Interview: Five minutes with Slug of Atmosphere

Atmosphere—comprised of the venerable Slug and Ant—have had a sprawling career as underground vanguards. Across their decades-long partnership, the duo has tapped into the weird and caustic, producing cutting album after cutting an album and speaking truth to pain. Their work has demystified heartache and the tortures of coping through the most common and accessible vices: alcohol, drugs and women.

For Slug, music is a potent subversive form of communication and one that should be respected as such. However, he does not lose sight of the duality of popular music’s role in society. 

“The bottom line is that we all use it as a means to get through what we’re getting through. With that said, yes, you have to make music that speaks to the what the hell is going on in the world, but you also have to make sure that you’re giving people a way to escape what’s going on in the world too.” – Slug

For over 20 years, Atmosphere has pursued the underbelly of what it means to be human with a rabid curiosity. Ant’s dusky production has provided the pulse for Slug’s evolving and matter-of-fact pen. As Slug transitioned from throwing-up-in-the-backseat-raps to holding-hands-when-you-cross-the-street-raps, Ant has grown to be a master of crate digging and unearthing the humanity of a drum loop. Always, the duo was concerned with privileging their personhood, with making music as ugly and jagged as life itself. Thriving at the intersection of guttural and self-effacing, Atmosphere will go down as some of America’s best archivists.

Looking back, Slug notes that the most important things that have stuck with him through the years have been “building something out of nothing and giving a voice to the voiceless”. With limited resources, Slug and his close contemporaries were able to study and translate the music of their heroes and create sounds that spoke to their lived realities and the experiences of those around them.

“Hip hop gave me this voice that I was able to use moving forward.” – Slug

In 2018, with Mi Vida Local, Atmosphere entered into the album cycle “full of discomfort.” As Slug grappled with his mortality and the disconcertment of being an American, Ant soundtracked these sobering thoughts with iron-clad guitar chords, shivering melodies, and meaty percussion patterns. Just a year removed from their at-times funky, at times bluesy, and always boom-bap-fueled tour of woes, Atmosphere return with a new album.

On their seventh album, Whenever, the duo moves in lockstep. Be it the twinkle of ‘Bde Maka Ska’ leading into twanging guitars, or the anxious skitter of ‘Lovely,’ Slug finds obvious comfort in working with Ant. ‘Postal Lady,’ recounts the simplicity of Slug’s life over warm and enveloping production, while ‘Romance’ brings us back to God Loves Ugly with undulating glitches, as if we crawled through Ant’s drum machine. No other producer can pull truths out of a rapper like Ant fishes the blues out of Slug. It’s clear the pair’s harmony is reaching new peaks.

Originally recorded as stand-alone songs commissioned for use in a TV series, the tracks making up Whenever were never intended to exist alongside each other in an album format. 

“In my head, this is the first thing you hear when the credits start to roll right after the cliff-hanger at the end of the episode,” Slug.

When the show fell through, Ant and Slug decided to use the material for an album and found that it all pieced together fairly easily.

In the most subtle ways, the album deals with husbanding ourselves from glowering cynicism. Still, there’s a quiet romanticism to Whenever, with Slug sounding—reluctantly—in love with life. It’s the necessary reprieve Atmosphere deserve after 2018’s rattling Mi Vida Local.

“After we finished and turned it into the label, that’s when it really dawned on me that there is a much bigger picture here. These songs are actually about my life and I didn’t realise that when I was making them.” – Slug

Whenever can be distinguished from previous Atmosphere material in that, with each stand-alone track, the duo decided to avoid the “self-awareness” of the typical Atmosphere release and opted for a more surprising and less serious creative process.

These aren’t dad-raps, these aren’t anti-establishment-raps, and these aren’t chasing-old-fire-raps. Even at its darkest (“You’re Gonna Go”) Whenever houses blessed-to-be-alive-raps. The album breathes in the way only Slug and Ant could summon a collective breath—they inhale panic and exhale greatness.

Atmosphere is currently touring the album around the US. The dynamic show features Slug and two DJs, a live show that Atmosphere has developed over the last 8 years to great effect.

“It’s more like a band because we have control over every individual sound through the use of Ableton and different keyboards, etc.. It’s pretty great for me, I really love it. I don’t always know whether the audience can tell the difference. I don’t care. I’m having the time of my fucking life…” – Slug

Whenever is out now-

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By Alaric Hobbs