Atmosphere's world travels have brought the group to indie-rap's forefront, but they're still committed to doing things their way and staying connected to fans on a grassroots level—with Fifth Element, the Minneapolis record store that their Rhymesayers collective runs, in the personal connection they try to forge via live shows, and in the fiercely introspective lyrics of frontman Slug on albums like the new You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having. Atmosphere will return home to Minneapolis this week to close out its fall tour with a sold-out three-night stand at First Avenue. The A.V. Club caught up with Slug by phone while he was on tour in New England. A shorter version of this interview appeared in The Onion's November 10 Twin Cities print edition.
The A.V. Club: You're on the road right now. How are people reacting to the new songs?
Slug: Well, no one's tried to beat us up yet. It's always weird to do new songs in front of a crowd when they don't have a chance to get used to them. It can be hit or miss, staring some 16-year-old suburban white boy in the eyes as I'm doing my new material and him not knowing how to react to it can make me insecure and give me a fucking heart attack. [Laughs.] And then sometimes it's just amazing. We kind of suck live as it is so I don't really expect a whole lot.
AVC: There's a significant change to your live show with Ant [Anthony Davis, producer and other creative half of Atmosphere] joining you on tour for the first time. Why did he decide to come along?
S: Well, I basically gave it to him straightforward. I said, "Look, man, I don't know how much longer the kids are going to let us do this, so you should see it now." And I thought, if I'm going to give the show I want to give, it would be really good to have him there. This show is sort of semi-conceptual. It's like going to group therapy. I run the whole set like that, from the introduction to where we start telling stories about ourselves and what we've done as we were fucked up on whatever our particular codependency might be. And I bring a bar and a bartender and I put them on stage and I have a live band and I have Ant. And I start with the live band and I start to ease in, almost down to like "Hi, my name is Sean, and I'm an alco-sex-addict-druggie whatever the hell you want to call yourself." It's almost like group. You ever gone to group? Like AA, anything like that?
AVC: Not really, nothing like that.
S: Ant being a part of that is a lot easier than, say, if I had [Rhymesayers DJ Mr.] Dibbs with me. Dibbs being with the show is great because it's good, rah rah, powerful, aggro shit, where what Ant brings to the table is a lot more similar to who I am, because me and him have a lot more similar issues and we're on the same frequency. I'm able to actually treat the set like a seminar, I guess would be the way to put it. And with Ant there, his personality is not overbearing. It seems to work really well for this particular show. Had I brought Ant there on the Seven's Travels tour or the Warped Tour it might not have carried across as well because those shows are a lot more about aggression—and also, you know, venting, having fun, but at the same time shedding aggression. So this one works for Ant, it works for me.
AVC: So you're shooting for something a lot more intimate than the average concert?
S: I've been toying around really quietly and subtly with how I present these shows. And not just with this tour, with every tour. I really try to step toward some kind of concept. Just because, to me, I can just get up there and rap rap rap—I can drink two 12-packs and just get up there and fucking rap. But I need to push myself and test myself; otherwise I'm going get bored and be this complacent clown jumping up and down. The last tour was the first time I brought a band out. We intentionally went into really small rooms, so that we could really blow the room out and sell them out fast, but also so that the people who did get in could really see something I've never attempted before. I thought it was a really good setup for this, because now we're going into the big rooms but we're coming in with the same intimacy in a much larger room. So it grasps the vibe that I like, which is to try and touch everybody individually—I don't mean physically touch them, though I like touching people, too. But, also, you know, bringing them to my idea, that this could be a personal thing for you even though you're in a room with 1,500 other kids.
AVC: Is it difficult to do that in a larger room?
S: Yeah, totally. It's really just about how you apply yourself. You get back what you give. That's something that took a long time to learn. If I smile at these kids, they're going to smile back. If I throw shit at them, they're going to throw shit back. And so essentially it's just a matter of trying to make sure they can see how comfortable I am and see how personal I am with it, and hopefully that's the doorway for them. Granted, I'm going to miss a lot, because there's a lot of kids that aren't going to catch it just because I don't have that many arms. I can't hug you all. But I do my best.
