Maintaining a career in rap for 20 years is no easy feat, especially as an independent artist. But that’s exactly what Atmosphere have done, cultivating a loyal fan base while being Rhymesayers Entertainment’s marquee act.
Slug, Ant and former member Spawn were putting in work before 1997 but that year brought about the release of their debut album, Overcast! The LP experienced modest success at the time yet would go on to be regarded as an underground classic and begin a prolific run for the group that has now lasted two decades.
In honor of the album’s 20th anniversary, Atmosphere and Rhymesayers have finally released the full-length version on vinyl for the first time. Ahead of record collectors getting their hands on the LP on Friday (October 27), HipHopDX caught up with Slug for a trip down memory lane.
In part one of our conversation, Slug gives insight on what was going on during the making of Overcast! He also delves into the initial reaction to the album and discusses the departure of Spawn, which turned Atmosphere into a duo.
What was life like for you during the making of Overcast?
I guess how I would articulate it now is I was experimenting with living situations. I had been with a girlfriend for a handful of years and we had a son. And then we broke up and I didn’t have any sort of — and that would have been Jacob’s mom — I didn’t have any sort of blueprint for what I was supposed to do next. I didn’t know how to find a roommate, I didn’t know how to do any of that shit.
So, there I was, living in the artsy part of town. I needed a roommate and I started going through a string of roommates until I just eventually moved into a living room, put a bed in it, and then just started living with different graffiti writers. They would come through and spend some time staying in this apartment and I was always kind of like the den mother. I was a little bit older. I was 24, 25 and it would just be like different dudes coming through town from other cities or dudes from around here. But it just became almost like a group home for graffiti writers or artists for that matter because some of them were already outgrowing graffiti and getting into other visual arts, etc.
There was just always art around, man. There was always young people drinking too much, smoking pot and creating things. And same with rappers; I had rappers coming through the house often. But, basically, living in somewhat of an art house; but me, living in the living room and renting out the other rooms, because it was my spot but I had to cover the rent. Well, I reached the point where I was able to rent out the rooms to cover the whole amount so that I was actually living in the living room for free.
And with that said, that was part of how I was able to afford the lifestyle that I had. I realized, “Hey, I’m not gonna make a ton of money, so how about I just get my expenses down as low as possible so that I can work just enough hours to cover my child and to make sure that I can eat and then spend the rest of my time creating.” When I learned that life hack, I never really went back. It’s kind of where I stayed for the rest of my life. Even when money came in, even when I started making money, I always kept my expenses as low as possible so that I could create the lifestyle that I needed in order to continue being creative.
To this day, that’s still kind of how I live. I have a moderate house in a blue-collar neighborhood. I still live moderately so that I can afford to do the shit that I want to do, which I think has been very helpful in me still having this job in a way because I feel like had I ever reached that point where I had a fucking $5,000 mortgage or some crazy shit — because there had been times where I could’ve technically afforded that. But had I gone there, then I wouldn’t ever have had the freedom to be like, “Hey, I’m gonna take two years off to make this next record.” Or “Hey, I’m not going to tour, I’m not going to do a show for fucking 18 months because I’m going to have another baby.”
So, it’s being able to live the way I live allows me to put my crew on salary so that even if we aren’t playing shows, I can still pay people money to live to be just fucking creative or to just be. I feel like that’s one of the life hacks that I wish that I knew a really quick, easy way to articulate that to some of these younger cats who are coming up. Because it’s funny how there was a genre of rappers who just looked at us, who’s like, “Oh, yeah, you guys are the old guys. You’re old news.” And now we’ve reached the next genre of rappers who look at us and go, “Well, you’re the old guys, but you’re the OGs and we respect you, so we ask you questions.”
It’s like we’re in that next cycle whereas the previous cycle fools didn’t ask us questions because they still saw us as, maybe, competition or some shit, even though we weren’t. You know what I mean? It was like, “No, it’s y’all’s now. We’re now old school.” Like, yeah, we tour, but people that come see us aren’t debating if they’re gonna come see us or come see you. They come see us because they have nostalgia with us and we still put out some records. They come see you because you’re the new, hot shit. Whereas, now, we’ve hit that next phase where these young dudes that are the new hot, they don’t see us as competition at all. In a good way, I don’t mean that in a bad way, but they just see us as resources of information.
