At a time when mainstream hip-hop was still reeling from the murders of its two biggest icons, there was a mad scramble for other artists to try and reach the unclaimed pinnacle. There were rappers who shamelessly mimicked 2pac and Biggie’s styles. There were artists who were next in line and deservedly received more shine. But even these acts were overshadowed by the posthumous releases of the two martyrs. Hip-hop needed a face, an image, or a new style to associate with its future. Slowly, the radio started changing and a new focus began taking shape in the content. Songs like “Money Ain’t a Thing” and “Bling, Bling” became the image, or at least the most marketable fad. The new face of hip-hop had gold teeth and platinum earrings. The soul of the music was stocked, tagged, and put in a warehouse next to boxes labeled “talent” and “originality.” While the resilient genre of rugged, grimy street hop managed to stay alive, it was no longer the main attraction at a time when hit songs needed only a hot beat and someone telling you how much money they had and what kind of car they drove.
Meanwhile, in a faraway land, a couple of guys named Slug and Ant decided to go Mr. Potato Head and make their own face of hip-hop. Maybe it was because they were from Minnesota and news of the Bling Revolution hadn’t yet penetrated America’s Heartland or maybe they were just too broke to lie about it, but when they joined to become Atmosphere and released “Overcast!” in 1997, they joined a new movement. It wasn’t large enough to be picked up on radar, but they would eventually help pave the way, along with groups like Company Flow, for what today many hip-hop lovers consider to be the Zion of the music. A place outside of the matrix that houses the last of the real MC’s; the underground, independent scene.
Coming after countless rappers who claimed they were “poets,” Slug’s lyrics made them look like more Dr. Suess than Shakespeare. In fact, you could almost equate his bi-polar persona to a neo-Edgar A. Poe with the ability to kick a smug battle rhyme. His attention to detail and a knack for finding the quirky, absurd things about everyday life make him seem just as much a paranoid blog writer as a rapper. The very first words spoken on an Atmosphere album come after the creepy violins for “1597” as Slug states:
“Hence forth, step within my psychoanalysis
Calluses upon my mind make me strain for my lines”
His slightly off-beat view of life glares through on the classic cut “Scapegoat.” Ant’s piano keys moving at a disturbingly slow pace combined with the right amount of distortion musically foreshadow what would become one of the more hauntingly truthful and descriptive accounts of human behavior that had even been converted to hip-hop.
“It's the monsters that I conjure, it's the marijuana
It's the embarrassment, displacement, it's where I wander
It's my genre, it's Madonna's videos
It's game shows, its cheap liquor, blunts, It’s bumper stickers with rainbows
It's angels, demons, gods, it's the white devils
It's the monitor, the soundman, it's the motherfucking mic levels
It's gas fumes, fast food, Tommy Hill, mommy's pill
Columbia House music club, designer drugs and rhyming thugs
It's bloods, crips, fives, six
It's stick up kids, it's christian conservative terrorists, it's porno flicks
It's the east coast, no it's the West coast
It's public schools, it's asbestos
It's mentholated, it's techno
It's sleep, life, and death
It's speed, coke, and meth
It's hay fever, pain relievers, oral sex, and smokers breath
It stretches for as far as the eye can see
It's reality, fuck it, it's everything but me”
This humbling account of the things we blame our problems on is bound to strike a nerve because the “list goes on and on and on and on and on.” This is what separated Slug from most other rappers of the time. He set aside pride and explored the deeper desires and sorrows of life while shamelessly making himself the guinea pig.
Although they’re often lumped into the “Emo-rap” category, spirituality is rarely mentioned along side Atmosphere. But it’s clear that this MC is searching for a higher power, whether it’s the sound bytes at the end of “Brief Description” that claim “I must find out what I am before I die,” or this quote from contemplative “Clay”:
“What makes me mighty and another tiny?
Why does my psyche’
Give a damn about whether or not you like me?
It just rhymes right
I might be wrong
I grip the mic tight
Cuz it’s all I really have a grip on
So let the losers lose
And let the players play
The only difference is the dates
And some dust on the clay
What could you say as the Earth gets further and further away
Planets are small as balls of clay”
Whether it’s the melancholy storytelling by Spawn on “Caved In” or the timeless battle rhymes heard on “Sound is Vibration” there’s enough fluctuation to avoid the repetition bug. But this album serves as more than just lyrics and beats; it became a pillar for a new breed of lyricists that could talk about their esoteric and most humble feelings that were previously suppressed in the world of high-rolling swagger rap. The spontaneous lyrics seemed almost like they could be the thought processes of any normal rapper; one that wouldn’t dare convert it vocally and hand to their rigid record label execs. Call it backpacker hip-hop, call it Emo-Rap but this music is just as sweet by any other name.
Music Vibes: 8.5 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 10 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 9.5 of 10
Originally posted: August 23, 2005