Once upon a time, I fucked around and convinced myself that “The Bass And The Movement,” the second song on Atmosphere’s album God Loves Ugly, could be a hit. I don’t know what I was thinking. Maybe it was that Atmosphere rapper Slug, a guy whose greatest subject was his own self-hatred, was finally attacking the microphone with something resembling swagger. Maybe it was that the hesitating stutter-step in Atmosphere producer Ant’s beat reminded me a bit of the stuff I was hearing on the radio. Maybe it was the urgency or the hardness — two qualities that were not abundant in Atmosphere’s corner of the indie-rap world. Whatever the case, “The Bass And The Movement” was not a hit, and it never could’ve been a hit. It’s a great rap song, though.
“The Bass And The Movement” works because of tension. There’s tension in the beat itself, with its evil-eyed bass-roll and in the way that limping drum-pattern seems like it’s constantly about to fall apart like a Jenga tower. There’s tension in hearing Slug attempting to puff his chest out and talk some shit, often by way of threatening metaphorical penis-based violence: “Stuff ’em full of dick till the hole rips,” “disgraceful, you can catch a face full of phallus.” Maybe it’s the tension between that song and Atmosphere’s usual brain-cluttered self-laceration. To me, “The Bass And The Movement” sounded like two guys willing themselves to stop awkwardly overthinking things and to just make an anthem. Maybe I heard it as an anthem because of my own tendencies toward awkward overthinking.
Atmosphere were relatable. This was the sales pitch when the Minneapolis group became the leading lights of a non-genre that was briefly known, over the objections of the people who actually made the music, as emo-rap. But that relatability wasn’t just the sales pitch; it was the reality. The first time I saw Atmosphere was in the summer of 2000, during what might’ve been their first trip to the East Coast. I was working the door at the Knitting Factory, a club in Manhattan, and I went to every rap show at the club that summer. There weren’t many. Atmosphere happened to be the opening act on a gig that was full of vast personalities. The headlining act was Konfrontation Kamp, the terribly-named and short-lived rap-metal band led by Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Professor Griff. The bill also included MF DOOM, who’d only just released Operation: Doomsday but whose larger-than-life persona was already well-established. Konfrontation Kamp and MF DOOM didn’t belong on a bill together, and Atmosphere really didn’t belong on a bill with either of them.
At the time, Atmosphere were still fighting their way out of the Midwestern rap underground. They already had a whole history — name changes, lineup changes, album releases, side projects. I’d never heard of them, and I didn’t know anything about that. I didn’t know that one of the two rappers onstage wasn’t even in Atmosphere; he was Eyedea, the Scribble Jam prodigy who’d just won the televised Blaze Battle and who would die of an accidental overdose a decade later, at the age of 28. What I saw — or what I thought I saw, anyway — was two gawky white kids who won over an unfamiliar crowd and who seemed to really enjoy rapping. (Slug is mixed, not white, but I didn’t know that, either. I just assumed he was white, and many other people have made that same mistake over the years.)
The part of the show I remember most vividly was Slug and Eyedea getting into a good-natured impromptu battle, rapping about subjects offered up by audience members. When someone told them to rap about women, Slug burst out with this: “I can’t get ’em out of my head, can’t get ’em out of my house, can’t seem to get their clitoris out of my mouth.” If you want to get a New York rap audience to like you, say some shit like that.
Maybe Slug came up with that line so easily because he spent so much of his time writing about women, or about the terrible feeling of seeing himself reflected back through the eyes of women. A couple of months after that show, Atmosphere would release their two Lucy Ford EPs, conceptual works based around a fictional women whose name sounds a whole lot like “Lucifer.” People wanted Lucy Ford to be a metaphor for something — maybe alcohol, maybe rap music, maybe all women lumped together — but it was probably just Slug venting about his ex. He did that a lot.
Atmosphere started off in the mid-’90s, and the duo of Slug and Ant gelled pretty quickly, though it took them a few years to get noticed. Self-deprecation seemed baked into the group; why else would a rapper choose to name himself Slug? (He really named himself after his father, who’d had the nickname Sluggo, but still.) Ant’s beats nodded towards vibed-out abstraction, but they still kept the punch of classic boom-bap. Slug generally rapped on-beat, something that wasn’t true of most of his syllable-happy backpacker peers, but he was more likely to rap about his own perceived inadequacies then to flex on the mic. Sometimes, he sounded like he was flexing about his own perceived in adequacies. On a track like “Like Today,” Slug manages the rare trick of rapping about jerking off while hungover and sounding proud about it.
