Throughout your career, you’ve transformed local references to make them resonate far beyond Lyndale Avenue. Could you say more about that?
I don’t know that I ever knew that I was doing that. I think I was doing what we do, and that’s just taking what we have around us and using it to help paint a picture. It was really easy to work all those kinds of references into my stories, because most of my stories involved alcohol. I wanted to tell these stories in a way that people from my neighborhood could visualize them or understand them. I didn’t know that people in Boise were gonna ask me about the Muddy Waters coffee shop. Honestly, even to this day, I still feel like I make records for my neighborhood. I feel like, if you live on the North Side, there’s no reason you would listen to my shit. If you live in St. Paul, there’s no reason why you would listen to my shit. So I don’t even begin to question how people in Omaha listen to my shit!
|Also in the Daily Planet, read Justin Schell on Atmosphere’s new album When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold.|
The new album is the first time that you’ve done the majority of a record with the Atmosphere band. What are some of the ways this influenced its making and what motivated this decision?
We’ve been sampling live instruments basically. Show the bass player a bass line that we would use as a sample and go “hey, give us something like that,” or even “replay that.” This way we can have the actual bass line all by itself and really do the things we want to do. But we still attempted to record them like they were samples. I’m not really a huge fan of live instrument albums with rap, but I am a huge fan of not getting sued anymore!
You have some perhaps unexpected collaborations coming up, with Muja Messiah and Truth Maze. How did those come about?
Muja and me have been friends for a really long time, it was just a matter of time before we finally felt like it was time for us to do a collaboration. Same thing with Truth Maze: we kinda came up in the same era and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have collaborated by now, aside from standard local politics. I think these will probably surprise people the most. The Truth Maze one not so much—cause me and him kinda rap about the same stuff, but we kind of do it differently—whereas Muja, we’re kind of on different shit altogether. And in fact, a lot of my fan base doesn’t even wanna hear the shit that Muja raps about. And a lot of the people that are into what Muja raps about don’t give a fuck about your Atmospheres. Even though personally, I think that collabing with him is just as fucking fun as collabing with anybody I’ve collabed with. Dude’s an incredible rapper.
Another unexpected collaboration on Lemons is with Tom Waits, someone you’ve admired for a long time. What’s the source of that admiration?
It’s his style of writing. His songs don’t remind me of songs, they remind me of actual stories. Alcohol and the situations that alcohol gets you into are things that I was interested in, cause I was living that life. And so I would listen to his songs and I would be able to relate in my own way to what it was like to be sitting in a lonely apartment, waiting for your drunk-ass girlfriend to come home.
How did “The Waitress,” the track you and Tom Waits collaborated on, come about?
I sent [Waits] the track. I pointed out the piano intro and outro and asked him if he would do a monologue over the tops of those, and then I pointed out the chorus, and I asked him if he would sing the chorus with me. He said, “okay, send me the track again, but send it to me on a four-track tape.” He sends it back and he didn’t do any of the shit I asked him to do! On one track he played a shaker. On the other track, he plays a guitar, only it’s really out of tune. On the last track, he beatboxes. So I take it into the studio and I end up grabbing a chunk of his beatboxing and looping it and trying to run it over the whole song and it fuckin’ worked! It’s really weird for me to think he’s on one of my songs, but the best part is that we did this as a trade. I’m supposed to collaborate on one of his songs and when he sends me the song, I’m gonna do all the things that I ain’t supposed to do. I ain’t gonna rap!
Where do you see Twin Cities hip-hop right now?
The Twin Cities scene has reached a place now where it’s one of the ten scenes in the country that count. And when that happens, the oversaturation kicks in. I think one of my things about the scene is that there are just too many people trying to do it, and not enough people want to enjoy it. When it comes to local rap, you’ve got more artists than you’ve got fans. I would hate to be startin’ right now. It wasn’t so much like that when I was coming up. The people were all willing to give you your shot, do your thing, spit your verse, and then maybe even give you a pat on the back and say, “that was tight.” Whereas now, I feel like there are so many people trying to put out a CD, it’s creating a competition that’s kind of weird to me. There are so many MCs here, and for them to continue to separate themselves into different sections, I’m watching how it’s keepin’ everybody from being able to move even 300 fucking CDs in their own city. But that’s not just a Minneapolis thing. I see that shit everywhere now. Independent rap is like the new pitbull, man. Everybody wants one.
How about your place within the Twin Cities hip-hop community?
I feel like the local scene has either decided to put me in a position of “hey man, you’re doing it and you’re making a name for all of us,” or put me in the position of “man, fuck you and your crew, we’re better than you.” And that’s a beautiful thing. That’s a big part of rap, the competitive spirit pushes you and inspires you to do better than me, and that’s what I want. But now I can finally do whatever the fuck I want because if you already know you hate me, then why are you worried about what I’m doing? If you already know that you believe in me, you can stop and judge what I’m doing. I feel like I’ve been able to take a step outside of the scene, and take a look back at it from the outside. And now within that, I gotta start making sure that I’m doing my part to keep some kind of community or unity.
Justin Schell is a freelance writer and a grad student at the University of Minnesota’s Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program. He’s working on a dissertation on Twin Cities immigrant and diasporic hip-hop and plays the washboard tie with The Gated Community.