Q&A: Atmosphere’s Slug on the “North of Hell Tour” and their music

Since forming a quarter of a century ago, Atmosphere has remained one of underground hip hop’s most revered and restless creative juggernauts. They’re a band marked by continual growth, from their hard-hitting ’90s work to the more introspective songs they’re known for today. Though they hail from Minneapolis, they’re regulars in the Northwest, and they’ll play the McDonald Theater on September 11, as part of their “North Of Hell Tour.”

I had the opportunity to speak to Slug, the rapping half of the duo (the other being DJ/producer Ant), about Eugene, Minneapolis and the mad genius of Kanye West — the namesake of one of the best songs on their new album Southsiders.

I’ve noticed a massive number of Atmosphere fans in Eugene — just about everyone I know here is crazy about y’all. What reason could you think for this? Have y’all played in Eugene previously, or do you have a particular Northwest connection?

Yeah we’ve been in Eugene a lot. We started out in the WOW Hall back in 2000 with Eyedea & Abilities. Since then we’ve been back a lot of times. We’ve played the McDonald, the weird outdoor place out in the park. I’ve had the opportunity to hang out in Eugene a decent amount.

I find it interesting that your album is called Southsiders, but your tour is called “North Of Hell.” Is that dichotomy (north/south) on purpose? 

Yeah, I guess we wanted a tour name that was cute. A lot of times we shoot for something that’s kind of cute, and we thought it was a cute play off the Slayer album South Of Heaven. But, it also references the album, and someone who’s thinking too hard might connect the dots between Southsiders and “North Of Hell.”

I wasn’t trying to create a dichotomy between north and south, but with “south side” I was trying to imply the “other side,” the flip-side. This record is still based in my world, my experiences, but I wanted to convey the flip side of that. I mean shit, I’m 41, about to turn 42, and in rap music, if you look at my contemporaries who are a similar age, a lot of them don’t really want to explore what life is like in your forties, through their raps. A lot of them still talk about the same things they’ve talked about their whole careers, and I don’t want to end up like that. I want my music and my life to stay parallel.

When you’re in your forties, you start questioning life, death, mortality, what’s it all about, what’s the struggle, how are you going to continue to have a positive effect on your surroundings? The record wasn’t necessarily created to have a positive impact on my surroundings, but it does document where I’m at, the impact I’m trying to make myself, as a human being.

You’ve been writing songs titled after celebrities for a while.  A lot of rappers name songs after celebrities to compare themselves or their accomplishments to the celebrities in those songs. How do your songs tie in to their namesakes?  

A lot of the times they don’t, but when they do it’s usually using our conception of that celebrity to personify a particular idea. With Felt we named a song “Rick James” because the song was about just not giving a fuck. For a song like “Kanye West” (from Southsiders), it’s about giving too much of a fuck.  There was another song called “Marvin Gaye,” because that song was about the subtleties and the nuance of being able to hide a message within what might, on the surface, just sound pretty.  Instead of trying to compare myself to celebrities, I’m more likely to use that celebrity’s name to describe a particular feeling.

You’ve said on Kanye West (the rapper, not the song) that a lot of rappers remind you of Madonna, and he doesn’t. Could you elaborate on that a bit?

I feel a lot of pop artists don’t really want to rock the boat.  They just want to sit atop their pop-art throne. They’ll be careful what they say, who they might offend. Even Eminem will offend people with his art, but he doesn’t speak out outside his own art that often. But Kanye has always spoken his mind regardless of how the media might portray him. That’s something we need more of, not just in hip hop but in the pop culture landscape — people who aren’t necessarily afraid of what kind of reaction the rest of the world will have if they just speak their mind.

People like Bono and George Clooney always have something to say, but the media doesn’t really go in on them. People dis the shit out of Kanye, and do you know why that is? It’s because he’s coming from hip hop, and there’s this stigma around the music we make. People need to stop and realize that this music we make has an amazing power to inform.

Kanye does things that risk losing fans. A lot of pop stars are too scared to do that. That’s why I compare them to Madonna. Madonna use to do things like “Like A Virgin,” pissing off a bunch of Christians, but let’s be real — it won her more fans than it lost her. It was all an agenda. Kanye does exactly what the media doesn’t want him to do, and I think that’s important. That’s why as big as he gets, I will always see him as an amazing representative of hip hop culture.

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Doors open at 7 p.m. All ages. DJ Fundo, deM atlaS, and Prof. open. Tickets $25 advance, $30 day of the show.



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Daniel Bromfield

Daniel Bromfield

Daniel Bromfield is a writer for the Arts & Culture desk of the Emerald, specializing in music. He maintained the SF Rebirth blog in San Francisco from 2010-2013, and his work has appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, KWVA, and the Oregon Voice.