Modern Man’s Hustle

Phieu Tran Illustration

With the success of their self-deprecatory album God Loves Ugly and its self-destructive followup, the celebrated travelogue Seven’s Travels, Atmosphere have solidly stationed themselves as a favorite among hip-hop heads and hipsters alike. The release of this year’s You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having marks a change in tone for Atmosphere’s two insectile members, Slug and Ant, [Ed: slugs belong to the phylum Mollusca] as they take time to pay a little homage to their predecessors and refl ect on the past few years that have launched them to the fore of independent underground rap.

The Midwestern United States have been receiving ample attention over the past few years with the successes of Chicago’s Kanye West, Common, Twista, and of course, Detroit’s Eminem. Though Atmosphere are a far cry from the mainstream tangle, Slug sees important parallels with rappers like Kanye whose everyman appeal is changing how hip-hop is accepted by the mainstream audience.

Whether Kanye will have a lasting impact on the evolution of rap remains to be seen, but the implications of his success are of particular interest to Slug. “Kanye’s been rapping out of Chicago for 10 years, I’ve known who that dude is for a long time and now he’s finally popping”, he pointed out, “but what’s impressive to me is that the mainstream audience is okay with it, they are embracing the everyman.”

Atmosphere’s latest album marks a new level of comfort and acceptance for Slug, now 33, in regards to both his voice and position as an artist and everyman. This was readily apparent in his eagerness to share with me his opinions on revolution, renaissance, rap paternalism and everything in between during our 28-minute phone interview that ran 13 minutes longer than scheduled. In terms of career placement, Slug couldn’t be in a better position.

“I think that, essentially, so much time is spent trying to obtain your own voice and trying to be something new or something fresh that a lot of times it’s easy to totally displace or hide where your influences come from,” he explained, “I think there was a little less pressure on us to try to stand out of the crowd and that resulted in us being a lot more relaxed and open to showing where our roots are.” Yet despite the shedding of these identity insecurities, Slug still
finds himself being misinterpreted.

“First of all, everybody thinks that I must be sad and brooding and upset all the time, but they meet me and they’re usually surprised at how optimistic and positive and rational I am, and how comfortable I am with myself,” he continued, “I’m just this dude that’s excited, scared, nervous, arrogant, pessimistic, optimistic, pretentious and humble about my place in the world.” Slug’s hallmark mix of modesty and confidence has never been expressed better. His forthrightness has plunged him into an ironic imbroglio as fans interpret the title You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having as sarcastic.

“I didn’t mean the title to be ironic whatsoever,” Slug told me, though the album’s cover photo seems to hint otherwise; “I guess the irony in it is that I didn’t mean irony whatsoever.” If Slug is being honest in saying that we can’t imagine how much fun he’s having, he certainly chose an odd album to try and prove it.

“This record is a celebration of the part of life that everybody is sad about,” he disclosed. “The sadness in my life is important to me because it is what inspires and creates and makes things happen so I can have positive, productive things go on.” So far productivity has not yet been an issue for Atmosphere. But rap is a fickle mistress and Slug is well aware that tired acts disappear, as his tour-mate Blueprint quipped, “like Bobby Fischer”. “The bottom line is that I’ve learned so much behind the scenes that has nothing do to with artistry that I do intend to be up in this for the rest of my life,” he asserted, “whether that be driving the van for Eyedea, or on the phone for the office trying to sell Brother Ali CDs or whether that be me up on stage jumping up and down like a fucking clown, I don’t care.” As in any other genre, rap commands dedication. But perhaps more than any other genre, rap requires confidence. For the most part, rappers are only successfully selfconscious when they are being funny. Yet Slug has managed to find a balance between bravado and braininess without having to act a part. “I guess I never got to mention it,” he told me, “but I feel blessed that I don’t have to change my voice the minute I start talking about rap music. I get to be who I am, and I am happy about that because I don’t know that hip-hop has left a lot of room for that in the last 20 years.” Slug forecasts that this pattern, common through much of independent hip-hop, will seep into the circles of mainstream rap as well. “I do think 5 years from
now you are going to see people that didn’t have to get their street credibility, nor their intelligence credibility, nor their hustler credibility, nor their nerd
credibility—all they will have to have is their human credibility.” Slug, in is own way, has earned bits of each.

You Can’t Imagine still has all the elements you would expect from an Atmosphere album: Slug raps about girls, he raps about himself, he raps about the world and he raps about rap. Though this time around it’s a little more serious. “I’ve already thanked Chuck [D], but someday I’m going to thank Kris [KRS-One] and I’m going to thank Grand Puba. As a 33 year old who is grounded and rational and blessed to be surrounded with good people and blessed to be as successful as I am, if I don’t pay that back, I’m a bitch,” he emphasized. “I think that that anxiety weighs a lot more on me than the success.”