Back in the 2000s, during the reign of club-friendly gangster-rap, you spent a lot of time defending hip-hop as more than a music genre about bitches, guns and drugs – the go-to source of “real hip-hop” would be the burgeoning independent underground scene in the States.
One of the first artists you would bring up in that discussion was the Minnesota duo of rapper Slug and DJ/Producer Ant aka Atmosphere. The born and raised Midwesterners were decently removed from the East vs West politics of the time, showcasing Ant’s gift for soulful but melancholic loops and chopped samples which provided the perfect angst-laden canvass for Slug’s vulnerable but fierce poetry.
Eight albums, ten extend plays deep and Atmosphere are still the champion of underground independence since co-founding indie hip-hop label Rhymesayers Entertainment in 1995. The label’s current roster boasts a myriad of underground talent from conscious to experimental to boom-bap including Aesop Rock, Dilated Peoples, Freeway, MF Doom, and Brother Ali.
With a joint Australian tour with Brother Ali kicking off this weekend, we caught up with Atmosphere’s vocalist Slug who, through conversations on hip hop, comic books and fatherhood, let us in on some very sage advice.
I swear to God hip-hop and comic books were my genesis…
For a teenager walking to school with his Discman in one hand (yeah, I’m old folks) and a rolled-up comic book in the other, Atmosphere were one of the first non-mainstream hip-hop groups I discovered. Flicking through TV one early Saturday morning, I stumbled across the film-clip for ‘Trying to Find a Balance’ and I had the album Seven’s Travels on the Sunday.
Next morning while on the school bus, tunes blaring and eyes lost in a copy of Spawn, I heard the line, “I swear to God hip-hop and comic books were my genesis.” This was back before our current box-office onslaught of superheroes when it wasn’t that cool to be a comic book geek. So when I caught up with Slug, ahead of their upcoming visit to our shores, I had to ask the big question…
“When I was a kid I was Marvel. I was anti DC. I was all Marvel.” Aren’t we all? “And truthfully I read anything and everything I could get my hands on because I really didn’t come from the type of family where I got to buy a lot of comic books. It was kind of like I had cousins who would give me theirs or I would come up on them through trading or who knows what but I was all about Avengers, X-Men, Antman, Hulk…” But as many of us now, as we grow older it gets harder to maintain those links with our childhood.
“I stopped fucking with comics for a good part of time cause in my early twenties and shit nobody around me was fucking with them, it was all music. And I went ahead and had a kid when I was 22 so it was just like, ‘You know what, I just don’t have enough room in my life for comics and graffiti magazines. I have to focus on paying bills and shit.’”
For Atmosphere that road to pay their dues was paved with an early catalogue of independently released records with Overcast in 1997 and Headshots Se7en two years later. It wasn’t until 2000-2001 with the release of Lucy Ford, two EPs combined into one album, that Slug and Ant started touring nationally and with the release of God Loves Ugly (2002) and Seven’s Travels (2003) their reach started spanning across the oceans.
Comics tend to have a moral to the story, and I just can’t fucking seem to tell a story without a moral ’cause I’m an idiot.
In their early records Slug set himself apart from the other hip-hop on MTV by being self-effacing and unapologetically proud of it. Presenting a heightened persona who could spit bravado laced battle-rhymes and heart-wrenching stories in verse form. So in a way, is his moniker his version of a superhero? How were comic-books and hip-hop linked to creating Slug?
“Comics tend to have a moral to the story, and I just can’t fucking seem to tell a story without a moral ’cause I’m an idiot. It’s like I’m in 8th grade writing class and it’s a simple conflict kind of story.”
As Atmosphere’s career progressed and they released the conceptual EP series Sad Clown Bad Dub, Slug’s lyrics still contained the tenacity of his earlier work but with third-person narratives and first-person soliloquies in character his persona became more than his alter ego. Despite his creative evolution, Slug still wrestled with the barbs of an artist’s conscience. “There was a point where I realised I’d written couple of verses and a couple of songs that were supposedly from the perspective of a female character. Then naturally after those songs get released to the public you start to question like, who the fuck do I think I am to ever try and write something from the perspective of a woman. I’m not a woman and I shouldn’t be overstepping my dotted lines to pretend like I’m allowed to write that way.”
“Now let’s be fair, as a writer you would never wanna say that to another writer. I would never say that to a friend but as my own worst critic of course I’m looking in the mirror pointing at myself drunk at 3am in the morning going, ‘Who the fuck do you think you are?’ So it’s like in that kind of filter built into who you are, on one hand you could argue it’s a hindrance, that it holds you back. On the other hand you could argue, ‘No, that’s what helps you define yourself’.
Maybe that’s why a young Slug was drawn to adventures of spandex-clad superheroes rescuing the world for the hundredth time in a month, vigilantes who turn their weakness into strength. Yet as an artist, unlike *insert superhero* you need to build that strength and develop your abilities. Kick-start rappers will often begin writing braggadocio monologues, focusing on craft and sacrificing song writing for rhyme schemes and punch lines, but as you evolve so does your artistry.
“You point at yourself. I think really what it stems from is it’s not just insecurity. There is a need to be better, you want to better yourself. You should be bold, your art, your music whatever the fuck you’re doing should have an evolution to it. You should never be content as a guy that for 20 years you wanna do the same fucking thing.
“But at the end of the day you’ve got the guys who make those songs and they’re great. They make songs that are straightforward and easy to understand and relate to that do have an effect on people. But those guys are the ones that are standing at the mirror 3am in the morning drunk pointing at themselves going, ‘You need to flip better multis and better rhyme schemes.’
“So the grass is greener no matter where you are. And if the grass ain’t greener then you’re probably fucking up. If you’re content with what you’re doing, you’re probably fucking up. You’re probably not giving it your all. You’re probably not living up to your fullest potential and you’re just drinking the Kool Aid.”
One way Slug found for him to put down the Kool Aid was to focus not on the craft but on the delivery. The end product should satisfy without seeking validation.
“That’s the best part about writing; if you can do some shit without making em point it out… Just get em to eat it. Swallow it. Without ever going, ‘Hey, did you put brussell sprouts in these cookies?’ That’s the real art. Cause if I have to show you I did this or if I have to validate myself by making sure you pointed it out then what are you doing? What’s the point? Are you making art for the sake of making art? If I got to tell you that I’m fucking putting vegetables in it then it’s almost like, let me raise my hand, ‘I am a conscious rapper’.
Man, I shouldn’t be saying that about myself. You should be saying that about me if you think I am. But if I got to claim that I’m a good father, chances are I’m probably pretty insecure about how good of a father I am.”
Atmosphere are about to kick off an Australia/NZ tour with fellow underground icon Brother Ali, starting up in Auckland tomorrow before hitting Oz on Monday the 27th – dates below. Their latest album Fishing Blues is out now through Rhymesayers.
Atmosphere/Brother Ali Tour
Ticket and info here
Saturday 25th February – Auckland – Powerstation
Monday 27th February – Adelaide – The Gov
Wednesday 1 March – Brisbane – The Tivoli
Thursday 2nd March – Sydney – Metro Theatre
Friday 3rd March – Melbourne – 170 Russell
Saturday 4th March – Perth – Metro City