Thirty-odd years after "Rapper's Delight" first introduced American ears to hip hop, the art form has come a long way from freestyling over the end sections of long disco records. This week, Humboldtians have another opportunity to witness one of the genre's more exciting incarnations -- the marriage of hip hop and live instrumentation -- when Minneapolis-based Atmosphere plays in Arcata. The group, which is principally rapper Slug, is at the height of its commercial power -- the latest Atmosphere album, 2008's When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, reached No. 5 on Billboard's album chart. Known for tackling lyrical territory unique to hip hop, Atmosphere is also intrigued by bringing new textures and musical dynamic to the hip hop sound.
After six years of touring exclusively with DJs, Slug (born Sean Daley) began using live instrumental backing in 2005, in part to rekindle his own passion for the live experience. "I needed to challenge myself," he said in an interview from the road. "At one point I was drinking a lot before shows because I knew I could, which got out of hand. I started thinking, 'If I don't do something new, I'm going to lose my job!'" On this specific tour, Slug is backed by a DJ, a guitarist and a keyboardist.
Growing up, Slug was strictly a hip hop fan, but eventually rock bands crept into his consciousness. "I was intrigued by cute indie rock girls," he admits. But while the initial attraction may have been hormonally driven, the prospect of new sounds in hip hop proved enticing. "I'll hear sounds on other people's records and I'll think, 'What is that?' Then I'll go through the liner notes and find out it's a glockenspiel. Or I'll think, 'Man, how do we get someone to play an accordion on our shit?'"
While live instrumentation has grown more common in hip hop over the years, Slug is hard pressed to cite specific influences. With a desire to keep his craft original, he instead will consider his "anti-influences." "I definitely didn't want to sound like we were imitating The Roots. And I don't want to sound like a hippie, jazz band with a rapper."
Asked if this is his first performance in Humboldt County, Slug inquired, "Is Chico in Humboldt?" Yeah, it's his first.
As all local hip hop fans know, the weedy stigma attached to our isolated, sparsely populated region has allowed us to overachieve in our ability to draw big-name hip hop acts -- in the last year alone, Snoop Dogg, Nas, Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Dead Prez have all made the trek. But Slug downplays the green when speaking of his motivation to play Humboldt. "We're not coming there for the weed; we're coming because people asked us to. I like weed, but not enough to visit anywhere because of it." While Slug tends to stay away from smoking while on tour in an attempt to protect his voice, he's not above the temptation to sample some HumCo culture. "I might have a cookie."
Slug and Atmosphere, along with special guests Blueprint, Grieves & Budo and DJ Rare Groove shake the Arcata Community Center this Monday, Sept. 27 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $27.50/$22.50 for students. Commenting on the Atmosphere live attitude, Slug states, "We're the kind of group where if we're having a good time, you're gonna have a good time." So have a good time and bring Slug a cookie.