Underground hip-hop has its fair share of success stories, but Atmosphere’s unlikely rise is among the most noteworthy. The Minneapolis duo, comprised of producer Ant and rapper Slug, personifies what might be called the microphone and turntable subsection of the American dream. From meager beginnings in the early ’90s rapping over homespun beats in a bedroom studio, the duo has gone on to release multiple best-selling albums and turn their label, Rhymesayers, into an international hip-hop force.
Slug, looking back on Atmosphere’s explosion into the popular sphere, sees their success not only as the result of relentless touring and promoting, but as being indicative of a development within hip-hop itself.
“I just think that there’s a whole movement going on,” he says in a recent phone interview. “For so many years rappers were these untouchable people on TV or on the radio. Whereas now you see a cat like me or Murs or Sage Francis or somebody come through, and it’s like, well, if we can do it you can do it, you know what I’m saying? In a big way, especially with this quote-unquote ‘independent movement,’ people see us doing it ourselves on our own terms, and they like us, or respect us, solely for that before they even hear the record. It’s the human factor. When they see you doing it for nothing, it teaches them that they can do the same.”
Like many rappers, Slug likes to wax philosophical about the notion of a communal “movement” in rap music. To him the actual performance is only a small fragment of the full hip-hop gestalt.
“I learned a while ago that Slug, or Atmosphere, isn’t the important part of the equation,” he says. “The important part is the people who are listening. I come to your city and rap, right, and all these kids think they came to the show to see me, but it’s really about them; it’s the community that’s created at that moment.”
Atmosphere is atypical, though, in that their music isn’t confined to the hip-hop community. One aspect of their success as a group is their cross-genre appeal. With an emphasis on personal issues rather than battle raps or gangsta fairy tales, Slug’s lyrics have garnered a broad fan base, and demographically speaking, a retailer is just as likely to sell an Atmosphere album to a punk or indie-rock fan as to a hip-hop head. The result is that Atmosphere’s particular brand of music is labeled “emo-rap” or “indie-hop.” The classification puts Slug under fire from more traditional hip-hop fans.
“[People say] ‘Oh, he’s too emotional’ or ‘Oh, I’m not really into his songs because they’re all about girls,’ or whatever, and I accept all of those criticisms, because they’re right,” Slug confesses. “It’s that old cliché of keeping it real. I rap about the shit that I know about. I don’t really know about cooking crack, because I’ve never cooked crack. I don’t rap about cleaning a gun, because I’ve never had to clean a handgun. But I do know about dysfunctional fuckin’ relationships, I do know about having people I care about on antidepressants, so that’s the shit I’m gonna rap about. You get a lot of kids relating to it because they are dealing with some of that shit themselves.”
Atmosphere’s current tour promotes a new album, You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having, that’s slated for an Oct. 4 release. A current-tour bonus is that Ant, the mastermind behind Atmosphere’s beats, has emerged from the studio to perform alongside Slug for the first time.
“Oh, he’s very reclusive,” Slug laughs, “but I was like, look dude, I don’t know how much longer these kids are gonna let me rap, and if you’re gonna do a tour with me you better do it now in case it all comes tumbling down next week.”
Slug’s humility comes from a pragmatic realism concerning his own fame, but when he does bow out he plans to remain a force behind the scenes, running Rhymesayers and promoting up-and-coming hip-hop acts.
“Everybody only gets so long to stand on top of their little soap box,” he says. “To me it’s a matter of putting pieces in order so even if I’m not on the soap box anymore I’m still part of the machine that helps somebody else get up there.”
For now, though, Atmosphere is one of the hottest acts in hip-hop, and it’s unlikely the spotlight will dim anytime soon. And Slug, perhaps more than anyone else, remains astonished at his fame.
“It blows my mind. Once in a while I take a step back and remember who I am, and go ‘Holy shit! How did that happen?’ It still amazes me when we show up in a city and there are 500 kids there to see the show. It’s like, ‘Wow man, I used to be a courier.’”
Atmosphere plays the University Center Ballroom Tuesday, Sept. 27, at 8 PM. This show has sold out.