As the name implies, Atmosphere’s latest LP, Mi Vida Local is intensely focused on the place it was created–the southside of Minneapolis–where Slug and Ant work tirelessly in their “beautiful basements”, refining their sound without interruption. (Although a handful of friends from the Minneapolis hip-hop community showed up to contribute.) A year of one-on-one collaboration resulting in an album that matches complex subject matter with equally deep beats–ones that show a clear lineage back to the psychedelic funk landmarks from an earlier era where America was going through a post-utopian hangover, and prove that there won’t ever be a time where boom-bap beats don’t sound perfectly of the moment.
Mi Vida Local might be the best album Atmosphere’s ever made (read our review HERE). It’s definitely the one they needed to make right now, and one listeners need to hear just as urgently. If it’s sometimes an album about how the fight to find happiness never really ends–even after you get the house and the kids and the artistic freedom to make dad-rap records–it’s also about discovering that there’s happiness to be found just in fighting.
We were lucky enough to catch up with Slug recently. We spoke about Atmosphere’s most recent LP Mi Vida Local, the late, great Prince and competitive rapping with Murs among many other subjects.
If you would rather listen to the audio of the interview, check out our podcast HERE.
I have heard yourself use an analogy that I myself use when describing albums, “It’s a novel opposed to a collection of short stories” and your latest LP Mi Vida Local is definitely testament to this. How important is it to you as an artist to create a full cohesive project as what can be observed as currently being a singles era?
You know, to me it’s important but I don’t think I’m allowed to hold the rest of the world accountable for that… It’s kinda my problem I think that way and I think I only think that way because I’m old and I grew up listening to records that gave me that feeling. You know when I was younger that was kinda how I saw that, a Rakim album or a KRS-ONE album or a Prince album, so I still approach making music the way I was listening to music when I was seventeen.
I know you said you can’t hold the world accountable but do you have any reasoning in your own head as to why people might have moved away from listening to an album?
Well, there’s a number of things I’ve heard people say. Some people think it’s the way attentions spans are… but I don’t know if I believe that. I believe it’s because the industry put pressure on artists to make a ‘hit song’ and if you can have an album with seven different hit singles on it, I mean that’s going to take away from your ability to make a project that’s cohesive, that has a theme that runs through it or inter-connectivity between songs. I think more emphasis was put on creating ‘hit singles’ than entire projects and I don’t think that’s bad it’s just different as to how I see it. You know I don’t think how I see it is ‘right’, I just think how I see it is how I see it. Every artist has their viewpoint on how they make music just like every listener uses music differently, some people listen to music how I do, they sit down and stare at it but some people only listen to music when they’re working out or in their car and that’s not wrong, that’s fine, that’s how they use it. Everybody should be able to have their own relationship with music. I do think though the industry pressure to sell more singles, specifically in a time where people don’t buy physical records, they create and curate playlists, so they pick their favourite songs off your record and put it on their playlist to listen to when they’re listening to music. That alleviated a lot of pressure to make concept albums. So Pink Floyd is no longer relevant to contemporary musical movements. Now, in my world Pink Floyd are geniuses! In my world Prince was a genius! But that doesn’t mean I get to hold seventeen year olds accountable for that, you know what I mean? Seventeen year olds today, they want to hear what they want to hear and that’s okay. But I do think the pressure was in the industry to sell units so the industry put pressure on artists to make hits and the artists put pressure on themselves to kind of abandon the long playing album in exchange for having four good hit songs. In my world what should happen is… I feel if you want to chase the hits, then make songs and put a song out every time you make a song or space them out and release singles your whole career, you can technically create a career that does just that, you don’t even need to make albums if you don’t want to. So I find it funny when I hear about people who are known for hit singles continue to release full-length projects because I feel like they are wasting their time doing it. Let’s say Drake for instance, he can release a full project and people will ignore six of the songs that are on there because “that one’s not for me, that one’s not for me”, and it’s like “shit man Drake didn’t need to put those six songs on there,” they knew what six songs people where going to pass up on and for some reason they are still holding themselves accountable to prey on this old prototype when they don’t need to.
I wanted to ask also, off of the back of Fishing Blues, Mi Vida Local has a number of notable features including the Dynospectrum crew which was great to hear. What prompted the shift towards embracing more guests on your most recent albums?
I feel that I have slowly been trying to work on some of my flaws and anybody that knows me can attest to the fact that I am trying to confront and deal with things that may be problematic in my life. One of those things is that I am a control freak and I am trying to learn to not be like that. I am seeing it come though in how I collaborate with Ant, how I collaborate with my wife, how I collaborate with people. I see myself now relaxing and leaving more space for other voices and it seems natural that it made its way into my albums as well. I can’t say I had a moment where I was like “Oh, I’m going to start doing more collaborations!” It just happened naturally and i think it goes hand in hand with a lot of things in my life.
