Replenishing The Oh Zone
Minneapolis Hip-Hop Duo Atmosphere Goes For Studio Gold
"We didn't know where we were going. it was trial and error," MC Sean "Slug" Daley admits during a 10-minute break from sound check. "Naturally, we tried to cover all bases, and it became this assortment of ideas that got rolled into one."
Half of the Minneapolis' Atmosphere--a decade-long collaboration with producer Anthony "Ant" Davis--Daley is describing the construction of the group's stage show, a mix of old-school DJ-supplied beats and live vocal and instrumental improvisation. Or he's describing Atmosphere's sixth and latest album, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold (Rhymesayers Entertainment)--the group's first fully studio musician-fed full-length. Or he's addressing the album's multitiered marketing, which used YouTube updates, personally answered e-mail Q&A's, and the mailing of hand-painted lemons, among other means. Daley could be describing any one or all of these things, as the atmosphere surrounding Lemons has been high on concept and excitement for its participants.
Debuting in 1997 with Overcast!, Atmosphere used Slug's vexed vignettes and Ant's brassy beats to establish the group and its Rhymesayers associates with a reputation as the heartland's first choice for heart-on-the-sleeve hip-hop. Coming up in the '90s with what Daley calls "sample-heavy shit," Atmosphere aimed to fit square in between the Bomb Squad's monolithic insistence and DJ Premiere's choppy minimalism. The beats were drawn from funk and soul, while the lyrics were often drawn from a soul's funk. Slug densely and self-deprecatingly looked at missed hookups and life's hang-ups, enticing critics to saddle the group with "backpacker" and "emo rap" tags.
In 2007, however, Atmosphere began the campaign leading up to Lemons. First Ant and Slug released seasonal volumes in their long-running limited Sad Clowns EP series, and then they distributed the free Strictly Leakage mini-album, a more party-starting take on the "Hip-Hop 101" themes Slug feels so strongly about, such as sticking up for the downtrodden. Daley admits that past Atmosphere albums had painted most pictures in a palette of "blues and black," so they decided to brighten things up.
Though demoing in their traditional four-track basement fashion, the duo decided to use their post-tour time, energy, and increased resources to expand their range in the studio. They turned away from two-turntables-and-a-microphone elitism and, with help from engineer Joe Mabbott, pulled in fellow Minnesotans of every musical discipline.
Slug used a stage mic to grab his consonants and distort them just enough to make up for lacking natural bass in his voice, which helped him fit in better with live instruments. Slug also liked being mixed lower, partially as an homage to early LL Cool J and Run-DMC buried in the beats, and partially because he believes that listeners are inspired to engage with his characters' day-to-day details deeper when forced to dig into a track. The end result was an album of wet, weathered, synth-heavy funk aimed to be from a retro-futuristic neon-saturated world, as if one-time Prince bassist André Cymone performed on the set of John Carpenter's Escape From New York.
Lemons features a healthy wealth of contrasts: prog space echoes vs. a glassy Stax Records guitar scratch; reverent pianos and brittle claps; slurred bass and deflating pads; arterial percussion vying against pixelated synths; slap-back bass making way for a spaceship's passing over. A phantom reminiscent of Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante in soft focus sometimes has as much a presence as pitch-bending boom-bap, when distending leads and horn-led ellipses aren't speaking in pixelating Morse code. It begs the questions: Can steel drums be made of geodes? and What do ballerinas and G-funk have in common?
The album's piece-by-piece construction process may have been tedious, but it definitely takes into account the way sounds intersect in a live show. "In a club as a DJ and MC you have left and right and compression to work with, but that's it," Daley says. "With the material on this new album we wanted to give the sound guy more to work with.
"We took our old beats, muted everything but the drums and bass tracks so we could send those to the DJ, making Ant the drummer and bass player," Slug continues. "Then we brought in synths, keys, Rhodes, whatever [played by Erick Anderson]. I have a female vocalist [Mankwe Ndosi] who is my human sampler, making sirens, noises. And there's the guitarist [Nate Collis], and between them all we're re-creating the tracks onstage. A DJ spinning can only pump so much. Now the sound guy can play with and adjust the sounds."
Indeed, compare the emphatic clap of Sad Clown Bad Spring's "Happy Mess" with the rubbery slap-back of "You" off Lemons, or the slurred piano loops of Sad Clown Bad Summer's "Sunshine" to the noirish analog drifts of Lemons' "Your Glasshouse" (all available for preview at myspace.com/atmosphere). All tracks are humanist, but there's a stark relief when played side by side. The earlier, earthier lo-fi funk feels reserved in comparison. The Lemons tracks are more evocative of cumulative emotions, showing how life's addictions and conflictions condense into turbulent brooding broken by moments of clarity.
"This record was all about learning new tricks, but also making sure we didn't go too far," Slug says. "We still had our lyrics-based stories, but we also wanted Ant to show off his shit. It's a weird area, trying to figure out what you're doing and figure out if what you're doing is right. I'm still in the dazed and confused relationship with this album. Because we held back promos I didn't have to face reactions during my purgatory phase. But I feel we do a good job being true to the art with contemporary ideals."
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