Grabbin’ the mic
Atmosphere’s MC Slug breaks down his lyrical evolution
Minneapolis group Atmosphere has remained a force in indie hip-hop since the 1997 release of its debut, Overcast!
Earlier this month, the group—with its core duo of MC Slug and producer Ant—released To All My Friends, Blood Makes the Blade Holy: The Atmosphere EP’s and set off on tour. Originally intended as a pair of tour-only vinyl EPs, Slug stressed that the new collection is aimed primarily at hard-core fans. Now, the group is focusing energy on its next album (slated for a spring release), and Slug took a few minutes out of his rigorous schedule to rap via phone from Glendive, Mont., about the ongoing evolution of Atmosphere.
Was switching perspectives on the last LP, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, a challenge?
I felt like I was challenging myself when I was doing it. But looking back, it’s still standard Atmosphere material. The difference was instead of the character being me, it was some single mom or whatever. I don’t think it was really as challenging as what I was hoping for. The new record we’re working on right now, I have a couple new challenges I’ve set for myself.
The thing is, when people look at my older music and talk about how it’s so autobiographical, I don’t think they realize those songs aren’t really autobiographical. I would be dead from whiskey if they were. But they’re definitely a part of me and my observations, just like the songs that aren’t written from my view are me and my observations. It’s just that I used myself as a character because that’s what rap teaches you to do.
Hip-hop has turned into such a ‘keep-it-real’ mentality, people expect everything you rap about to be a true story. But there are no rappers that only rap about true stories—they don’t exist. Find me one rapper that is actually telling you his deepest, darkest secrets. It doesn’t happen.
How do you make it feel real?
I go all the way back to Slick Rick, who was one of the first storytellers that really inspired me, and none of his shit was autobiographical. He had that song about going to jail and getting raped in jail; you think anybody’s really gonna make a song about how they got raped in jail?
I think as long as the message is real, you’re doing your job. As long as you’re giving a real message and not just making up a story to make people think you’re awesome. That’s what I try to stick to; I try to make sure that the message is there, the point I’m trying to communicate is still solid and very true.
What are the new challenges?
There are some technical challenges. I’m trying to teach myself how to become an instrument a little more—I’m learning notes and harmonies and melodies and shit like that.
There are some challenges in the writing area because there’s some music on the new album that’s more personal than anything I’ve ever made. I saw that starting to happen on the Lemons record; there are a couple songs on there that are more personal than anything from my past, the songs “Yesterday” and “Me.”
How does that play out on the new album?
I think the new record picks up where those two left off with being more direct and less ambiguous, giving people a little more insight into who the fuck I am.
In the past I’ve made a lot of songs about alcohol and chasing women—and those were real aspects of my life, I went through those phases—but I still kept listeners at arm’s length by making myself the villain. They used to call me self-deprecating, but I always looked at it like I’m the villain in the stories.
I was highlighting those traits of my personality because I thought it was the best way to make my point. But a lot of the older stuff got misinterpreted. Listeners interpret things to match their lives, but on the new album I’m leaving less room for that. On one hand it’s a beautiful thing that you can take a piece of art and do that, but the older I get, I’m getting a little selfish. I don’t want people to do that as much. I want people to have a firm grasp on exactly what my point is.