Hip Hop is something I got deeply into back around my senior year of high school. Back around the early aughts I was into Jurassic 5, The Dilated Peoples, and even the headliner of the show Monday night at a full, though not quite sold out Liberty Hall in Lawrence, KS Atmosphere. I first became aware of Atmosphere with the release of 2002’s God Loves Ugly. I even caught him at the Granada with Rhymesayers label mate Brother Ali around that time.
Fast forward to an early and warm Monday fall night for a stop on the “Family Vacation” tour I found myself back in the hip hop fold. Through relentless touring since the early aughts, which aren’t “early” if you consider the fact that Atmosphere has been around since 1989. Atmosphere has built a strong fan base on the back of that touring and thanks to its label Rhymesayers building a strong reputation amongst the underground hip hop scene with a strong roster of hip hop emcees and DJ’s. That said roster was on display Monday night where all the artists that took the stage call Rhymesayers home with the exception of local Approach who played for about a hundred fans that had made their way into Liberty Hall shortly after the doors opened at 8PM.
As best my memory could recall from the last time I saw Atmosphere I thought it was a rapper and a DJ setup which has changed since that time. Slug is still front and center and the DJ is now his longtime producer Ant on the turntables and beat machine. They are joined in the live configuration by a guitarist Nate Collis and keyboardist Erick Anderson who only on the most recent The Family Sign released back in April joined the band in studio for recording of the latest album.
By the time the group took to the stage that was made to look like a forest leading up to a red barn a little after ten the lower level of Liberty Hall had filled considerably with little space left to be found and had grown quite warm. The balcony was open and comfy for those looking to take a seat, which it seemed those of the smoking variety, chose to do in the supposed smoke free venue. The group opened with a track off God Loves Ugly “Trying to Find a Balance”. It was a nice treat to hear a familiar track, when I hadn’t expected the catalog to be called upon right out of the gates.
From the moment Slug snuck out on stage under low lights he hadn’t lost a bit of the flow he had when I saw him down the street at the Granada several years ago. The common theme of the evening seemed to be Slug professing his love of Lawrence seemingly between every song. The pandering was getting to be a bit much at one point. If one didn’t know any better you’d have thought Slug just bought a house and some land in the finest city in Kansas earlier that day or was a swindling prospectors trying to cash in on a room full of marks. The truth however was different as during the show he admitted to only recently having moved back to the states after having spent a little more than the last decade living in the UK. He mixed in a rather odd interlude about poop and a notice that he had partied a bit hard the night before and had worried he might have to call in sick. Considering I hadn’t been to an Atmosphere show in several years and Slug is just a few weeks removed from his 39th birthday I didn’t find any fault in his or the band’s performance.
For the uninitiated, Atmosphere’s brand of hip hop leans heavily on introspection. These aren’t booty shaking party anthems. Sure the music is head bobbing and dance worthy but if you listen deeper to the lyrics what you’ll find is mostly about life, relationships and the inner struggles that come from such things. There are a few diversions but not many. I feel this is often what leads to the audience being predominately white and on this particular evening seemed to have some strong door ticket sales between the ages of 18-20. The polite crowd, that grew sweatier with each song even followed Slug’s order to cease crowd surfing after someone decided to go for a crowd ride. The fans, many of whom weren’t from Lawrence, seemingly loved every minute of the show. The lower level pretty much wouldn’t stop moving until the show wrapped up just about ten minutes after midnight.
Evidence, a member of one of my favorite underground hip hop acts the Dilated Peoples put on a more traditional DJ and emcee style set. Much like Slug he hasn’t lost any of his flow and even dropped a bit of Dilated Peoples 2001 “Expansion Team” on the crowd that was obviously not familiar with Evidence or Dilated Peoples; a real shame for anyone in Liberty Hall that considers themselves a fan of hip hop that they should correct as soon as possible. The fact that many in the room didn’t know Evidence didn’t seem to faze the rapper. This particular show was a bit unique as it was also the same day that saw the release of his latest solo effort Cats and Dogs on Rhymesayers. Being that I had been removed from Hip-Hop for a while I hadn’t realized that Evidence was performing as a solo artist between time spent in Dilated Peoples. Thankfully his style is a little different than it was when he was with Dilated. I’ve read that Cats and Dogs is a pretty personal album and when he played “I Don’t Need Love” this certainly shone through.
Blueprint was the second opener on what was ultimately a four act bill. Blueprint brought a bass player along with his DJ and would occasionally take to a midi controller and break out a Rock Band Keytar; an interesting setup that actually gelled well together. The audience seemed to have more recognition of Blueprint and its material than it did for Evidence. This is likely due to him touring with Atmosphere previously and working with DJR2 as the group Soul Position. I personally felt that Blueprint really stole the show for the whole evening. I found his set the most interesting and vibrant of the four. He seems to still have a drive and something to say, not that the other emcees didn’t but on this particular Monday night Blueprint made the largest impact on me.
One final observation I had on the evening is how truly appreciative each artist seemed of the audience during the course of the show. Sure Slug’s pandering was a bit over the top but each performer of the evening paused at some point during their set to acknowledge the economic times and thank the fans for choosing to spend their hard earned money on this show. It’s common at most shows to get polite thanks from the artist after songs and sets, pretty rare for them to go out of the way to thank the audience for coming out in support of them. All the openers spent time in the merch booth signing things for fans and receive random thanks. I see this from time to time at smaller shows so it was nice to see it in a larger venue.
By John Coovert