Hip-hop and Minnesota. Minnesota and hip-hop. Regardless of how you say it, it just sounds strange. The land of a thousand lakes, fly-fishing and tallboys seems like an oddly placid home for a music that was born and raised in the impoverished corners of New York City, nurtured by nihilism and a distinctly urban drive to overcome said nihilism. But Atmosphere is quickly changing those attitudes. Not only does the hip-hop duo embrace its Midwestern heritage, it allows its clearly nontraditional hip-hop environment to dictate both the aesthetics and themes of its music.
It's an approach that has been very successful: "Seven's Travels," Atmosphere's most recent album, debuted in the Billboard Top 100, the group was featured on the cover of Urb, and the video for "Trying to Find a Balance" has been garnering rotation on MTV. Somehow, despite its remote origins, Atmosphere has risen to the top of the indie hip-hop scene.
"Everything I learned was self-taught," says lyricist Slug says about his peculiar pedigree. "I couldn't walk down the street to [legendary hip-hop producer] Large Professor's house and ask him how to operate an MPC. The people [in Minnesota] have to teach themselves how to do this."
The lack of traditional training is obvious in the music Slug and co-conspirator Ant create as Atmosphere. Their tracks are everything that hip-hop shouldn't be: emotionally transparent, romantically impulsive and vulnerable. For most, it's a breath of bracingly fresh air.
"We don't really make hit songs, we make moods ... . I think we make songs that sound like winter. It reminds me of walking down the street by yourself at night with headphones on and it's snowing," Slug says before affecting a raspy, Tom Waits voice to add: "And you're halfway drunk and trying to remember what color her dress is."
Aside from evoking Tom Waits, Slug the person is as comical and blithe as Slug the performer is somber and emotive. At one point during our conversation, he trailed off, declared, "Oh shit," and commented, "I just realized that that girl painted my toenails black last night." He claims to have a good version of Alanis Morrisette's "You Oughtta Know" in his repertoire, and says that he's recording an album entitled "Slug Does Women" where he covers classic tracks by female artists, including Liz Phair's "Fuck and Run," Technotronic' s "Pump Up the Jam" and others. "And we also did a Shellac song," Slug adds, referring to Steve Albini's hyper-male Minnesota group.
Uh, aren't Shellac guys?
"Nope," says Slug, "Steve Albini is a bitch." His disdain for alt-rock überproducer Albini -- and Albini's infamous distaste for hip-hop and samplers -- is a loudly recurring theme in our conversation. "I figure if I say it enough, one of you guys will finally put it in print," Slug clarifies.
Albini's prejudiced view wasn't the only one Slug and Ant have had to overcome in the Midwest. Having pieced together their musical aesthetic from scratch, the two encountered an attitude in Minnesota toward hip-hop that was nearly as hostile as the state's winters.
"Any kind of youth movement does catch a lot of resistance. It tries to, it wants to," Slug says. "[And] that's a part of making that movement become adequate and stand on its own two feet."
The desperation and solidarity bred by obscurity are evident in Atmosphere's music; those feelings were also the impetus behind the formation of their label, Rhymesayers, which, like much else in Minnesota, is unique by necessity,
"There was a complete pessimism involved with knowing that you're going to have to leave your city [to get any recognition]," Slug says. "In Minneapolis, we didn't even get [opening slots for] any good national tours for a long time. So we were all very dependent and supportive of ourselves while sitting there and knowing that no one outside of your fucking block is going to hear you."
Slug is fiercely loyal to his friends -- claiming that he created Rhymesayers so that he could release their music -- and attributes much of his success to Ant, who produces all of Atmosphere's tracks. "Part of Atmosphere is how Ant works with me," Slug says.
"This dude took some dumb, loose, goofy, cornball, punchline rapper named Slug and turned him into who he is today. Ant pretty much Dr. Dre'd me. Prior to working with Ant, I was just some dude trying to impress you with my lyrical miracles."
Regardless of who was responsible, or where it originated, Atmosphere has found its niche, and it's one that reverberates far beyond Minnesota.