Atmosphere and The Family Vacation Tour (including: Prof, DJ Babu, Blueprint and Evidence) hit the Cleveland House of Blues recently. After watching an inning and a half of his beloved Minnesota Twins play at Progressive Field (against the Cleveland Indians) before getting rained out, I got to sit down with an interview with Slug of Atmosphere to talk about his band’s new sound and direction, “sample snitching,” copyright laws, new members of the Rhymesayers family, and whether or not Atmosphere is the hardest working band in hip-hop.
OKP: So Atmosphere’s latest release, The Family Sign featured a very mature sound in terms of both production and lyrical content, was it a conscious decision to make a more grown up album or was it just a natural progression?
Slug: I don’t even know if we were trying to make it sound more grown-up. I think we just keep making shit that sounds good to us, and whatever happens, happens. I don’t like the idea of sounding mature because that makes me feel bad. I can remember hearing records and seeing people going for a ‘grown sound’ and me thinking, Man that’s so fucking pretentious. What are you trying to say – that everything else sounds immature? Because if you’re going to label something mature, you’re setting up a dichotomy – if it’s this, then it’s not this. I would never—myself–say we’re trying to make ‘mature’ music.
Yeah, we’re all growing up and our lives are evolving, so I think it’s to be expected that the music will as well. I think that truth should grow with you; truth can’t stay the same. My truth today can’t be anything like what my truth was when I was 25. That would be weird. It would be a sign of failure if I was still like, wondering where I was going to get my next beer from, or wondering if I can convince people into doing some stupid shit.
OKP: With the last couple records you moved away from sampling, and there’s been some negative feedback, what made you go with the more instrument-based sound?
SL: I think that there was two things going on. We were getting sued a lot for sampling. We rose above [being] that unknown, below-the-radar group, so now people were looking at us, like, Let me dig through their shit and see what I can find. While that was starting to occur, I had been playing with these guys (Nate Collis and keyboardist Erick Anderson) on tour for a few years. So it kind of all just came together. We were also looking for a way to give Erick and Nate a vested interest in the live show. We wanted to take our live show to another place, so it didn’t just seem like these are the guys who are just re-playing the samples.
All those things going on at the same time, it was just natural. We did it with (When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold) first. With Lemons, some of it was re-played samples, and some of it was, Here listen to this sample, what’s the mood? And when we did To All My Friends/ Blood Makes the Blade Holy: The Atmosphere EPs, it was Ant basically going, We’re not even going to look at samples, and just play original shit. With the Friends EP we chopped up the live instruments. With The Family Sign, everything is played straight through; we’re not even looping these guys. It’s more like, Beat’s going, go play the full song. Every time, even with the band, we’ve tried something different. I don’t know what we’re going to do with the next record, but it wont be like this one. That’s the thing, every record it’s still Atmosphere, you can still see how we got from point A to B to C to D. We change it up enough so we feel as if we’re teaching ourselves something else new, but also we’re not jerking you into leftfield.
OKP: You mentioned that you were getting sued a lot for sampling, and I’ve seen other artists outwardly speak against “sample snitching” on message boards and youtube. What is your stance on the whole “sample snitching” trend that is happening?
SL: Ideally, why would you like that? Why would you want anybody to know where you got your secret stuff from? Especially from the generation that we grew up in. But there’s another generation of kids coming that aren’t going to see it the same way. We didn’t see it the same way people did in the 80s, they were doing it with live instruments. We decided, Oh it should all be samples, it should all be drum machines, and it should all be conscious rap. But that was just another phase, that was just another generation, that’s not the end all, be all of hip-hop.
I see it like, it’s going to happen, and people are going to snitch on your samples. People are going to put things up on youtube; it’s the Internet, you can’t control it. People want to know how he got that shit to sound so good. And that’s part of the fun of this shit for some people. It’s unfortunate because it does get rappers in trouble, but in the same breath – rappers, quit fucking sampling. You know what I mean? ‘Cause there was a time when rappers didn’t sample.