AVC: How important do you think it is to try to reach out to fans in that way, as a mentor or a big brother, and try to make people think as much as entertain them?
S: I don't know how important it is, and I don't even know if that's me being selfish and needing some kind of validation that I have not been getting as an entertainer. It's too easy for any of us to Joan-of-Arc ourselves and be like "Yo, there's a greater good to what the fuck we're doing here. I'm speaking to these kids and they're getting it, and maybe this song can dissuade five future white-hat frat boy date rapes from taking place, who fucking knows?" But all that shit, you can say it but it's kind of corny. In the show, I can actually see what I'm doing. And I've got to be honest, man, I self-centeredly and selfishly get off on being able to have that type of relationship with my fans, as opposed to just rocking the crowd. There was a time when I just wanted to fucking rock the crowd. If everybody just threw their hands in the air and waved them like they didn't care, I was happy. I guess I want more than that now. I want to be able to know that there is more purpose here than me just trying to be your favorite fucking rapper. And I'm not afraid of that purpose having nothing to do with me. In the end if the purpose is to create a community for the evening for these kids where they can see each other and meet each other, and, you know, take it from there, then I was just a fucking enabler for that. And it's OK if you didn't love my show or my album. If you came and everybody likemindedly hated me, that still creates a community, you know what I mean? Everybody expects me to be this brooding individual who's unhappy and loveless and blah blah blah, when realistically, I'm having the time of my life, man. I want to present that, but I want to present that responsibly.
AVC: I can see where people get that idea of you, because there is a certain amount of darkness and dealing with real-life stuff in your lyrics, but that doesn't mean that that's the only side of you.
S: Yeah. But not only that, I feel people don't want to give you the opportunity to celebrate that darkness unless you're Tom fucking Waits or something. It's like, granted, since I'm a rapper, and rap is about making people forget about their problems and have a good time, who needs this guy to get up here and remind you that your girlfriend fucks other people? People didn't want to accept the fact that you could celebrate this darkness, that you could take this darkness and turn it into a smile. I'm not confused as to why people thought I was brooding—I mean, look at the records I've made—but I'm confused as to why people didn't accept the fact that I'm making these records to, like, actually thumbs-up that shit and say, "Hey, I'm like this, and I feel this way sometimes, so it's OK for you to." Granted I'm 33 and you're 17 so it's a little different for us I'm sure, but if you're finding something in here that you can identify with, that's really the whole point. Whereas 10 years ago I just wanted to be your favorite rapper.
AVC: How does that changing perspective affect your music?
S: I guess the main effect is that I had to start actually thinking about real shit. Music was always a fantasy to me. I wanted to take part in it, I wanted to be a musician, and I'm sure somehow that climbed into the music that I was making. Songs were about how fresh of a rapper I was, about these little stories where you're toking, or your acceptable rap stories—you know "get the girl, grab the money and run" kind of shit. And I think that when I was older and started figuring things out myself, carving out my identity in life, it translated into my music. It totally took a quick left. Ten years ago I sounded like the love child of KRS-One and Del Tha Funky Homosapien. As I found my own voice, now I make these songs. I've got to think that it's just growth, and going through the life experiences I went through.
AVC: Where do you see You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having falling into the spectrum of Atmosphere albums? Do you think it's a pretty natural progression of where you've come from?
S: I definitely believe it's a pretty natural progression. I have no choice but to believe that. When me and Anthony are making a record it's not very serious. We don't just both sit down and say "OK, we're making a record now." We just make songs a lot, and then when have a handful of them we go, "I think there's a record in there, let's see what we can do." I think this one is definitely an extension of all of them. My dumb ass, I somehow figure that every record I've made is a concept album. Only the concept is pretty thin: The concept is me. And this is definitely an extension of that because, here's what I think about and do at 31, at 32. With [earlier] records, it's what I thought about at 26.
