Atmosphere comes from a different time. In the mid-’90s when Atmosphere got its start, gangster rap reigned supreme and the violent posturing of the rap lifestyle was at its most decadent peak. Atmosphere started down a similar path but made an interesting and important pit stop.
“In 1995 I released a song called ‘God’s Bathroom Floor,’ ” said Atmosphere’s MC Sean “Slug” Daley. “And the way people responded to that changed the way I rap.”
“At the time, I was doing the standards,” he continued. “I was rapping about what you think rappers are supposed to rap about. But ‘God’s Bathroom Floor,’ without that song, I would never have made (2001’s) ‘Lucy Ford,’ because people responded to that in a personal way. The response was strong enough to make me go fully in that direction.”
Eschewing the “fuck bitches/make money” style of rap as insincere, Slug and his producer Anthony “Ant” Davis set out to tell the only story they really knew: their own.
“The more I went inward, the larger the audience got,” Slug said. “It made me feel more secure and confident to just keep looking inward and not to try and worry so much about keeping up with the rap standards.”
The naming of “Lucy Ford” — the 2001 collection of Atmosphere’s previously released “Lucy” and “Ford One” and “Ford Two” EPs — as the direct descendant of that decision is obvious. The album has been heralded as the act’s artistic masterwork, and that’s a designation due entirely to the combination of Ant’s funky, languorous beats combined with Slug’s unflinchingly honest portrayal of his own insecurities and frustrations. It’s a musical style that creates a conversation between artist and listener that virtually everyone can relate to on some level. It might be unexpected, coming from a Minneapolis act with roots in the underground rap scene, but Atmosphere might just be the most readily accessible hip-hop act around.
The name Lucy Ford shows up in a lot of Atmosphere’s work. She’s less a character, though, than a rhetorical device.
“I started writing fiction and using a character that kept recurring,” Slug said. “I created Lucy Ford as a way to talk about myself without making it sound like I was talking about myself. She became my anti-hero, but she was really me.”
Fans and critics alike have made attempts at reading into Slug’s use of the female form to tell his stories of love, frustration and anger, but the man himself shrugs most of them off.
“(The character) could have been male, it could have been female. It didn’t really matter,” he admitted. “I just happened to make her into a female because it felt easier to talk about myself that way.”
No matter how he came upon the character, it’s worked out OK for the act. Atmosphere’s been going strong for 20 years now, and just released its seventh studio album, “Southsiders,” which debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard 200.
The duo’s appeal continues to derive from the accessibility of their ideas and Slug’s recurring role as laconic Everyman. The fact that people can identify with the same themes he struggles with is what keeps him going. The act of performing is as cathartic for his audience as it is for the man at the mic, and that’s something that drives him onward.
“Most of the things that I do are 100 percent based off of the response I get from people,” he explained. “I’ve yet to experience anything so good as a stranger telling you that they’re glad you’re alive, because your music touched them.” CV