Atmosphere—Protect the Real

Very few acts have made as much of an impact on independent music over the past 30 years like the Minneapolis hip-hop duo Atmosphere. They have one of the most dedicated fan bases on Earth, with the group always performing to energetic audiences while embarking on a heavy amount of touring. The group’s MC, Slug, isn’t afraid to get personal with his lyrics, while producer/DJ Ant creates inventive beats, together combining their talents to create poignant music that leaves a lasting impression on the listener. They’re also involved in one of the biggest independent labels in the industry, due to them being co-founders of Rhymesayers Entertainment. Take a look at their roster and it’s a Who’s-Who of underground legends such as Aesop Rock, Brother Ali, MF Doom, Dilated Peoples, and Blueprint.

Atmosphere released their 10th studio album, Whenever, in December of 2019, and they’ll be performing at Webster Hall in NYC on January 23. The record actually started out as a completely different project, though it ended up being the end result, due to a few things falling through.

“When we make music, often times the goal is to just do it,” Slug says on the new album. “It’s not until later when we examine it that we add samples or what have you, we also compiled a vision after the music started to take shape. We were commissioned to make a lot of the music on this album and we were in the process of that, but we ended up cancelling the deal and kept the music ourselves. Then we decided to put the record out as is for the most part—a few things were touched up just to kind of help give it a frame. We wanted to make sure the album had the proper framing, [and] to me the album is a project.

“You should want to give it a listen while you’re drinking coffee and smoking a joint,” he mentions. “We wanted to frame it correctly because when we first created this material, a lot of it was for a television series. I walked through every exercise and every song thinking about, ‘What would I want to hear when the credits start to roll?’ A lot of the writing was free and loose compared to most Atmosphere albums because Atmosphere as a band tends to take itself a little too serious, like it’s too self-aware. This music didn’t have that, it’s a little more free, and I didn’t have to be concerned about people listening to it and hearing their reactions. It’s a little bit sillier and goofier than normal for me. It’s still corny as fuck, we’re still the idiots that we are, but I didn’t have to be serious while making this. What that means? I don’t know, because some of the songs sound pretty serious to me. But, I didn’t go into it worried about anything other than what I’m supposed to hear when the credits start to roll.”

With the internet playing a big part in artists promoting their music, a lot has changed when it comes to the marketing aspect of things. Slug misses the time when things were more organic and physical rather than dragging and clicking to get the word out.

“Nobody hands out fuckin’ flyers anymore, which I find to be unfortunate,” he says about what’s changed with how music is being publicized. “I used to collect them, these physical handbills sometimes on colored paper from Kinko’s, but people put thought into the design and what they put on those flyers. There was a culture of design going on in the late seventies that lasted until the early 2000s where you could see the flyer change. I bet there’s a coffee table book about this somewhere, but when I came into this in the nineties, we were slinging flyers. The effort we would put into creating ones that somebody would look at twice or that somebody would save and collect, we don’t do those anymore.”

Since 2008, Rhymesayers has been involved in the foundation and curation of the Soundset Music Festival that has taken place in the Twin Cities area over Memorial Day weekend. The past few years have seen numerous festivals struggling to maintain lineups due to acts dropping off, or they become complete disasters, such as Fyre Fest. Slug’s opinion on all of this is to know what you’re risking and where your mindset is before undertaking the endeavor.

“The best way to learn how to put on a successful festival is to put something at risk,” he mentions. “When you do that, it’ll teach you a lot about yourself and about what you’re actually trying to do. It’ll teach you about whether you love it or you’re just doing it to make a quick buck, whatever it is goes with the risk you put into it and that defines what comes from it. That to me is the main takeaway from some of the things I’ve been involved with, and Soundset is one of them. We’ve never seen it as a music festival, it’s more of a cultural celebration of things people nowadays will make fun of us for celebrating.”

“We’re celebrating the Twin Cities, we’re celebrating breakdancing and we’re celebrating a culture.” He adds, “Yes, we want to put Outkast on the main stage to bring in a bunch of people to help pay for this whole thing, but at the end of the day we have to make sure that we are representing the culture that I fell in love with when I was 17, but also the culture that the 17-year-old is falling in love with today. We have to learn a lot about how to be in touch with the latter because as fans we’re going to relate to it in a way that now as a 47-year-old, I’m a super old man in this culture. I can’t just look at how I celebrate it and how I appreciate it and suggest that it’s the ultimate thing, but that’s part of the risk. It’s the letting go of the control and learning how to collaborate with culture in real time.”

With 2020 underway, the decade is young with infinite possibilities in play. This can be said for hip-hop, as the style has been in crisis due to purists rejecting newer artists and the newer artists being ignoring much of what has come before them. Slug believes that one element needs to be maintained in order for the music to succeed in the new decade.

“The one thing that must be protected about this art form, and so far so good, is that it gives a voice to the voiceless. That’s necessary more now than probably ever…. The one art form that can actually successfully do that is hip-hop. It doesn’t matter where it comes from, but the voiceless in this country is predominantly young black people and this music gives a voice to them. You can go to Macedonia and find somebody who is in love with this music and they’re trying to make sure their voice is heard by whoever it is that’s stepping on their neck.

“It doesn’t matter where you go on this planet. It was born here from people of color making something out of nothing, but it took over the world. You can fill in the blanks and protect it at all costs because there’s nothing else like it.”