Slug’s been doing this so long intentionality has lost its meaning. So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously is Atmosphere’s seventh album, he tells me. It’s been their seventh album for the last ten or so albums, it later turned out. The project is an ambitious interdimensional odyssey, covering just about every genre, colour palette and mood. From delicate piano solos to booming dub basslines, it almost feels like hip hop’s response to Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, captured through Slug and Ant’s unique lens. Despite these galactic proportions, however, each line of questioning would inevitably devolve into something that felt more like a two-way discussion than an interview.
We actually missed our initial interview slot. I’d suffered a spontaneous pneumothorax and watched as his calls rang out from a hospital bed whilst my lung was being reinflated. The first song I listened to when I got out later that evening was lead single ‘Okay’, which held a very specific relevance to my reality at that time.
“I don’t think that’s a far stretch to tie together what this album’s about”, Slug responded. “Even in that phone call… my experience of that moment was: ‘shit, am I late?’, ‘Did I fuck up?’. That was my reality and yours was obviously quite different. Even though we were joined together by that phone call, it’s moments like that that define how separate we really are”.
These simultaneous realities extend to Slug’s experience of his own lyrics, too. “Take a song from the older catalogue that we would want to start doing live [again]. I have to go through it and relearn it in a different way. I’ve got to find a way for me to genuinely commit to what I’m saying, so that people who want to listen to the song can get what they’re getting out of it while you as the performer can get what you’re trying to get out of it as well”.
Then it dawned on me: “That’s crazy, I never got the S.M.O.R.E.S. acronym until I saw you breaking it down like that. These simultaneous realities are kind of sandwiched together like a s’more”
“What’s a ‘s’mores’?” Slug sounded confused.
“What! So that acronym was completely unintentional?”
“I’m not sure man, I don’t even know what a ‘s’mores’ is. Is that like a British thing?”
My head shot forward, obscuring the camera as I frantically tried to Google pictures of s’mores.
“I’m just fucking with you man, I know what a s’more is”, Slug chuckled, “S.M.O.R.E.S. So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously. I named it that because I wanted to see people try and say it”. Motherfucker. Just when I thought I was getting the hang of things.
Of course, the project exists in the real world, too. Slug told me how ‘Okay’ was written in August 2020 when much of the world was still in lockdown and, in his home city of Minneapolis, George Floyd had just been murdered by the police. “There was this general sense of people being held accountable for their treatment of one another… and when Ant gave me this beat that almost felt optimistic, I had this need to talk about how things are gonna be okay”.
“When I showed Ant the track he said ‘Cool, that’s gonna be the first song’ and I was like ‘Oh, so we’re making an album now?’”. The project grew sequentially from there, with the second track being the next beat that Slug received from Ant and various easter eggs and musical motifs bridging the gaps. “What he was trying to communicate to me was that he was going to create a musical stream of consciousness throughout the whole album, and I was like ‘This is great!’, because it was another challenge”.
I’ve gone too far into it to be keeping up with what anyone else is doing but myself, the only competition I have is myself.
What really sets Atmosphere apart is their ability to capture emotional nuance, somehow managing to remain boundary pushing in the hip hop space for nigh on 30 years. Almost all of his verses for the project were written and recorded in the fairy-lit basement from which Slug joined our call, a place where he is usually alone. “When you’re by yourself, there’s no such thing as vulnerable, and there’s no such thing as humble. You can say anything you want man!”.
Already known for his storytelling, Slug’s lyricism has sunk deeper into the first-person perspective than ever before on this project, balancing the specificities of still life with the sort of considered ambiguity that makes art alluring. He no longer feels the need to look anywhere but inside himself to make a point: “Take a song like ‘Bigger Pictures’, not once in there do I blame another human being for anything… I feel like I’ve grown as a writer in that way so that I no longer need to put the onus on anybody but me”.
I like to call it the Neil Young space in hip hop… if people suddenly stopped listening- of course I’d have to find a job to feed these kids that I have- but I would never stop doing this
Speaking to Slug, I almost forgot that people did listen. Millions, in fact. Full of humility, Slug’s responses throughout the interview were replete with “I don’t know, but…”s and “what do you think?”s. There was this sense of Slug and Ant being dwarfed by the expanse that Atmosphere has become, and the truths they’ve discovered along the way.
He often compared his musical process to visual art- mixing a little pink up there, a little green down here– but in the last five minutes of our conversation, as if it was an afterthought, he let me in on a little secret about the project. He wrote it as the story of a failed suicide. Not the suicide of a person, but of everything. “What’s the opposite of the Big Bang? The Big Shrink”. Slug then proceeded to decipher the entire album in line with this narrative- from death to visitation to ascension- before immediately dismissing the idea: “I would never expect anyone else to get that from listening to the project”. All these realities exist simultaneously, I guess.
I asked Slug if he remembered bringing up the notion of simultaneous realities on Brother Ali’s Traveller’s Podcast last year. He didn’t. “You’ve got to remember I’m a bit of a burnout bro. I’m 50… I’m just making this up as we go along and I hope that’s okay for anyone listening”.
This latest project has once more sent Atmosphere touring around the world, and their music has been keeping them fed on both sides the millennium. I think, by now, it’s safe to say that it’s a little more than “okay”.
Atmosphere’s ‘seventh’ album, So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously is out now on all major digital realities. Catch the project live in the physical reality at London’s Electric Ballroom 11th May, as part of the characteristically humbly titled ‘The ConTour’ across Europe.