Honesty. That’s the first word that comes to mind when someone mentions Atmosphere, a fiercely independent Hip Hop duo (producer Ant and MC Slug) from Minneapolis whose reputation has grown exponentially (and organically) since its inception more than a decade ago.
Slug’s deft raps leave crass, bling-laden boasting on the sidelines in favor of first person, deeply evocative tales of everyday life. Yet the duo’s latest, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, represents a curious creative shift in which Slug trains his keen lyrical lens on others (waitresses and various small-time strivers) over beats that trade Ant’s dynamic soundscapes for more intimate, sample-free atmospherics.
Slug took time out of the band’s (yes, Atmosphere takes a live band out on the road these days) busy schedule to talk poop, Minneapolis and working with Tom Waits.
Slug: Cincinnati! Hey, how you doin’?
CityBeat: I’m good. Are you ready for Scribble Jam?
Slug: I’m nervous. I’m always nervous, dude. That’s my problem — every show I’m fucking scared. I poop like five times before I go on stage. I don’t poop, though. Nothing comes out. But I still wipe.
CB: Do you think that nervous energy works to your advantage?
Slug: I do. I go on stage and everybody can tell I’m nervous, and they’re empathetic. Is that the correct word? Empathy? They go, “Ah, he’s so cute. He’s like a scared little mole.” Or maybe more like a squirrel. People see me as a scared little squirrel, you know. I get the sympathy vote, man.
CB: So what if I told you 15 years ago that you’d be headlining Scribble Jam with KRS-One…
Slug: Crazy. When I was a kid I thought I was gonna be like LL Cool J, limos and gold chains and all that shit. I thought I was gonna be a star. I knew I was gonna be a star. And then somehow Kanye West took it from me. But I’m OK with that, because the more and more I see, the less I want that.
But it worked out pretty perfect, man. My bills are paid. I still have to bust my ass for a living, but I like that, that’s what I needed. I was groomed to be a blue-collar fuck of some sort, so thankfully I get to be a blue-collar fuck in an industry that I actually enjoy. I love what I do.
CB: How do you think growing up in the Midwest instead of the East or West Coast or down South somewhere impacted what you do?
Slug: Nobody’s checkin’ for you in a city like this. So really your main drive should just be to make some good, fun shit, some shit that you’re proud of, period. I think that’s a main factor when you’re dealing with territories that are not necessarily known for Hip Hop. The thing about Minneapolis that’s dope is that we’re a bunch of people who didn’t know what we were doing and accidentally did it our way. Me and Anthony (aka Ant), we were just trying to do our own version of a Gang Starr record. I was trying to be my own version of KRS-One.
But since I was stuck in Minneapolis with not much contact to what he was doing in New York — other than what I could grab from Brand Nubian records — we did a busted version of it. We taught ourselves how to do it and we got a version that isn’t exactly right. But it’s ours. It’s our own way of doing it.
CB: The first couple times I listened to the new album, I was like, “Huh?” It’s certainly different both musically and lyrically than anything you guys have done before. Why did you decide to shift gears so radically?
Slug: We had to challenge ourselves. Here’s the thing: We always look for ways to challenge ourselves without it coming off as contrived. If we did it right is another story. On this record, in particular, we wanted to take a few more baby steps in some sort of direction — we didn’t know if it was going to go forward or
backward or where it was gonna go — but we wanted to make sure that we were still challenging ourselves because they’ve been allowing us to do this shit for a few years now. We have what you can actually call a “career” now, and if we don’t continue to challenge ourselves, who knows, we might get fired. And I don’t want to get fired. This is the best job I’ve ever had.
CB: One of the things I like about the album is that it’s more intimate than your other stuff. It feels as if we’re right there in the room with you guys.
Slug: We were shooting for a quiet album, because I’ve never seen somebody make a quiet album in Hip Hop. Beck made a record called Sea Change a few years ago that totally fucked my world up when it came out. So when Ant said he wanted to make a quiet album, the first thing that came to mind was that Beck album. What you’re hearing as far as the intimacy and the personal-ness — even though I’m telling stories in third-person, I do consider this my most personal album ever — I think a lot of that comes from the aesthetics of the way it sounds. And, at least from my perspective, that Beck record had a lot to do with that.
CB: How was it working with Tom Waits (who does some beatboxing on the new album)? Was it what you expected?
Slug: It was beyond what I expected. It’s one of my favorite experiences in this shit. And I’m hesitant to talk too much about it, because I talked a little bit about it when the press cycle first started up for this record, and I started to feel like I was exploiting the moment. So now I just keep it real simple and say, “Man, it was an incredible experience.” That dude taught me some shit accidentally — I realized that there is something to be said for people to not being able to guess where you’re going to go next.
ATMOSPHERE headlines Scribble Jam at Annie’s on Friday. Buy tickets, check out the full Scribble Jam schedule and find nearby bars and restaurants here. Read Mike Breen's Scribble Jam preview here.