Slug and Ant, Sean Daley and Anthony Davis, rapper and DJ/producer, however you prefer to think of these underground hip-hop kings is just fine as long as you know that together they make up Atmosphere, one of the most well-known acts in the underground scene.
Atmosphere's debut album entitled Overcast! was released in 1997 and is the only album to feature MC Spawn who left the group right after it dropped. The album was released through Rhymesayers Entertainment, the Minneapolis-based independent hip-hop label started by Slug and Ant, as well as Brent Sayers and Musab Saad. Other artists currently signed to Rhymesayers include Blueprint, Brother Ali, Grieves, and MF Doom among others.
Since the release of Overcast! the duo has completed six additional studio albums, sixteen EPs (eleven of which were released under the Sad Clown/Bad Dub series), two compilation albums, and two DVDs. In their vast body of work Atmosphere has continuously improved their production style as well as retained sincerity in their lyrics, keeping them at the head of the underground scene and opening up the Midwest as a new point of origin for hip-hop mastery.
So the real question is, how does extensive popularity affect the underground-ness of underground music?
What I've noticed with underground hip-hop is that most of the fans don't just listen to these artists occasionally, but are the type who anxiously await tours to land in their city and fiend for new albums and videos even though they'll tell you that the "old stuff" is always better. Atmosphere is no exception, as these guys have an almost cult-like following because of the hype they've generated not only for twin-cities hip-hop, but just independent hip-hop in general. The relationship that underground artists have with their fans is probably the main reason why I have such an inclination toward this sub-genre of hip-hop.
Just watch how Slug interacts with his fans in the video below, a live performance of "Always Coming Back Home To You," and tell me you can't sense a difference in the way he relates with fans compared to many mainstream artists. I really appreciate the way underground acts like Atmosphere can recognize that they wouldn't be where they are or on the same journey without their fans. A good friend of mine who's seen the duo multiple times said to me of Atmosphere, "Ya know what's cool about them is everybody knows somebody that knows somebody that knows Slug."
All that being said, if you're the Don of underground hip-hop are you still really underground? At the end of the day, all of my musings are pointing to yes. The facts are these: Ant has produced every single Atmosphere album except one, these dudes created Rhymesayers Entertainment with some help so that they could be in charge of the direction their music took, every track feels authentic whether it's about recovering from last night or relationships and reflection, but most importantly, they acknowledge that the fans are their lifeblood. Whether it's putting out endless EPs to tide people over until a studio album's release or playing sixty shows in seventy-one days while on tour, Atmosphere remains underground to me because they seem to understand that nothing can come to fruition in this game without the people who listen to you.
If you want to check out what really sold me, please continue reading for a list of five critical songs that have helped me understand the perspective of Atmosphere and contributed to my love for underground hip-hop in general. These are not necessarily my all-time favorites, nor are they in any specific order, however they are just five songs that both demonstrate the talent of Atmosphere and also, at one point or another, have spoken to me through lyrics and sound.
One of the songs that really resonates with me is "Travel," which appears on Ford Two (2000) from Lucy Ford: The Atmosphere EPs (released in 2001), a collection that also includes Lucy and Ford One. This song is great because, inspired by their touring of the country, Slug chronicles their journeys by giving credit to all the various stops they've made along the way. They constantly rep Minnesota in their music, yet this song let's their fans across the country know that their cities have influenced the duo's perspective and matter to them too. Knowing that Slug and Ant have such strong ties to where they're from is really powerful and has played a major part in the way the cultivation of Atmosphere's identity as a hip-hop act. While the original is great, lately I've been partial to the remix, which shows up on the bonus disc of the compilation entitled Headshots: Se7en. It samples the funk/R&B track "Our Love Has Died" by the Ohio Players from their 1972 album Pleasure and the combination is genius. Check out "Travel RMX" for yourself below!
Another track that gets to me is "God's Bathroom Floor" from the 2003 release Sad Clown Bad Dub VII. In the first line of the chorus you hear Slug say, "From a head full of pressure rests the senses that I clutch" and throughout the song you get the impression that he is trying to pin down something that he can't quite describe. The song also samples the 1974 song by John Klemmer entitled "Humbling Love," serving as the beautiful, saxophone-laced platform upon which Slug lays down his rhymes. The song transports you into a kind of ethereal world in which you feel like you're dreaming and the lyrics are guiding you through a jazzy haze. The contrasting elements within it make the song very powerful, bringing about a heightened awareness in the listener and maybe even a little bit of an existential crisis.
When Life Gives You Lemons, Paint That Shit Gold (2008) introduced me to another instant Atmosphere favorite in the track "Guarantees,"during which Slug professes, "The only guarantee in life is a life worth dying for." This song reveals his introspective side, and its anecdotal delivery also serves as a commentary on how many people struggle and consistently feel inadequate in our society. On the darker side of things, it puts you into a mindset that stews over one's ineffectiveness and inability to break through the institutions that keep us in our respective places on the social ladder. In the first verse Slug laments, "So break my body/Break break my soul down/Just another zombie walking blindly through your ghost town," which conjures an image of a man who has been broken by life's constant pressures, yet doesn't see a way out for himself. While my description makes the song seem kind of depressing I promise that Slug's rapping is on point in this song, particularly paired with the electric guitar that's happening in the background, and it makes for a very 'real' listening experience.
In keeping with the theme of revealing lyrics, "Little Man" off of their 2005 album You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having shows a very personal side of Slug. The song consists of three verses that are delivered like letters, the first to his son, the second to his father, and the third to himself. This song really delves into the effects of father-son relationships and how Slug is trying to break the cycle of bad role models so that he can have a strong relationship with his son and set a good example. In the first verse, Slug comes off as apologetic toward his son, spewing justifications for his lifestyle but at the same time revealing how important he is to him and how much he loves him. In the second verse he gets even more emotional as he reflects on his childhood, specifically his relationship with his own father. Here he lays his own issues on the line and voices the very real fear that he will turn out like his dad and be unable to break the cycle. By the time the song ends Slug is wishing himself "Good luck" in repairing old relationships and cultivating the ones in progress.
My list wouldn't be complete without "Sunshine" off of Sad Clown Bad Summer IX (2007). Accompanied at first by simple piano, "Sunshine" takes off as Slug describes getting through his hangover as the beat starts to drop. The production gives the song a nostalgic vibe that makes you want to hit your old block on a sunny afternoon and enjoy the little things in life. It's nice to have a feel-good Atmosphere track in your repertoire, especially if you've spent a lot of your time listening to the darker, more introspective albums. So whether you're biking to the beach to bask in the sun or simply have a killer hangover and can't deal with heavier shit, pop on "Sunshine" and your mood will be instantly elevated!
By limiting myself to five songs I'm only presenting a snapshot of all that Atmosphere encompasses, however a few of my other favorites include "Sound is Vibration," "You," "Fuck Heroes," "Trying to Find a Balance," and "The Woman With the Tattooed Hands." So if you've been living under a rock and haven't listened to Atmosphere before I hope I've done a decent job of getting you started, something that won't be easy to stop once you do.
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