Atmosphere at First Avenue on Nov. 28

Two firsts on Sunday night: My first Atmosphere show and my first show at legendary First Avenue.

The concert was gravy, because a few hours before the show, I stopped by Fifth Element to buy a shirt. Slug, Atmosphere’s emcee, was hanging out, talking merchandise with the store manager. I have no autograph or picture or cool story to tell. I said, “See you tonight, man.” He said, “Aw, cool, thanks.”

For just a moment, I felt like an 11-year-old girl. I’m rarely star-struck, but that was pretty damn cool.

Obligatory Atmosphere Plug

Minneapolis hip-hop outfit Atmosphere hit No. 1 last week with the release of its double EP, To All My Friends/Blood Makes the Blade Holy. How it is an independent hip-hop act from the Midwest did with a double EP that was barely promoted is beyond me, but nevertheless, I celebrated by snatching up tickets to their November 28 show at First Avenue. (Anyone else going?)

Fifth Element — the home base of Atmosphere and it’s record label, Rhymesayers Entertainment — posted three clips on YouTube last week, with the first two focusing on how Sean Daley (Slug) has grown as a writer and how the double EP came to be. The No. 1 spot may have been a fluke, but give Daley a few minutes and you’ll jump on the bandwagon:

New Hip-Hop From the Home Team

This isn't a record store — it's a Center for Hip-Hop Appreciation.

In 1993, for the time, I heard bass thump from a 10-inch subwoofer in the trunk of Casey Ugland’s 1988 Chevy Beretta. He was playing an NWA cassette tape, and it was like the music was alive, kicking and punching at his backseat like someone was tied up in the trunk. Strange, but that was the moment I fell in love with hip-hop. Casey was my best friend Travis’ older brother, and we would have him buy parental advisory albums which we’d hide from our parents. Hip-hop was my first (and only) rebellion.

Yesterday, Minneapolis hip-hop duo Atmosphere released a double EP, To All My Friends/Blood Makes the Blade Holy. I first heard Atmosphere in 2002, but never really “got it” until 2005. I’ve purchased — not downloaded, purchased — everything they’ve released the past five years. Their music’s even better now as I recognize street names and landmarks often mentioned in their songs. Furthermore, it’s thinking man’s hip-hop, often steeped in political and social commentary. Every Atmosphere album release day takes me back to that garage in 1993 and back to hiding tapes between my mattresses.

Atmosphere is the most successful act on Rhymesayers Entertainment, the Minneapolis-based independent hip-hop label. You can find all of the label’s music and merch at Fifth Element in Uptown, where it’s not uncommon to catch an artist roaming around the store or someone who’s been mentioned in a song running the register.

I picked up my copy from Fifth Element and forgot how good it feels to flop a CD on the corner and hand over $10. I damn near left a tip just for the experience. The double EP clocks in at 12 songs and just over 40 minutes. The content’s noticeably shorter on profanity and big on political commentary. It seems the Recession has inspired MC Slug, like on the “To All My Friends”:

I was the ugly kid that didn’t listen
Little big man, full of ambition
Based on imagination just like you
Daydreaming, thinking about the things I might do
I used to paint, draw, illustrate
Mom would facilitate, and it would feel okay
Seems like yesterday still plays a part
When I grow up, I wanted a job making art
Picture that, how many years old
Young enough to mix up love with career goals
But I was just this tall when they told me
That the world was mine, but the papers weren’t signed
There’s no deed, so proceed to go see
Up the whole piece like it owes me groceries
Don’t breathe until you formally know me
Won’t leave, better call authorities
It’s all love we’re cool
But you don’t tell an astronaut what to do

On “Americareful,” Atmosphere puts a broken health care system in the crosshairs with unfortunate stories about a Tommy and Katie. (Pardon the quality. This video will likely get taken down at some point today for copyright reasons):

On Friday at 10 a.m. CDT, tickets go on sale for back-to-back Atmosphere shows at the legendary First Avenue on Nov. 27-28. The tickets will sell out in minutes, because short of the Minnesota Twins and Vikings, few local celebrities get more love from the locals.

(You can download their new track “Freefallin'” by going here.)

Music as Art is Missing the Mark

If societal and cultural conditions didn't impact music, we wouldn't see so many homeless people on the street playing guitar to make a buck.

