In their 25-plus years as a duo, Atmosphere’s rapper Slug and producer Ant have built a legacy embedded in underground hip-hop fabric. Rising in the ranks of Minneapolis, their debut album, “Overcast!” was released in 1997. Presented as a flurry of vignettes and paired with an unending touring schedule, the album was a springboard from which the group could become a fixture in the Midwest music scene. It wasn’t long before their songwriting evolved from telling inventive third-person tales to delivering introspective first-person eviscerations. By the early 2000s, Slug would jokingly birth the phrase “emo rap” in an interview before publications began running with the genre tag to describe them and others.
In the decades since their debut, Atmosphere has maintained a course of relentless creation, releasing over two dozen studio albums, EPs, and collaborative side projects in as many years. The revered duo has built a legacy by bringing honesty, humility, and vulnerability to the forefront of their music. Slug has proven masterful at storytelling and writing compelling narratives, leaving a trail of his influence while paying homage to the rappers and songwriters who helped shape him. Meanwhile, Ant has skillfully molded the soundtracks with inspiration from soul, funk, rock, reggae, and the magic of hip-hop’s pioneering DJs and producers, creating his trademark sounds and providing the pulse for songs about life, love, stress, and setbacks. At its essence, Atmosphere has been a musical stable, guiding generations of listeners through this thing called life.
Their newest album, 2023’s “So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously”, captures perhaps some of Atmosphere’s most personal work to date. The Odyssey opens with a gentler approach than recent works, with the lead-off track “Okay” seemingly focused on comforting and reassuring the listener. As Slug raps over one of the most sparkling productions Ant has ever released, the song lays the groundwork for an album-length exercise in fumbling consciousness. Yet, as gently as the album begins, an unmistakable sense of unease from the outset continues evolving throughout the project, as Slug and Ant weave the listener through indistinct themes of insomnia and woe.
Q. Minnesota is the 23rd state in the nation to legalize cannabis use for people 21 and older. With you being a Minnesota native, what does it mean for the Hip Hop community in Minnesota to have cannabis officially de-criminalized?
A. “As just one person, it’s hard for me to speak for our local hip-hop community. I don’t know how the legalization of weed necessarily attaches to the Hip Hop community. Because just like anything, you know, some people in hip hop don’t, people talk about we, they don’t smoke it, they don’t use it. Some people may be used to sell it, you know. There’s just so many different people, right? How I want to approach that, how I would like that would be, you know, first and foremost, hip hop is the voice of people of color, right? Brown people, black people, yes. And for so long, they’ve been using weed for the last 50 years as another way to delegitimize those voices. They’ve been using the prohibition of cannabis as another way to take away from those voices. And so hip hop, even within itself, you could look at the power of hip hop as one of those things trying to push the pendulum into giving voice to these people for, you know, to make up for situations like the prohibition cannabis, right? So when you’ve been using this prohibition to lock people up for so long, hip hop has been the voice that pushes against that. You have people whose parents put through the system; and grandparents put through the system. So, how do we make up for all of the time and effort spent silencing those people or taking them away from them because of something as simple as cannabis? This is a particular prohibition that has been used to harm people for so long that, like, it’s like, this is an opportunity for, for something to, for something to give something to, for sure, to bring about some, you know, just a little bit of justice, you know. I feel like hip-hop should be trying to do is trying to empower some and empower people to get to, to, to get a leg up in this business.”
Q. Take away the Hip Hop aspect, do you think there is a relief for lots of people now that marijunia is being decriminalized in Minnesota?
A. “I want to see how it goes; what I do think is like, okay, if you make it easier to access, if you make it so that everybody has access, that is a relief because there are a hell of people out there that maybe because of the anxiety of what they had to do to purchase it. That type of anxiety is nowhere near suitable for our bodies. Like in high school, people would say, ” Hey, can you hold this because I’m scared to have it right now, and you’re not.”
Q. On September 17th, Atmosphere will be headlining at Red Rocks in Colorado. Coming along with you guys will be Danny Brown, legendary collective Souls Of Mischief, The Grouch & Eligh w / DJ Fresh and many more. How did this shows lineup come about, and what are you looking forward to most about it?
