Saturday, December 8, 2007

Atmosphere and the Rhymesayers: Investigating Authenticity in Minneapolis's Hip Hop Circle

Final Web Ethnography

In the early to mid 1980s, the creative juices of a few young innovators started boiling in the otherwise frozen land that is urban Minnesota. A small circle of artists began creating a new breed of underground hip hop in Minneapolis. Today that circle has not only survived, it has exploded, thrived, and diversified. Originals like Slug (aka Sean Daley) of Atmosphere have gone national and international representing and staying true to the hometown. Why and how does this underground hip hop community consider itself more authentic than mainstream hip hop? What criteria make these artists and their music authentic? Based on my ethnographic research, I found that first, this circle of artists is distinctly “anti-gangsta rap,” which means that it resists gangsta rap, a style that pervades much of mainstream hip hop today. This circle prides itself on taking an introspective and reflective style to its rhymes, and on being against the mainstream. Second, these artists consider staying with Rhymesayers Entertainment, a small local label, another defining piece in their own authenticity. By remaining with a small, local label, instead of going commercial with a major label, the artists claim the ability to stay both true to their roots and to the underground scene. These artists and their fans consider their music “purer” and “truer” than mainstream hip hop because they claim to have free license to create their own music without the interference of a big label.

Using the ethnographic method, I researched the Minneapolis hip hop crew, maintaining a focus on Atmosphere. I performed this research over the course of the semester by interviewing Atmosphere fans mostly from Minnesota with the hopes of understanding the importance of place to both the fans and the artists. I also did extensive online research on Atmosphere, other artists in the Minneapolis crew, and Atmosphere's fans. Finally, I listened to a lot of Atmosphere's music as well as music by fellow Minnesota artist Brother Ali. It is important here to note that I am a fan of Atmosphere and some of the group's contemporaries myself, and also a Minneapolis native. In compiling my research, I have tried to be as reflexive as possible.

First, a bit of background info. Atmosphere is one of the most widely-known hip hop groups in the Minneapolis hip hop circle. The group, founded formally in the mid 1990s, consists of Slug, the vocals, and Ant (aka Anthony Davis), the beats, and additional band members when on tour, as featured in the picture at left courtesy of Slug started the Rhymesayers collective with high school friends Spawn (aka Derek Turner), a former MC of Atmosphere, and Stress (aka Saddiq Ali). Today, Rhymesayers is the main underground or indie label in Minneapolis with 24 individuals or groups from the area signed including such notables as P.O.S., Brother Ali, and many others. Since releasing its first album, Overcast!, in 1998, Atmosphere has released eight albums, most recently, Sad Clown Bad Winter. The group set the tone for Rhymesayers as a distinctly “anti-gansta” rap collective, instead creating hip hop with a more meditative tone and style (Sidman, Sythesis).

So, why and how does this underground hip hop community and Atmosphere in particular consider itself more authentic than mainstream hip hop? Atmosphere and other members of the Rhymesayers label consider their individual and “anti-gangsta rap” style to be an essential part in creating their authenticity. Gangsta rap is a particularly "hard" hip hop style that includes rhymes about a host of things typically linked to gang life including violence and murder, drug use, and hustling (Quinn 64). Atmosphere and its contemporaries consider mainstream hip hop to be highly influenced by the gangsta rap style, and the ideas consistently discussed in the mainstream to be tired. Slug instead raps about his personal relationships such as that with his son in the song "Little Man," for example, and often offers societal critiques especially in the song "National Disgrace," (video featured below).

Other Rhymesayers artists, like Brother Ali, reflect on the current state of affairs
in the song “Uncle Sam, Goddamn,” for example. You can hear Brother Ali's governmental and social criticism in this video for the song:

Fans respond positively to this take on hip hop. Lauren, a 19 year old student in New York City and Minneapolis native explains the appeal:

The beats are good, and the lyrics are like poetry, not about money and hos like other rap music…The group is really unique because Slug talks about his opinions and experiences, not about how much money he has like some other rappers. Some of his stuff is dark and creepy, but it’s real.

