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April 17, 2002
Like a number of people who developed a musical vocabulary during the 1980s and 90s when rap music swelled with its newfound legitimacy, I went through a pretty deep hip-hop phase in my formative years, delving deep into Slick Rick, Run D.M.C., Doug E. Fresh and the like with an insatiable appetite. Eventually, like most people I know, I also got out of hip-hop as a more personal connection began to develop with the independent and punk rock scenes. One of the more influential factors in the shift from hip-hop to punk rock was the accessibility of the latter and the remoteness of the former. Hip-hop was a glossy, bling-bling (even back then), urban media nugget, but rock bands were in every corner, much more a direct connection to my life. Whereas KRS-One existed only in the confines of the television and cassette tapes, bands were flesh and blood, sweating it out in bars and basements in cities and towns across the country. While traditional hip-hop and R&B continue to flourish in the market of big-city arenas, a new breed of hip-hop is emerging in the underground, learning to use the tools that made punk rock accessible for decades before. One of the artists spearheading that movement in the Midwest is Slug, of the hip-hop collective Atmosphere, a breakout collaboration for the independent Rhymesayers Entertainment group based from the unlikely home of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

"I think that now things are headed in the same direction as the punk scene," says a reserved but well-spoken Slug of the underground hip-hop movement. "Everyone seems to be getting influences from everywhere, which essentially evens things out. Before you had people like Guru who only knew what was going on in the R&B and rap world, whereas now you have groups like Cannibal Ox who listen to the bands and read the articles in SPIN and all that stuff. Punk and indie rock is influencing things as much now as rap and hip-hop is."

The result is a more accessible, more grass-roots breed of artists that is taking control of their own affairs. "I could only do 5 shows per year when someone agrees to fly me out and set me, or I could go out for two months in a van and sleep wherever I can find a place. It's what makes more sense to do if you want to get your music out there. I think a lot of rappers saw that doing a lot more [of the work] themselves, and putting themselves on the line was a lot more productive. Before, there was no room for rap to do shit like that." The result is that Atmosphere, along with the likes of Cannibal Ox, Prefuse 73 and Aesop Rock, are making inroads to towns in Iowa and Illinois as well as the usual targets of New York and Los Angeles, cleaning up in a market traditionally left alone by mainstream hip-hop.

A target audience isn't the key to success, however, because if the skills aren't at hand, as Slug can attest, the road doesn't lead far. Atmosphere began with Slug behind the turntables but, as he puts it, "after about 5 years I realized that I sucked. It just took me a while to find my place." His place is undeniably behind the microphone, where his laid back rhymes relay a keen eye for social observations in contemporary America, specifically the Midwest. Skilled wordplay on the topics of everything from cattle mutilation to Santa Clause, coupled with a scrappy production and an overt nod to the ghosts of rock and roll (the track "Aspiring Socialpath" checks lyrics from Nirvana, Def Leppard and Don McClean) give Atmosphere a cryptic, smart sound that comes across like a strange rural/urban half-breed.

While Atmosphere's tour schedule may bypass places like the L.A. Forum for venues in Oklahoma City, Fayetteville and Champaign, their enigmatic compositions have slowly filtered out from the Midwest and garnered the group a burgeoning national following. Atmosphere is blazing a new trail, and people are noticing; from Artist of the Year nominations at the Minnesota Music Awards to articles in the Village Voice, Elixir and Billboard Magazine. The group's newest offering, the Lucy Ford EP, was also named as an Editor's Pick of the Year in Spin magazine. The lights may be getting brighter, but Atmosphere isn't phased. "I don't give it any thought though," says Slug matter-of-factly. "I probably should, but it's weird because I just take it how it comes."
---

Q and A with Slug:

LAS: How is everything going with Atmosphere?

Slug: Great. Better than last year.

What happened last year?

Nothing that wasn't great, but it's just picked up a little more this year, as far as strippers and cocaine.

Right on.

No, really though, things are just busier this year and everything is better in terms of motivation.

Which is a good thing, I'm assuming. How long will you be out on tour?

A month. It's mostly the midwest, some west coast and then down south and southeast. And then Japan.

Wow. That's cool. Are you jazzed about that?

To be honest, I'm kind of nervous about it.

Have you been overseas before?

I've been to Europe a few times, but even that was kind of weird for me. I'm not what you would call a good traveler.

