The indie hustle 

Atmosphere's Slug plots his big takeover

While the aural aesthetics of hip-hop tracks can be quite mercurial, the core archetypes for hip-hop MCs remain largely static. For every OutKast album, there are a half-dozen rappers still impersonating Mase. Change is glacial and subject to extreme scrutiny.

Meanwhile, being sensitive, cerebral and openly vulnerable to the whims of the fairer sex aren't attributes you'd normally associate with a hip-hop MC. But that's exactly the territory Minnesota rapper Slug has mapped out for himself with his group Atmosphere. Surprisingly, Atmosphere's latest CD, Seven's Travels, has been a measured success, debuting at No. 87 on the Billboard charts, with a video for "Trying to Find a Balance" garnering airplay on MTV2.

Much of Atmosphere's success can be attributed to what Slug calls "natural growth" -- departing on long tours where sales are direct and fans are converted one person at a time. It's an approach that has its roots in both hip-hop's hustler mentality and the do-it-yourself philosophy of early punk.

But while Atmosphere's approach has been assumed to be an ideological stance by its fans, it was initially adopted out of necessity. "I'm sure that when I was 21 years old, if someone would have come along and said, 'Hey, we wanna help you do it,' I probably would have jumped on it," Slug says. "But now I'm glad we did it the way that we did it. I feel that every blessing that comes along is that much more potent."

Apparently the potency of the indie blessing is strong enough so that Slug now considers major-label support unnecessary. After the grassroots success of Atmosphere's 2002 record God Loves Ugly, numerous majors began courting the group. While there were rumors the group declined those offers because Atmosphere's producer, Ant, wasn't included, Slug attributes the rejection to a much simpler impulse.

"By the time the majors gave a fuck about me, I had stopped giving a fuck about them," he says. "When we started off with DIY, it was out of necessity. But once the ball got rolling, we were glad to do it this way."

Atmosphere's buzz did help the group garner a distribution deal from Epitaph, the one-time punk label that has expanded to include everything from Mississippi blues to Tom Waits. "It's just a distribution deal for this one album, I owe them nothing and they owe me nothing," Slug comments. "Quite honestly, Epitaph has gone far out of the way to support the album, further than we expected them to go and way further than they were obligated to go."

The hustle -- by Atmosphere and Epitaph -- has paid off. Seven's Travels is paced to outsell God Loves Ugly by a comfortable margin. "Things are a little more hectic," Slug says of his success, "but my phone bill is paid off this year."

The attention Seven's Travels has garnered now allows Slug to pull back and look to a future beyond just Atmosphere. "What I'm doing right now is procuring resources," he says. "Not just money, but friends and power that I can use to do what it is I'm trying to do, which is to make an impact on what kids listen to. And not just Atmosphere, because who knows how far I'm going to go with Atmosphere."

Slug not only owns Filth Element, a Minneapolis record store, but he also founded and sponsors the independent record label Rhymesayers with the goal that it will "feed [my friends'] grandchildren."

Fortunately, Slug has some very talented friends. In this, their first year as a major force in indie hip-hop, Rhymesayers has released critically acclaimed albums by Brother Ali and Soul Position, and is preparing to release the solo album by former KMD frontman and Atlanta resident MF Doom.

"The idea," Slug says, "is the more resources I have, the better I can do selling my friends' records."


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