AVC: The opening lyric of "Get Fly" is "I used to be angry at the government," and there's not a lot of direct political commentary on the album. Is that not something you have much interest in?
S: Actually, I have a lot of interest in it. I don't have an interest in preaching to the choir, though. If my record was being bought by 38-year-old soccer moms and I was dealing with them on a regular basis and I was arguing with them at my shows and having to try and express myself to them, I'm sure we would see more of that stuff in the songs. But the kids that I deal with, and the kids that influence and inspire me, already hate Bush, so there's no point in me bashing Bush anymore. And if I do, I'm going to hide it in some kind of metaphor about a beautiful bird that wakes me up in the morning, or some shit like that. I don't want to preach to the choir—I feel like there's too many of my contemporaries that already get on these soapboxes and spit that shit to people that already know. I'd rather go and convince post-punk-pop kids that it's OK to like indie-rap. I would rather look at the more personal revolution as opposed to the looming takeover that's coming. I do have plenty of opinions about that stuff. I just don't really feel the need to fill my record with it, and if I do talk about it I usually hide it. I call them Easter eggs. I hide these little Easter eggs here and there. But I think, more so, I'm not educated enough in it to be an educator about it. When it comes down to it, it's way too easy to hate certain figureheads and hate certain things and apply it to your armchair activism or wear a T-shirt that says how you feel about it, and blah blah blah. Personally, I don't really think that the U.S. government is the problem. I think the aliens are the problem.
AVC: Like the Martians or the Venusians?
S: The Martians.
AVC: [Joking] Yeah, I've always thought that.
S: I think this pacing system that we're on is always going to allow us to hate authority, which is always going to be there, but that's the whole point. You know, it's those dotted lines of differences and hatred that keep us all separated so that we don't actually come together as a community consciousness. Essentially, community consciousness would shorten our existence, because once we got together and figured it out, we would have a quicker route, a quicker path to our own demise. And I think separating us and keeping us at odds with each other is, in part, important, even though there are many reasons why it's not tight—in day-to-day life, it's not cool. But on the whole they've been able to keep the species alive on this planet for a long fucking time, so kudos to them. That's got to sound completely stupid, and I'm sorry, but I am pretty stupid. But it's OK, I'm defiantly stupid.
AVC: Well, I don't think you're stupid. But I'm not sure if I get what you're saying.
S: What I'm saying is, I think that … Alright, I think that we were deposited here as a colony, a small colony probably. You know, we were form-fitted to be able to survive on this planet. We were given things like lungs or whatever the hell we needed to survive here. I'm sure they came down first and studied the primates, and thought, "Hey, they should resemble these things, because these things seem to be doing OK." Then we get here and we slowly unlock the information or knowledge we keep stored in us, which has kind of brought us through Neanderthalic times to now where we have paved roads and grape jelly. And it took a long time for us to get here, but we're the only ones that got here. The deer didn't get here, and the bears don't have paved roads and cars or any of these things that we built out of necessity of convenience, not necessity of survival. To me that exemplifies why I don't think we're from Earth, why we're not part of the nature of Earth. I think most of the things here are based off of three basic things: eat, sleep, fuck—survival. And we do base a lot of things off of eat-sleep-fuck, but we also have a few other factors in there like emotional necessity, art, you know, selfish manipulation, and just things that set us aside from the rest of the nature of this planet. And if I believe that, then I have to take it a step further and look at things like our government. Are these Republicans and Democrats and bipartisan party people really in charge? I feel like I'm making no fucking sense, and for some reason right now, brother, I totally want to make the most sense in the world.
AVC: Well, you're talking about—
S: The Illuminatus. The concept of the inner core that controls everything. It generally—or at least, I thought—followed the money. Like, the money was where decisions were made. It wasn't our government, it wasn't their government, it was this extra government that actually controlled all the governments. And all the bad things that our governments do that we hate, I mean, how do we know that they're bad and we hate them? Like, our government can go slaughter 80,000 people and we look at it as a travesty, and I agree it's a travesty. But in the course of 500 years we'll get slaughtered too, it's just part of the nature of trying to keep the species alive. I do believe collective consciousness is going to be the downfall of humanity.