You're doing Japan at the end of this tour?

Yeah, and then we fly back and do a couple of more west coast dates at the very end.

Is the Japan tour set up through Rhyme Sayers, or are you on a label overseas?

It was basically booked through Rhyme Sayers. I've done some things in Japan through labels there, just some guest spots and stuff like that.

Do you have an idea of what will be happening, of what to expect from the fans, or are you just going in blind?

I have some friends who have gone over there and played, and they've basically said that the shows will be fun. Kids over there don't even have to know who you are, but they'll just come out and see you because it's American hip-hop. It's cool because they don't really draw a line between someone like me and a bigger artist, at least one considered so in our market. They just know it's an American rapper so they go out and have fun no matter what.

Are you going over as Atmosphere to headline, or are you working with other people over there.

I'm not really sure. I think we are the headliners, but I'm not sure yet if they have anyone else on the bills. It's been hard to communicate with the promoters because of obvious time and schedule differences.

I wanted to get into the backround info a little bit, and specifically if there was a certain thing that got you into hip hop. You're not really coming from one of the more traditional sources of rap and hip-hop, but that can, in a way, give you an edge.

It hit a pocket of us here really hard. I mean, a lot of kids were getting into it, but there was a pocket of us that got really into it and took a lot of it on. Once I realized that I was spending most of my day either rapping or listening to records or going out at night and writing, I pretty much planned on playing a role in hip-hop somehow. I don't know that it was this particular roll, on the mic. This is sort of the last chance for me, in a way. I had originally wanted to be an artist, but I didn't have what it took. I got into DJing pretty heavy but after about 5 years I realized that I sucked at that too. Eventually it led to this.

So is it something that you stumbled into as a last resort? I mean, is that the way you feel about it, or is it just something that took you a while to find?

Yeah. I mean, even as a kid I was into music, and this particular role just took me a long time to find. I guess I was in a good neighborhood because all of the kids were into hip-hop and all the kids were playing some part in it. It just took me a while to find my place. I thought for sure I was going to be, like a breakdancer.

Awesome- I think everyone thought they were going to be a breakdancer at some point in the 80s. Did you have a mat or anything?

Oh, man, we had cardboard on the front lawn.

I remember as a kid I used to see commercials on TV for these "custom breakdance mats" and I used to try and get my parents to buy one for me. They said No Way.

You couldn't get into the Olympics without the mat.

Have you ever been to Champaign before?

Yeah, I came through there with a band called Rubber Room, we played at a place called the High Dive, which is where we're playing again. That was about three or four years ago. It was a good turnout and the kids had a lot of fun I think.

In terms of live hip-hop, things are just starting to catch on here. I think a lot of people, outside of the coasts and maybe Chicago, don't necissarily equate hip-hop with a live performance. It's a huge musical force, but for many of the fans it's something that existst on CD and on the television, but not live on stage. Do find that you run into a lot of people who consider hip-hop more as a studio art than as a performance art?

I used to feel that way, honestly. Then, about four or five years ago, I started to get out on the road and that changed things. I took it way differently after that. I mean, even with the groups that would come here I realized that I had been kind of sleeping on how much energy could go into a live show, as opposed to just grabbing the mic and rapping. When I saw that years ago, it totally changed how I looked at it and how I approached it. I think the kids are seeing it the way I saw it, and that it just depends on what experiences they have with it in a live setting.

Do you consider your live performance to be something that is still evolving and not as solid as your recorded work?

Not at all. Live is better than on record. For me, personally, by far.

Do you usually find a connection with the crowd, or is it hit and miss. When you're working the mic, do people sometimes just not pick up on it?

I don't really ever expect anything from the crowd, really. I'm more concerned with connecting to the other people on stage. If anyone else, in the crowd, picks up on that and can go with that, it's cool. But I feel that if I *try* and connect with the crowd, I'm not really doing what I need to do. I don't know if that makes any sense or not. It's not something that I can force or target. It's not rare to see me close my eyes for 15 minutes when I'm on stage, when I get it going. That's my goal.

With hip-hop, there's always been the east coast and west coast styles, the eternal battle. But of course there's never been any sort of cohesiveness from the midwest, where you're from.