Instead of everybody worrying about getting into trouble, more emphasis needs to be put on getting these copyright laws changed because we’re behind the rest of the world. In America, we have copyright laws that are a lot more strict that the rest of the world, and we’re going to limit children’s abilities to create things because we’re saying it’s illegal for you to create like that. Whereas in other countries, they can do it and not get in as much trouble and it gives them the edge to try things and do things without this stigma attached. It’s not just with music, but with visuals. Shepard Fairey got into some weird dispute over (Barack Obama’s “Hope” Poster for his 2008 presidential campaign) because it was drawn from a photo that was taken by another guy. It’s like, why would you fucking get mad if someone re-interprets your photograph through drawing. We’re so hung up on the entitlement; we’re missing the bigger picture, which is art begat art, begat art. And if we try to keep art from begetting art, we’re going to fall behind.
OKP: What is Ant’s role in making songs now that Atmosphere has moved onto instrument-based music?
SL: I’ve never met anybody who has more records than Anthony. He’s got a house full of records basically. And now, as if that weren’t enough, he has unlimited supply of six or seven different instruments just by having the guys who can play those instruments. It’s one thing to find that bass line you want – and it’s almost right. It’s almost perfect and it always was, but now he has a couple of musicians that can play any sample he might have in his head.
Now Ant’s biggest problem, from what I see, is trying to communicate to those guys what he’s looking for. There are an infinite ways to explain to somebody how you want a guitar line to sound or what kind of filter you’re expecting on there. It’s kind of the same thing, but you’re not dealing with records. You’re still dealing with trying to capture what you have in your head.
OKP: You guys have been on the road since the record came out in April, and you guys have made your name by being on the road all the time, how important is it to be constantly touring at this stage in your career?
SL: I don’t know, and I don’t know if we are continuously on the road anymore. I think for appearances when we promote we’re going on the road, it looks like we’re constantly out there, but by the end of this year I will have only done four months out of 12. And that’s on an album cycle year. That’s like nothing compared to what I used to do. But because of tweeting and facebook, it looks like we’re the hardest-working group to ever touch the mic. There was a time where, yeah me and Mr. Dibbs would just road dog it, do like 8 months out of the year. But that’s slowly been winding down as I’ve gotten older and as I’ve gotten more priorities. I recently got married and had another child, so that’s even less time that I want to spend running around. But I don’t mind that it seems like we’re constantly on the road, because I think that it gives people something to live up to. I see shit all the time where cats are like, Oh you gotta stay out on the road as long as Atmosphere. And I’ll see my name pop up on an Internet message board, and I’ll be like, Oh shit, that’s the pub we get? I deserved it, I earned it–but as of late I’m not trying to live on the road anymore.
OKP: Recently Rhymesayers has added a couple of new artists to your roster (Evidence and Grieves), how have they fit in? And how close is the current roster?
SL: Oh it’s really close. Like with Grieves and Evidence, we’ve been friends with them for way longer than their deals with Rhymesayers. If we weren’t friends with them, we probably wouldn’t be working together. If Evidence and us weren’t friends, what would be his motive for doing a record with us? Cause there are a ton of labels that would love to do a record with him, but I think it’s the friendship that makes him comfortable at this label. Same with Grieves, there were a few places he could have taken his record. The comfort of being with friends and family is the best part of working at Rhymesayers. We don’t work with people we’re not friends with. We’ve never been the type of label that’s like, Yo that dude’s dope, we should sign him. We’ve never signed anybody like that. Everybody we’ve ever worked with has been our friend.
OKP: Even Freeway?
SL: Freeway was friends with Jake One and Siddiq. Me and Freeway didn’t really know each other, but we had met in passing. Siddiq has his circle, Brother Ali has his circle, me and Anthony have ours, and J Bird, and it’s not just a matter of who I’m friends with. If you ever want to put out a record through Rhymesayers, you’re going to have to become friends with one of those people. Be friends with that dude, don’t send us a demo. Just go buy Bird a beer.