By staying true to their roots and a small, local record label, Atmosphere and other underground artists continue to prove their authenticity. Atmosphere, courted by major record labels including Sony, turned down a chance to sign big so as not to undermine its authentic, local, and underground status. Underground authenticity means creating “pure” and “true” music that can be diluted under the control of a major label’s contract, the artists and their fans insist. Dustin, a 22 year old student in Madison, Wisconsin and Minneapolis native confirms that fans believe Atmosphere's loyalty to Rhymesayers is essential to the underground scene:

It’s really important to the Minnesota music scene that they have decided to stay local with the Rhymesayers as their label. That really helps other members of the scene like P.O.S. who went on the "Pour Me Another Tour with Atmosphere." It helps promote local musicians who need to say powerful messages, but like Atmosphere, don’t want to sell out to a commercial label. They are smart because they know they’ll have people telling them what to say, how to sound, what to do [if the sign with a major label].

As hip hop has aged, there is a feeling by many underground artists that much of the music today is inauthentic (Krims 93). In this interview, Slug talks about the proliferation of mediocre rappers that have helped him stand out because his raps have substance.

It is not uncommon for underground artists to assert their authenticity through content and skill (Hess 384).

Atmosphere is especially true to its roots because it is invested in Minneapolis. In the song, "Always Coming Back Home to You" (song featured below) on the album Se7en's Travels, Slug raps about his allegiance to Minnesota.

Minneapolis is Slug’s point of reference and where many of his experiences have taken place; so that comes through in his rhymes. In an exchange with interviewer Max Sidman published in Synthesis, Slug confirms what his rhymes convey:

People say that the scene in Minneapolis is great, if you can stand the winter.

Keep away, man, it's my secret garden! But yeah, if you can handle the winters, it is the place to live, and I stand firmly by that.

The connection to home or the 'hood is an important theme across hip hop both in the underground and mainstream spheres (Forman 7). Talib Kweli, for example, another hip hop performer from Brooklyn sings about his strong ties to his own hometown in several songs when he "shouts out" to Brooklyn (Spady 994). Hip hop artists usually get their start in their hometowns, so they feel loyalty to them and their home audiences. Atmosphere’s first fans were and are Minnesotans who can relate to the music and who spread their music to their friends, who expanded their music to their friends, and so on. The artists and the fans have a mutually-appreciative relationship. Dustin explains his appreciation:

It’s good to see people from my hometown making positive music and talking about real life, not fame and money like a lot of rappers. They make good songs with good beats. They convey their positive messages in a way that I can appreciate.

While Atmosphere (shown courtesy at left, Ant is left of Slug) and the Minnesota collective have stayed true to their roots, their appeal outside of Minneapolis is undeniable. Their underground status makes them seem more accessible to fans across the country than mainstream artists. The group's profile on websites like and allow fans across the country to keep up with daily announcements and new music from the artists, and also to leave the artists notes and communicate with other fans. These websites offer significant insight into Atmosphere’s fan base. Check out comments from fans hailing from Texas to Montana on these sites. As the group’s bio on Epitaph Records's website notes, the group is unique because of its wide appeal to hip hop die-hards, indie rockers, and punks. Atmosphere also has one of hip hop’s largest female followings, which includes the author of this ethnography. This accessibility to fans is a trademark of an authentic underground artist.

Atmosphere and other members of the Minneapolis hip hop circle take pride in setting themselves apart from the mainstream. They have their own criteria for what constitutes authentic artists and hip hop music. Atmosphere’s thoughtful and personal lyrical content, commitment to the local scene, the Rhymesayers label, and the local audience make its members authentic creators of hip hop in this scene. Fans appreciate that Atmosphere has not “sold out” to a major record label because the lyrics remain authentic. Fans also appreciate that it is easy to get information about the artist, music, upcoming shows, and can communicate with the artist and other fans without the layers of publicists and managers and agents that mainstream musicians typically have. This makes Atmosphere more real or authentic than mainstream hip hop artists. Additionally, in this circle, attachment to Minneapolis is a defining characteristic. The artists are very loyal to their Minnesota fans, who have been loyal to them. The idea of race in this scene is an interesting point to continue research. From personal experience, I have noted that Atmosphere seems to attract a mainly white audience. Race is rarely talked about in this scene, except minimally by Brother Ali, who’s race has been questioned because he is albino. Slug himself is half African American and half white, and the rest of the Rhymesayers group is surprisingly diverse. There are a sizable number of Latino artists as well as African Americans and whites. There are two groups, Soul Position and Mass Hysteria, that are composed of one African American and one white member. In a lot of mainstream hip hop, race is an indicator of authenticity, but in this scene that clearly is not so. It would be worthwhile to delve into this issue to further investigate this scene.

