Insane in the membrane 

Finding a method to the madness of Atmosphere

The most creative and ingenious minds are often the most crazed. The fire that inspires artistry leaves the mind singed and forever transformed. Jackson Pollock came from a family with a long history of mental instability. Poet Ezra Pound and musician Charles Mingus both spent time in psychiatric hospitals. And literally hundreds of writers, from Leo Tolstoy to Mark Twain, are documented to have suffered from mental illness. Lord Byron once said, “We of the craft are all crazy,” in regard to himself and his fellow poets.

So where does a young urban black artist touched by madness turn in 21st century America? For Slug, the front man for the group Atmosphere, the answer is hip-hop music. Slug is truly a poet of the highest caliber. His rhymes deal with a lot more than sipping on gin and juice; he tells stories of heartbreak and adventure. Occasionally his songs even cross over into the realm of the mystical. This manifests in such songs as “The Woman with the Tattooed Hands,” a beautifully told story about the tattooed figures that come to life from the hands of a middle-aged virgin to sexually gratify her.

One has to be a little crazy to tour in a van and sleep on people’s couches or floors across the country for years on end, but just as Slug excels in lyricism, he likewise outstrips other rappers in the field of eccentricity. According to Atmosphere’s press release, he is known for such maniacal capers as stealing hotel keys and wresting promoters on stage in the vomit of his DJ, Mr. Dibbs.

Mr. Dibbs himself seems not of the soundest of minds. Aside from puking on cue for impromptu wrestling matches, he is reportedly a serial killer enthusiast and a perilous adversary in eating contests of any sort—particularly those that include salami or Burger King cheeseburgers.

But, like Slug, Mr. Dibbs is also in many ways a creative genius. Turntables provide the medium for his art. Recently, he’s become well known for his heavy metal solos. Yes, with rap-metal bands like Korn everywhere these days, this doesn’t sound too original, yet Dibbs’s heavy metal hip-hop is strikingly different. Imagine an old Slayer album with the drums and horns of ‘70s funk playing underneath it. Mr. Dibbs frequently turns crowds of booty-shakin’ hip-hoppers into rooms full of moshing, crowd-surfing maniacs. The two back-up vocalists in the Atmosphere crew are no less nutty.

Brother Ali has wallpapered his studio with restraining orders and eviction notices, and Blueprint is a fan of “Blind Date,” “Fifth Wheel,” “Elimidate” and any other television show about couples hooking up. If that’s not a bit cracked, I don’t know what is.

But in spite of (or perhaps partly because of) the madness of its members, Atmosphere has become one of the most popular groups in the underground hip-hop scene. They have already sold 30,000 copies of their newest CD, God Loves Ugly, with the single “Modern Man’s Hustle” ranking number one for four straight weeks on the CMJ charts. Individually, Blueprint ranked second out of 80 contestants in the 2000 Scribble Jam MC Battle in Cincinnati. Brother Ali has his own album coming out this fall. Mr. Dibbs has released countless tapes and records of his mixing, and has a song that will be featured in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 video game.

OK, here’s the exciting part: Atmosphere will be in Missoula to play at the Blue Heron Thursday, Sept. 19 and cause general mayhem around town. No one (at least for now, anyway) is advocating for putting these guys in handcuffs and sending them off to the asylum in Warm Springs the second they step out of their van.

Rather, their show promises to be eventful and could provide the perfect subject of study for a psychology student. So kids, bring your notebooks.

Murs, one of eight MCs from Living Legends, will also be appearing. His rhymes are slightly more down-to-earth than Slug’s.

You might call him the rationalist of the group. In one of the songs from his solo CD, Murs Rules the World, he says that carrying a microphone is better than toting a gun “because it promotes a healthy body and a much longer life.”

Now that fellow has some wits about him. However, the boys from Atmosphere may be affecting him: Murs and Slug just released an EP together, Felt, which is a tribute to actress Christina Ricci.

Obsession is often one of the first signs of the onset of madness.

Perhaps if insane geniuses like William Blake or T.S. Eliot were alive in America today, we would see them not at pretentious, graduate student poetry readings, but busting out brilliant raps next to Slug and Murs at an Atmosphere show. One can only imagine.

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