ATMOSPHERE / “Yesterday”
Mtume and I strongly differ on the rap that we like. For example, I don’t hear Jay-Z as all that. Mtume breaks it down, but I still don’t hear what he hears. Part of my resistance is I’ve never been overly impressed by technique, for me strong content with competent technique always trumps technical brilliance in the service of bullshit. Moreover, I suspect that the real difference between Mtume and I is what we would define as brilliance versus what we would identify as bullshit.
So anyway, I find myself digging stuff that doesn’t even get a slight head nod from some heads, and meanwhile while some are bumping like crazy, I’m just bored. All of which is a preamble to Atmosphere, a hip hop duo out of the Twin Cities.
Slug (Sean Daley) and Ant (Anthony Davis) are commonly referred to as underground legends; them and about several thousand other rap groups in locations across America. A lot of the underground is subsurface not because they want to be out of the mainstream but rather because they have not been able to break through on the commercial level. Atmosphere is different.
They’ve been touring, selling independent albums in the tens of thousands and attracting all kinds of offers from major and minor labels, but they turned down all the invitations. These guys are committed to being rebels with a cause.
Beyond my admiration for their political stance, I admire what they’re doing musically and I especially admire their recent album, When Life Gives You A Lemon, You Paint That Shit Gold.
It took me a minute to figure out what the attraction is: the blues.
* * *
Long time ago I came to the conclusion that rap was akin to the blues: elemental with an emphasis on emotional truth. Sometimes the songs be nothing more that one chord with two notes played over and over again beneath about seven or so words. You didn’t even have to be no kind of major musician to drop a bumping-ass blues song, which, to me, was equally true of rap music.
On the other hand, just like traditional blues, the fact that it’s technically simple in terms of traditional western music techniques doesn’t mean that the music is simple. The best of rap, the best of the blues, the best is both complex and also worthy of the highest praise. In Atmosphere’s case, the music works as both music and message.
Ant produces some of the leanest phat beats you ever want to hear. Ant is a minimalist—sometimes he’s not even using a drum machine, but as sparse as it is, Ant’s music never sounds emaciated because he’s so cool, i.e. only producing as much music as is needed to support the lyrics.
This is music to listen to and think about. Atmosphere has other albums that are party oriented but these tracks are a bracing shot thrown back, straight, no chaser. You won’t find yourself laughing even as you might smile in recognition at many of the moments. You won’t play this at a party but you will probably recommend Atmosphere to a dear friend.
I’ve ordered the tracks to give a general picture of growing up, from the childhood portrait of “In Her Music Box”
to the adult moment of “Yesterday.”
Eight of the songs are from Lemon
, the other four are from the Bad Clown
EP series. The fact that a picture of the human life cycle can be painted with these songs should tell you how strong the music is.
* * *
In another era, Slug would have been a novelist or at the very least a Raymond Carver-like short story writer. He has an eye for telling details and an ear for succinctly stringing together words and rhymes. It’s not easy, especially when you are writing about adolescent angst and adult anxiety, id and superego conflicts, self-perception and social aspiration contradictions, especially when you’re telling the truth about how fucked up most of are when it comes to being true to whom deep down we want to be.
The breadth of human conundrums articulated over these grooves, the emotional depth marked by Slug’s stories perfectly abetted by Ant’s sensitive production, this all really, really appeals to my blues aesthetic. Here is a portrait of our humanity, those of us poor and working class, struggling to keep it together; confused by our inability to fully communicate with our peers and partners; saddened by some of the reprehensible behaviors we’ve manifested at critical moments; and shamed by some of our weaknesses when strength was needed.
Atmosphere deals with all the missed moments; yesterday’s regrets, tomorrow’s challenges. I know it sounds heavy, too heavy for popular music. But it is precisely this heaviness that makes me know this music is the blues.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
“The Number One,” “Don’t Forget,”
– Sad Clown Bad Summer
– Sad Clown Bad Winter
All other tracks from When Life Gives You A Lemon, You Paint That Shit Gold
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