Minneapolis mavericks Atmosphere return this May with a new album, Southsiders, and are leading the charge with their new video “Bitter.” We spoke to Slug about paving the road for a national underground hip-hop network for 20 years.
Being Minneapolis has had more days below zero this winter since the 70s, how was it filming the “Bitter” video in the middle of that cold?
Well, to be fair, that was the one day where it warmed up and got a little above zero. Prior to that, the whole week was freezing and we were kind of dreading going outside. I filmed another video earlier that week called “Flicker,” and we filmed two more videos that week. “Flicker” was brutal, we were filming outdoors at night and that kicked our ass. When “Bitter” came about, it was ten degrees warmer and we filmed it during the day and I lost a couple digits and an ear due to the “Flicker” shoot, so “Bitter” was not as brutal as it might have been had I not been prepped for it. It was fun to get a bunch of people outside to throw snowballs and have the people in my neighborhood stare at me as I’m dragged up and down the street by the sled. It was cold, but I’m glad we did it. [Director] Adam Dunn took some of the fun ideas I had, and it turned out exactly how it was supposed to turn out. It was fun. I think that song’s going to probably be misinterpreted by people anyway, so I wanted the video to catch more of what I meant with that song. There’s probably one or two people in town here that think the song’s directed at them, and I needed the video to help show people that the song’s about myself. When I’m standing in the middle with snowballs thrown at me by both teams, that’s me putting me in the middle of the song.
The vocals on “Bitter” sound like they’re channeling a more melodic flow than we’re used to hearing in your verses. How many transformations did it go through to wind up with that sound?
Truthfully, I wrote one verse and a hook. I sent it to Ant, and I was pandering to him because he’s big on that melody shit. He’s always been, he pushed me to it. When I heard that beat, I thought here’s one where I can swing fun melodic things and see how he responds. In retrospect, I feel like I didn’t know if I was going in the right direction and needing him to say “fuck yeah, go for it!” and I’ll flush it out, or “No” and I’ll leave it alone. Me myself, I’m not the biggest on hooks like that. I’m not the biggest on fun shit. I don’t make fun music. You can probably go through our catalog and find like one fun song per record, and chances are it was Ant or Siddiq that pushed us to put that song on the record. I didn’t know that at the time, but now I can see it. He responded so strongly, it gave me the balls to finish it. I’m glad he did because, truthfully, that hook might possibly be one of the riskier things I’ve done in a while in the sense of putting something out there that people might absolutely fucking hate. There’s a lot of hard ‘Rs’ and I’m rhyming “bitter” with “river” and “winter.” I felt if I got the balls to show this to people, I won’t have to worry about anything else I show people.
How did the name Southsiders come about?
I feel that a lot of the music was really influenced by the surroundings. Usually, when I’m making a record I’m also kinda touring and doing other shit. With this one, I wasn’t even doing much traveling inside of the city. I kind of stopped going out to parties. I don’t just go out to see music because it’s the thing to do anymore. It takes a lot to get me to leave my house. I really like my house and really like my family. This time, instead of being surrounded by strangers, I’m surrounded by friends. A lot of times, even with Lemons, a lot of those records, whether or not I realized it, I was being influenced by a lot of strangers. This one was a lot more about being influenced by being around my brother and his family, my other brother, my own family, my actual friends. Anthony doesn’t live here any more, but when he comes here, it’s almost like we might see each other more now than when did when he lived here, and that kind of had an impact on me. Hanging around some of the other dudes I hang around, they’re all Southsider dudes, and I so I named the record that. Some of these songs are inspired about being around the “Southside,” but even then they aren’t about being around a building, but just people. I wanted to shout-out Siddiq, I wanted to shout out Dillon and people who are all about the Southside. Mostly because of the people I was around to see me write dumb shit. It was like a punchline. “What are you going to call it?” “Southsiders.” “That’s great man!”
But, after I decided to call it that, I grew attached to the title for a number of reasons. It’s one of those things where after we decided to call it Southsiders, the songs took a new relation to the album. We said some shit on a Dynospectrum song that said “everywhere you go, there’s a southside” and there’s some truth to that statement. You may not call any part of your city “the southside,” but there’s a southside to all this shit. Hell, death, there’s a bottom, a downside. Something that started from the bottom, and now it’s the fucking bottom. And that makes sense because I’m fucking 41, why would I not be thinking about how shit ends? I’ve always yelled “Southside,” but the songs aren’t about South Minneapolis so much that it’s about me thinking about things that I think about.