It’s my belief society and culture should impact music, not vice versa.

I was watching American Idol last night, which was really the first time I’ve ever done so for more than a few minutes since it premiered. It didn’t take me long to diagnose why the show isn’t for me: I hate karaoke. Idol is a karaoke contest where the winner is thrust into the spotlight, cuts an album of pre-prefabricated songs and gets thrown on tour after months of performer’s boot camp. It’s a sickening presentation from all angles and it’s diluting pop culture worse than anyone ever thought it would.

This post isn’t about Idol, per se, but that’s a good starting place because the show best represents pop music’s detachment from mainstream America. While it’s great to hear songs about love and breaking up and compromising the headlights of an unfaithful lover’s truck, ultimately, none of that stuff really matters.

No one’s saying anything substantive in music right now, which is mind-blowing considering the recession and two wars we’re fighting right now.

This post also isn’t about protest music. That’s been done. What I mean to say is pop music is flat missing the American experience in 2010. It may not result in the most uplifting music, but music (as art) should take the time to represent struggle, and not just on a personal level. (Hip-hop covers the personal struggle bit well.) I mean to say it should also provide a record of the highs and lows we face socially, culturally, economically, morally, etc.

Art was made to help us express feelings. Does the iTunes Top 10 Singles chart represent the pulse of Americans right now?

No more beating around the bush here. I can think of exactly one song that represents America from 2008-Now, and that’s “Guarantees” by Atmosphere. The album from which it came, If Life Gives You Lemons, Paint That Shit Gold, was released on April 22, 2008 — months before the first bailout was passed and the breadth of the recession was realized. This song came out before Barack Obama was elected president, before the job market fell apart and the banking industry was exposed for its shameless practices. But no song is more true to the American experience as history will remember it.

Here’s the track with the lyrics below:

[V1]
These warehouse wages kill the end’s introduction
Man, I shoulda’ shchooled it up when I was younger, shoulda’ stuck to plan
Always had the dreams of bein’ more self-assertive
And my kid’s a teenager now, he needs the health insurance
So break my body, break-break my soul down
Just another zombie walkin’ blindly through ya ghost town
Pull up to the bar to politic and tap the power
Ain’t nobody really all that jolly at your happy hour
But I don’t wanna go home yet
So I’ma talk to my cigarette and that television set
It doesn’t matter what brand or station
Anything to take away from the current situation
No overtime pay, no holiday
Months behind on everything but the lottery
Winter ’round the corner, guaranteein’ that my car dies
Wifey havin’ trouble tryna juggle both the part-times
My cup ain’t close to filled up
We tryna build up so we could have enough
And when I finally get the color, won’t be nothin’ else to paint on
A friend of mine tried to kill himself to the same song

[V2]
My better half is mad at makin’ magic outta can goods
My tax bracket status got her questionin’ my manhood
My shorty got caught smokin’ weed at a concert
And if I smack ’em everybody treats me like a monster
My neighbors ain’t doin’ much better
And we makin’ competition instead of stickin’ together
Can’t save no nest egg, in fact this nest is rented
In fact that rent is late, wait
The money ain’t here, the raise ain’t comin’
Just me and my son and that crazy woman
And those bartenders, this whole fuckin’ country
Got everybody swallowin’ that lunch meat
Maybe we could speed up the process
Kill me in my thirties in the name of progress
Put me in the dirt and then change the topic
Sometimes seems like the only way to stop it
Contemplate my departure date
Doesn’t take a lot to get a lot of us to talk this way
Take a shot at me, that’s all I’m obligated for
Apparently my only guarantee is a walk-away

[Outro x2]
The only guarantee in life
Is a life worth dyin’ for
Cause death don’t wait for no one
It’s sittin’ on yo front door

More than likely, this track strikes you as grim, hopeless, haunting, or even pessimistic. But the reality is this is a lot of people’s reality on Mar. 3, 2010.

I’m always looking for music that will remind me of a place and time, by which I don’t mean something that was playing in the background of a memory or hogged the airwaves for a month or so. I’m looking for music that captures the feeling and meaning of a time. And while no one likes to recall hard times, I think we, as a country, will eventually get to a place where the job market is bountiful, national debt is minimized, wars are finished and national morale is restored. And when we do, it’s important to remember how bad things were before they got better. Music gives us that opportunity.

If only more people were making that kind of music.