There are few reputations that stand up to scrutiny in the music industry. There are even fewer that stand up to that same scrutiny in the amorphous and mired world of indie hip-hop. Dessa Darling told me once that the idea of indie or mainstream in today’s lyrical landscape is a moot point. With digital distribution and the social networking of the internet age, indie doesn’t mean unknown, it means independent. This definition is not more apparent than with legends of the industry like Atmosphere, flagship and founding artists of Rhymesayers Entertainment, who hand-carved their niche of the rap world, cementing their legacy with EP’s, LP’s, free downloads, and seemingly endless tours across the world. From Minne-hopelessness, Minne(snow)ta, Slug and Ant are bringing their unquestionable talents to Los Angeles in their Greek Theatre debut on the second leg of the Family Vacation Tour on August 26, with Rhymesayers family members Evidence, Blueprint, and DJ Babu in a show that the smart money is betting will be sold out not to long after $35 tickets go up for sale.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Atmosphere.” Will responded.
It was over after that. I went inside and just listened. Will then let me borrow “Seven’s Travels” and he had to pry them both from my hands at the end of the summer. I bought up everything I could find of theirs on my weekly trips to Anchorage. Fast forward to that winter and I found myself in Wisconsin driving the two hours to Milwaukee to see Slug and Ant perform at the Pabst Blue Ribbon Theater with future favorites of mine: Mac Lethal, Joe Good, Los Nativos, and an albino Muslim named Brother Ali.
That summer so many years ago, led not just to those two albums and a fandom of Rhymesayers, but opened my mind to socially and emotionally-conscious hip-hop artists of many stripes. Black Clover and DOOMTREE records rounded out my record label favorites and I have been on an album buying bender over the years. Atmosphere was the catalyst for an eye-opening ride in to the bowels of hip-hop obscurity to mine lyrical and musical gold. I have been defined by the music I listen to, as many of you have, and it all began on the grass at mile marker 45.5 in 2005 and a little album called God Loves Ugly.
I now own just about everything by everyone on any one of the labels mentioned, but my diehard status for Atmosphere is still at the heart of my indie-fan status. The Rhymesayers family is not just the artists on the label, but everyone from friends and family to the fans themselves; we’re all a family. In this manner, Atmosphere shows are more of a reunion than concert. Among the fans there is the regular battle for who is a bigger fan, but you feel like you’re always among friends. Slug and Ant perform their musical catharsis knowing that at any moment they could just cut the track off and let the audience finish the last two minutes as a collective. It is not just two turn tables and a microphone, either. Oh, Ant is there, don’t get me wrong, but Atmosphere brings the whole band along for a truly live show. It is something of an event to hear your favorite rap bangers performed with the accompaniment of horns, guitars, drums (the original beat machine), and keys.
Atmosphere is a fearless group. Ant and Slug have never shied away from taking risks together, with side projects, or in solo albums. The sound they have now has classic Atmosphere at its core, but it is music made by grown-ass-men who are wiser and more retrospective in their creations. One can see a clear shift in sound from the likes of “Lucy Ford: The Atmosphere EP’s” to their newest album, “The Family Sign.” Both albums are vividly personal and honest in their tracks, but with their latter albums there seems to be a man looking back fondly, and not the man scowling forward in defiance of the former. Atmosphere has now established themselves as mythical monoliths in the industry, regularly sell-out entire tours, and often times before they play the first show. That aside, the success, they are men with families, crews, people who love them, hate them, have hurt them, and those who have saved them. This newest album is a reflection on the people in their lives and addresses that “family” is as much about loyalty as it is about blood. All the years in the game have created men whose music reflects the wisdom and perspective that comes with the age time begets.
This is one thing I see in this band, I see in myself, that I find in few other groups. When I was 20 and heard tracks like “Trying to Find a Balance” and “Fuck You Lucy,” I was that guy - that angst-filled post-teen with the weight of the world on my shoulders and in my heart. I felt my struggle echoed by an MC and a DJ. I felt that the swagger, the satire, and the crass editorializing of life found in those tracks were my theme music. I can listen to “You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having,” and I get the nostalgia-whiplash that comes from having these tracks burned in to your daily life. Now, years later, I can listen to “The Family Sign” and I feel that same mirrored image, again. I can feel the love, the heartbreak, and the great appreciation for those that took the journey with us to get to the places where we are. There is no replacing those down-and-outer moments that people dusted us off after. It took a village to get us to where we are and those that burned the bridges can just fuck off and enjoy their island.
Addendum: If you don’t think this enough to bring you out for a ridiculous show, then remember that they are bringing with them Evidence, Blueprint, DJ Babu, and special guests. The entirety of this line-up will be putting on a hip-hop clinic. Blueprint’s newest album, “Adventures in Counter-Culture,” is an apathetic commentary on a pop-obsessed culture. Riddled with cynicism and shots taken at a sad political landscape, Blueprint is an eye-opening, conscious rapper who will make you bob your head and raise your hands along with the experimental beats. The single “Radio-Inactive” will drop your jaw, friends.
Oh yeah, and there is the LA-native, and new signee to Rhymesayers, Evidence along with fellow Dilated Peoples band member DJ Babu. Evidence is a Grammy-winning producer from Venice and brings the LA hip-hop sound with a cogent commentary that few can mess with on his level. The man, Michael, has the LA look, too. With the hoodied fans he has, he could easily get lost in the sea of like-dressed, and minded, individuals. But it is less about the look and more about rapping and creating music that connects with people that drives Michael, who is perpetually grinding it out in the studio with “Cats & Dogs” or even his collaboration with The Alchemist, on “Stepbrothers.”
Visit www.rhymesayers.com to find out more information on tickets, about the artists, and more dates on the tour.
About the Author
Wesley Bauman, author of Doggy Paddling in the Deep End, is a writer/photojournalist originally from Oregon who makes his home in Ventura, CA. He's contributed to the VCReporter and maintains an active blog (http://projectpoppycock.com/) where he writes on political and social satire regularly. Follow Wesley on Twitter @myownfalseidol