Atmosphere embraces adulthood on 'The Family Sign'

Rachel Kenshalo

Atmosphere has been a force in indie hip-hop for more than a decade, during which the duo has shown little interest in sticking to any established formula for mainstream success. Releasing records under their own label and championing a fierce loyalty to their hometown of Minneapolis, Atmosphere has slowly garnered a devoted fan base, achieving success largely on their terms.

The duo is composed of rapper Slug (Sean Daley) and DJ/producer Ant (Anthony Davis). Although Slug's lyrics have evolved since the group's early '90s inception, he's generally stuck to a few themes: relationships, the struggles of young families, paying bills, drugs and alcohol. But without glorifying the latter, Atmosphere's music comes across as more of a cautionary tale or a therapeutic vent session.

Despite being dubbed "emo rap" by some (much to Slug's chagrin), Atmosphere's music relates to a wide spectrum of fans. It's honest and stripped of pretension, but at the same time, emotional and raw -- think Eminem minus the vitriol and misogyny.

In fact, Slug identifies as a feminist, and his uniquely introspective stories are backed by Ant's catchy and melodic, but often foreboding, hooks.

As for the duo's decision to eschew bigger major-label contracts, Atmosphere has opted to stick with the Rhymesayers label the pair helped build with friends and cohorts.

"It began as more of an artist co-op, and that's still what it basically is, only now we're much more on top of our s---," Slug said via telephone with a laugh.

Since its beginning in the mid-'90s, Rhymesayers has become a formidable force in Minneapolis, putting the city on the indie hip-hop map while representing underground heavyweights such as Aesop Rock, P.O.S., Brother Ali and Abstract Rude (the last two will join Atmosphere at the two Anchorage shows).

Atmosphere's most recent Rhymesayers full-length, last year's "The Family Sign," is a more mature outing. Slug's penchant for self-deprecation is tempered, and save for a couple exceptions, the break-up songs are mostly gone. Instead, the rapper pays tribute to his new wife and baby. Then there's "Last to Say," a somber track about domestic violence: "You can't hold hands when they make fists, and I ain't the first to say this / Let me be the last to say, please don't stay."

"I don't know if I'm more at peace now," Slug said, his young son giving happy shrieks in the background. "I don't know what that means. I'm more focused." He pauses and then continues, "I'm not currently drunk."

The last part came with an almost apologetic tone, and Slug admits that while his priorities have always been his music and his family, he's taken a few unproductive detours. At times, the stress of being a provider has gotten the best of him. "The Family Sign" sounds more like a tale of lessons learned through struggle and less the product of angst-filled kids.

"I've always been a family man, and I've always been a working man," Slug explained. "The difference I think is you learn to how to live right. I used to be overwhelmed by taking care of myself, my family and other people that depended on me. Now I've gotten better at it, and it's less stressful."

Slug treats the songs on Atmosphere's new album like family too, refusing to pick a favorite: "It's like choosing a favorite kid; I love them all -- the ugly ones, the ones digging in their noses, all of them."

Atmosphere with Brother Ali and Abstract Rude

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday (all ages) and 7 p.m. Thursday (21 and older)

Where: Bear Tooth Theatrepub

Tickets: $38,

By Rachel Kenshalo
Daily News correspondent