Works Cited

Epitaph Records. 2005. Accessed 12/12/07.

Forman, Murray. The ‘Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

Hard News Cafe: Utah State University. Accessed 12/12/07.

Hess, Mickey. “Hip-hop Realness and the White Performer.” Critical Studies in Media Communication. Vol. 22, No. 5, December 2005, pp.372-389.

Krims, Adam. Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

MySpace. Atmosphere. 2003-2007. Accessed 12/12/07.

Myspace. Brother Ali. 2003-2007. Accessed 12.12.07.

MySpace. P.O.S. 2003-2007. Accessed 12/12/07.

Quinn, Eithne. Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang: The Commerce and Culture of Gangsta Rap. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Rhymesayers Entertainment. 2004. Accessed 12/12/07.

Sidman, Max. Sythesis. "The Fifth Element of Hip Hop: Atmosphere's Slug Expounds on the Rhymesayers, Minneapolis, and other Unspeakable Things." Sept 17th, 2002. Accessed 12/12/07.

Spady, James. “The Flouroscope of Brooklyn Hip Hop: Talib Kweli in Conversation.” Callaloo Vol. 29, No. 3, pp.993–1011.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Fieldnotes II


Interview 2
Dustin is a 22 year old student in Madison, WI and a Minneapolis area native.

When did you start listening to Atmosphere?

I started listening in 8th grade (about 14 years old). I got into it because my friend’s brother is actually an Emcee for Doomtree Records (a major Minneapolis record label/crew that performs DIY punk, rap, hip hop, and other types of music; Doomtree artists such as P.O.S. have toured with Atmosphere).

What was the scene like when you first started listening?

It was pretty small. I first saw Slug in concert by himself at the [Minnesota] State Fair. He wasn’t even performing at one of the main bandstands. He was at the Green Mill bandstand. He was performing with other local artists including Brother Ali and The Core. At that time, the scene was pretty underground. Not a lot of people knew those guys yet, definitely not like they know them now.

How many concerts have you been to, and how have the performances evolved over the years?

I think I’ve been to about 6 of 7 concerts, mostly at First Ave (a well-known and popular venue for local artists in the heart of downtown Minneapolis). At each performance, Slug breaks out stuff from the most recent album, since they are usually touring to promote the newest album. But, they usually break out some older music, too. Really, every album has a different feeling, but the messages are pretty consistent, and their style and values are still the same, no matter how big they get. They talk about things I can relate to and that are mostly positive, and they are still true to Minneapolis and their roots.

Why do you like Atmosphere and their music?

It’s good to see people from my hometown making positive music and talking about real life, not fame and money like a lot of rappers. They make good songs with good beats. They convey their positive messages in a way that I can appreciate.

How do you feel about the fact that Atmosphere and other members of the Minneapolis scene are becoming more widely known?

I think it’s really good. It’s helping the Minnesota music scene grow. It’s good for artists to go other places and get recognized for positive reasons. It’s good that Slug is the same person he was before he started getting so widely known, but he’s proven that his messages are relatable across the country. Still, he is true to hits roots. That’s really important to his local fans.

How do you feel about the fact that Atmosphere has turned down several offers from major commercial record labels?

It’s really important to the Minnesota music scene that they have decided to stay local with the Rhymesayers as their label. That really helps other members of the scene like P.O.S. who went on the Pour Me Another Tour with Atmosphere. It helps promote local musicians who need to say powerful messages, but like Atmosphere, don’t want to sell out to a commercial label. They are smart because they know they’ll have people telling them what to say, how to sound, what to do.

What is your favorite album and/or song and why?

