Atmosphere's Slug interviewed by local emcees

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Over the course of a nearly 20-year career, iconic indie hip-hop duo Atmosphere have almost single-handedly put Minneapolis on the hip-hop map. Atmosphere's community-based approach to scene building has paid off in dividends for the group and their hometown. They're still thriving on the same indie label they cofounded in Minneapolis in 1995. Their Rhymesayers label has released a slew of classic titles from artists like MF Doom and Brother Ali, and helped to shape Minneapolis into a veritable epicenter of underground hip-hop music.

So when the opportunity came up to interview Atmosphere in advance of their November 20 date at the Vogue I decided to look to Indy's emerging class of hip-hop scene-builders to supply me with questions. Clint Breeze, Flaco, Rehema McNeil and Diopsostle asked questions that tapped into Atmosphere's scene-making expertise. I spoke with the group's frontman Slug, whose awkwardly confessional lyrics turned conventional hip-hop tropes inside-out on a series of classic underground recordings in the late '90s and early '00s. According to Slug, Indianapolis has all the necessary variables in place to take its hip-hop scene to the next level.

NUVO: Our first question comes from Clint Breeze who has an excellent new project out titled Evolve that mixes various strains of electronic music with hip-hop. Clint asks: "When you were coming up in Minneapolis, how did you make connections with the community outside of just playing shows? How did you get people to really roll with you?"

Slug: Really, it was mostly through shows. Doing my own shows, going to other people's shows and meeting DJs, MCs, and artists. Years and years of that was how I and my colleagues became familiar with the community. Also I worked at a couple record stores and that put me into an area where I was able to meet other musicians, not just MCs but rock, punk, jazz musicians and whatever.

I didn't think I was going to be a rapper. I didn't think I was going to make a profession out of this. So I just wanted to have as much fun as possible within my surroundings. I was open to being friends with all kinds people. That's how I became a part of the scene. It took a long time, we're talking many, many years. I was part of the scene for 10 years before anyone outside of Minneapolis knew who I was.

NUVO: That's a good segue to this question from Flaco, an MC based in Muncie, Indiana who released a fantastic LP this summer called Cheto. Flaco asks: "Did it take you blowing up in another part of the country to establish yourself in your own city?"

Slug: Nah man, I was paying rent off this in my city before I ever got any love anywhere else. I was making enough doing shows to hold down my bills before Chicago, which was the next closest city, started paying attention. But you can do that in Minneapolis. I don't know if you could do that in other cities.

Minneapolis is a music-heavy city. People there support local music. The radio supports local music. The press supports local music. And I don't mean just an alternative weekly. Minneapolis has got 30 clubs that will let you play. I was easily playing at least one show a week, and I was opening for tons of people.

NUVO: Do you have any insight as to why Minneapolis provides so much support for the arts in comparison to other Midwest cities?

Slug: I have a few theories, but I think it starts with schools. Minneapolis is a very liberal community. So there's always been a lot of pressure to make sure the arts are present in the schools. I think that early exposure sets people up to be curious about the arts later on.

NUVO: Up next is a question from MC Rehema McNeil who just released a very cool debut EP titled Davu. Rehema wants to know: "What has been your biggest challenge as an artist in the music industry?"

Slug: The biggest challenge is just getting in. Ever since I was able to get my foot in the door, one of my priorities has been to try and keep that door open so other people can get in too. That's why we started the Rhymesayers record label. That's why I bring a lot of my friends on tour with me. A lot of times you see artists on tour together and you think, "Those guys on that bill aren't even friends with each other." It's a money play going on, like, "We need another guy who can draw names," or, "We need whoever is hot right now." For me, I've been touring for over 15 years exclusively with friends, and people that I care about.

One of the largest challenges is just to try to keep that door open, not just so I can stay busy but also so I can get some of my friends in there as well. Other than that I'm fortunate that I don't care about challenges. I just do things. I don't see challenges as obstacles. Everything is an opportunity. An opportunity to gain resources, have a good time, or maybe just catch a nap.

NUVO: The last question comes from Diopostle who dropped his superb debut album Driving on Faith earlier this year. Diopostle asks: "What are a few critical steps to building a sustainable and independent local music scene in a city where the market doesn't currently exist?"

Slug: That's a good question, and if I had that magic answer I'd write a book and get rich. For us it was accidental. We didn't know what we were doing. Truthfully the steps we took in the '90s probably wouldn't even work today because the landscape has evolved. When we were building Rhymesayers there was no Internet. It was all about showing up with a stack of fliers and tapes to give away or sell. The things we did back then are obsolete now.

But the main thing I try to tell people is to always be honest with everybody, especially yourself. If you have to lie to get where you're going, then you're hustling people. And hustling people works, but it's temporary. All hustles are temporary. If you want something that's sustainable it has to be honest and true. I've always tried to be as honest as possible in my music and outside my music. I look at it like this, if you don't want my truth, if you don't want my honesty, then you probably don't want me. If you can't respect me for being myself then we don't need to work together. I don't want colleagues or even fans that can't accept me for who I am. I ain't here to trick nobody.

I also think you need to stay community-minded. The funny thing about mixing art with commerce is that it becomes very insular. It makes it hard to stay communal. I think that's the thing that most people bang their heads against when they're trying to establish a scene. There's a short list of people in hip-hop history that have been able to keep it communal as opposed to keeping it focused on self. I would point to Afrika Bambaataa, or Proof out of Detroit. Proof was known for creating a space where people could come and freestyle or just kick it. And it wasn't about Proof it was about the community. Luckily I was working with a few people who were really good at staying community minded, and I think that's why we were able to get where we got in Minneapolis.

There's a dude there in Indianapolis named Rusty from the Mudkids (Last IV, Birdmen of Alcatraz) who everybody there knows. That means there already is a community in Indianapolis. Every time I talk to him or see him I can see that he is a leader. I don't live there, so I have no idea if he's regarded as a leader by the younger kids. But if not they should really look to this guy because he's got a lot of history,

inspiration, and charisma. Those are the types of things that create a leader. So Indianapolis has the leaders, you've got the soldiers, and you've got the people with talent. That's all it takes to spark interest from people outside the scene to look in and make it a larger scene. The energy is infectious. This hip-hop shit is contagious. It just requires people to not be so insular, and to put their ego in the backseat.

A Cultural Manifesto is now available on WFYI's HD2 radio. Tune in Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays at 3 p.m. as NUVO's Kyle Long explores the merging of a wide variety of music from around the globe with American genres like hip-hop, jazz, and soul.


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