Sprinkling Candy on Top of Vegetables with Atmosphere

atmospherFROM THE PLAYBACK:stl ARCHIVE: All mainstream press-bashing aside, Atmosphere have certainly been paying their dues for quite awhile. With the release of Overcast! at the end of the last decade, Slug made it cool to be an intelligent rapper who rhymed about his own personal problems over beats that were frequently hard to match with booty-shakin’. Let’s be perfectly honest. No one really likes an indie snob. This whole idea that any band on the radio sucks, this notion that my favorite band is more obscure than yours, and therefore more “real” or “true school,” is simply annoying. Having picked up the September issue of Spin, however, and having found a gigantic mug shot of Slug—the MC for Atmosphere, a Minneapolis-based hip hop group—with the headline, “Indie Rapper Says No to Bling,” one at least briefly reconsiders the potential validity of indie snobbery. Even a certain St. Louis weekly newspaper ran an interview with Slug entitled “Slugging It Out.”

All mainstream press-bashing aside, Atmosphere have certainly been paying their dues for quite awhile. With the release of Overcast! at the end of the last decade, Slug made it cool to be an intelligent rapper who rhymed about his own personal problems over beats that were frequently hard to match with booty-shakin’. Simultaneously, he never hides behind pretentious lyrics that make him appear to be someone he knows he’s not. “Make noise for the women that swallow stuff,” goes one line from a chorus towards the beginning of Atmosphere’s third and latest full-length release, God Loves Ugly. That same chorus ends with Slug waxing existential about hip hop—“’Cause all that matters is the bass and the movement”—proving that the 28-year-old man born Sean Daly is not afraid to contain multitudes. That is, in his writing, at least.

In conversation, Slug is certainly a straightforward man. On a Saturday afternoon after his Friday the 13th performance at the Galaxy, PlaybackSTL—albeit without the convenience of any recording device—caught up with Slug and Mr. Dibbs, his DJ, as they were en route to their next show in Kansas City. In his everyday conversation, as in his music, Slug is constantly straddling a fence between knowing that he and his Twin Cities crew, Rhymesayers, are onto something and simultaneously being shocked at his own success. He seems as amazed as the next critic or fan that people actually buy his records. God Loves Ugly entered the Billboard charts in the top 200, quite a feat for a grassroots crew of producers, rappers, and DJs who, in reality, are no more than a bunch of friends who all share roughly the same aesthetic about hip hop. Samples and beats on Overcast! and Atmosphere’s second record, Lucy Ford, range from creepy, descending, two-note piano to borderline Midwest crunk to the Jawa theme from John Williams’ Star Wars score.

At the show, Slug continually commented on his amazement at the turnout. “I don’t even make music that you can dance to, and y’all still come out to see us,” he pondered drunkenly at one point. Nonetheless, people do dance when Atmosphere takes the stage, and God Loves Ugly is probably the group’s most danceable record to date. Technically speaking, Atmosphere consists of Slug, the face and voice of the group, and his collaborator/producer, Ant, who makes most of the beats to accompany Slug’s desperately honest lyrics. Being that this combination is frequently right on point, it makes sense that the music now sounds different after three albums; Slug feels he is writing different, more focused lyrics than he ever has in the past.

“It’s grown as I’ve grown as a person,” Slug said, barely comprehensible amidst raucous shenanigans around him in the tour van. As Atmosphere’s music has changed, so, too, has their live show. At a show in the spring of 1999 in the less-than-desirable Washington University basement venue, the Gargoyle, Slug seemed much more nervous and vulnerable on stage, rarely cracking a joke between songs, and performing a great deal of spoken-word pieces dealing with intense subjects like his relationship with his parents. On this most recent tour, Slug is accompanied during his set by another MC, Blueprint—most significantly known for his work with one of the hottest turntablists of the moment, RJD2. The presence of another rapper certainly takes some of the pressure off of Slug, allowing him to take more risks in his performances. Rarely, for example, will one hear more than one verse and a chorus from his well-known tracks like “Scapegoat” and “God’s Bathroom Floor.”

This, apparently, is highly intentional and somewhat mischievous. “I like to sprinkle the candy on top of the vegetables, you might say,” Slug admitted. For example, he will use a hook or a verse from an older, recognizable song, and lead directly into a newer track. This method touches on the vibe the crowd experiences from rhyming along, then keeps their heads nodding with a song they probably don’t know as well. In this way, Slug keeps his crowd interested in all multitudes contained within.

Herein, unfortunately, lies the problem with introducing a group like Atmosphere into the mainstream. To be sure, the aforementioned big-shot press is not to be taken lightly. Slug claims to have been approached by practically every major record company in the past year or so, and has yet to sign a deal with any of them. And for humble reasons. Minneapolis is the hip hop hotbed of the Midwest, much to the envy of other comparable cities like St. Louis. It was nothing short of consistent hard work by Rhymesayers and Interlock—the other major underground hip hop collective in Minneapolis, consisting of Heiruspecs and Kanser, among others—that made their hip hop scene what it is today. But the music of Atmosphere, or even Heiruspecs, with their live band format, is not particularly marketable to a record-buying public who is currently gobbling up pop R&B groups and New York garage rock bands by the gazillions of units.

Despite this, Slug maintains a level head about it all. He is an artist and a performer who enjoys what he does, and relishes in the camaraderie that goes along with touring persistently with his friends at any venue that will have them. All good-natured joking aside, Slug soberly claims, “I’m not desperate for anything more.”

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