I like Lucy Ford best because it was Atmosphere’s first CD as a group. It is lesser known than some of the more recent albums, but it really shows where Slug came from. My favorite song is “Don’t Ever F***ing Question That” (which is on Lucy Ford). It is just a song that I can relate to, and its one of the originals.

Notes: The Minneapolis Scene

I think it is important to mention some of the other artists that are important in this same local circle that Atmosphere came from. Some of these artists have toured together, and most of them are friends or at least know each other. Doomtree Records describes itself as “a record label…a rap group…a family.” This scene is known to be very tightly-knit. Members of Doomtree include: Emcee/Producer Cecil Otter, Emcee/Vocalist Dessa, Producer Emily Bloodmobile, Producer Lazerbeak, Emcee/Producer P.O.S., Emcee Sims, Producer/DJ Tom Servo, and DJ Turbo Nemesis, Marshall Larada, Mike Mictlan, and Paper Tiger. This crew often performs at First Ave in Minneapolis, but also at other venues in the area. The reach of this crew is expanding. Performers, such as P.O.S., have toured with other members of the scene outside of the crew like Atmosphere. Doomtree calls itself “one of the most highly regarded hip-hop collectives in the Midwest.”

Doomtree’s first official album was P.O.S.’s Ipecac Neat, which was critically acclaimed by Minneapolis’s main newspaper, The Star Tribune. The crew has received several awards in recent years from widely-circulated local publications that are confident that they are up and coming. Members of Doomtree have also toured with widely known artist Wyclef Jean, and another local big-name, Brother Ali.

Brother Ali, originally from Madison, WI, moved to Minneapolis at age 15 when he became immersed in the local hip hop scene. Like Atmosphere and P.O.S., he is signed with Rhymesayers, and has gain national notoriety in the past years. Ali is known to rap with an easily-recognizable flow. The content of his music ranges from political critique in “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” to an outpouring of personal experiences in songs like “Truth Is.”


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Music Videos

Here is a link to music videos for "Trying to Find a Balance" on Se7ens Travels (2003) and "Say Hey There" on You Can't Believe How Much Fun We're Having (2005):


Interview 1:
Lauren is a 19-year-old art student living in New York. She was born and raised in the Minneapolis area.

When did you start listening to Atmosphere?

I was in 8th grade, 12 years old (2000).

How did you get into the group?

My friend Sam introduced me to the group. He got into through a skateboarding video or something, I think.

Did a lot of your friends know about Atmosphere then?

Not then. They started getting into Atmosphere during high school. Some of my guy friends started listening to it earlier, but it wasn’t widely known until high school.

How did your girlfriends start listening to Atmosphere?

Everyone started listening to it through word of mouth I think. I don’t know for sure, but I think in the beginning more guys than girls listened to it.

Has the group’s reach extended?

Yeah they have been touring more concerts in college towns. Tonight they are in Madison, WI, actually. I have friends from New York who like it now, too.

Why do you like the group?

The music is really good. It was always cool because [Slug] is so talented, but still likes smaller-scale audiences. I also knew where and what he was singing about in a lot of songs [because he makes references to Minnesota, Minneapolis, and the Midwest]. The beats are good and the lyrics are like poetry, not about money and hos like other rap music.

What is your favorite album?

My first album was Lucy Ford, but my favorite is Se7ens Travels. "Reflections" and "Trying to Find a Balance" are some of my favorite songs of all time. I identify with them. "Always Coming Back Home to You" is about Minnesota. I’m away at college now and I really value my home and the values of the people there.

What is especially interesting to you about Atmosphere?

The group is really unique because Slug talks about his opinions and experiences, not about how much money he has like some other rappers. Some of his stuff is dark and creepy, but it’s real. It’s like a poem.

Does it matter to you that Atmosphere is not signed with a major record label, event though several offers were made?

That goes to show that they aren’t just trying to crank out bestsellers, but music with substance. They don’t want to be sellouts. That’s definitely important to their fans.

How many concerts have you been to?

Three all in Minneapolis: Senior year in high school was the most recent one.

What do you remember about the last concert you went to?