“With art, our relationships change to it. For instance I could say my favourite album in the world is Prince Sign O’ The Times, that will always be my favourite album but every time I listen to it, every time I hear a song off of it, there’s a little evolution that occurs with my relationship to that album.”
I also wondered about another process – the recording sessions for an album. I’ve heard you joke in the past that you should never throwaway songs in reference to ‘The Best Day’ and ‘Sunshine’ from the Life Gives You Lemons recording sessions. What is it exactly that determines you not to include a track – is it thematic to the album or maybe is it just sonically it doesn’t fit?
Exactly. Both those things. If sonically it doesn’t seem to fit then I might not include it because I do like to curate full albums. Now sometimes when something sonically doesn’t fit then I definitely put it on if it can be used as a moment in the album to break out. For instance, Mi Vida Local there is a song called ‘Specificity’ that has parts to it that were recorded just off of practice sessions just off of my phone and I included it because I like how sonically it ruined the vibe for a minute. But the sonics are important to me, that’s why ‘Sunshine’ wasn’t on Lemons, because the piano sample was waaaay too clean and big and all the other pianos on Lemons were a lot more subtle and modest. So I just didn’t like the idea of having this huge piano come in and now in hindsight, obviously it was a mistake. ‘Sunshine’ should’ve been on Lemons because it would’ve been the lead single you know what I mean? But, you know, you live and you learn!
You’ve already mentioned him but the late, great Prince is an artist I wanted to ask you about. I know you’re a big fan as am I and I once read somewhere that you unintentionally shared a stage with him in the late 90’s. Is this true?
[laughs] Yeah this is true. I can’t remember exactly what year it was but I’ll take a guess and say it was probably about 1998 maybe, maybe 1999. It was in a small club in Minneapolis called The Front that we used to got to on Wednesday nights and do jam sessions with a couple of rappers and a couple of jazz musicians and a couple of funk musicians – we would get together and we would just freestyle for four hours. We would all take turns and go on up there and do whatever the night needed. Maybe one Wednesday night I would freestyle for five minutes, maybe another Wednesday night I would freestyle for two hours, you just never knew what was going to happen. We always opened the door to other musicians to come through if they were cool. It was one of those things were if you were friendly and you understood what we were trying to accomplish then the stage is open. There was a woman that used to come, she was a local celebrity, she was a newscaster on the local news and everybody knew who she was but she would kick it and party with us and she was cool and she happened to be friends with Prince. So she brought Prince down and he jumped up on stage and played piano. And I didn’t realise he was up there because I was freestyling on stage and I had my eyes closed to focus and concentrate, maybe I was a little high. And I remember hearing my friend John, one of the resident skateboarders, he started really hammering away on the piano while I was trying to rap and I remember looking over at him like “what are you doing? Fall back and give me some space. I’m rapping!” And it wasn’t him, it was Prince. Prince had gotten up there and sat in. So I fell back and let him finish you know what I mean? I tried to rap with him for a minute just so I could tell my mum I did it and then I just fell back because there was just no way to rap, he was just too busy. He was playing as if there was nobody rapping, you know what I mean?
But what are you going to do!? It’s Prince! But when he was done, here’s the best part, he hopped off the stage, people gave him a standing ovation and he went right out the front door. Didn’t even say “bye” didn’t even say “hi”. He came in, sat there for a minute, hopped off the stage, did his thing for like five minutes and then left. He was probably in the room for a total of ten minutes.
I recently spoke with Brother Ali and he mentioned yourself, Sage Francis and Murs when talking about making vulnerable music. There always seems to be a truth in your material be it not always in a literal sense, a lot of it is fiction, storytelling and metaphors. Do you, pardon the pun, find it hard to ‘find a balance’ between being cathartic and still keeping things close to your chest or do you throw yourself wholeheartedly and unfiltered in to the writing process?
When I write I don’t think about anything other than creating the story of the song. Sometimes that means I’m writing something that is very vulnerable or personal and I will still complete it how it’s supposed to be completed because I always feel I’ll decide later if I want to shorten it. I never consider if it’s cathartic… but it probably is. But in the process I don’t think like that, I don’t stop and think “Oh, this feels good to get it out” I just get it out. I just do it and I’ll go back and look at it afterwards and decide whether or not it has any value to myself or if I feel like it’s something I want to show my friends or show an audience.
I seen Murs as well a few months ago. He was in crutches from fucking up his ankle or foot playing basketball in Holland but he still put on a great show. He was asking the crowd what they would like to hear and I suggested ‘Woman Tonight’ and his reply was “Come on dude… Slug buried me on that shit.”
I did though! [laughs] On that one yes, on that one specifically yes but not always. With him it was pretty fair, it was like a good tennis match – sometimes I hit the ball sometimes he hit the ball you know what I mean? And I feel that the Felt projects were very even but once in a while there’s a song where it’s obvious which one of us buried the other one [laughs] that was mine, ‘Woman Tonight’ was definitely mine. [laughs] That’s great, thanks for telling me that.
There’s another thing I wanted to ask. It’s one thing I really respect about you that you appear to honestly critique your own work, something that I don’t see or hear anyone else do to the extent that you do. I remember hearing you say that Seven’s Travels wasn’t a great project as it was full of filler but Godlovesugly, you stand by that. Have you had time to reflect on Mi Vida, your latest LP, because you’re currently touring it, performing songs every other night. Do you have any positive or negative critiques of your latest work?
Well it’s still new to me. It usually takes about two years for me to really fully realise what the album is saying to me. And that’s the thing, we put out a record or we put out a project and everybody wants the immediate take and I feel like that’s just standard when we read books, albums etc. With art, our relationships change to it. For instance I could say my favourite album in the world is Prince Sign O’ The Times, that will always be my favourite album but every time I listen to it, every time I hear a song off of it, there’s a little evolution that occurs with my relationship to that album. Sometimes I will appreciate a song even more, sometimes I will be like “aw yeah, I don’t know if I like that guitar line right now.” The thing with me is, and with Atmosphere is, I don’t listen to anyone’s opinion of our music when it comes out until the next record comes out, then I listen to their opinions. So right now I’m curious to know how people feel towards Fishing Blues. Because when Fishing Blues came out, people had these mixed reactions. Slowly people started to hear things and realise “oh I don’t like this” or “I do like this” and that’s the part when I feel that’s where the real relationships start. Immediately once you hear a new album you compare it to their older shit or you compare it to whoever their contemporaries are and I don’t like playing the comparison game. When I hear a new album I don’t want to compare Ghostface’s album to Childish Gambino but you can’t help it! When it comes out that’s what we do! So I don’t really have an opinion on the Mi Vidi Local stuff probably for another year, or maybe more. I will say this, I like that we kept it short, I’m glad we only done twelve songs. We had more songs and trimmed it down to twelve and I remember thinking “aw man, am I doing the right thing here?” Now, in hindsight I’m so glad, I’m really glad. That’s really the only strong feeling I have about it. Other than that I appreciate the effort Ant has put into it, he really worked his ass off on this one and I love it and I really like the artwork [laughs]. I feel that Dan Monick and Alex Everson are the two people that put the layout and the design together.
That’s something I wanted to ask about, the album artwork. It conjures up a deep sense of foreboding and represents the tone of the album perfectly.
We like to finish interviews on a recurring note, we ask everyone the same question and if anything it’s to help settle a debate amongst the writers here at our website SOUTHSIDERS. What album do you prefer between Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx or GZA’s Liquid Swords?
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.
Yeah, I feel that the lyrics on Liquid Swords are better to me, I prefer GZA’s rapping. In fact I would probably say the lyrics on Liquid Swords is probably my favourite rapping of ALL the Wu-Tang projects however, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx to me is the most cohesive Wu-Tang project where start to finish it did what I tried to do when I make albums. Liquid Swords has the best rapping but there’s moments on there that feel a little awkward, the song transitions and a couple of songs that are not my favourite, where as I can listen to Cuban Linx from front to back… I don’t even care about the rapping on that album! I don’t even care about the beats, I care about the whole thing as one meal, it’s an amazing meal to me. Cuban Linx to me is probably the best curated Wu-Tang project that has ever happened.
In my opinion Cuban Linx is the closest thing to a feature length film that I’ve heard on wax. Where you can smell the gun smoke and see the blood on the shirts and picture the dingey alleyways…
I totally agree with that. But then again! When GZA says “Your lyrics are weak like clock radio speakers” it was just like… fuck! GZA is the best Wu-Tang rapper to me but Cuban Linx… that record is so amazing that that could’ve been a record produced by Dre. Dre could’ve made that record. In fact I bet Dre is mad he didn’t make that record.
He did make the second one though. He made Cuban Linx Part II.
Yeah, Dre put that out on Aftermath. It was nowhere as good as the first but yeah. [For the record, Dr. Dre produced a handful of tracks on the second album and put it out on his label but it had a cast of twenty plus producers/ engineers]
I didn’t even know that [laughs]
Anyway Sean, I’ll let you go I know you’re a busy guy but thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.
Hey man, thanks for your time. Have a great night and hopefully I’ll see you sometime when I come over there.
Atmosphere are about to embark on their European tour of Mi Vida Local including a date at the Electric Ballroom in London. Tickets are available HERE.