Honest Atmosphere: Slug and Ant Keep Kickin' the Truth into Middle Age

Concert Preview

Sean Daley needs to make sure his toilet flushes properly. His kid put "way too much toilet paper in there." Of course, there's nothing worse than a clogged toilet.

Such are the domestic distractions of the guy who most notably goes by the name Slug — one half of the dynamic hip-hop duo Atmosphere and undeniably one of the more inventive rappers of the last 20 years.  Right now, he's at home in Minneapolis, eyeing the toilet with incredulity and kicking around hip-hop philosophy over the phone with a writer in Cleveland. It's all sort of an apt illustration for the rap group who just dropped their seventh album, the homebody contentment-driven Southsiders.

Back in the day, on seminal albums like God Loves Ugly and Overcast!, Slug rapped most often about the girls who were dissing him or the bathroom floors he was calling home for a night. But at 41, Slug's now got a whole different reality on his mind. Plumbing, while it didn't make the album, is just one element.

"One of the main criticisms of this record is the same thing that's been coming up for the last four records: 'Oh, you know, Slug used to have this sardonic, biting edge,'" he says. "Like, I used to be sarcastic and I used to be bitter and I used to be all these things. For better or worse, my job is still to portray exactly who I am on-record. That's who I am. That's what rap taught me. And not just what rap taught me — that's what my neighborhood taught me." He's talking there of Minneapolis, known in the right circles as a Midwestern hub of innovative hip-hop for the past 20-odd years.

And "innovative" as a handle still very much plays here when we discuss Southsiders. Ant, the producer half of Atmosphere, has never dropped finer beats. And Slug stirs his perspective among unexpected rhymes and a loping cadence that distinguishes him and his lexicon from the rest of the contemporary hip-hop game. Using "mature," though, to describe latter-day Atmosphere does a disservice to the music these guys are making.

Take the song "Kanye West," for example: Slug juxtaposes the mindlessness of far too many rap refrains against a type of morality play/love story. And Ant nails it with the beat on this one. That tune segues right into "We Ain't Gonna Die Today," a hefty bout of truth-telling set against a jaunty beat.

In all, Southsiders taps the same sort of vein that Atmosphere has been hitting throughout its whole story.

The duo started out as an offshoot of Slug's creative desires in high school, which paired well with fellow rapper D-Spawn's style. They soon met Ant, who began producing their stuff. But it wasn't until the late 1990s that their material circulated nationally. Overcast!, the group's first album, hit college airwaves and helped boost what was the budding Rhymesayers label/contingent at the time.

Atmosphere would go on to record seminal turn-of-the-millennium albums (the aforementioned God Loves Ugly and Seven's Travels being foremost among them). The group's defining feature early on was the duality of Slug's realist rhymes and Ant's stripped-down, bare-bones beats. They provided an alternative to the more pedestrian bling-and-bitches stuff other rappers or rap groups were peddling around then. And they still do this with deft skill.

Seven albums in now, the guys have worked out a pretty successful routine. These days, Ant, living out in California, often sends Slug what he's working on. The rapper wakes up to some beats and kicks around some lyrics over a pot of coffee. His surroundings — a relaxed family environment, a home — inform his lyrical wanderings now as much as they always have.

And, indeed, those recent albums have had this air of the domestic about them at times; hence the oft-cited criticism that Slug is quick to push away.

"I get it," he says. "But this is my legacy. The legend I have to leave when I go is an honest one." This legacy talk brews steadily around the edges of Atmosphere's work.

"To me, I'm trying to figure out how to leave more positive stuff in my trail — as opposed to negative stuff," he says, reflecting and imparting the sort of advice he drops in his songs. "Be you. Don't be afraid of confrontation. Don't be afraid of speaking your mind."

Growing up in Minneapolis, Slug confronted a need to speak his mind.

It's always sort of weird, when talking about the whole Rhymesayers label — Atmosphere in particular — to refer to the hip-hop scene up in Minneapolis. Here in Cleveland, we can understand how cold, isolated metropolises can breed dynamic arts communities, but from the outside Minneapolis seems to be the antithesis to vibrant hip-hop.

"I consider myself an anthropologist when it comes to hip-hop. I collect it. I look for it. I've been doing that my whole life," Slug says. "Technically — and I don't want to overstate this — this shit saved my life. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood, kind of standard for your Bruce Springsteen song. But there were a lot of gangs in my neighborhood. It was a gang culture that was kind of insecure about its status.

"I got to see a lot of people go to jail. I got to see a lot of people die. I got to see a lot of stuff that shouldn't happen in Minnesota, or at least what people think of Minnesota."

Gang culture arose out of necessity in most urban areas. In Minneapolis, gang culture came out of young people trying to prove themselves somehow. In the early 1980s, hip-hop made its way to town, and Slug caught the scene hard. Rapping kept him from falling into the traps of gang culture. In fact, he fell hard into the traps of rap culture. "I love it. It's my identity. It spoke to me. It's become who I am."

He ducks back into his house, winding down a philosophical dialogue on the meaning of his work with succinct conclusion: "I want to leave the world a better place than when I found it — just like those bumper stickers. I want to be a part of the stuff in your day that's good.

"Hmm... I've said a whole lot of shit when, really, that's all I wanted to say."

Atmosphere with Prof and Dem Atlas

8 p.m. Friday, June 13, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $22 ADV, $24 DOS, houseofblues.com.