Slug was singing from different from albums. Every album is a different stage in his life. Every album is good, but not the same as the last one. It’s like a story in concert of his life.



Listening to Atmosphere’s Sad Clown Bad Summer (2007):

My favorite songs on this album are “Sunshine” and “Mattress.” “Sunshine” has an interesting, upbeat tone and a piano playing a simple, repetitive tune in the background which makes it, like many of Atmosphere’s songs, unique from other hip hop and indie music. “Mattress” is also an interesting song because the beat is also fast and catchy. Upon a closer listen to the lyrics, however, the song is about lies and secrets and guilt being “stains on that mattress.”

The upbeat tone of these songs is quite different from an older album, Lucy Ford. Songs like “Don’t Ever F***ing Question that” have a much slower and more somber beat. That song is about the difficulty Slug and a former love have in communicating and believing their feelings for each other: “I love you/Don’t ever f***ing question that/That’s why we’ll probably never get along/If I could find the right words to say/I wouldn’t need to write this mothaf***ing song.”

A song I particularly like is “Always Coming Back Home to you” because it both refers to places I know because I grew up in Minneapolis and Slug professes his loyalty to his hometown. Also, he reminds me that there are many different lifestyles and experiences in Minneapolis. It is important for me to keep an awareness of different lifestyles in my own hometown. He talks about the “Southside of the city” where he grew up, which is very different from where I grew up. In the second part of the song, Slug raps about the unique values of Midwesterners. “The women are beautiful/To me they are/At least we’re not infested with pretentious movie stars/Then it hit me Minnesota is dope/If not for what we have, then for what we don’t”

Article from URB Magazine, 2005

Imagine how many cigarettes, beers, tour dates, international flights, all-night drives, backstage shenanigans, countless hours in a van, low-budget hotel rooms, notebooks filled with lyrics and endless hours of recording sessions have been consumed, experienced and sustained by Atmosphere over the course eight years? Lets count to eight. Remember 1997, the year beginning the next phase of independent rap artists and a new era of imprint-based record labels with the major label exploitation; the dividing period of: Mos Def, Jay Z, Company Flow and 2 Pac. Our story begins at this time in Minneapolis, MN. Eight years ago, when Atmosphere released their debut album Overcast!, on the artists' collectively owned Rhymesayers label. Slug, Ant, with then member Spawn, delivered the premier staple album defining Minnesota Hip Hop. It would introduce a small audience to Midwest rap, not music from New York or California, but Minneapolis, MN.

Atmosphere, a group built on Hip Hop principles influenced from the pioneering years of rap music, but with their own personal, honest and original mid-western contribution. A year had passed and Atmosphere's song, "Scapegoat", received national play on college radio and mix tape support in: Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Atmosphere was becoming discovered outside of the Twin Cities; the secret was out.

During this time, both Slug and Ant were also involved in one of independent rap's first underground super groups, The Dynospectrum (Slug, I Self Devine, Ant, Musab, Gene Poole), and had featured tracks on Industrial Warfare (volume six of the legendary Headshots four-track cassette series). For Atmosphere, 1998 was a year of collaborations (including recording Deep Puddle Dynamics) and a year well spent crafting their live performance at venues like First Avenue's 7th Street Entry.

In 1999, a year that brought one of Prince's songs back heavily on the airwaves and made Eminem a rap icon, Atmosphere created the final Headshots cassette, Headshots: SE7EN. The four-track recorded tape contained, "Abusing The Rib", Atmospheres classic ode to Hip Hop. The fan base slightly expanded throughout the central time zone, with Atmosphere beginning to tour (with DJ Abilities and Eyedea) to: Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota, Missouri, Kansas and Texas. Ford One and Ford Two, the vinyl singles distributed by Fat Beats, included such songs as, "Party For The Fight To Write", "Woman With The Tattooed Hands" and "Nothing But Sunshine". With these two pieces of wax, Atmosphere began to break down the regional Midwest barriers.

It was in the year 2000, that Atmosphere increased their travels with the twenty-date Ford One Tour that brought them to the East coast for the first time. Without a solid distribution system, and remaining on the independent path with their co-owned Rhymesayers label, Atmosphere's approach to bring their music to the people was decided- in a van, on the road, one show at a time selling the music hand to hand.

