Hip-hop outfit and Rhymesayers label heads Atmosphere represent the Twin Cities with introspective rhymes, creative storytelling, and classic production (often incorporating live instrumentation), building a devoted grassroots following with prolific output, collaborations, and consistent touring. First appearing as a trio during the mid-’90s, Atmosphere settled into the core duo of rapper Slug and producer Ant, and first made a major impact on the hip-hop underground with 2001′s Lucy Ford, a collection of three early EPs. Slug’s lyrical focus shifted from personal struggles to character-based narratives with releases like fifth full-length When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, which landed at number five on the Billboard 200 when it arrived in 2008. With releases like 2011′s The Family Sign and 2018′s Mi Vida Local, Atmosphere’s songs reflected on middle age and fatherhood, while 2020′s The Day Before Halloween was an electro-tinged detour into dystopian paranoia. 2021′s Word? was a more lighthearted return to a vintage boom-bap sound. As co-founders of Rhymesayers, they are also affiliated with a roster of like-minded hip-hop acts and curators of the annual Minneapolis music festival Soundset.
As a teenager, Slug (Sean Daley) became entranced with hip-hop, graffiti, and breakdancing, forming the Rhymesayers label and collective (originally known as Headshots) with two high-school friends, Siddiq Ali (Stress) and Derek Turner (Spawn). After some early gigs as Urban Atmosphere — where Slug DJed behind Spawn’s rhyming — the pair hooked up with producer Ant (Anthony Davis), as well as like-minded locals such as MC Musab, Mr. Gene Poole, and the Abstract Pack, forming an underground hip-hop clique dedicated to freestyling and clever lyricism. In 1997, Atmosphere released their debut album, Overcast!, which received college radio airplay and earned an underground hip-hop following thanks to Slug’s deeply personal, poetic musings, as well as Ant’s bare-bones — but inventive — production.
Atmosphere participated in the supergroup the Dynospectrum (who released a self-titled album on Rhymesayers in 1998) and Slug contributed to another supergroup, Anticon’s Deep Puddle Dynamics (whose full-length The Taste of Rain...Why Kneel appeared in 1999). The Headshots collective concluded their series of underground cassettes with a seventh volume in 1999, later reissued as an Atmosphere release called Headshots: Se7en. The group also began a series of limited releases (often sold exclusively on tour) titled Sad Clown Bad Dub, beginning with an extremely scarce 1999 cassette.
A year later, Atmosphere (then down to the duo of Slug and Ant) released the Ford One and Ford Two EPs, followed by the Lucy EP in 2001. Collected as the 2001 full-length Lucy Ford: The Atmosphere EPs, the three EPs were built around the theme of Slug’s complicated relationship with his ex-girlfriend, the lost love of his life. As Atmosphere’s following increased beyond underground hip-hop circles, they toured consistently, both at home and overseas; while Ant usually didn’t accompany the group on the road, Mr. Dibbs of the group 1200 Hobos often joined in behind the turntables while Slug was assisted on the mike by young rappers like the teenaged Eyedea. In June 2002, Atmosphere unleashed God Loves Ugly, an 18-track effort that returned to previous themes (“F*@k You Lucy”), but also contained the group’s pop-friendly single “Modern Man’s Hustle,” which reached the Top 20 of the U.S. rap singles chart.
By this time indie rap superstars, Atmosphere returned with their fourth album, Seven's Travels, in 2003, followed two years later by You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having. Following the record’s success, Ant began regularly touring with the group. They continued to put music out during the next couple of years, including the free download Strictly Leakage in late 2007, a near-party album that they followed up with When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold in April 2008. The record featured plenty of live instrumentation and guest background vocal spots from Tom Waits and TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe; it was also their highest-charting album, hitting number five on the Billboard 200. The “double EP” To All My Friends: Blood Makes the Blade Holy appeared in 2010, with the full-length album The Family Sign following in 2011.
In 2014, the group released the album Southsiders, which featured the single “Bitter” and became another Top Ten-charting hit. The following year, Atmosphere celebrated the ten-year anniversary of You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having by reissuing the album as a four-LP set (including instrumental versions of all the album’s songs), in addition to The Fun EP, a picture-disc vinyl issue of an EP of You Can't Imagine outtakes that was originally released as a promo CD in 2006. In 2016, they returned with Fishing Blues, an album that featured the single “Ringo” along with guest appearances from MF Doom, Kool Keith, and Aesop Rock. While the set peaked just outside the Top 20 on the Billboard 200, it became their second album to top the U.S. indie chart. Mi Vida Local, an urgent reflection on middle age, appeared in 2018, followed a year later by the full-length Whenever. The Day Before Halloween arrived on that exact date in 2020, with Atmosphere unexpectedly switching to sci-fi/horror-informed themes over spooky, synth-heavy backdrops. Nearly a year later, Ant and Slug swerved back to their signature sound with Word?, which included guests such as Evidence, Aesop Rock, Sa-Roc, and MF Doom. ~ Dan LeRoy & Paul Simpson