I absolutely love Atmosphere. That’s the name of a hip hop group; a rapper who goes by the name ‘Slug’ and his DJ Anthony Davis. I’ve loved them since I first heard their song back in college.
I was drawn to the clarity of the words, and Slug’s ability to paint those words with the haunting emotions of an ordinary life. Good music, it occurred to me, came from the place deep inside where pain and pleasure is mixed like whiskey and bitters, and is spilled out from the body in the form of sounds reverberating in the throat, or shakes of fingers and limbs across guitar strings or piano keys. Good music is an attitude transposed into physical form, whether it be cynicism, horniness, anguish, depression, hopelessness, or ambition. Any artist can make a sad song, or an upbeat ballad. But Slug? He could spit a line that stabbed your heart with the pain of mediocrity and blasted your world with the agonizing gray that is the average person’s life. He saw and composed the sense of being rejected, of winning one, of taking solace in knowing that the world was stacked against you. Of being passed out drunk on a bathroom floor, thinking about cosmic ideas and the philosophy of being hurt. He’s one of those artists who was able to plug into the very spark of being human. I love his music because it is exceedingly human, and paints the human experience with a certain poetry.
So of course, I was excited when I saw that he was performing in a city I lived in, finally. After several years of shouting the lyrics of his songs at the top of my lungs between the rolled up windows of my ’04 Camry, and after years of watching his music videos on youtube repeatedly, I was going to see Slug in person. I imagined it being this spiritual experience, the music, the people, the unity. Slug, like a prophet would emerge on the stage, and the crowd would chant his chorus like believers who tasted freedom. I asked around with some friends, none of whom even knew who Atmosphere was. I asked my girlfriend, who wanted very much to go with me but would have to attend a wedding out of town that weekend. I wanted to see Slug perform in person so much more than I had wanted to attend my own high school graduation. A sentiment I’m sure Slug had rapped about at some point.
I resolved to go by myself.
The day came with little fanfare. I dropped my girlfriend off at the airport, had dinner by myself, got dressed, and headed over to the venue. Slug came on stage close to midnight, after several openers from their record company. And like a titan, Slug stepped onto the stage like Zeus stepped across the clouds. The way he gripped the microphone, the way he stepped, the way he talked and breathed between each line, all seemed to say that he was tired from doing this for so many years, so many shows, but that his heart was still in it, and it still moved him. He did some of his earlier songs from when he first started, and some of his new songs, and some of his greatest hits. The crowd went wild after every song.
The crowd. It was dark in the venue obviously, except the lights that were fixated on the stage. I saw only silhouettes swaying, standing, sitting, jumping. I stepped outside for a second to get some air. The deafening beat and music fell muffled as soon as the door shut behind me. Under the incandescent showtime sign of the venue, I was surrounded by other fans taking a smoke break. And for the first time that night, I saw a strange kind of reflection. The awkward clumps of people puffing away, trying not to bump elbows. People who had tattoos in odd places, people wearing things I would never wear. People I would never associate with. They all looked like… losers.
And I thought about something, about how I had such a hard time finding someone to go to this show with. The music was brilliant, the stories he told with poetry, the passion. But maybe it resonated mostly with the losers and suckers. And for the first time I saw a reflection that told me who I was. People who made bad decisions, people who didn’t care, people who looked like a mess. So often it seems I love the Christ but hate his followers. These ragged rebels, who reeked of poor choices and lackluster lives. Could it be though that these were the only ones who receive redemption from these bitter ballads? Are they the only ones who would be saved by this doctrine of the damned?
Perhaps only the blind find beauty in blackness.
I stepped back into the show, into the darkness, and into the rhythm and beat.