Here I go, answering questions you didn’t ask. I’m sorry.
It’s all good!
So, I guess what I was trying to say for me back then, I learned early, keep your expenses as low as fucking possible so that you can have these other resources to create. Whether it’s time, energy, some money, whatever you need to do. If I gotta go and buy a new set of markers for rendering shit, I can because I’m not spending all my fucking money on partying. I’m not spending all my money on drugs. I’m not spending all my money on this car that I got to fucking make a hit to pay my note on.
Now, this is back before I had money. I grew up in a home that didn’t have no money. My parents were broke as a joke, you know what I’m saying, so I knew I didn’t require a lot to live. I knew I could get over with, on the bare minimum. Not only that though, as we were coming up in Minneapolis, there were people here that were like, they wanted to be supportive in ways that you would just never expect. I’m not saying anybody ever handed me money, but basically, I had one homie who would give me a box of promotional CDs because they were interning for a label. And then I had another homie who worked at a used record store that would just buy those CDs from me at top value, even if they weren’t top value, just to put that money in pocket because they could slide it through without anybody noticing that they just handed out $160 for a 30 box of fucking bullshit CDs.
So, there was just people around that were like, “Hey, I like what you’re doing, I’m into what you’re trying to accomplish, I’m into your vibe.” Or “I appreciate what you’re doing even with the different artists that you work with.” Not even rappers, but just even like visual artists. Like I said, I had a house that was always full of artists, man. So, there was always connections, there was always networking and all that networking always brought other people to the table that were like, “Hey, man, I’m into what you’re trying to accomplish.”
So there was always support, even if it was just somebody going at a coffee shop being like, “Hey, you can have this sandwich. Just take it.” Shit like that, that allowed me to really not have to stress out about money. Now, that’s not to say I didn’t never have to stress about money because I did. I had a kid. But I was able to, I think, do it in a way that was like, I always knew we were gonna get over. We were gonna get by. I didn’t know we were gonna make money, but I knew we weren’t gonna starve. I grew up that way. I grew up going, “Hey, as long as we got fucking two rocks to rub together we can make a fire.”
And I think that was a very big part of the beginnings of Rhymesayers because me and a couple other like-minded people, we did this and we played shows and we didn’t take the show money home and spend it on clothes. We would take the money and continue to just pool it and pool it and pool it until one day, suddenly, there was a bunch of money moving around. It was like, we were pooling our money and not spending it on ourselves, but just continuing to build and grow the label pretty much all the way up until God Loves Ugly popped off. And when God Loves Ugly came out and sold well, that was just the first time that we were like, “Yo, we can actually start paying ourselves.”
So looking back, how big do you feel Overcast! got? Was it just something that really took off locally or did you find it connecting into other areas of the U.S. at that time?
It took off locally first. And when I say that, I mean press — local press like The Twin Cities Reader, The City Pages, The Pulse — they all started talking about it. Star Tribune. We started booking shows around town, but also, there was a group, there was a huge population of Hip Hop heads in Minneapolis that didn’t even know who the fuck we were. It’s like, we’re from the South Side. At the time, I would say the South Side and the West Side of St. Paul were heavier on the freestyle type of warp. The boom bap shit. The North Side had more street rap going on and same with the East Side of St Paul. There was more street rap.
A lot of the street dudes didn’t have any idea who the fuck Atmosphere was. So, when I say we kinda blew up locally, it’s a little bit of a misnomer or it’s a little bit of a … it’s not really real because we didn’t blow up in the whole city. We just blew up with press. We just blew up with the people who paid attention to what was hip, what was cool. Those people starting noticing who Atmosphere was.
