Steve Jennings, WireImage
Atmosphere is known as a group not afraid to evolve musically. What was your thought process going into the new album, 'The Family Sign'?
I was trying to make a statement to my people and to my community to an extent. But I'm not trying to keep anybody out either. I just felt like the last two years for me has been so full of ups and downs. I was trying to make sure I was strengthening my connectivity with my family, my friends as well as the people who appreciate the things that we do.
If someone had never heard of Atmosphere, what would be a song on the new album that would tell them everything they need to know about the group?
I know this is going to sound funny, but I would say the intro and the outro, which is 'My Key' and 'My Notes.' We put those on there and created them that way intentionally. If you listen to the first and the last song on 'The Family Sign,' I explain what the record is about in those two tracks. But if it came down to one song, it would probably be 'I Don't Need Brighter Days.' That's the one I will say, "Yo, you should peep that."
You and Ant have been in the game since the mid '90s. Can you describe what it was like coming up in Minneapolis as a hip-hop artist?
Coming out of Minnesota, we didn't know anything about how to break into the hip-hop industry. We didn't know, "Oh, you are supposed to make a demo tape and make sure you only put three songs on it," or "Make sure you put the best song first ... " When we were younger, we only knew what we could learn from the records themselves or reading articles from the Source. That's how you would get your info because there was no mentorship. There were a lot of groups in Minnesota that were fresh, but none of us knew how to make records and break out. We had to learn on the job. It was a very self-taught era. Everybody was trying different things. We reached the place where we all just started doing what we wanted to do instead of doing what we thought we were supposed to do.
How hard was it to go by that do-it-yourself mentality in a place more known for the iconic likes of Prince than hip-hop?
It was a learning experience. I could spend $1,000 and go out to the New Music Seminar -- and this was in the early '90s -- and try to float some tapes to people and try to network. Or I can take that money I busted my ass at a job trying to make and put it into making music and selling it in my hometown. That's what really happened in Minneapolis. It turned into a real do-it-yourself city. We finally realized in the mid-'90s that we can't really wait for anybody to notice us. We can't wait for anyone to sign one of us. So let's just get busy. I'm going to stand outside the Fugees concert and try to sell my tapes to people as they leave. And it wasn't just our city. As I started traveling and meeting different people I realized that this was common in other places. The Living Legends out on the West Coast were doing the same thing, but we didn't know about each other yet. This was the next phase. And we were one of the groups that were part of that movement.
How did it feel to get play on MTV in 2003, with 'I'm Trying to Find a Balance'? Were you worried that your longtime fans would think you were going too mainstream?
You always worry about your longtime fans and how they will accept an album. But there's a part of you that wants to say, "Well, if you are going to judge me based off of who is listening and checking for me, then f--- you." As an MC, if you are not going to just judge me on the words coming out of my mouth, and you are judging me on my clothes and my fans, then f--- you. I didn't want you anyway. But let's be real, that's not reality, that's just your pride talking. You are really thinking, "Damn, I don't want people to hate on me because I'm getting play on MTV."
But you guys were able to break a lot of ground. You were one of the first hip-hop acts to go on the Warped Tour.
Because I wanted to go out on the Warped Tour. I liked the idea of putting out a rap album on Epitaph, which is a punk-rock label. All of these things that are popping off felt like a new way for me to communicate with some people who don't even know what's going on in hip-hop. And let's be real, hip-hop is a music of struggle, man. It's born of struggle and it's made for everybody. So you can't tell me that these suburban kids don't have some sort of struggle going on. The suburbs have become broke as f---, too. Those same kids are on drugs too.
You mentioned Eminem. As a white MC, what kind of an impact did Em have on a lot of the other white rhymers that were coming out? Did he hinder or did he help?
I'm not sure if it was either. I can only speak on it from my surroundings and my city or the cities I was touring. I wasn't seeing a bunch of people trying to emulate Eminem, but I was seeing a lot of people in the late '90s and early 2000's who were going to opposite direction of Eminem because they were insecure about being affiliated with him. Because you know how it works, man. Somebody who gets famous in the underground doesn't want nothing to do with that fame [laughs].
The underground heads thought they would be selling out, right?
Yeah. But I think Eminem and his existence and how big he got did influence the underground by making artists try to go the other direction. I was already kicking my s--- off before Em got big. I had my second and third record out, and I was already touring when that 'Slim Shady' album popped off. And I was like, "This motherf----- is dope!" I think that in most of the communities I frequented, that's how Em was regarded. You really couldn't take anything away from the guy. He was dope and he had Dr. Dre co-signing him! So to me, if you hated on Eminem, you were just a hater [laughs]. As he got bigger and became more of a pop star, that's when some of the backlash started. But it was never based on him as an MC. Because let's be real, a lot of the hate was about jealously. There were a lot of MCs that hated the fact that Eminem was the one that made it and they didn't. That wasn't even a white thing. That was an MC thing.
It seems like the gulf between underground hip-hop artists and their mainstream counterparts has shrunk considerably as a result of music downloading and social media. What are you thoughts on the Lil Wayne's and Rick Ross' of the world, who seem to have an indie spirit about them?
To me, it's two separate things. I don't really push the art and the business together like that. If you got your business tight, that's a different type of art. Wayne and Ricky to me are ... there's a reason why a lot of people like their music. They are communicating to people, which is very important. MC's want to write-off underground rappers and sometimes they want to write-off the mainstream rappers. And I'm like, "Man, it's all the same thing." We all come from the same tree. We all come from Grandmaster Flash, Run-D.M.C., KRS-One and Scarface.
Is there one album or artist that communicated to you in that very same way early on?
For me it was two albums: Boogie Down Productions' 'Criminal Minded' and 'By Any Means Necessary.' Those were the two albums that made me say, "I think I want to be a rapper." KRS-One is the one that perfected the style of talking to you instead of talking at you. His style was and still is very personable. He was rhyming as if he was giving a lecture. That was unheard of back then. He's just the best, period. Nobody can rhyme like that dude.
Watch Atmosphere's 'Shoulda Known' Live From Bonnaroo