HotStar: Atmosphere

Atmosphere has always taken a DIY approach with everything from marketing to sticking with its own label. So it’s not surprising that the hip-hop duo included a 40-page hardcover children’s book along with the deluxe version of its sixth official studio album, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold.

The book tells the album’s story, which has optimism as its backbone, or as rapper Slug puts it, "Take the cards that you’ve been dealt and make a hand, even if you have to bluff."

"Initially it was a joke," Slug, (real name Sean Daley), told Pollstar. "I did it kind of as a reaction to certain contemporaries of mine who would prod and poke at me, saying I was trying to be more accessible or simplified. So I thought, kind of like to be a sarcastic prick, I would write a children’s book.

"But after working on it for a little while, I actually started to really enjoy it. I felt like it was a good accompaniment as far as this particular album … I was trying to make a record that was more of a story overall," Slug said.

Manager Jason Cook of Rhymesayers Entertainment, the label that Slug co-founded and Cook describes as an "artists collective," told Pollstar, "We don’t always follow the norm. [Rather] than put out a video here, do the single, we would just put out a record in a month with nothing and just support it on the road. We go against the grain. I think being independent has allowed us to spread our wings."

Slug founded Atmosphere in 1991 and joined forces with DJ/producer Ant (real name Anthony Davis) in 1995. He said it’s always been their philosophy to be self-taught but this was initially a decision born of necessity.

"When we started making and recording music, we didn’t know what we were doing. There was no mentorship here in Minneapolis for how to make quality hip-hop music and so … we had no choice but to learn how to do it ourselves as far as building the momentum and building the structure that we have," Slug said. "I don’t know if it’s the best route to go for everybody but I know for us, it was the best. You can’t place a value on things I’ve learned from this industry."

Atmosphere has built a hardcore fan base in part because of the connection many fans feel to Slug’s lyrics, which often center on the character Lucy Ford. Slug said she was a play on the name Lucifer and was intended to represent the dichotomy between himself and women – but in retrospect he realized he was instead demonizing himself and his "codependency on alcohol, drama, marijuana, sex and validation."

"I want to make sure I keep a really good connection with those people that reach out to me because they relate to me, they understand me," Slug said. "It’s a great deal for someone like me because it gives me more of a sense of purpose than just being able to have fly rhymes.

"The fact that I’ve been able to tap into a small group of people who feel what I’ve got to say … that’s kind of inspiring. It’s pushing people to dialogue, to deal with certain things. So I guess I’m pretty blessed," Slug said.

Cook said that as an independent hip-hop group, Atmosphere has broken down some barriers by just "going out there and earning fans every night."

"When we first started touring, it was like, ‘Aww, it’s a rap group.’ It’s like it didn’t sit well with some people. And over the years we’ve changed some people’s minds about a lot of things besides just selling out rooms, being very professional, showing up on time, doing our thing, being nice, courteous. Not to say that rappers aren’t like that, but I think it changed people’s minds about it and opened their eyes to it like, ‘We can do these shows’ and, ‘Oh, there’s no violence at all and it’s a packed room.’"

Slug explained that the live show is constantly changing from including a six-piece band and DJ to now doing a more stripped-down show with himself, Ant, a guitar player, keyboard player and backup singer.

"I went through a phase years ago when … I was under the influence of a lot of alcohol and I think I was feeding people the same stuff over and over again. I just got this really sick feeling that I wasn’t being progressive, that I wasn’t growing or challenging an audience at all," Slug said.

"Since I’ve backed off from drinking a little bit, I’ve put a lot more effort into making sure that when people come to a show, it’s never quite what they thought they were going to get. I just don’t ever want to become complacent again."

The Agency’s Group’s Christian Bernhardt told Pollstar "one of the main reasons I like working with them is because they had so much experience and had done so much on their own already." He said capacity-wise, venues between 1,000 and 2,000 seats are where Atmosphere shines.

Bernhardt said the goal is to maintain intimacy with fans. "In the past, in our biggest markets, we’ve done two or three shows in one city in a smaller room rather than doing one show in a bigger room."

Atmosphere is booked for a round of European dates throughout August. After that comes a soon-to-be announced U.S. tour from mid-September through November, followed by a West Coast tour in April and May.

Slug said his "only real goal is to continue having a good time."

"I would say this last album and this last cycle have been the most fun year I’ve had in this game. So as long as I can keep that going, I’m cool."