Standard bearer for the punk-inspired, DIY hip-hop movement, Atmosphere's Slug has spent nearly a decade on the road, holding audiences enraptured with his honest wordplay. All the while, Atmosphere's resident producer, Ant, has been holed up in the lab, constructing Slug's sonic framework one track at a time.
Ant's development more closely resembles the training of producers from hip-hop's formative years than most of his present peers in the independent scene. “I DJ'd for rappers in the '80s, cutting the beat back and forth like the Cold Crush Brothers,” says Ant, aka Anthony Davis.
Later, Ant got the producing bug. Modeling himself after idolized heroes such as Marley Marl, he sought to not only supply MCs with beats but also develop a chemistry with his collaborators — something he feels Marl had with the many acts that he produced. “Every album he produced, the artists he worked with were never quite the same without him,” Ant says. “There's not a single artist that was better without him. I would love to be regarded like that.”
Looking at the limited number of rappers that Ant has worked with to date, it's fair to assume that he's highly selective when choosing projects. Every MC that's hoped to attain one of the cleverly crafted beats created on his Ensoniq ASR-10 has been given the opportunity to work with Ant in his home studio because he sincerely respects them. Not one to peddle “mail-order beats,” he says, Ant requires this personal working relationship with all of his collaborators.
It's in the shared creative process itself that he shines, using his ability to motivate and cajole to bring out the most in each artist. “I will tell [artists] the best joke possible,” he says. “I will make them as comfortable as possible. If I have to tell them they're the greatest artist ever to be in a booth and lie to their face, I'll do that. I'll do everything in my power to make sure they do the best recording they can possibly do. That's the only thing I'm good at. I'm decent at making a track or mixing or whatever, but when it comes to getting an artist to do what the fuck they're supposed to do, I do a good job at gauging them.”
Ant also knows how to gauge the appeal of his tracks when played in front of an audience. While on tour, he watched the body language of fans as Mr. Dibbs — who DJ'd for Atmosphere on past tours — dropped the needle on his instrumentals. Ant then looked for cues that suggested needed improvements. As a direct result of this consumer sampling, his goal for Atmosphere's latest release, You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having (Rhymesayers, 2005), was to pick up the tempo and make his beats ever more aggressive to elicit a significant reaction.
Although he employs the same recording process (using samples, beats and occasional studio musicians), Ant now also creates bridges for buildup and breakdowns for heightened anticipation. “In the past, I've made so many records without bridges, but I needed to explore a couple things,” he says. “At the end of ‘Panic Attack,’ there was so much to be said that wasn't being said in the lyrics. So I got stuff off TV commercials to make sure that even the most naïve person in the world would know what the fuck we're trying to do.”
With the Pour Me Another tour, Ant is taking the helm as DJ for the first time in Atmosphere's history. Although a student of the DJ Premier era and thus a staunch believer in executing all the cuts on the album himself, until now, he hadn't felt competent enough to run a live show. “My DJ skills suck technically,” Ant confesses. “I can scratch all damn day in the studio, but live I'm not good at all. You got your QBerts and guys like that; I'm nowhere near their league. But I figured out one day, I've been doing this shit for 20 years, so I deserve to be onstage. All those years, I had this thing in my heart that said I can't go onstage with this dumb shit that I do, but now I figure I've paid enough dues. I deserve it.”