[18 November 2008]
Although I might be considered green by their more hardcore fans, the two Atmosphere shows I have attended in the past two years have certainly provided, for the lack of a better term, unique experiences. Last fall, I saw them at the same venue, Lupo’s in Providence, Rhode Island, when Slug and Ant had decided they would step up their live game. Rather than the classic emcee and DJ combination, the duo brought along a full band to help flesh out their tracks. Prior to this, I was lucky enough to catch Slug and Ant with Murs during the 2007 Rock the Bells tour. And even though they stuck mostly to their efforts together from the Felt records, Slug kept the crowd happy by playing some Atmosphere tracks as well. From that show, I gathered that Atmosphere could throw a party like any other rap act, even if their subject matter gravitates toward the more depressing aspects of life.
Again, at this show, the inclusion of a live band transformed Atmosphere from a mere hip-hop duo to something greater. In some ways, like the Roots, their music transcended rap. And while their performance is not yet at the same level as the Roots, who are easily the greatest live hip-hop act of our time, the Philly crew has been a ‘band’ throughout their career, whereas the Minnesota duo just switched things up last year.
Before Atmosphere took the stage, those of us who had shown up on time were graced with a high-energy 35-minute set from fellow Rhymesayers artist Blueprint. Tracks like “Boombox” and “Fresh” banged hard, mostly due to the obscenely loud bass, and ‘Print put everything he had into them. He also spit out a song off his upcoming album (both of which remain nameless at this point) that should drop next year. It might have been a stereotypical “mainstream hip-hop sucks because…” track, but Blueprint’s emotion and raw delivery made it exceptional. Also, his re-working of Big Daddy Kane’s “Ain’t No Half Steppin’” as “Ain’t No Half Smokin’”, a track about the neighborhood weed man, was fun and nostalgic. Blueprint, who perhaps talked a bit too much, definitely saved the best for last. After dedicating the song to all the ladies in attendance, he ran through the hilarious and crowd-pleasing “Big Girls Need Love Too”, which throws verbal darts at obese and skinny girls.
Surprisingly, as soon as Blueprint left the stage, the next opener came right out sans interruption. Abstract Rude, who you might know from his work with Abstract Tribe Unique and Project Blowed, spent 45 minutes taking the near-capacity crowd on a trip to his “homeland” of California. And—for better or worse—he succeeded. As oddly hypnotic as his live show can be, Ab-Rude is so laidback and chill that it can negatively affect his performance. Even with thumping bass behind him, he hardly spits with much tenacity or energy. But he doesn’t stand still or just sit there either; Ab-Rude takes full advantage of his surroundings. It’s just unfortunate that his flow can sometimes slow his set down. Slight criticisms aside, though, he is still a capable and talented performer. His verses from “Smokin’ In Here” and “Stop Biting”, both off the underrated Code Name: Scorpion, were fantastic, as were “All Day” and “Blast Off”, the latter of which was one of the night’s best. “Push Up Ya Lighter”, a track off his upcoming new record Dear Abbey, had the crowd doing just what the song implies as he killed it on the mic. And the beat was every bit as laidback and Cali-infused as the emcee himself.
Once Ab-Rude walked backstage, the vibe in the club reached its climax as everyone was clearly ready for some of Minnesota’s finest hip-hop. But as Slug walked out to the roar of the crowd, he instantly made it known that he and his crew were not ready to play just yet. He grabbed the mic and asked if he could bring a few friends out first. As the “Yeah!“s faded, a large man, also known as local poet/rapper B. Dolan, emerged. He wowed his onlookers with his spoken word piece “Still Electric”, a slick poem about a nervous breakdown. As he waved goodbye, Jared Paul, another local poet, came out of the shadows. Like Dolan, Paul rhymed intricately and evocatively. His piece was heavy on politics, which is fitting considering he was arrested at the Republican National Convention, and he dedicated his piece to the Minneapolis Police Department. Although it was kind of expected considering two of his pals had just performed, Mr. Strange Famous himself Sage Francis appeared to a roar that rivaled that of Slug’s reception. Sage spit an a cappella version of his latest song “Conspiracy to Riot”, which he wrote in honor of Paul’s recent plight. If you have seen Sage perform before, you know he is able to capture everyone’s attention with his rough and rugged approach and powerful lyrics. Luckily, his brief time on stage would not be the last we saw of him.
