It would be easy to look upon Atmosphere’s work in simple terms: an MC and a producer, seven albums, and an intimidating tour schedule. But this is a narrative that runs much deeper than essential statistics. There’s struggle and triumph; unrelenting hard work and artistic reinvention. Perhaps most of all, though, the Atmosphere story is about the creation of a record label and the fostering of a hip hop movement that would grow into one of the most artistically vibrant in the United States.
In the early ‘90s, hip hop had hardly shifted beyond the east and the west coasts; if you didn’t fit into one of those two scenes, you didn’t exist. Which made it hard for a bunch of budding Minneapolis MCs and producers to find their place in rap culture. Slap bang in the middle between the two coasts but shoved right up against the Canadian border, Minneapolis, the capital of Minnesota — or Minnesnowta, as it’s often known colloquially – was a long way from the Bronx’s block parties or the sunny turf wars of California.
“In the early to mid-’90s, I like to say that we were all crabs in a barrel,” explains Sean Daley, who in the guise of Slug provides Atmosphere’s biting lyrical content. “There were so many of us who were trying to get our voices heard. But we didn’t know how to, so we were just mimicking what we saw coming from the coasts. It was kinda like, ‘Okay! Okay! Record labels are evil!’ We learned that from listening to New York rap. And, ‘Okay! You gotta be a little bit hardcore!’ We knew that from listening to LA rap.”
But the amount of talent floating about the city meant it was only a matter of time before Minneapolis found a distinctive voice. A major part of the solution was for Slug and a bunch of collaborators – including Ant, Atmosphere’s producer – to start a record label. The result was Rhymesayers. You’d think kicking off a rap label in the snowy Midwest would have attracted cries of derision from family and friends, but Slug insists that the worst it got was a simple lack of understanding.
“Either that, or they thought it was a great idea,” he says. “By no means did we reinvent the wheel. There had been indie labels in rap since Sugar Hill. Not only that, but we were actually at the tail end of when independent labels could make vinyl and 12”s and that could be your main force of promotion.
“It was a different era; the DJs that spun on mixtapes and radio were kinda the internet, if you know what I mean. They were where people heard about music, so as long as you gave somebody a song that they’d be interested in playing, word of mouth would take care of a lot of the rest. It’s interesting, because it’s still all about word of mouth; it’s just that now that word of mouth is 100 billion times faster. It’s on wi-fi, on the satellite. But it’s the same concept.”
What Slug finds interesting to consider is the idea that had Rhymesayers kicked off today, one of the most well-regarded indie labels in the United States might not have made the cut.
“Because there was a timing involved,” Slug says. “I got to watch tonnes and tonnes of talented artists come after us and never quite make it, because everything started to move faster and develop quicker. Let’s take Atmosphere, for example: we might not be the most cutting edge when it comes to utilising the internet. If you look at a group like Odd Future, and you see how they’ve managed to utilise the internet in a way that’s not only intelligent but also breaking down barriers; we don’t really break down any internet barriers, but we’re lucky we got in before you had to learn how to do that. We built an audience before that level came into it. It’s just really interesting to think about that.”
You suspect Slug is being a little unforgiving on his own operation. Because where every artist to ever appear on the Rhymesayers roster is indeed very similar to Odd Future is in his or her work ethic. It’s become something of a calling card for the label, along with conscious lyrics mixed with the often grimy reality of (sub)urban life. In this respect, Atmosphere paved the way for their labelmates, developing what became known as the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and Saint Paul) sound and backing it up with a phenomenal release schedule, which has seen Slug and Ant barely take more than an 18 month break over the last decade and a half.
“From my angle, I just think that if I don’t stay busy, then I’m exploiting my position,” Slug says. “That’s the quickest way to get fired – if you start taking it for granted. And I don’t want to get fired. I love this job, man – it’s the best job I’ve ever had. So when you look at it like that you’re going to put eight hours a day into it … regardless of whether or not I have a very productive, amazing day, I still put in the work, and it just continues that cycle of energy, you know.”
Slug may reference the fact that he wrote two songs the morning before our interview as evidence of that work ethic – “which probably suck,” he adds with a laugh – but where Atmosphere were true pioneers was a willingness to take their sound on the road. Whether Slug and Ant love to tour, they do it regardless.
“It’s funny, because when I started touring, rappers didn’t tour,” Slug says. “Maybe if you were Jay-Z, you did a big tour with other big name acts, or if you were a Run-DMC, you did a big tour with other old school acts. But on the independent side of rap, we were the guys who wrote the book on how to tour independently without label help. I think we stole most of that shit from the punk rock groups: the whole idea of getting in the van and sleeping on people’s floors – punk rockers had been doing that for 25 years already.”
Australia remains one of Atmosphere’s major destinations. When asked, Slug reckons their upcoming tour will be the duo’s sixth visit to these shores, although this time they’ll be bringing along both a keyboardist and a drummer in the form of regular collaborators Erick Anderson and Nate Collis, respectively. And while Slug hasn’t noticed a change in Australian attitudes towards rap music per se, he has noticed a difference in the crowds that come to Atmosphere shows.
“When we first started playing in Australia it was for a Big Day Out, and I met a lot of kids who were only there to see us. But as time went on, we didn’t have so many people who were like, ‘Underground or death!’ We started getting more people who just love music and all types of music. That’s where we’re at now.”
Atmosphere, supported by Evidence, play the HI-FI Saturday May 5.