I think that’s important to note because nobody in this town, as far as Hip Hop goes, has really taken over the city, all sides of it, ever. It’s just never happened. We never had one of those. We haven’t had a Kanye or a Chance The Rapper. We haven’t had a YG or somebody who’s like the backpackers as well as the street dudes like this guy kind of a thing. Minneapolis still hasn’t had one of those. The closest we’ve had to that so far has been Atmosphere, if only because the street dudes are now aware of us, especially with Soundset [Festival] and shit like that.
They’re aware of us now, whereas back in Overcast! days those dudes weren’t even aware of us. I worked at the Electric Fetus [record store] and, so we kept Overcast! in a listening station. So when street dudes would come in to buy tapes, I would be like, “Hey, check mine out. It’s in there, you can listen to it.” They would go put it on for a couple of seconds and then just out of being considerate to me would be like, “Oh, yeah, that’s kind of cool.” But they would never buy the shit. So, it’s not true to say we blew up. It’s just true to say we got some attention, especially from press and shit like that.
But it was enough. It was enough to get us to the point where we started focusing harder on getting the music out and when we did that, then it was cool because college radio picked up “Scapegoat” and started playing it in about 10 different markets. And that got us shows. That’s how we got to go play Scribble Jam. And when we played Scribble Jam, it basically opened us up to 10 more markets because you had promoters and kids from other cities, coming from Austin to come to Scribble Jam. So they suddenly saw us and they’re like, “Yo, we want to book you to come play Austin. We want to book you to come play Birmingham and so on. So that’s when we took off.
So, it was Overcast! that really set us down. I would say through that, we were able to make connections that got us to play at CMJ Festival in New York. We went out there and played that festival with a whole bunch of up-and-coming backpacker 12-inch rappers, and we blew the spot up. We didn’t even intend to be the group you remembered that night. Me and Eyedea went in there just to go kick it and because of the type of energy me and Eyedea were doing at the time and because of the freestyle shit we were doing at the time, we blew it up.
At that point, we knew at least for ourselves, we finally got some confidence that like, “Yo, what we’re doing is actually [connecting.]” We’ve been spending all this time in Minneapolis kinda looking outward at other cities like, “Someday we’ll play New York, someday we’ll play L.A.” We didn’t realize that what we were doing was actually as good and, in some cases, better than what our contemporaries were doing in those other cities. We still looked up to them other cities like, “Yo, I can’t wait to finally get there.” We didn’t know that when we got there they were gonna be like, “What the fuck.”
When all that shit started happening, that’s when we saw, “Yo, we’re committing.” Like, we’re committing to this shit, 100 percent.
Can you talk about Spawn and what led to his departure from the group?
So, here’s the thing — Spawn moved. I don’t know how to, in fact, I don’t even want to tell his story. He has a story to tell and someday I really would love for him to tell it, so I don’t even want to tell it. But I’ll say this — when me and him separated, it was as organic as anything. There was some hurt feelings on both sides of us, but even that shit was natural and organic. So, it’s a crazy thing ‘cause I do honestly believe it all is the best that it could have been.
I feel like had he stuck with Atmosphere, I don’t know that he would have enjoyed it. I don’t know that he would have enjoyed putting up with some of the shit that I was down to put up with ‘cause I was fucking desperate. I didn’t have no college, I didn’t have nothing. It was either this or I was gonna be driving a fucking cube truck for UPS, straight the fuck up. And don’t get me wrong, I was ready. I was already in it. I was like, “Fuck it, I’m gonna be a driver.” I love driving. I’m driving right now. It was my thing, as far as work goes. But I didn’t have anything else to fall back on, so that’s what I was gonna be doing. I was gonna get fat and drive a truck.
Whereas I think Spawn saw something and maybe he didn’t realize it consciously, but he made some moves for his life that I think were the best possible moves for him. So it put me in a situation where I had to figure out, “Well, what the fuck am I gonna do now?” And that’s kinda why I tapped Eyedea, like, “Hey, if you come with me and do my backups, be my hype man, I’ll highlight you, I’ll be your hype man too.” Between the two of us, we went out and fucking, we just went out to just have fun, but we really accidentally ended up murdering people, you know?
— Fifth Element (@fifthelementRSE) October 27, 2017
Look out for part two of DX’s interview with Slug in the near future!