A. “Some people might have caught on to that. Usually, Red Rock gives us a show every year, almost like a residency in Vegas. Every year we want to try to mix it up and bring different people friends, so we were able to go, okay, let’s get a couple of underground rappers, get a couple of mainstream rappers, this kid, like, you know, some experimental shit, like, let’s, let’s try to make sure we can encompass the whole tree. So, with Red Rocks, it is not a festival, but it’s a more enormous bill than just a regular show, so I get the chance to somewhat mix things up in a way. So we were trying to figure out who hasn’t brought to Red Rocks yet for this one. I wanted to have someone kind of hype, and I thought to myself, what about Danny Brown? Is he even available? We contacted him first, and he showed interest in getting down with us. Once we got Danny, we were like, okay, who else should we reach out to? Souls of Mischief just so happened to be putting together a tour where they did 93 shows to commemorate 93 To Infinity because it turns 20 this year. We reached out to them, and they were down, and so from there, I just had to fill in the rest of the bill. That’s where the homies come into play. Grouch & Eligh are old friends, and Mr. Dibbs used to tour with me as my DJ for a few years. So bringing all of them along was dope because we don’t usually get to do shit with them.”
Q. What do you enjoy most about touring?
A. “You know, it changes it. It evolves with life. The same as anything, you know, when I was younger, I loved meeting people, partying, hanging out with girls, meeting new women, being in different places and conversing with them, meeting artists in other areas, and conversing with them. Because it just, it built my brain and taught me different perspectives and, in other filters, to see things through people, you know, meeting all those people. I would do that and start to focus on legitimately being a tourist, just taking pictures of stuff, walking around and seeing the sights, and being like, oh wait, is there a river? I’m going to walk down by the river, you know what I mean. When I first started, I was just there for the party because I didn’t think I would get to tour my whole life. So, if you imagine I get to go on tour, I go party and have fun. And that was my first few years. Then, over time, I realized I got to keep doing this. That’s when you’re like, I can’t keep partying, I got to do this the right way. Another thing I enjoy on tour is record shopping; I started realizing that different territories and parts of the country have other records. You’re going to find records in Oakland that you’re not going to find in Brooklyn, New York, and you’ll find records in Poland that you will never see anywhere in America.”
Q. Can you describe the writing and recording process of “So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously” between you and Ant and can you compare it to your previous projects?
A. “What separated this one from the previous projects is that we tried something different in the technique. Our technique, this time, was Ant gave me a beat, just one. At the time, I thought he just wanted me to write a song; specifically, we were going through the covid lockdown. This was August 2020 when he gave me this beat; it had a happy vibe. We weren’t touring due to the lockdown, so I’m like, he wants me to write some happy shit to push back on how unhappy everything feels right now. So I wrote a song called “Okay,” and I gave it back to him, and he was like, oh, this is fucking funny. I mean, there are a couple of joke lines, and overall, the main communication of the song is to say, hey, this whole type of thing is going to be okay; you just have to believe that things will be okay. He gave me another song and said, I’m going to start the album with that first song I gave you, and this next beat I’m giving you will be track two. I’m like, dang, I’m not even in charge of sequence; I just have to write the parts. He gave me each song one at a time and let me know this is the next song. So, we made the whole album in sequence. So, everything that people hear, they listen to that project in sequence; they hear it in the same exact order we made it. Usually, you make 15 songs and then decide what order you want to put them in, you know, and, for the listener’s sake, okay, we’re going to go hard, and then we’re going to go over here, and they’re going to do this. His giving me the songs in real order allowed me to tell a very loose story about a protagonist who is basically going through thoughts of wanting to leave this place. So, instead of having these 15 loose songs I’m working on, I don’t even get the next song until I have perfected the one in front of me. You know what I’m saying? And perfected is a weird word.”
Q. With your first album “Overcast!” coming out over 20 years ago, can you describe your progress and transition as artists from then to now?
A. “The main thing is I’ve become far more intentional. You know, when I was a younger artist, I was rapping like rap was about to be illegal. I was rapping like my life depended on it because it did my life depended on it. Me having something to call mine, me having something to contribute, and me having to prove that I was here to stay. As you get older, you evolve, and the difference is now I realize all these people are listening to me. Some people really put a lot of weight on my words. So I want to honor those ears by making sure that if I’m going to waste their time with my words, I’m going to try my best not to waste their time with my words, if that makes sense. It’s like, as you get older, you do become more intentional, bro; that’s the word of the day for me right now. Not just intentional in my rap, that’s in parenthood; it’s in my life and friendships. You know, it’s like, as you get older, you realize life is short, it’s fragile; you could go at any time, so you have to make it count.”