After that brief treat from some of Providence’s best performers, it was finally time for Atmosphere. Slug, sporting a blue Obama hoodie, acknowledged the fact that his fans have been putting up with him for a while, so he kept the favors to a minimum. And, for the most part, he kept his promise throughout the two-hour set. He rarely asked for anyone to throw their hands up, except for the peace sign/v-for-vote at the show’s conclusion, and there was very little call-and-response, too. And as the group kicked their set off with “Like the Rest of Us” and “In Her Music Box”, two of the mellowest pieces in their catalog, it became apparent this wouldn’t be just another hip-hop show. Those tracks, and others, off When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold brought the music to another level, nay, another planet. They bumped like traditional hip-hop, but that is where the similarities to the genre’s roots ended. And their ability to transition from the chorus of “You” to “Happy Mess”, which was surprisingly funky, displayed a dedication to performing that few acts can hope to achieve.
As the tracks played on, the crowd remained mesmerized by Slug’s rhymes, Ant’s heavy percussion (by way of a laptop), and the accompanying keyboardist, guitarist, and vocalist. They went into the too-catchy-for-its-own-good “Puppets”, which in another world could be a Top 40 hit, before tearing through several cuts from their deep catalog. The group played “The Rooster”, “Bird Sings Why the Caged I Know”, and “Less One”, all of which were haunting and fantastic, before Slug took a moment to ask the crowd if we were feeling the “old shit.” Of course, he was met with a positive a response. But after “Between the Lines” ended, it was right back to the newer tracks like “The Waitress” and “Say Hey There”, which was introduced by the female vocalist, who sang the “please have mercy on me” loop beautifully. Although these two tracks aren’t very close on the Atmosphere timeline, they stood side-by-side like old friends. Up next was “Little Man” and crowd favorite/one of their biggest hits “Godlovesugly”. The dusty “Lovelife” was followed by another banger in “Shoulda Known”, during which the frontman sang the chorus of labelmate Brother Ali’s “Forest Whitaker”.
The somber duo of “Don’t Ever Fucking Question That” and “Yesterday” might have brought the mood down a notch, but Slug performs with such zeal that even the most miserable joints have their bright moments. As the guitarist, Nate Collis, picked up an acoustic guitar to back Slug for “Not Another Day”, the emcee addressed the audience, thanking everyone who had performed. Like “Guarantees” off When Life Gives You Lemons…, which they played next, “Not Another Day” was another testament to Atmosphere’s ability to remain relevant and innovative after so many years in the game. Unlike most acts, who barely even switch up their set lists, Atmosphere are not satisfied with a stagnating live show. Collis then sang the first verse of “Trying to Find a Balance” until Slug stole vocal duties and somehow got the exhausted crowd moving again. The energy bounced around the club before succumbing to the mellower, though phenomenal, “Sunshine” and “Guns and Cigarettes”.
Just as it seemed like Atmosphere was ready to end the night with “Always Coming Back Home To You”, Slug motioned to Ab-Rude and Sage Francis, who were standing to the side of the stage. As they walked back on, the beat from “Smart Went Crazy” dropped and they all traded the mic for some freestyle. Although Slug and Ab-Rude are talented emcees in their own right, Sage held his ground the firmest and spit like a mad dog just let out of its cage. Slug then addressed the audience in a way that I, and others, had never heard before. He begged and pleaded for us to hit the polls, saying he didn’t care who we voted for but just that we actually vote. Even though parts of his mini-speech were cheesy, which he realized by calling his words akin to those on a bumper sticker, he sounded sincere. It’s this sincerity that has made Slug and Ant so endearing and lovable over the years. No matter where they decide to go next musically, you know there will always be depth and honesty in their output.