Those Lucy Ford EPs, collected on a single 2001 CD and released on the group’s own Rhymesayers label, gave Atmosphere something resembling a national reputation. As the Lucy Ford EPs started to catch on, Atmosphere became a touring machine. (Ant, the producing half, stayed home to keep making beats, while Slug and his Minneapolis indie-rap associates hit the road with Mr. Dibbs, a DJ with a penchant for kicking off moshpits by scratching up Black Sabbath records.) Atmosphere got a little press, but I remember most of their buzz coming from the nascent rap messageboards that would eventually spawn a whole media industrial complex. God Loves Ugly, which will turn 20 tomorrow, was technically Atmosphere’s second album, following 1997’s Overcast!, the group’s locals-only debut. But God Loves Ugly was really the follow-up to Lucy Ford, and when it arrived, the world was ready. Some of us were so ready that we even thought “The Bass And The Movement” might start popping up on the radio.
That kind of thinking seems even more absurd now, 20 years later, listening back to God Loves Ugly — a great album and also an intentionally off-putting one. Again and again, Slug raps about himself as a broke and desperate loser whose relationships with women are all dysfunctional. Lucy Ford reappears, as in: “Fuck you, Lucy, for leaving me/ Fuck you, Lucy, for not needing me.” Slug informs us that he wears his scars like the rings on a pump and that he sleeps next to women that he doesn’t deserve — evocative lines that don’t exactly speak to a healthy self-image. The between-songs skits are mostly women berating Slug for being either physically or spiritually ugly or berating one another for finding Slug attractive. This man was never exactly an idol in waiting.
Much like the actual emo bands who often played the same clubs as Atmosphere, Slug had an over-dramatic way of writing about breakups. Like those bands, he could sometimes be hostile to the women who’d deigned to date him: “Most of this garbage I write that these people seem to like/ Is about you and how I let you infect my life.” Much like so many other rappers, Slug was also much more consumed with the people who didn’t like his music than the ones who did. Rappers, like emo bands, are a sensitive bunch. That kind of relentless toxicity hits different today, and a record like God Loves Ugly might curdle my stomach if it came out in this climate. I was more toxic then, too.
At the time, though, Slug got away with a certain nastiness because he was even more vicious when talking about himself than when talking about anyone else. Even when Slug tries to brag about his music, he runs himself down: “It’s solid, fresh, dope, whatever you wanna call it/ Not bad for an aspiring sociopathic alcoholic.” He also got away with it because the music was really, really good.
Much of the credit for God Loves Ugly belongs to Slug, a gifted writer who rapped charismatically about his lack of charisma and who carried conviction in his voice even when describing crippling dysfunction. When Slug would riff on classic rap lines, something that he did often, the contrast was implicit. He was an outsider, a hero-worshipper, who knew that he could never harness the confidence that he heard in the rappers that he worshipped. Slug was also big on local specificity, describing his hometown with self-deprecating pride. He could spin a yarn, too. One of the album’s big standouts is “Hair,” where Slug spends an entire song describing a flirtation that seems like it could become something more. A few corny pickup lines become a deep, drunken conversation, and then he ends with this: “She missed a red light, hit a pickup truck, and we both died.”
Lots of the credit also belongs to Ant, a pretty singular producer. At the time, a lot of underground rap beatmakers were getting deeply experimental — remaking boom-bap as jagged industrial, say, or chopping up rappers’ voices over meditative ambient music, or some combination of those things. Ant’s beats could be jagged or meditative, but they were always relatively straightforward, and they never ventured too far from the deeply satisfying moody lurch of the RZA or Havoc. I loved the plangent pianos of “A Song About A Friend” and the mournful violins of “Lovelife.” Even when Ant when out there, as on the gorgeously ghostly dub-skank of “Shrapnel,” his tracks still banged. Ant served as a crucial ballast on those Atmosphere records. Whenever Slug threatened to get too far up his own ass, those Ant beats kept him anchored.
To a whole lot of young people like me, the combination of skill and self-hatred displayed on God Loves Ugly was intoxicating. At the time, I regarded Slug and Conor Oberst, two Midwestern self-starters who wrote poetically about their own anxieties and failings, as peers. Slug never got the next-Dylan hosannas that soon greeted Oberst, and “The Bass And The Movement” was never a hit, but Atmosphere did become a cult sensation, especially around the Midwest. The Rhymesayers label figured out a distribution deal with the hallowed New York indie-rap shop Fat Beats. God Loves Ugly debuted in the lower reaches of the Billboard 200, back when that was a serious achievement for an underground group, and it sold in the six figures. I saw Atmosphere a lot of times in the years after God Loves Ugly, and the crowds got bigger every time they came through town.
I haven’t seen Atmosphere in more than a decade, but the group is still going and still, as far as I can tell, thriving. While the other big backpack-rap indies of the era mostly died out, Rhymesayers is still in business. (Over the years, there have been stories about people involved in the label committing acts of sexual and emotional abuse. In 2020, the label dropped two acts, and Slug put out a statement that he was “seeking personal growth” and “reflecting and processing all the ways I’ve contributed to these problems,” but none of the allegations ever named either Slug or Ant personally.) Atmosphere eventually did play alongside mainstream rap acts at their own Minneapolis festival Soundset and on tour; they’ll hit shed venues with Cypress Hill this summer. Somehow, that particular strain of self-abasing backpack rap became a sustainable career, and that’s probably better than a hit song anyway.