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Slug has been a professional rapper for over 20 years. He’s happily married, runs a flagship indie hip-hop label, and cares tons about his legacy. To points of paranoia: It’s days before his sixth Atmosphere album, The Family Sign, hits shelves and Slug can’t pirate it online.
“Usually if it doesn’t leak through the press circuit it does once it hits the warehouses,” Slug says. “There’s boxes sitting in warehouses. You’re telling me a single kid hasn’t snagged a copy and uploaded it? It leads me to think that nobody cares…but I always look at the dark side of things.”
The same could be said about Atmosphere’s corpus. In peak form, the hip-hop duo—-Ant is the moody, notoriously introverted producer—-evolved from the purist, self-serious, real hip-hop of passionately beloved albums like 1997’s Overcast! to post-Twin Towers, post-idealism rhymes about the self. On the heavy intro to 2002’s God Loves Ugly, Slug played populist everyman (“I’m sleeping on the floors of temporary friends/I’m keeping the store front as clean as I can”) and swept in perfectly written context clues without the fact-spitting preaching of less interesting contemporaries (“September was the first time I had to breathe”).
Slug was the poster boy of a movement that turned out to be a moment—-raps about daily banalities, about feelings and girls, disseminated as punk revivals via nonstop touring. It was no coincidence Atmosphere would share Warped Tour stages with emoticon bands like Taking Back Sunday. The millennial generation was sad and lonely in a cavernous suburban castle their parents were always too busy paying for, and Atmosphere combined the familiar stylings of big radio jams, with food for the heart. Seven years later, Slug is shaking off the emo angle.
“At a certain point I have to be like ‘Overcast is not my best work,’” Slug says. “I try to consider the listener. You paid $20 to get into this, but at the same time I don’t want to just spoon feed. I want to challenge you as a listener. I want to push my audience, but I’m not stupid, there’s certain songs you want to hear.”
The irony is that one of Atmosphere’s best tracks is about the daily pains of programming set lists while also being one of the group’s most requested numbers. “’Trying to Find a Balance’ is at least cake that I can use to lure people into listening to [newer material],” Slug says.
Even through 2008’s narrative-driven When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, Slug habitually used women both as centerpieces for his melodrama (“Fuck You Lucy,” “A Girl Named Hope”), while likewise rapping from the female perspective (“Reflections,” “You”). Slug struggles recreating the pathos of the former, and flatly regrets the latter.
“I spent all of these songs writing about relationships and theorizing the psychology of me the antagonist and you the protagonist and vice-versa and it’s like, ‘Who the fuck do I think I am that I can climb into a woman’s head and speak for her?’” Slug says. “There’s a song on Lemon that hit home, about a working class mother of two, and after it came out I felt like an arrogant piece of shit.”
Nowadays, Slug’s happy place nets worthy, albeit mushy songs like “She’s Enough” (“It’s my ode to monogamy”), and “Just For Show,” the new single that sounds like a 2003 retread to bitter romance until Slug clarifies that it’s about his conflicted, tiring relationship with Atmosphere’s die-hard, message board fans.
It’s fair to draw a parallel to James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. Both are long-time hustlers, patriarchs of their scenes by way of running respected labels, just on opposite ends of 40.
“I relate to Murphy as a fan, because we both run a label, and because we both seem to be driven by fear. Fear is an inspirational thing, you have to be nervous about what you’re stepping into next,” Slug says.
Difference is, Murphy cashed in earlier this month and retired as a performer, and Slug rages on in a genre built by teenagers. And how does one even itemize those hundreds of shows?
“I assume that I’ll have time to remember those times in the future.”
Atmosphere performs Wednesday night at 9:30 Club with Blueprint, Grives, Budo, Sab The Artist, and DJ Abilities. The show is sold out.