Minneapolis hip-hop duo Atmosphere are without doubt one of the most influential hip-hop groups of the past two decades. Formed in 1989 by rapper Slug (Sean Daley) and producer Ant (Anthony Anthony Davis). Together, the pair have continued to drop wonderfully dextrous, insightful, often introspective releases, beginning with 1997’s Overcast! right through to 2016’s Fishing Blues.
Spreading their wings even further, the pair then formed hip-hop label Rhymesayers, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. Rhymesayers is going stronger than ever today, boasting a respected roster which includes MF DOOM, Aesop Rock, Dilated Peoples, P.O.S and Blueprint among many others.
With almost thirty years and eleven albums under their belt, Atmosphere have enjoyed a career that has outlasted many of their contemporaries, something they’re both aware of and grateful for.
Atmosphere are set to return to Australia this year, alongside Brother Ali, a legend in his own right. It marks the first time that Ant and Slug have visited our shores since 2012, while Ali delivered an inspiring keynote address at Bigsound in 2015. While Ali hasn’t dropped a new album in about five years, we’re hoping that the news of a tour might come with a new track or two in the coming months.
I was honoured to chat to Slug about his need to be the “class clown” and how his need for attention never wanes, although exactly who he wants attention from shifts over time. We also discussed how the album came to have so many guests artists – Aesop Rock, DOOM, Kool Keith, deM atlaS, The Grouch, I.B.E and Kim Manning – as well as Atmosphere’s lasting continuous both on hip-hop as a whole.
You said that at one point you simply wanted to be a dope rapper, but over time your focus has changed. What do you want out of your music today?
Rapping dope is dope but I want validation, and validation for just being a dope rapper wasn’t gonna be enough. At the time, I was feeling very self important. I wanted to have some sort of impact, not just on other MCs, but on my scene, the people in my city, in a way that was bigger than just being considered a dope rapper. Now I feel like maybe I wanna be a dope rapper again.
I do think I went through a phase early on where I wanted to just rappity-rap my ass off. I guess I just wanted attention from other MCs. As I grew, I wanted attention from women, or I wanted attention from grown ups, or I wanted attention from parents or I wanted attention from their kids. You continue to evolve, but at the end of the day I’m just a class clown that wants attention. I want people to look at me.
With Fishing Blues, who did you want attention from?
In a weird way this record was for Anthony. I feel like I was rapping for Ant, trying to make him laugh again. A lot of these songs were written on his couch, at his house, with college basketball on the television, no sound in front of me, the beat just playing on my laptop, and me sitting down typing out these ideas and rhymes. He’d come upstairs and check on me once in a while, ‘cause he was in the basement working with other MCs. So a lot of this record came from trying to get reactions out of him. A lot of those things stuck, because not only did he react, they grew on me as well. So you got some like Besos or Ringo that don’t take themselves too seriously. Past Atmosphere music has had that problem; it takes itself too seriously. So some of the songs on this last project are there because I was trying to make Anthony laugh.
Prior to this record, the last few records were created when he was on the west coast and I was in Minnesota. So by the time I sent him a demo, I’d already been able to sit with it for a day or two and make sure I liked it. So in a way, it was more governed by myself – my initial reaction was the only one that matters. If I like it, then I’ll let somebody else see it. If they don’t like it, it might not make it, but at least this way it went through my filter first. With this record, some of the stuff that made it might have never even made it through my filter. But because Anthony was there to see it first, his filter was at play too. And the minute he goes, ‘oh I like that,’ it’s gonna affect my filter. The last couple records didn’t have any filters other than myself, so that’s maybe why it started taking itself a little too seriously.
It wasn’t even just Ant, there were other rappers at his house working, it was like a little incubator for rap. So Brother Ali comes walking into the room and he hears something and goes, ‘oh, that’s tight!’, or ‘I don’t like that,’ it has an affect on my immediate filter. And we haven’t done that in a long time. The last time I made a record with Ant when there were other MCs around was probably You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having (2005), or even Seven’s Travels (2003). In a way, I compare this record to Seven’s Travels for that reason.
And here’s the other thing: Much like how Seven’s Travels would have a random guest doing background vocals for no reason, this record had moments like that because there were other people around. Usually we hardly ever have any guest appearances but even when we don’t, we would still put people in the background, just because, y’know that late ’80s Bombsquad sound, the Jungle Brothers, they used to do show up on each other’s shit for no reason!
The thing about this new record that I will hopefully continue to appreciate in future, the thing I will look back on this one for, will be the fact that it was allowed to have multiple personalities. In the snapshot [of Fishing Blues] there’s a few people photobombing, and that was to do with the incubator thing I was surrounded by.
It’s a matter of where you’re at. Whether it’s paintings, sculptures, your children, whatever, you create this thing from this level, this primitive part of us that makes these things. Once you get past that you can overthink it, and that’s when you start thinking about the listener. But in the guts of it, well, you’re coming from the gut.