AVC: But who's going to create collective consciousness? How do we even develop that?
S: Well, the people want that, and they've always strived for that. People have always strived to have this understanding of each other and this want to go against what they figure to be what's wrong. Collective consciousness, I think, comes from the concept of right and wrong, and people dividing themselves between what they think is right and what they think is wrong. Even though someone else might think the exact opposite way. Well, once you establish that, there's your dotted line, there's where you draw the separation, there's the difference between me and you, let's say. And we don't really celebrate what we have in common, instead we point at and celebrate what we don't, because we're all selfish and self-centered and we want to be individuals. But as we're sitting here wanting to be individuals, we're longing for some kind of moment where everybody finally fucking agrees with me, man! That's the want for collective consciousness. It's not so much like, "Hey it's so beautiful, we're hippies and unicorns and ponycorns and we all need to get along." It's more like we all think everybody should think like us.
AVC: And you think that's the thing that leads to wars and things like that?
S: I think that's the thing that leads to wars and shit like that. I think that's the thing that leads to two guys having a fucking bar fight. It's like, "You don't think like me? Well, fuck you." I embrace it as much as I dislike it. I realize it's important to have that, because if we didn't have that, if we did all get along, and we shared—because here's where I'm going with this: The money, to me, is no longer really the dominant thing on this planet, information is. I guarantee you the next really, really fucked up big war ain't going to be about oil or money, it's going to be about who controls the info. It's going to be, you know, especially in this new revolution that we're going into, as far as—it's not even new anymore, but your digital, internet, info revolution is going to create a renaissance in response, but your renaissance is not going to cut it, because all of the have-nots that have been made complacent with fucking media and Playstation 2 and drugs, for Christ's sake—not that any of those things are bad, but you know, you're looking at a very much more lax art movement, there's going to be less art, less orgies, less people trying to buck, buck, buck the system, whatever the fuck you want to call it. In which case—why are we talking about this? This is amazing! Thank you, by the way.
AVC: Oh, sure. I love to let people just have their say, you know, to talk about what they want to. It's usually the most interesting.
S: I think, well, getting back to the information, getting back to the Illuminatus, or getting back to what controls it—once all the information becomes unearthed, and everybody has all the information, we are only that much closer to eliminating our possibility of succeeding to survive on this planet, because every piece of information we do unlock brings us that much closer. People complain about what we're doing to the environment. Well, why do you think we're doing that to the environment? It's not like we went, "Hey! Let's fuck up the planet." It's like we went, "Hey, we want things to even more convenient." And the tradeoff for that convenience is sacrificing resources, and so on and so forth. And the more people that are on the same page, and the information is shared, the more we're going to continue sacrificing the resources, the more we're going to continue slowly dying. And that's not what the aliens want, because they're not really aliens, they're us! They're the same species as us, and they're just controlling our process here, trying to keep the species alive—trying to keep the bacteria able to live on this hunk of chewed meat for as long as they possibly can before they have to colonize another place and figure out how to keep the species going there. I guess the real argument is whether they're harvesting us for food or if they actually love us.
AVC: Are you serious about the alien thing? Do you believe that?
S: Quite, quite, quite. Years ago I started reading books by this guy Robert Anton Wilson, you familiar with him?
AVC: Yeah, the guy who wrote the Illuminatus trilogy.
S: That guy, exactly. You ever read Schrödinger's Cat? You should check that out. He does not speak of these things, but his books are what sent me into thinking of these things first and foremost, then dialoguing, and trying to find more information to support my theory, religion, whatever the fuck you want to call it. I'm not saying I'm on point, and I know this is how it is. This is just a work-in-progress and I hope to figure it out by the time I die. And I have to tell you, man, I've done fucking 180 U-turns in my thoughts, like if I'm spitting this shit to you six months ago, it would have been totally different. It's amazing how often I change my theory, but today this is how I think.
