Atmosphere warming at Cain’s

“I know this is a red state,” Atmosphere emcee Slug said from the main stage of Cain’s Ballroom, “but are you guys happy with the results [of the presidential election]?”

The crowd went wild.

This was the vibe in the air when Slug and his deejay Ant took the stage Friday night November 7, 2008.  It wasn’t a question of politics, although those might have influenced it to a certain extent; the point was that the country was entering a new era—one of racial harmony, with the electoral victory of Barack Obama simply serving as more proof.

Slug wasn’t interested in harping on this himself, and I can’t really blame him; in some sense it’s unfortunate that I have to mention it at all, since pointing out our nation’s past racial struggles feels like setting it back—if even just a little bit.  But when the (mostly) white, Minneapolis-based duo played for a mostly (but not nearly all) white audience, with three opening performers who were all African-American (emcees Abstract Rude and Blueprint, both backed by deejay Rare Groove), it was hard not to ponder how far we’ve come—and how much good hip-hop music has done for us, say what you will about its shortcomings.

This all seems appropriate for a duo that has just released an album entitled When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Sh– Gold and embarked on a tour christened Paint the Nation. The message Saturday night was one of inspiration and progress, and it was infectious. It was a message—and a beat—that had fans on their feet cheering—and break-dancing—all night.

Slug was just as appreciative of the Cain’s crowd as they were of him. “You motherf—ers are the best fans that anybody could f—ing have,” he said. “Ever since I first came to Tulsa in 1998, I’ve felt at home here—I can just be myself. You guys don’t make me jump through flaming hoops; I don’t have to act like I’m tough, I don’t have to act like I’m cool.” In the context it made perfect sense—Slug isn’t exactly the sort of emcee you hear on the radio often (which explains why Atmosphere remains underground, even if they’ve been active for more than a decade now). “I’m a 36-year-old rapper who likes comic books,” he told the crowd. “I’m a nerd.

That’s not to say there’s anything particularly “nerdy” about Atmosphere’s music, however: the songs the group performed Friday night were all powerfully inspiring stories that spanned most of the group’s catalogue: “In Her Music Box,” “Godlovesugly” (“All the beautiful people be quiet!” Slug told the crowd on the final chorus), “Vanity Sick” and “Not Another Day”—all stories of human suffering and what can be done about it.

Slug’s commitment to making a difference became clear when a fan started demanding that he sing “Modern Man’s Hustle,” a song from an early album with vaguely misogynist lyrics.

At first he was amused. “You’re making me feel old,” he said. “Have we really crossed the line into being one of those bands that you can just yell out songs from the audience? Have we crossed into CCR territory?” When the fan continued to ask for the song, however, Slug got serious: “You can yell out songs like that when you’re at a show for some dude with a bunch of hits, sure—but I am not that dude with a bunch of hits. I didn’t build my fanbase through MTV and the radio, I added each and every one of you simply by being me. That’s my job here—to be myself. When I did that song, I was all about getting faded and f—ed up. I’m not about that anymore. I’m about communication.”

Slug paid the fan $20 to leave the show, and then invited the three opening acts back onstage to close the show with some freestyling (“I’m not any good at freestyling,” he said—a statement that turned out to be untrue—“but I like it.”) After momentarily trying to think of a rhyme for “Tulsa,” Slug, Abstract Rude and Blueprint—backed, of course by Rare Groove, Ant, and Atmosphere’s touring band—all improvised some dope rhymes over the hook “Slug went crazy / But where did you go?” Somewhere in there, Blueprint found a pretty good rhyme: “Tulsa—the center of hip-hop culture.”

It might not be true, strictly speaking, but it certainly felt that way that night, with every fan in the diverse crowd grooving to hope and unity. The evening was a reminder that while American culture still has a long way to go, there’s no need to give up hope.

About the author:
A graduate of the University of Nebraska, Luke Harrington currently resides in Tulsa and works in the aerospace industry–but, at any given moment, would probably rather be reviewing movies and music.  In his spare time, he’s off playing blues piano, pretending to be Assistant Editor for, or reviewing the many musical events in Northeastern Oklahoma for Tulsa Today.