Originally intended as a tour-only special release, its national distribution changed everything for the premier Minneapolis hip-hop crewalmost immediately
Minneapolis hip-hop duo Atmosphere have been a noteworthy component of the game so long that it’s easy to forget how stunningly different they scanned as when they emerged on the scene in the mid-90s.
Not only was a white rapper (and white producer) always to be viewed with healthy skepticism, even in a landscape soon unquestionably dominated by Shady, but hip-hop kids from Minnesota? Like any firmly-molded musical genre, hip-hop has its share of orthodox-minded gatekeepers, and to some, rappers came from New York and Los Angeles, maybe from Memphis and Atlanta, or they just didn’t count. Meanwhile, these brooding white childhood friends from the Midwest, Slug and Ant, toiled away in the underground, building a following and fighting for cred, undaunted by skepticism or any outright hostility.
Peering a bit more closely at the Twin Cities, one remembers that the area’s always supplied a healthy crop of fresh recruits to the underground (and potential mainstream), with once-weirdos and outcasts like Prince, The Replacements and Hüsker Dü earning confidence and honing skill on the city’s stages and in basement dives. The weather’s bleak and the culture working-class, and the ingredients existed for a hip-hop scene to one day emerge, with Atmosphere being a necessary catalyst for such a development.
By 2001, the duo had gathered enough success at home and on the road to successfully widen the reach of their Rhymesayers collective. They opened their own local record store, The Fifth Element, and in 2001, Atmosphere would subsequently issue a compilation of two recent EPs, titled Lucy and Ford. Thus, their first release to gain significant wider attention was born as Lucy Ford. Originally intended as a tour-only special release, its national distribution changed everything for Atmosphere almost immediately, and much of the hip-hop world would feel the ensuing shockwaves in the coming decades.
In a game full to the brim with macho tough-dude posturing and braggadocio attesting to penchants for violence or sexual prowess, Atmosphere were unafraid to go unabashedly ‘emo’, to lay hearts bare and make themselves vulnerable to the resultant judgments. This was rap that was well-acquainted with heartache, rejection and depression, and in articulating these perceived ‘weaknesses’ and showcasing an untapped capacity for self-reflection and self-criticism, they won over a whole new kind of hip-hop fan.
There was enough nimble wordplay on display for the purists to begrudgingly give respect, but also enough emotional honesty to stand in stark contrast to where much of the game was mired as the millennium came to a close in a garish display of shiny suits and yachts. Slug is self-effacing to a fault, brutally honest and observational and never letting himself, or anyone else, of the hook. With Ant’s ghostly lo-fi beats, caked in cool jazz murk and melted pop-radio decay, they formed a perfect symbiotic quid pro quo, each generously giving to the other as much as an artist can offer, and both benefitting.
Lyrically, Slug takes aim at any number of targets on Lucy Ford, including the one facing him in the mirror. On “Tears For The Sheep”, he weaponizes incendiary indictments of the privileged who relentlessly exploit and manipulate the oppressed, filling peasants’ bellies with “the poisons you omit”, and insists on a frighteningly violent revolution in the end, an urgent plea to “kill ‘em all, and let God give ‘em haircuts, the flood has begun, and no one has been paired up”. But the wrath here is reserved not just for a broken society but for the entire concept of society, which so often turns out cold and cruel and empty despite its many platitudes and professed well-intentions.
On “Free Or Dead”, Slug escapes into the isolation and hypnotic trance state of road travel as surely as Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse had done a few years earlier, insisting mid-journey to some unseen acquaintance that the peace he’s seeking can’t be found “between your legs”. These are often ugly and unflattering revelations, but no one ever said truth-telling was glamorous, nor should it be easy. This is about keeping real at all costs, no matter what it burns away or who it hurts. Still, near the end of the record, we find Slug perhaps a little wiser, a little less self-pitying and more philosophical in his perceptions: “Nothing But Sunshine” begins with a blunt dismissal of secondhand excuses and half-felt apologies: “What you mean what was my childhood like? What difference does that make? Yo, my childhood was messed up, so what? Everybody’s childhood was messed up.” It’s a line that stops one cold in your tracks as you realize a chasm-like depth behind the words.
Slug is willing to lose everything to communicate one hard-won fact, that we’re all basically the same and we’re all in this together, no matter our circumstances. How one’s life turns out is often coldly arbitrary, but the only way to answer to that alienation and unfairness is huddling together for warmth. Despite all the wreckage he’s endured and inflicted on others, he’s insisting it’s “Gonna be alright, you ain’t gotta hold my hand, just walk with me tonight”. We can all brave that darkness together, can’t we?
It wouldn’t be long for the freshness of such deep takes to sour and devolve into self-parody, and soon the sub-genre of seemingly-heartfelt “conscious” rap became, derisively, “backpacker”, another case of drawn boundaries and split factions in hip-hop’s long and tangled history. “Backpacker” implied the perceived snobbery and air of moral superiority glimpsed in these rappers and their audiences, and while certainly every trend attracts a few malcontents intent on exploiting its ideas in unintended fashion, it’s important to remember early records like Lucy Ford, which for all its bile-spewing and soul-wrenching, is ultimately about togetherness in the face of great pain, community and communication despite past betrayals and disappointments, and the capacity for empathy, if not forgiveness, in the aftermath.
For better or worse, this music meant something to a lot of people, and what you can say for Atmosphere that you definitely can’t say for many other hip-hop crews is just this: that seemed to be their primary agenda.