Greek Theater, Berkeley
Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015
Better Than: Driving to Los Angeles for FYF and having to stop at an Arby’s in Fresno to pee.
“We’re from Minnesota. Can anyone point that out on a map?”
When Slug, aka Sean Daley, asked this question of the crowd at Berkley’s Greek Theater on Saturday night, he wasn’t trying to condescend them. Much to the contrary, Atmosphere’s success as a Minneapolis-based hip-hop outfit is a tribute to their universal appeal. Slug’s confessional rhymes, coupled with the impressive soul-sampling and catchy hooks of DJ Ant’s beats is the reason that 20 years after the founding of Rhymesayers Entertainment, the label is as vibrant and relevant as ever.
Showcasing the diverse talents of Rhymesayers, the artists that played before Atmosphere were less openers and more the first two-thirds of a raucous party that no one wanted to end. First to the stage was Brother Ali, who admirably handled the daunting task of whipping the still-arriving audience into a frenzy. Tracks like “Tight Rope” and “Take Me Home” did the job. Brother Ali demanded the crowd’s attention with his fast, impactful delivery.
The highlight of his set, however, came in the form of guest poet Amir Sulaiman, who delivered a blistering rendition of his poem “We Must Win” in the middle of Ali’s set. It was a bold move to silence the beats and let a man speak his truth on sobering topics, but Sulaiman’s conviction and precision was potent ammunition and set the tone for an evening highlighted by artists unafraid to seize the stage and provide their fans with the rare, spontaneous moments that make us want to see live music.
Following Brother Ali was the Dilated Peoples, a trio from Los Angeles that recently released their first album with Rhymesayers (and fifth overall). MCs Evidence and Rakaa rapped in a tag-team approach, finishing each others’ verses and running across the sizable Greek stage. While their music didn’t have the message of Brother Ali or the infectious sound of Atmosphere, Dilated Peoples were king in two key regards: energy and DJ skills. On the former count, Evidence seemed deliriously happy to simply be on stage.
“We just got off a plane from Germany, so I don’t even know what the fuck is going on,” he explained.
If Dilated Peoples were jetlagged, they certainly didn’t show it. Midway through their set, they pulled a fan onstage to rap along to one of their songs. He didn’t disappoint, nailing all the words and receiving an enthusiastic response from the group. Before launching into “Worst Comes to Worst,” Evidence picked his spot and stage dove into the crowd, who hoisted him about before safely depositing him back on the stage. The real star was DJ Babu, who showcased some truly impressive skills in a solo breakdown that served as an important reminder to younger attendees that before Macbooks and Pro Tools there was black wax and fast fingers. Props.
After almost two hours of quality hip-hop from the Rhymesayers family, the godfathers finally took the stage. Slug may be 42, but jumping on stage to the lit-fuse beat of “Puppets,” he was right back to his roots as a bratty twenty-something wise beyond his years. Atmosphere jumped between newer tracks like “Kanye West” and “Fortunate” and older favorites. At one point, they burned through a medley of “Don’t Ever Fucking Question That,” “Like Today,” and “Guns and Cigarettes,” showcasing the group’s perennial talent for churning out quality tracks that both bang and make you think once the bass has faded.
While the majority of Atmosphere’s set was high-octane crowd love and good times, things took a serious turn when Slug honored late Rhymesayers artist Eyedea (of Eyedea & Abilities), who passed away in 2010. The song “Flicker,” written in memory of the fallen MC, was a tender moment punctuated by the brutal honesty of Slug's lyrics. Lines like “It stays in my head/That I was on a stage when you were laying in bed/Body was discovered by your own mother/It penetrates my chest, I still taste regret” could’ve been a hard pill to swallow for an audience deep into a night of raised hands and sing-along choruses, but as with so many of Slug’s words, they resonated, rising above the beat to leave a lasting impression. It’s the signature of a true artist.
After asking the crowd if they could point out Minnesota on a map, Slug turned to Ant, his partner in crime from the very beginning, and answered his own question. “We’re the reason they can point it out,” he laughed. Atmosphere was the reason for far more than that. As co-founders of the label, they were the reason two exemplary opening acts turned an Atmosphere show into a Rhymesayers showcase. As enduring, successful artists committed to their brand of indie hip hop for two decades, they were the reason that many of the fans in attendance knew damn near every word of every song. Atmosphere wasn’t the whole party on Saturday night, but they were a reason to throw one. That’s worth learning where Minnesota is.
– One innovative concertgoer used a limp braid of her partner’s dreads to signal to their friends where they were in the crowd. Maybe get a balloon or a something next time?
– Opting to eschew the traditional routine, Slug told the crowd that encores were “an evil device created by the illuminati.” He then filled the time the group would’ve spent waiting to retake the stage freestyling with Brother Ali over the beat for “Sound is Vibration.” More of this please.
-After a fan threw a bouquet on stage, Slug quipped, “Hey Anthony, look – someone killed nature for us!”
The Loser Wins
Don’t Ever Fucking Question That/Like Today/Guns and Cigarettes [Medley]
The Women with the Tattooed Hands [Acapella]
The Best Day
Fuck You Lucy/Pour Me Another
God’s Bathroom Floor
Smart Went Crazy
Cats Van Bags [with Brother Ali]
Blah Blah Blah [with Brother Ali]
Freestyles [over “Sound is Vibration” beat]
Trying to Find a Balance