was incredibly hard. But now that I look back on it, I realized that before I was able to quit my job and do this fulltime, my job was working in at a record store fulltime. It was still hip-hop. It was still my 9 to 5. When I look back at how long it’s been my 9 to 5, I realize that maybe I wasn’t living off of it as an artist, but as a record store clerk, I was still living off my love for hip-hop. It was such a gradual move that I can’t really say it was that difficult. Even if I lose my voice today, there’s still room for me to have a job inside of how much I love this music.

AHH: Today you’ll hear that of MC’s follow Jay-Z’s formula: go to the studio, hear a track, freestyle, boom it’s done. How does this compare to your process?

Slug: I write to silence. I don’t write to beats. I write at home. And then I get together with ANT at his house and he plays all the beats that he made over the course of the last time I was there. I come with all the words that I have written. We sit down and basically try and match moods. He’ll play me something, and I’ll get a vibe from it. And I’ll get some words that go with that. I’ve never really been that guy to go, “Man, that track’s hot. Let me f#####’ bust.” I’m not that good at pickin’ beats, so I’ve been told. Me personally, I think I’m incredible at it. The beat I pick matches the mood of the words I apply to it.

AHH: You and ANT have this GURU and Premiere, Showbiz & AG type of bond that’s really missing in the lyrical production relationship. I know you’ve worked with other producers here and there As you look into the future, it’s still Slug and ANT, right?

Slug: Definitely. I’m glad that you notice that and I’m glad that you believe in that because that’s how I think it should be. I learned something doing The Lucy Ford EP’s. I learned that I will make tracks with other people, and I’ll do songs with them. But I won’t put them on an Atmosphere record. It doesn’t sound right, it doesn’t seem right, it doesn’t feel right. The Lucy record seems more of a compilation of my work rather than the actual conceptual album that I intended it to be. I think that’s because of using some different producers. They brought a different feeling out of me that I felt didn’t match and stick with the continuity. I would love to do a whole EP with Jel or some s### like that, but not look at it as an Atmosphere record. Because Atmosphere is me and ANT. ANT Basically shapes me, and the way I rap, and the way I perform right now. I’m gonna stick with that sound forever as far as Atmosphere is concerned.

AHH: There’s a distinct pocket of artists that you’ve worked with. Will that ever expand? Specifically, a lot of people in my troop wonder if you and DOOM are gonna do something together?

Slug: I would do some s### with DOOM. I think it’s just a matter of timing. I think both of us are pretty busy with our jobs as well as our families. It’s just a matter of time falling into place. I’ve got a few rules about making music with others. Number One: I will not bust my ass to collaborate with anybody. Anybody I collaborate with, it’s going to have to fall into place. Number Two: I’m only going to collaborate with friends. I’m never going to go make a song or get on a track with somebody that I don’t know. There were the days where I’d get on anything because I was trying to get the exposure. But now I kinda have the exposure. I’m not Mr. Bigg or anything, but I play where I can call all my shots based off of what I feel, what want, as opposed to what I need. I’m never gonna hop on some hot track with some kid only to find out a year and a half later that this kid used to m##### little girls. I’m not going to work under the pressures of having to freak the f### out to get something done. I don’t like the results. I think when me and DOOM both find ourselves at like an AA Meeting in about ten years like, “Hey man! I remember you.” “I remember you too!” “Wanna go make a song?” “Yeah, might as well, not like we’re gonna go drink.” “Aight, cool.” Yeah, I’d definitely do something with DOOM. He’s one of my favorite rappers and a super nice dude. Talent is cool, man. But you can only go so far. I got friends who are wack that I’ll go work with before I work with a dope ass h###.

AHH: Atmosphere still attracts the women to the show. This isn’t happening in underground hip-hop. Why are you guys the only saving grace for b-boys looking for love at a show?

Slug: I have some theories. Some of them make me sound real arrogant, others make me sound real ignorant. I’m blessed to the point where I feel that I can just be me on record, on stage, pretty much, go out there and be the same dude I am in my living room. Which means everything moves back to when I was eighteen. The women thing has been there, even before I was a rapper. I’ve always been magnetic as well as myself, attracted to dealing with women, listening to women, talking to ‘em, trying to figure ‘em out. That’s some s### I had way before I got the chance to rap at shows. Now, in some weird way, comes through on record or live as well. I guess I’m taking a long route to say, I got game, homie. I always have. I’m aware of it so that I don’t manipulate it. It’s not like I’m on some “I’m the Mack” s###. I had an incredible mother who allowed me much room to understand her. I think that somehow that just comes through in the song. These guys, they say I’m hip-hop in front of the girls. But the girls just aren’t getting into the M.O.P. record. They’d rather listen to Radiohead. But the guy plays the Atmosphere record, she likes it, and a year later, they break up, and she still comes to the shows. I’m with it.

AHH: How do you want to be remembered?

Slug: I want to inspire. I’m at a point where I see what happened when I was fifteen. I see what LL did to me. I see what Big Daddy Kane did to me, I see what KRS-One did to me. I want to do that to somebody. I got friends who go, “Dude, you are doing that.” But in my own head, I’m still pushing myself to become that. As long as I’m never fully aware of what I’ve accomplished, I continue to accomplish. I wanna be that guy that inspired a bunch of kids to f#####’ flow and make some classic s###. I don’t need to be the dopest. I’d rather just contribute some positive s### to this movement.

AHH: Last week, Eliot Smith passed away. Singer/Songwriter music, a lot of fans who follow your work, were hurt. People looked at his life and said he lived what he wrote, even down to taking his life. How true is that for you, and does it scare you?

Slug: It can’t scare me. I have to embrace it. But yeah, I live it. That’s pretty much how I get what I say now, is directly from my day. And I can’t really be afraid of it. That would be pointless. I hesitate to say that [Elliot Smith] was afraid of it. Obviously, he wasn’t afraid of it. I don’t think anybody should be. I think if they’re afraid of it, then they’re not being honest. They’re not really saying with what they mean.

AHH: Going along with the tour right now. You’re a showman. What track off the new record is getting the biggest response?

Slug: “Trying to Find a Balance” is the one that changes the mood. After the intro piece, when the drums hit. When the beat hits, the way kids respond to it freaks me out. ANT helped me make the closest I’ll ever be to M.O.P.