And this album is just you and Ant, correct?
Just me and Ant. Erick and Nathan no longer play with the band. They’ve moved on to doing more important shit. They’re involved in things that are more important. We still have other people playing things on this record, there’s voices on this record that we use.
And last summer’s “Bob Seger” was the first track of the post-Erick and Nathan Atmosphere?
You’ve always represented Minneapolis hard. With how many Twin Cities hip-hop artists have emerged since you’ve paved this road, do you find in your travels more people are familiar with Minneapolis as a hip-hop scene?
I think so. When I go other places, people ask me about it. For a while, people only asked me about Ali or Doomtree and some more of the Rhymesayers artists like I Self Devine. Now, it’s moved on to people asking about Mally or Metasota. There’s people here who are getting attention, and I don’t know if they know that they’re getting attention. I don’t know how easy it is to track that somebody downloaded your shit off Soundcloud in New Mexico. I get to see some of that. There’s obviously a lot of that I don’t see, but to answer your question, definitely.
But, I don’t know what other scenes are like. I’m assuming, if you’re Chance the Rapper and you play a show in Austin, somebody’s going to ask you about another rapper from Chicago. I just think that’s kind of a way people relate to you as an artist, and it’s a great way for them to relate without them being on your dick. But I do think it’s great that it’s more than Rhymesayers and Doomtree getting recognized out here. Not to take anything away from Rhymesayers or Doomtree, but I’m happy that the scene is getting seen. I have a feeling that Lizzo’s going to do pretty good. The early waves look great. I bet next time I go on tour, I’m going to get asked a lot about Lizzo.
Is there any record in the Rhymesayers catalog you think deserves more shine than it may have received?
The last I Self Devine record [The Sound of Low Class Amerika]. I would probably put that in that category. I feel really strongly that the marriage between the production and the lyrics on that record were so thought out. It reminds me of the type of album that somebody took a really, really long time to craft. When listening to that record, I feel like I’m listening to one of those break-out albums from an artist that may have been around for a while like Siamese Dream or OK Computer. When I play that record, especially when I play it in my car, I can’t believe that we put it out sometimes. It’s great because I know him, but I get taken in by that record like I didn’t know him.
Finally, inspired by your Paint It Gold online video a few years back where you and Ant debated the first two Ice Cube albums, I have to ask, what’s your favorite Geto Boys album?
Man, I want to say We Can’t Be Stopped because, when it came out, the impact it had on me was drastic. From the photo to “Mind Playin’ Tricks On Me,” the title track, the Bushwick track. But, as time has gone on, I have to go with the self-titled joint. That particular record is, probably to me, the best one. It had a longer lasting effect on me. That record made me realize that depression is real. It’s not just for “those other people,” but rappers could be depressed. I hear that in a lot of the music they put out, and I don’t necessarily mean that those dudes were depressed, but they were able to articulate something that spoke to a side of me that I didn’t know if rap had done that. A side of me that made me think that I really do want to cut my boss’ head off. I’m not going to because it’s against the rules, but I do. I really think Scarface’s solo album picked it up from there and carried it even further. It made me get in touch with a side of myself that had to cope and deal with that maybe there’s some depression in there. Maybe that was the birth of emo rap or something? Everyone else was hard and tough, and they were hard and tough but they were mad at themselves. They weren’t just trying to get money and prove how tough they are, but Bushwick is sick and he needs help. Their music was the music that introduced me to rap looking inward a bit. They weren’t the first to do it, but it was done so well and at the right time, and it was the right time for me at 18 to do that kind of thinking. It affected the way I write. There’s parts of what I do that I stole directly from them that you might not be able to see because I’m able to mask it.
I’d love it if the Geto Boys could be credited with creating emo rap so that the proper narrative would attribute them to originating both emo rap and horrorcore.
Honestly, horrorcore and emo rap should come from the same place for a number of reasons. In order to execute either of them well, you have to be able to deal with what’s inside of you. If you tell a story that you’re walking down the street, and by the end of it you either hated yourself or fucking cut some guy’s eyeballs out, both of them aren’t deriving from some shit you saw. It comes from a place inside you that you had to make yourself see.