On Friday, October 8th, Atmosphere with guests Blueprint and P.O.S. performed at the Opera House in Toronto. As the audience packs together, shoulder to shoulder, collectively cramped and waiting, until 10:35 pm as Slug casually walks onto stage. He stands around with his black hooded sweatshirt draped over his recently grown back hair from the remnants of a bizarre Mohawk.
He presents himself in a proto-prominent stature, resembling a musical icon, and the crowd is forced into a frenzy of enthusiastic adoration. There is something unusual about the general sentiment of the show, a sort of je ne sais quas aura of finality that floats above the crowd. The congregation is immediately whirled into a hip hop dervish in that Sluggo becomes the deity of this unspoken trance-like state. At the conclusion of “God Loves Ugly” Slug looks at the audience, catching his breathe he says, “Do you guys have faith? I’m doing the best I can.” Although the majority of the audience responds with the same robotic assertiveness that can be found in a military line up, I feel the crowd generally misses the point, and does not see the underlying message of Slug’s statement.
There is something disenchanting about him asking whether we, the audience still have faith. There is something pathetic about it all, a puppy dog plea to not get forgotten among the litter, and yet the entire audience seems completely blind or indifferent to Slug’s appeal.
During the show, Slug plays mostly old material that although is better than playing material from his latest album, consistently reinforces the possibility in my mind that perhaps this is the last time I’ll be seeing Atmosphere. The show felt like a conclusion instead of a march to the future which was emphasized by the looming stench of an ending rather than the refreshing scent of a step forward.
I was able to get Slug on the phone the following Monday, and my questions were focused on that uncomfortable feeling that began during the show. Is this the end of Atmosphere? How long will Slug continue? “That’s a good question” Slug responds. “I’m going to go forever; I don’t know how long I’m going to be MCing, but even me, myself, I don’t listen to music for adults. And, how long is a 17 year old going to identify with what I’m saying. And I’ll probably not be jumping up on stage when I’m 40, but I’ll keep trying and make music. I’m still pretty confident that I’ll be playing a role in putting out quality music for kids.” With the kids in mind, it’s important to take a look at who these kids are that Slug is making music for.
Atmosphere seems to have a fan base that is dramatically noticeable as a house divided. On the one side you have the loyal fans who have been there or who favor his work from Overcast EP (1997) through his work on God Loves Ugly, however, they are still loyal to Slug for his integrity, yet are pretty darn skeptical of his work post God Loves Ugly. They are specifically ashamed of the mistake of an album, Seven’s Travels, specifically watching Slug bounce around in a long white tee in his “Trying to find a balance” video on MTV. As of 2005, I would say, give or take, this comprises about 35 percent of Atmosphere’s fan base.
The second half of Atmosphere’s fan base are the newbies, the pop punk kids of Warped Tour and the angsty emo kids who are glad someone else is conflicted about girls as much as they are. This group is very fond of crying and writing poetry, (hard emo-core poetry, mind you) and they get a real release out of watching Slug bounce around in the “Trying to find a balance” video.
Now, by all means, do your own research, this is strictly a guess from the gut, but it feels as though probably his fan base of ten kids from Minnesota who were there in the beginning, way back in the good ol’ days of 1997, are probably working at the local Tasty Burger in Minneapolis or are currently signed to Rhymesayers Entertainment. It is pretty hard to imagine that his original fans comprise Atmosphere’s fan base as of 2005.
Due to my inquisitive nature I ask Slug how he sees his fan base grow or mature through the years. This is a fairly difficult question, because the Master of Ceremonies, generally, is removed from his audience. While the MC is on stage being praised, the fan, like, myself for instance, is surrounded by the shirtless 14 year old drunk kid, with a fresh shaved head, who has convinced himself that this is not a hip hop show, let‘s say in 2005, but rather a Pearl Jam show circa ‘94 and decides to mosh during the show. It’s all fun and games for the MC, who is not standing front row center with this pre-pubescent hoodlum, so probably does not take notice of him, in any larger sense then that really enthusiastic 14 year old who confesses his love while getting his girlfriend’s t-shirt signed.
So, Slug, how has your fan base changed, I wonder. “It’s grown, that’s the only noticeable change, and with growth comes the politics of the business. You’re going to have kids that are going to be like, ‘I only liked him when I only knew about him.’ That’s just the nature of art with growth. In the end does it really matter how many records I’ve made, or have I inspired people to go out and make a better record then me? Yea the fan base has changed, but I’ve figured out a way to justify this, do I want to say the same shit to the same 50 kids that already know? Or do I want to influence the more ignorant audience who will eventually finds out about Jean Grae or Mr. Lif? Epitaph did us a favor with good distribution, I was like, put me in Warped Tour in front of these fucking pop punk kids and show them what hip hop is about.
I can’t show them what KRS One taught me, but I can tell them about myself. What’s the point of preaching to the choir? Personally, I feel if more people listen to Aesop Rock, there will be less white hat frat boy date rapers. These people are saying some really important things that people need to listen to, why do people want to clench it?”
Slug makes a valid argument. Why should he keep preaching to the choir, the “same 50 kids” as he puts it? Maybe I’m just being nostalgic of his earlier works and bitter at the little kids at shows who just discovered Atmosphere. Maybe it’s a good thing that these new kids are getting exposed to something different, but do they appreciate his work on Overcast, or Lucy Ford EP? Is Slug even nostalgic about his work on Overcast or Lucy Ford?
“I remember when I was a kid, it wasn’t mainstream and underground, it was, what was your intent? I used to get angry at LL when he would keep making songs about girls, and I would be like, ‘why did you make that”? There’s so much hip hop now, as it is now and how it was in ’97. It’ll always be the same. You have young people defining what they hate and what they love. What you choose to be interested in and what you choose to define yourself on. You have a lot of people who do that with music. When you have kids that hate on the mainstream, tell me that Outkast sucks? Then you have kids that are like, ‘fuck Aesop Rock or fuck Slug, that’s fucking nerd rap, whatever, you’re defining who you are, this is youth culture. I hated on plenty of shit when I was a kid. When I listen to rap, I listen to mostly old rap, because that’s where I was when I was forging my identity.
[When Atmosphere was coming out with Overcast] We all experienced a rush of people embracing us, because of indie hip hop. It was bigger than me, or Slug, or Atmosphere. It has nothing to do with me being a dope MC or not. It was about the time. Lucy Ford was to speak to people more my age. “Nothing But Sunshine,” the writing was sick, the beat was so so. Billy Joel is a great songwriter. I’m not a great songwriter; I just said what I needed to at the time. I’ll never be the MC that Busta Rhymes is, but I’ve learned more of how to tell a story. I know I’m a way better writer now. I know Lucy Ford and Overcast was the shit, if I can get kids to smile at the show or think it’s fresh then I’m doing my job. Representing my city, I still follow boom bap, and I still rhyme. I was never one of those dudes that said I would quit rhyming.”
Perhaps my feelings at the show were a bit off. Maybe this isn’t the end of Atmosphere. It surely is the end of Atmosphere as we know it, given by the material on his latest album You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having. I guess I’m still hoping for the day when I can see Atmosphere and think, yes, they are an “up there lyrical unit that keeps the average MC confused like a eunuch.” Those will be happy days, but until then, I will have to remember his older works for what they were, and let the new kids have fun, although, I can’t imagine how much fun they’re having. Regardless of the change of fan base and the dramatic change of his material, one thing is for sure. Where are you living these days Slug? “Minneapolis, I’ll never leave.” I think that’s one thing I’m pretty sure will never change.