AVC: Does the Illuminatus actually fit into this anywhere?
S: Well, no, I call it that because that's the way that people actually will understand what the fuck I'm trying to explain without me sounding like I belong on X-Files. People love propaganda and people are conspiracy freaks, so the minute that you start trying to humanize the identity of the aliens, you're better off, so instead of saying aliens I say Illuminatus because really, it's all the same to me.
AVC: It's really about who's controlling things in the background?
S: Yeah. And I'm not mad at them, because they've done a really good job thus far. We've lost a lot of lives, a lot of people are fucked over, a lot of people have been oppressed. My lineage comes from a lot of oppression—the white man is the devil and all that good shit—but realistically, as far as the species goes, dude, they've kept us breathing on this planet for a long time, they've kept us from slitting each other's throats on a person-to-person level, and just going nuts and doing whatever we want. If we were like the deer and the bears, we'd be fucking each other in the streets! [Laughs.] Dude, you would just take the pussy. And that's not cool. Why is that not cool? Because it's unacceptable. Because you've been paced and told that you're not allowed to. And I thank the aliens for that, I thank the pacing system for instilling these right and wrong concepts in us. Because, man, I would hate to see what we would be like without that.
AVC: So that's where civilization comes from?
S: I like how you worded that, I'm totally going to jack that.
AVC: Sure. Well, I've got a couple of other questions—after this, it's kind of a tangent, but I wanted to talk a little bit about the Rhymesayers label and how it's been growing in the last couple of years. I've read that you guys just moved into new, bigger offices.
S: Yeah, totally. We built them. We didn't really move into them. We had a record store and we knocked down the wall and took over the building next to us, and made the record store bigger, and then we were like, fuck it, and we just straight-up built a whole new level upstairs too. We don't know what to do with all this money, man, and so we figure, rather than everybody buy cars, let's reinvest it. Minneapolis, when I was a kid there were a couple of record stores that were home base for those of us who felt like we were a part of or advocates of the hip-hop community, and those things went away through the '90s. And here we are with this store, and I see these 15- and 16-year-olds come into the store and I see the impression it has on them. And you know what, this is exactly what I was given as a kid and exactly how I became who I am. And I speak for everyone at the label when I say that. You know, we all grew up together and feel the same way about it. So, I'm not on no Joan of Arc shit, but it's really important to me that my son has access to this type of an outlet.
AVC: What are you planning to do with Rhymesayers in the near future? Do you have albums coming out?
S: I'll probably continue to write and record. I don't really have plans. I don't know how many albums I'll make, I don't know if I'll make another album, for Christ's sake. I take that stuff day to day, week to week. And as far as set plans, like are we going to open a restaurant or something, I don't really know any of that. I guess the plan is to just keep trudging forward, and keep to trying to release music for kids that we consider to be quality rap music. At this point, I feel like I've wedged my foot far enough into the door where I can take a hand or play a role in providing what I consider to be quality rap music to kids for the rest of my life, even if I'm not the one rapping. Like, I went so DIY on it, man, and learned as much as I could, so that I'm at the point now where I could manage your tour so that you can rap. At this point with Rhymesayers, even if I'm on a phone in an office trying to sell Electric Fetus 30 Brother Ali records, whatever. I plan on playing a role in this forever. Even if Rhymesayers explodes, because, you know, the Bloods and the Crips blow us up, and then the terrorists come and blow us up, and then the white man comes and he blows us up, too—then I'll go and get an A&R; job over at Universal. Whatever, man, I don't care. I love rap, and I plan on taking a hand in it forever.
AVC: Do you think it will be hard to maintain Rhymesayers' independence if you keep growing?
S: I think that we kind of played that little game at Epitaph. We all know that we want to be the ones holding the leash and collar to our own fame, our own growth, whatever. I want to control my ceiling as much as I want to control my floor. I think no matter where we go or what we do it's always going to feel like that. Because if it doesn't feel like that, we're not going to do it.