As you mention, it’s been more than a decade since we’ve really seen guests on an Atmosphere album. Did you decide you’d do that before you began?
We didn’t really go in thinking we’d do it, but for instance, we had a song – the title song – where I had verses but I couldn’t think of anything for the chorus. One of us was like, ‘Hey, you know who’d sound good on this? The Grouch. Let’s ask him!’ And that’s how that happened. Once we got Grouch, it was like, ‘Okay, I guess we’re down to do that.’
In the past I’ve intentionally not had guests, intentionally wanted to hold the record for myself. On Lemons, I had guests, but it was intentional that they were obscure. We had Tunde [Adebimpe] from TV on the Radio. We had Tom Waits on the album. But we didn’t put that on blast. We didn’t have on the sticker, “featuring Tom Waits.” And we didn’t even have him sing a beautiful hook, we had him beatbox!
So once we opened our mind to it, it just came together naturally. It was like, ‘Oh shit, you know who would sound really interesting on this? Aesop Rock.’ ‘Well, why do you think him?’ ‘Well because the beat reminds me of late ‘90s New York hip-hop and that’s where I met Ian [Bavitz aka Aesop]. And me and Ian bonded over that shit. And the song’s called Chasing New York. where he’s from, so why not?’ If anything I think I’m guilty of not wanting to exploit my friends enough, not saying, ‘Yo, spit a fucking 24 here.’ So instead I try to mould ways of working with them that’s not what you’d expect, y’know? I don’t think anybody expected us to have Kool Keith and DOOM on a song together. If I’d just gotten DOOM on a song that’d be obvious, everybody wants a verse from DOOM. But we got Kool Keith first, and we didn’t just want Kool Keith to rap on it, because that’d be typical and I don’t wanna be typical. So what he did was amazing, he stole the fuckin’ song. I mean, you’ve got me and DOOM on a record, but Keith stole it without even having to spit a rhyme! We didn’t want DOOM because people like DOOM, it was more that we were asking how can we fuck the song up even more.
This is a weird interview, because I feel like you’ve got me in a place where I’m kinda speaking of myself in a positive way, and I’m really not the dude that big ups themselves. I’m just trying to have the time of my life. Even when I was hating life, I was still trying to have the time of my life.
Ha! I feel like that approach to life comes through in the music and is a big part of why your fanbase has stayed so loyal. Many Atmosphere fans seem to have grown up along with you and the music.
What’s interesting is that I’m probably 10-15 years older than the average Atmosphere listener. I hate saying things like average, we’ll say the standard. So, am I such a late bloomer that at 44 I’ve got the mind state of a 35 year old still, and that’s why people are still relating?
In all seriousness, many of the artists that Atmosphere came out with in our school, let’s say 1997, Overcast! dropped. So ’97 to 2002, that era, a lot of our contemporaries don’t make music anymore, or if they do, a lot of them went and changed their focus and found other things to do. There’s only a handful that are still making music. I look at that handful – so there’s El-P, he’s amazingly talented and he’s gonna continue to be an influence. And I think even when El was behind the scenes making beats [before Run The Jewels], he was still this force that was so important to it.
You’ve also got Murs who’s still doing it, and I don’t wanna say the word relevant – anyone with Soundcloud is relevant, but influential. There’s been a couple new schools too, where you’ve got people like Vince Staples. When I think about the guys I grew up on, not many of them are still a positive influence on the culture. The dudes from the school before me. And the school before them. You don’t get a long career in rap unless you’re super lucky. We don’t have an Eagles of rap yet. The closest we’ve got is probably Public Enemy. Maybe De La Soul could be the Bruce Springsteen of rap, but as far as longevity goes, we haven’t seen it. So when you’ve got people like El-P going on his 20-something year, Atmosphere, Murs, that’s incredible!
When I think about my heroes, how many of them were still putting out records 20 years later? My favourite rapper of all time is Big Daddy Kane, but he don’t put out records no more.
You’ve also got people like A Tribe Called Quest who came back with such an amazing album last year.
Yes! That is beautiful, and it’s important. For them to put out a record that is amazing and relevant, to me that’s beautiful. That record is just an extension of they are still, they didn’t have to bend to meet the culture, they are the culture.
That’s the reason I don’t want any of my friends to ever quit rapping. As long as you can just continue to be you, and make music that’s you, then you’re a part of it. And I don’t care if you get 5000 people to buy your record or 500,000, you’re still an important part of it.
Atmosphere & Brother Ali Tour Dates
Sat Feb 25: Powerstation, Auckland
Mon Feb 27: The Gov, Adelaide
Wed March 1: The Tivoli, Brisbane
Thurs March 2: Metro Theatre, Sydney
Fri March 3: 170 Russell, Melbourne
Sat March 4, Metro City, Perth