Even the most fervent fans of Atmosphere back in the day might not have believed they’d be where they are now. In the mid-’90s, MC Slug and producer Ant were just breaking into the world of hip-hop via their handmade Headshots cassettes and groundbreaking (if later overshadowed) first disc, Overcast!. Today, their tours cross international borders and include appearances on Letterman, and they recently put out a deluxe re-issue of breakthrough God Loves Ugly with a bonus DVD. What hasn’t changed is the group’s dedication to hard work, from a packed release schedule for both Atmosphere and their side projects (including a new Felt collaboration between Slug and Murs) to relentless touring. Decider caught up with Slug by phone, wandering from picayune questions about new records to issues of staying relevant, how an artist’s responsibilities change over time, and what it means to be a dependable lover. Atmosphere headlines the Soundset ’09 festival at Canterbury Park May 24.
Decider: Are you working on another Atmosphere record?
Slug: Not as of yet. We’ll start in September. I just finished another Felt record. It’s getting mixed as we speak, and once it gets turned in, then the label will pick a [release] date.
D: Is that dedicated to a particular female, like Felt and Felt, Vol. 2, were dedicated to Christina Ricci and Lisa Bonet, respectively?
D: Is that information under wraps?
S: Yes. I’m not allowed to divulge the actress or the producer.
D: Atmosphere’s been putting out a lot of EPs—you guys have been sort of tireless. Is there still stuff in reserve for Atmosphere?
S: Yeah, you know, I actually have another leaker record [a follow-up to 2007’s Strictly Leakage], but we’re just trying to figure out when and how would be the best time to put it out.
D: Do you ever worry that things like Strictly Leakage devalue full releases?
S: Nah. I don’t see a difference between a full release and a free record or a bunch of EPs. It’s all the same. Now that kids can get the shit for free, what’s the difference if you put out a few songs or 20 songs? To me, it’s a way to date and manipulate and trick people into coming to the show.
D: You guys have always been road warriors. Is that going to become even more important nowadays with digital downloading? Is it about trying to get people out to the shows?
S: Yeah, I think that it’s always been important for us, but I think that it depends on the stage that the artist is in. There’s going to be different priorities for different stages. For an artist that might be more unknown than us, it’s probably just as important for that artist to make music and put the music out and get it into as many hands as possible to stir up interest. But for a group like us, who’s been around for as long as we have, you become redundant. Not intentionally, but you just do. Once people get to know who you are, unless you’re going to go and completely facelift yourself and turn into somebody different, people know what they’re going to get from you. For the most part, people know what to expect. You can throw little surprises here or there, but it’s hard to completely shock people. And so it does become the type of relationship where you want the listener to be able to depend on you for what it is you do; you want to be dependable for them so that they have that choice to always go back and listen to what you do for whatever mood it is that they are trying to get out of it.
D: So it’s more like a long-term relationship and not a one-night stand?
S: Yeah, I’m no longer at that place where I’m necessarily trying to gain exposure. We’ve reached the place now where most people that pay much attention to what’s going on in music already know who we are and they already know that they don’t like us. Or they already know that they do. At this point, it’s no longer a matter of trying to convince those people that we’re cool. Now it’s just a matter of trying to be a dependable lover.
D: And how long do you think that goes on for until there’s some next phase?
S: Well, you know, it depends. It’s rap music and rap overall is still a pretty new genre, so nobody really knows what the rules are yet. We don’t know if you’re allowed to be a 50-year-old rapper. So for us, it’s just a day-by-day. We just keep doing what we’re doing until they turn to us and say, “Hey, you have to stop now.”
D: When Jay-Z’s American Gangster came out, people were looking at it as a very mature record, and people were amazed he could be a rapper in his 30s, but of course it’s going to happen. The musicians get older and they mature and develop, but then nobody ever thought that the Rolling Stones were going to be 60 and playing shows, least of all them.
S: Yeah, in the early ’60s, no one imagined that Paul McCartney or the Rolling Stones would be doing it this late in the game. They figured out how to become dependable for their audience and I guess that’s what it is. I gotta imagine KRS-One is over 40. [He’ll turn 44 on Aug. 20—ed.] I mean, fuck: I’m gonna be 37 this year. And he still goes out and rips up shows. He’s not necessarily catching the amount of 16-year-olds he was in 1989, but now it’s all of those 16-year-olds like me who are in their mid- to late-30s and we still go see him perform. And I think that’s a later stage of art; all art is kind of like that. Like any relationship: When you find somebody that you’re interested in, you jump through hoops and do all kinds of shit to get them to be interested in you as well, but once you’re together for 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, you’re not gonna find new hoops to jump through. Now it’s just about becoming a well-oiled machine, a well-oiled relationship that works well for you.
D: But do you feel that’s tough in American culture, because the emphasis is on the new shiny thing, the new season of American Idol, or the new people who are going to be on this reality show?
S: I don’t know if I would blame American culture; I think world culture in general—anywhere that’s got the Internet—is like that. I mean, you go to Spain and it’s all dance music. With the DJ culture in Spain or Italy, they’re not as tapped into American culture as plenty of other countries. They kind of don’t give a fuck about 50 Cent, but they got their own thing going on. It’s still the same cycle. You still gotta keep it moving for ’em. That’s the difference between blue-collar art and white-collar art. Blue-collar art is the guy that just keeps doing it, and keeps grinding without necessarily trying to become a millionaire. He’s just trying to keep food on the table and keep his boss happy, and so I think a lot of us kind of fit that mold nowadays. That’s something that rap didn’t necessarily have 10, 15 years ago. So it’s kind of beautiful to see that rap is branching and doing that.