Slug, the Mill City-raised vocal half of hip-hop’s Atmosphere, has a delivery that sounds like Inspectah Deck feelin’ dangerous after a few; the group’s producer, Ant, is more akin to Easy Mo Bee with a skip in his step. Though the duo has dulled somewhat over the last 10 years, their product is still sharp—and a bit more mature. On their latest, The Family Sign, the court jester has been replaced by the sad clown, and it’s clear the two are farther than ever from the days they had to hustle.

Since 2001’s Lucy Ford, which brought Atmosphere out of the underground shadows, the group—and Slug in particular—has managed to retain a unique style, despite changes in content and concepts. During that same time, Eminem (also a Midwest native) has morphed from his “Real Slim Shady” persona to the version we have now—a dour, rich man’s version of Daddy Yankee. As if greatness and clown couldn’t cohabitate. Both artists have slowly gravitated toward family issues and the perils of domestic abuse, but who would you rather hear the message from? Slug is the clear choice.

Combining Ant’s slick production with Slug’s big hooks and rigid-yet-crisp delivery, the group has inspired trust in its fans. Though there’s no doubt the unholy jam “Guns and Cigarettes” could have been the bigger than Jesus or wrestling given the right push, the true Atmosphere fan will tell you “The Woman with the Tattooed Hands” is the group’s real anthem, imparting meaning amid the cruelness and uncertainty of life. While it’s hard to feel like you’re in on Eminem’s jokes, Slug’s narratives are full of sly winks and fist bumps, messages for the masses. 

In 2007, Atmosphere’s When Life Gives You Lemons debuted at No. 5 on Billboard’s charts, propelled to success by its loyal fans. Though Eminem’s bleach-in-a-bottle army at the MTV Music Awards was a powerful statement, Slug would never hide behind his fans like that. He selflessly puts his life front and center of his music. In a bizarre publicity move that year, Atmosphere’s label sent out lemons spray-painted gold along with advanced copies of When Life. But, by the time they arrived, the lemons were moldy and mottled, barely recognizable—a reminder that, given contemporary music’s fleeting shelf life, every new track we get from Slug and Ant is a small miracle. 

Slug isn’t larger than life. He is life—a stomach-able version of life that laments and exhilarates in step with whatever you’re up to at the time. Which is why, as he turns 40 this month, the world still hangs on Slug’s string. He has a villain’s laugh, a clairvoyant’s sincerity and a professional’s humility: regarding new projects, you won’t hear him tooting his own horn (a phrase he assures us he’s never uttered before). After doing their duty pushing their latest release, Atmosphere will be going into hibernation to assemble the “skeleton” for the next album.


As you get older, do you feel you need winding down time more than you used to?
There’s a lot of crew members that make Atmosphere work, and when you start to rely on that many people being involved, you have to make room if anyone needs that quiet time. I’m doing [collaboration] work and writing tons of songs for people because I’m in the mood to fucking rap. But just because I’m in the mood to rap, doesn’t mean Atmosphere is because it requires everyone to be in that same head space.

Now that you’re an established cult figure, do you feel pressured to moralize as an artist?
I mean, we can get pressure from all over the place: pressure from people, pressure from geography or surroundings. There’s all kinds. But in my head, when you say “pressure,” it means other people. I don’t feel pressure from other people to moralize or to be optimistic or keep things real or whatever the fuck you want to call it. I guess I do want to use my airspace for good or Jedi force, and I’m not sure why. I think it’s an age thing. … But I don’t think it’s a pressure from other people so much as it’s about mortality. You realize life is short. It’s fragile. You don’t get a whole lot of time to get shit done, so if there’s any way for you to make any kind of fucking difference to another person, that’s a great feeling. I’m lucky, man. I’ve had the opportunity to have people tell me I’ve made a really powerful, positive impact on their lives, just from my music. That’s way more validating than a blowjob. Way more validating than 20 bucks. The only other thing I can think of that’s as validating as that is making a baby. I’ve moved on from the blowjobs and the 20-dollar bills. … When I’m writing my songs, I’m just trying to validate myself.

Do you consider yourself part of a storytelling tradition?
I don’t really put myself into any role or part of a tradition. I feel like I’m just this dude who grew up loving rap music, therefore, I rap. A lot of people who love rap music, they rap on the down low, quietly. They freestyle with their friends. They might not try to have a career doing it, they might not record songs or even do it in front of other people, but they sit around and they fucking do it. Just like I used to sit around and try to sound like my idols. Some of us not only enjoy doing it, but start to get validation from their friends and from other people and it becomes an addiction. In that sense, no, I don’t consider myself to be in a tradition of storytelling. If I had to pick a role, I feel like I fall into a tradition of kids that love rap music. I’ve been loving this shit for 30 years.

We read somewhere, and we’re paraphrasing here, you said, “We’re just shitty versions of the things we love.”
Yeah, that totally sounds like some shit I’d say. I think it goes for most contemporary artists: unless you literally invented your own shit, you’re working off of your influences and inspirations. Fuck it. Even if you invented some new shit, there were influences and inspirations there. So in music, when you can cite … like you know that guy [sings the chorus to Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”], it’s obvious that he likes Sting and The Police. You can hear it. I got a crappy version of KRS-One inside of me. I got a crappy version of Big Daddy Kane in my DNA. It’s just how it is.

So the “crappy version” is what’s inside …
Yeah. But I can even hear it in what comes out. I can hear Big Daddy Kane. I can hear LL Cool J, at different times. I even hear some Prince, and that’s funny because my friends would totally laugh if they heard me say that. But that’s because I grew up obsessing over Prince and it made its way into who I am. Not just my music, but even in the way I carry myself.

Switching gears, are you familiar with Rap Genius? Do you support the notion of the website and/or think it’s healthy for rap?
We have all these things that we spend our time on, just to stimulate ourselves, distract us from our problems. I don’t think it’s healthy or unhealthy. I don’t look at it like that. I think it’s cool, but I don’t want to interpret my own shit, ever. Maybe when I’m 60 I’ll be like “this is what this song’s about,” when no one even cares anymore. But right now, I feel weird going “this is what this is about.” If it’s not straight forward, if it’s not fucking obvious, then there’s a reason why I wrote it like that. That song “Yesterday,” you know what it’s about. It’s your song. But a song like “Can’t Break,” or “The Woman with the Tattooed Hands,” if you’re listening to that song and you can’t figure it out, listen to it again. Come up with your own shit. I don’t want to spoil that. … I’m the last person whose interpretation you should be thinking about. Now as far as letting the community interpret, that sounds like fun. But it’s like another version of Words With Friends. It’s just a thing. I ain’t mad at it. I don’t think it’s bad for rap culture. Wow, “Rap Culture.” That’s gonna be the name of my next record.