Fly high with Atmosphere

The year is 2003. The hip-hop scene is in shambles, still trying to recover from nearly a decade of Jay-Z and Puff Daddy clones doing everything in their power to make rap music as uninspiring as possible.

The year is 2003. The hip-hop scene is in shambles, still trying to recover from nearly a decade of Jay-Z and Puff Daddy clones doing everything in their power to make rap music as uninspiring as possible.

Atmosphere have just released their breakthrough record, Seven’s Travels, and all of a sudden you start to hear graffiti kids in the halls of every high school in the country bumping a new sound on their speaker backpacks–clever, introspective hip-hop that ordinary, middle-class kids from the suburbs can relate to.

Fast forward five years, and the future of hip-hop has never looked better–there’s been an exponential increase in the number of experimental and independent rappers, and the tired cliches of the ’90s have never felt so distant.

At the forefront of this movement are Slug and Ant, the MC and DJ that together make up Atmosphere, a hip-hop duo responsible, at least in part, for making indie rap the respected and viable art form it is today.

Touring in support of their most recent record, the strangely beautiful When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, Slug and Co. are hitting the road to try to show people that it’s possible to sell out concerts without selling out your artistic integrity. Fans in Portland will have the opportunity to decide for themselves this Monday night at the Crystal Ballroom, and there is every reason to believe that it will be an excellent show.

Over the last decade, Atmosphere have gone from a relatively unknown side project to becoming one of the most recognizable names in alternative hip-hop, especially among college students.

Selling hundreds of thousands of records can’t possibly be good for the ego, but if anything, Slug seems more humble now than he ever has. The new record seems more relaxed, there aren’t as many chest-thumpers as in previous records, but it’s not a bad thing. There are all sorts of keyboards and guitar parts incorporated into the beats that were never there before, and the subject matter is depressing as usual.

Part of the reason Atmosphere are so important is that they have introduced hip-hop music to people who would’ve never discovered it otherwise. This doesn’t have much to do with their actual music being particularly radical or modern–honestly, there are many equally talented bands. It’s about how they actively courted fans from outside the confines of the traditional hip-hop demographic, and bridged a gap between two societal factions that ordinarily share little in common. I’m talking specifically about their storied relationship with punk music.

Before Atmosphere were well known, Slug was part of a small musical collective called the Rhymesayers, who released records on their own small label. In 2002, looking for bigger distribution, Slug entertained offers from some of the major record companies before making his decision–Atmosphere were going to release their fourth record with Epitaph, a punk label run by Brett Gurewitz, the guitarist for Bad Religion.

This surprised a lot of people, but it ended up being extremely good for their career. There was less competition from other rappers in this scene, and their energy fit right in with more abrasive acts such as label-mates Rancid. The first time I ever saw Atmosphere live was at the 2004 Warped Tour in Phoenix, playing a half-hour set in the middle of the afternoon right between Tsunami Bomb and Pennywise. But they didn’t seem out of place, surprisingly, and any skepticism I had instantly vanished once the crowd started moving to the turntables.

What sets Slug’s lyrics apart are the personalities of the characters that show up in his writing. He’s not afraid of showing both negative and positive emotions. Relationship troubles (and relationship triumphs) are common motifs in the songs, as is substance use, which is alternately glorified and demonized.

In a time when the most successful rappers are convincing extensions of luxury and leisure, it would be easy enough to write about drinking champagne, but Slug is different. He is particularly gifted at taking depressing stories of personal disasters and manipulating them with enough dark humor and charisma that they end up sounding desirable.

They may be older now, but the wisdom of age has done nothing but add fuel to the fire. When you see Atmosphere on Monday, you can expect a full house, a lively crowd and some of the most original hip-hop in the country–this time around, with a full-on live band. You will definitely want to be a part of this one. Word.

Atmosphere and Abstract Rude

8 p.m., Monday, May 12

Crystal Ballroom


All ages