There isn't really a style developing yet here. I think everything in the midwest is still kind of Frankenstien, with parts of the coasts and the south squished together. I know that I don't really fit into any one of those styles, but if I identified with anything it would probably be an east coast thing, but that's just because as a kid I primarily grew up on the east coast rap. But there's no distinct style here now. Hopefully in 10 years everyone will sound, you know, like me. (laughs). Right now the groups from Minneapolis and Chicago don't really sound like anyone else, but they musically are influenced by everything, and you can tell that.

In the long run not having a discernable sound is probably going to help, because people will develop their own style, but in the short run do you feel that it makes it harder for the performers from the Midwest to break out into the other scenes?

For a while I did, when I first started touring. It felt like you were somewhere else and you were there playing for their crowd. But in the last couple of years I've been blessed to be playing as one of the headliners at the shows that we do, so I'm sort of developing something where the kids know me and know what they're getting. I've been given the luxury to develop in a situation where I didn't have to worry about who was there to see who. I learned early on that you can't please everybody, so it isn't just something that I spend a lot of time thinking about.


How much of a hands-on approach do you have to the business end of everything?

I used to do about 90% of everything, but lately I've been devoting more of my time to the music. With Rhyme Sayers I'm surrounded by people that I grew up with and they have picked up a lot of the stuff. I'm still pretty hands-on in the direction that I want to go with touring and stuff like that, but to have someone to help is good. It's like I have a moat around me, and I end up not even dealing with a lot of the stuff because it has to go through other people before I even hear about it. So I don't deal with a lot of that stuff now, not so much because I don't want to do it, but more because we got to a level where I didn't know what the fuck I was doing any more. It was so much easier before, when people could just call me and book me and that was it. But now there is so much more business, you know with contracts and crap like that where I just get stuck. I'm kind of a retard when it comes to that stuff. So, as far as hands on, I went from doing about 90% of everything down to about 33%. It frees up more time for the creative aspect of it, and more time to, you know, smoke weed and clean my living room and to focus on the other things I want to get done. Instead of spending my whole day sitting here thinking about being a rapper, I can do other things. Live a life.

It seems like hip-hop is taking on a whole new aspect, where a lot of underground artists are developing a network of labels and touring artists that equate more to punk and indie rock than to the hip-hop machine that spawns the stuff on the radio.

I think that things are headed in the same direction as the punk scene. What happened is that everyone seems to be getting influences from everywhere, which essentially evens things out. Before you had people like Guru who only knew what was going on in the R&B and rap world, whereas now you have groups like Cannibal Ox who listen to the bands and read the articles in SPIN and all that stuff. Punk and indie rock is influencing things as much now as rap and hip-hop is. I mean, I'm sitting here at the house and yeah, I could only do 5 shows per year when someone agrees to fly me out and set me up and whatever, or I could go out for two months in a van and sleep wherever I can find a place. It's what makes more sense to do if you want to get your music out there. I think a lot of rappers saw that doing a lot more themselves, and putting themselves on the line was a lot more productive for them. And not only that, but I think that all the movements are kind of on the same path, whereas before where there was no room for rap to do shit like that.

As your sound develops and you get more established, is there anything in the creative process that changes for you?

I still pretty much do things the same way as I always have. The only thing that has changed over the years has been where I get my inspiration from, which develops. But the song writing has stayed pretty much the same.

How did Atmosphere get put together?

It started in 1993, and I was actually DJing at that point. We'd book ourselves maybe three times a year at first, and then we started going in to record and that's when I started rapping. After that I realized that I shouldn't be a DJ, beause I sucked. And then after a few years of doing it as pretty much a duo, we hooked up with some old friends who had gotten back into it and we started up Rhyme Sayers. That's been a really good thing for us in Minneapolis and St. Paul because it gave us a pool to use to get things done more efficiently. And then after that it just kind of turned into a VH1 Behind the Music story.

Where do you see yourself headed, as an individual and with Atmosphere?

I don't know. The governor of Minnesota. That's a good question but I don't have a good answer. No plans other than to keep doing Atmosphere, which is basically just me and the guy who does my beats. I'm pretty much a control freak anyway, over how I put myself out there. I don't give my direction any thought though. I probably should, but it's weird because I just take it how it comes.

SEE ALSO: www.rhymesayers.com
SEE ALSO: myspace.com/atmosphere

--
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.

See other articles by Eric J Herboth.

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