In the winter of 2001, the Ford and Lucy EP's were combined to create the second official Atmosphere album, Lucy Ford: The Atmosphere EP's, the only Slug and Ant album with external production: El P, Jel and Moodswing 9. This was the year Atmosphere took to the road heavier than ever performing on three separate tours: Ford Two Tour, Who Killed The Robots Tour and Fill In The Blanks Tour (with Mr. Dibbs for the first time). Atmosphere had now performed throughout North America and Europe. The circle was developing steadily and album sales increased with endless time spent living in a van. It had been four years, but kids were starting to know the words to the songs.

The sixth year of Slug and Ants career produced, Godlovesugly, the third Atmosphere album. Godlovesugly, which was licensed through Fat Beats, would go on to sell over 130,000 copies in the U.S. Festivals in England, Denmark and Sweden, tours as far from home as Japan, sold out release parties coast to coast and their biggest tour to date (sixty shows in seventy-one days), Atmosphere finally had distribution to support their exhaustive touring schedule. This was 2002, a year that brought: Interscope, Sony, Warner Brothers and a slew of other major labels to the table offering anything and everything to Atmosphere. There's a rule that states, it takes five years to become successful. For Slug and Ant, it was becoming a well-earned reality.

The year was now 2003, and Atmosphere released their third album in three years, making the conscious decision to remain independent by licensing the album through legendary punk label Epitaph. The album, Sevens Travels would go on to sell over 150,000 copies in the U.S alone, putting Atmosphere at the top of the niche underground-independent rap genre. From all night drives to play in front of only twenty five people, to multiple sold outs shows at: First Ave. in Minneapolis, MN, The Fillmore in San Francisco, Chicago at The Metro, Irving Plaza in New York, Emos in Austin, TX, Seattle, WA at The Showbox and the Henry Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles, Atmosphere has continued to grow, staying true to early indie, D.I.Y ethics and their original grass roots approach.

The seventh year of Atmosphere's career (2004) was once again spent on the road; a live television appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, an interview on the nationally syndicated radio program Love Line, a live performance at the Coachella music festival, European tour spanning across the continent, spot date performances throughout North America and Vans Warped Tour for the second year in a row. When it was all said and done, there were well over two hundred tour dates performed for the Sevens Travels album. This would be the first autumn Atmosphere would take off since 1999. In January of 2005, Rhymesayers reissued Headshots: SE7EN on CD and Vinyl, seven years after its original cassette-only release. Atmosphere celebrated this re-release with eight shows at the 7th Street Entry. In the eighth year of their career, Atmosphere sold out all eight shows in a row beating the original (five) sold out shows held by the Replacements in 1986. Just days after the Entry performances, Atmosphere toured with the Big Day Out festival in New Zealand and Australia. Starting March 1 in Madison, WI Slug hit the road in the U.S for their two-month tour that sold out forty-nine of the fifty-two shows.

The summer months of 2005 were spent putting the final touches on the new Atmosphere album, You Cant Imagine How Much Fun Were Having, Slug and Ant's greatest recorded effort to date. On this album, Atmosphere's Slug and Ant have upped their game yet again and brought their music back to where they drew their influences from in the first place. While the previous Atmosphere outings have carved them a niche of their own, this album is simultaneously a progression and a throwback. Slug's rhymes on this record have just as much in common with old LL Cool J and Run DMC as they do with some of Atmosphere's contemporaries to whom they are often compared. Ant's production on this record is by far his most complex and powerful work to date. Paying tribute to those that influence you, while evolving the art form at the same time is a difficult task, one in which Atmosphere pulls off without a hitch, without a hint of irony or a trace of insincerity. How much fun has Atmosphere had over eight years time? Imagine all the cigarettes, beers, tour dates, international flights, all-night drives, backstage shenanigans, countless hours in a van, low-budget hotel rooms, notebooks filled with lyrics and endless hours of recording sessions to get here. Imagine hearing the album on October 4, 2005. Now the fun begins. You can only imagine.

-Taken from Atmosphere's Myspace page: