"What it is it ain't, and what it ain't it is--that's the theme where we're going." So drawls the sampled jazzbo at the beginning of Lucy Ford: The Atmosphere EP's before sinking into a gurgling synthesizer whirlpool. Listening further, you may well find yourself wondering: What is Atmosphere? What is this sound that feels closer to Public Image Ltd. than Public Enemy? Whence comes this looped organ groove echoing below a relaxed multitracked singsong that is not quite Nate Dogg and not quite Harlem scat and not quite on key?
What it is is hip hop. And Atmosphere is the brand name of Slug, a Minneapolis MC you may know from such City Pages cover stories as "Rhyme Out of Joint" (July 5, 2000). Ever since he put out Atmosphere's first and only proper album in 1997, Sean Daley has ardently nourished a seriocomic alter ego who could productively seek therapy on Dr. Katz: the standup crackpot. His Slick Rick-style tales for tots come from a mind playing stupid human tricks on itself. No wonder Slug-Shady comparisons are legion on the Web site of Atmosphere's label, Rhymesayers Entertainment.
Lucy Ford, by contrast, departs from autobiography right off. "Between the Lines" peers into the brains of an overcooked cop ready to put himself in a chokehold, and a quiet, troubled coffee-shop girl who loses it at the movies. "I just/Might just/Feel somebody," Slug sings absently, like a kid playing hopscotch. "I just/Might just/Kill somebody."
This is the caliber of song that Slug's therapists, I mean fans, hoped he would write; they're already putting it in heavy rotation at a coffee shop near you. But if Lucy Ford's accomplishment seems magnified by local expectations, try the following handy hype-detector test: Put Atmosphere in a broader musical context by playing The Hands of Time (Scholar-Warrior), a compilation by DJ K-Salaam that tosses a couple of Ford's best tracks into the mix with cuts by the likes of De La Soul and Guru. Listen to how Slug's tracks jump out from the rest, waving arms and doing headstands. Lyrical cajoling is part of his charm--and his agenda. "This industry's big/So big and fat/We can all get some/And we can give some back," he declares on "Party for the Fight to Write." Then comes a vague addendum: "If it's done correct/We'll make more than noise." And so Slug suggests political solidarity between hip hoppers without articulating what that might possibly entail.
Hence we can agree, at least, that Atmosphere is hip hop. Then again, maybe it ain't. Atmosphere is hip hop for people who don't like hip hop. Read that phrase again and consider how it might be both a genuine compliment and a damning categorization. In hip hop, attracting outside audiences (especially collegiate audiences) forces issues of class and race and "authenticity"--a can of worms worth welding shut when it comes to Slug.
Let's just say that anyone raised in south Minneapolis "when Franklin Avenue was still pretty" (as he raps) perhaps is, but also ain't, from the streets. And allow that, as with Bob Marley or Malcolm X, Slug's heritage is "mixed" and he calls himself black. I get irritated answering questions from colleagues about his racial "makeup" (who am I, Plessy v. Ferguson?). But Shady notwithstanding, the hip-hop media inevitably weigh such slippery issues, and will do so in Atmosphere's case until that rumored Rhymesayers deal with Puffy becomes a reality--black ink on white paper.
But enough about Slug; what do you think about Slug? Let's face it: As his dozen-odd tapes and compilation appearances attest, every other Slug song is about the burden of being...Slug. Self-reflexivity has become a reflex: "I need to start writing pieces about other people's problems," he raps on "It Goes," "because strangers are startin' to get worried."
So Atmosphere is, first of all, Slug. Then again, it ain't. Atmosphere is a crew. And while the crew's producer, Ant, seems called upon to provide only the sonic equivalent of an unobtrusive talk-show skyline for the host, he follows this Dre-ish recipe with a twist. Many of Lucy Ford's best beats are launched, along with selected lyrics, into spacey dub orbits. The samples recall Sixties pop and blues and soul but are rarely recognizable. "Don't Ever Fucking Question That" (a valentine that begins "I love you") might be Manhattan Transfer doing Bach--but your guess is as good as mine.
Complicating matters further, Ant never performs in concert. And Slug's live partners in Atmosphere--the gifted MC Eyedea and their shared DJ, Abilities--are nowhere to be found in these 16 tracks. Anyone who cares about hip hop should own new records by both of the above, though the average reader will not purchase vinyl-only releases.
The average reader may well buy Lucy Ford, though. It is, after all, hip hop for the average reader. By which I mean: deeper than the most fretted-over think piece from Common, funnier than the latest love-rap from Gentlemen Hate Cool James. Slug didn't own any Hüsker Dü until I gave him a copy of Zen Arcade, but non-hip hoppers should note the parallels between their proto-emo and his. To start, Slug is poised to break onto college radio, as Hüsker was in 1984. Like Grant Hart, Slug reveals a helplessness before love objects that seems to correlate exactly to his perceptiveness toward same. Like Bob Mould, he asks that we check the delusions of his genre while embracing its independent ethos. Most of all, Slug's pop ambition is built right into his aesthetic accessibility. He really wants to be "bigger than Jesus/Bigger than wrestling/Bigger than the Beatles/And bigger than breast implants" (as he says on his shuffle-blues "Guns and Cigarettes").
People who actually like hip hop may wish for, well, more hip hop. There's no discernible scratching on Lucy Ford, no interplay between MCs save for a hidden final track with El-P of Company Flow. "Homecoming" has the lumbering claustrophobic funk of an industrial-strength "I Am the Walrus," but it lacks the improvisatory crackle of Eyedea and Slug even just talking onstage.
Perhaps treating tracks less like a soliloquy to a mirror and more like a phone call to a friend would point a way forward for Slug. It is in grappling with the question of what Atmosphere is, and ain't, that Slug will produce the masterpiece he has in him.