EXCLUSIVE: Atmosphere's Slug on the Southside of Grief
Atmosphere, the Minnesota Wrecking Crew
Sunday night at Terminal 5 sees indie rap icons Atmosphere return to New York City for the first time since the release show for their new album Southsiders earlier this year. While recent years have seen the group, comprising MC Slug and DJ Ant, accompanied by live instrumentation, the duo have gone back to a one-MC, two-DJ format (accompanied by Plain Ole Bill), which, as Slug tells us, has been an easy transition for the fans. "As far as the response from the crowd, it seems kind of like they didn't notice we used to have a band. The people didn't miss a beat. When I started touring with a band [in 2005], I got a lot of shit from people, but they got used to it. Then, when we went back, not a single person mentioned it."
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Slug first played New York 15 years ago as part of CMJ with DJ Abilities and late underground great Michael "Eyedea" Larsen. Slug and Eyedea performed together on the road for years, eventually leading to Eyedea and Abilities headlining their own tours, also under the Rhymesayers Entertainment banner. Since Eyedea's 2010 passing, Slug's penned two songs about him that have appeared on the last two Atmosphere albums, 2011's "My Key" and this year's "Flicker." "I didn't know I was going to write 'My Key.' I knew I was going to write 'Flicker.' I didn't want people to know 'My Key' had anything to do with Mikey."
For Slug, "My Key" came out of a place of catharsis. "We were in the middle of The Family Sign when he passed, and so I wasn't prepared to have to write a song about that. The Family Sign started off being a much more optimistic album, and then he died and I had to strike a few songs because I couldn't put out those happy fucking songs. One of them was a song that everyone liked that I thought was too happy, so I got rid of the lyrics, took the beat and wrote another song called 'My Notes,' which became more of a closer. When I did that, I wanted to write an album opener, so I wrote 'My Key.' I was hinting at Michael -- originally [those] were not on the record. They were an afterthought dealing with that Mikey died during the making of that record."
Along with the pain of the loss of a close friend, Eyedea's death came with the uncomfortable reality of both artists' fans asking Slug when he was going to write a song about it within hours of the news breaking. "I didn't know when; I knew someday I was going to write a song that was more hands-on with dealing with that. With 'Flicker,' I knew I'd write a song about our relationship, and there's no anecdotes. I wrote a song more about grieving death, with my relationship with Mikey as the doorway for that."
The personal tone of the Atmosphere discography has made Slug one of rap's most seemingly reliable narrators. But while his early works featured relationships with fictional characters, most famously Lucy Ford, the most recent Atmosphere output has been more clearly describing friends and family. Slug doesn't take a census of the growing cast of characters we meet on Atmosphere albums; rather, he lets their real-life counterparts discover their cameos without any prompting.
"If they catch it, they catch it. There was a time back in the day when I was a lot less careful and said a lot of things that could have embarrassed people. I used bits and pieces of myself and my surroundings to create these narratives and was careful to cloud it so you would have to wonder if it was about this or that person. Now, it's pretty obvious 'this is about his kids' or 'this is about his friends.' "
These newfound distinctions come from a place of peace that Slug's found with experience. "I'm a little more cautious about pointing the finger. I'm trying not to talk badly about any of the people I love. If I got something positive to say, I'm less careful about hiding who it's about. It's not really my place to embarrass anybody except myself, and it took some learning how to do that correctly."
According to Slug, that's a challenging thing to learn how to do. "My father, before he passed away, never told me [this] directly. One of his friends, after he died, told me he was really hurt by the song 'Little Man.' 'He was always proud of you, but scared to tell you how much that song hurt him.' I was shook -- it kind of got me because I didn't expect him to ever listen to the records, and that's me really being naive or in denial. I was saying things that didn't always put him in a positive light, but that was me dealing with my shit, and that bled through the music. After he died, of course, that's when I realized my flaws, my errors, and I wish I made some kind of amends." Still, Slug looks for the silver lining, "On one hand, I feel bad about that, but on the other hand, I've had a lot of kids and adults express how helpful that song in particular has been for them. There's no telling if my dad and I would have ever made amends with each other, regardless of the music I made. So maybe we didn't, but another person can."
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