Back in 2001, when Atmosphere’s album Lucy Ford was released, the group members were at the vanguard of a new wave of underground white rappers. Their lyrics were intensely personal, and they never claimed to be anything other than the Midwesterners they were. MC Slug and producer Ant have spent a decade watching mainstream hip-hop change and grow in ways that resemble the vision they had for the music back when they started. The result is a new album, The Family Sign, which features spare arrangements—with sometimes as little as a slide guitar, piano, and single drum—to craft genuine love songs, ballads, and other tracks that would hardly have anything in common with the music on Lucy Ford, but for the ever-present, unflinching honesty. Before Atmosphere’s show at the Fox Theatre on May 17, The A.V. Club chatted with Slug about maturity within hip-hop, why he’s forever on a “boycott cocaine” trip, and how he’s such a lazy dude.
The A.V. Club: Hip-hop has always struggled at growing up and figuring out what to do when it’s mature. Did you set out to make The Family Sign sound like a mature record?
Slug: I would hate to imply that people should be mature; that’s a word that has a lot of negative connotations in the counterculture. On the one hand, it’s great, because it says a lot about our evolution as artists—but it’s also like, “Oh, no, we’re mature now!” Our strength as Atmosphere isn’t that we’re great at what we do; it’s that we really mean what we do. The songs we make, we aren’t doing it to push the envelope and be artistic. There’s nothing we do for the sake of it. I’m really proud that we’ve been able to just be ourselves all the way up to this point, and hopefully into the future.
AVC: But you did go from being the guy who wrote “Fuck You Lucy” on God Loves Ugly to being the guy who put “She’s Enough” on the new record.
S: You know, it’s funny you mention that—those two songs are very connected to each other. Lucy isn’t a relationship or a girl. I tried to stay away from talking about that for a long time, because sometimes other people’s interpretation of the songs are more interesting than my own, but it was never about a relationship or a girlfriend. It was about co-dependency on booze and alcohol and drama—the things I couldn’t rip myself away from. Eventually I did rip myself away from it. If I was still 10 years strong partying like that, I’d be dead right now from alcohol poisoning. “She’s Enough” is about the phase afterward—you learn from your mistakes and move on. It’s about celebrating a commitment and monogamy, and being out of co-dependency. If you consider that those two songs were recorded nearly a decade apart, thank God I can be at a point where I can celebrate those things. Thank God I didn’t wreck myself at the party to the point that I couldn’t write a song like “She’s Enough.”
AVC: When you record a song like “Your Name Here,” which has some of the caustic wit longtime fans have come to love about your music, does it feel like going home again?
S: Maybe a little. I guess it really depends what my relationship with the song is. A song like that isn’t really about me and an ex-lover, for instance. But the concept of me using an ex-lover to express an idea is nothing new to me—I built a whole character of using a woman to communicate some sort of point. “Your Name Here” isn’t about a relationship thing—it’s about people who live in Minneapolis to go chase after bells and whistles in bigger cities. “This scene isn’t doing it for me! I’m gonna find a bigger one!” Then they go to NY and end up in the same scene anyway. The song is about saying, “Okay, goodbye! No, really, bye!” And I guess that’s nothing new for me, either—writing songs about being proud of wherever you’re from in your Midwestern life.
AVC: What is it about using the idea of a woman as a metaphor that appeals to you?
S: In the past, I think it was because I was really intrigued by it in my own world. Now, I feel as if it’s a direction I can go that people will actually pay attention to. I probably write those because I’m lazy—I’m just fuckin’ lazy. I’m a lazy dude. It’s not that I don’t work, I just look for leverage: “Don’t try to pick up that box and hurt your back!” So a song like “Your Name Here” is written with leverage. If I just come out and scold you for leaving Minneapolis because you didn’t have the balls to try to get it done here, and didn’t have the heart to rep what you’re from—rather than write a preachy song like that—I’d rather cloak it inside of a story. I don’t like to be preachy. I like stories. That’s the stuff I get off on.
AVC: When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold had a pretty strong anti-cocaine message, but that’s subtler on The Family Sign. Is that intended to be less preachy?
S: It’s still a big part of my life, because I’m disappointed in the people I know who choose to use cocaine or pharmaceuticals for leisure activities. Ever since I started tweeting, I tweet more “don’t do drugs” messages than are in the music. It’s not so blunt, but I’m still on some “boycott cocaine” shit. I still feel like, if you’re part of this movement, why are you fucking with the puppet master’s drugs? Cocaine is tricking a lot of soldiers. There are a lot of good people who are part of our movement using it, but cocaine is a sweatshop drug. It comes from child slavery. These are kids in the fields who are being forced to pick this shit. It’s basically the powers that be keeping you high so you’ll stay distracted. It’s just a stupid fucking drug. It’s wrecking your life, and it’s wrecking our lives—the people who choose not to do that drug. There’s no way to do cocaine without impeding on someone else’s happiness. All of the fences that shit has to jump to get up your nose, you are definitely impeding on some people’s happiness when you do it.