Frequency: Atmosphere

TO AIR IS HUMANWith some session help, Minneapolis duo funks it up Vangelis-meets-Vanity 6 style

Beginning their creative relationship in 1998, Minneapolis-based MC Sean “Slug” Daley and producer Anthony “Ant” Davis have operated under the name Atmosphere for a healthy decade of narrating unhealthy obsessions. But it's with the hip-hop duo's sixth and latest full-length, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold (Rhymesayers, 2008), that they set out to produce an Atmosphere that fully owns the name.

“It's the same shit here for six months a year — cold — and there's a chance you won't see much sun for a long time, especially doing what we do,” says Ant by phone from the Twin Cities. “So you can live in a world like in Blade Runner [Ridley Scott's artfully overcast 1982 cult-cyberpunk film], and there were a lot of times I envisioned that for this album. Originally, I wanted the first-half real quiet with piano and guitar only, and then the second-half would be synth and heavy. In the end that didn't seem totally right, but my thought was still on Blade Runner, how it starts slow and gets crazy at the end. I wanted to try production that could make me feel uncomfortable and satisfied.”

From sampling earthy jazz-funk-soul to being inspired by a fictional dystopia of soulless replicants and noirish synth melodies may seem a tremendous leap, but Atmosphere approached saturating the newly chromatic mood by making Lemons a most humanist effort. Members of the group's touring band and other local musicians contributed to Atmosphere's bottom-up production, coming in to interpolate and improvise themes rather than relying strictly on loops.

Beginning by demoing in Ant's basement with an Ensoniq ASR-10 sampling keyboard, Shure Beta 58A mic, Tascam 424mkIII Portastudio and Korg R3 and MicroKorg synths, the two agreed that Lemons would express their appreciation of mid-'80s Minneapolis lo-fi funk, such as offerings from The Time, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

“Jam and Lewis wanted to sound like wet funk, but it never did,” reflects Slug by phone from SXSW in Austin, Texas. “And maybe it's from the geography, how Minnesota is cold all the time, and it's isolated. You don't network, you do what you think you should; you force it more than learn it. And we wanted to go there, too — go weird with hollow drums. It didn't end up being only about that once the band came in, though.”

At the upstart, however, Slug found his inspiration as he often does — among Ant's “hundred cazillion” records. Staring at the pink and green cover of a record by Jesse Johnson (contributor to The Time, Vanity 6 and more), Slug set out to go beyond the familiar “blues and black and deep purple in my steez” to learn orange and yellow, “some flamboyant peacock shit.”

Although surrounded by the instruments that outfit the touring band, neither Slug nor Ant is a traditional instrumentalist, so Lemons offered some challenges. That's when Joe Mabbott — owner/engineer/producer at the Twin Cities' Hideaway Studio — stepped in, importing the demo tracks into his Pro Tools|HD system and sending them through API, Great River, Manley and Aurora Audio preamps.

Some kicks, snares and Korg parts remained, but for the most part musicians would eventually replay and overlay everything. First, however, Slug laid down his vocals (mixed down in homage to early LL Cool J tracks, which were tucked in lower to inspire listeners to engage deeper in his tracks) with a Neumann M 149 mic, Manley preamp and Universal Audio LA-2A compressor.

While he recorded, musicians wearing headphones worked on Sequential Circuits, Roland Juno and Jupiter, Clavia, Moog and Yamaha synths (sometimes in tandem) to replicate sample tones. Vintage recording grit, however, was the hardest to assimilate, so re-amping and Massey Tape-Head and THC, and SansAmp plug-ins were invaluable. And the Eventide H3000 Harmonizer, SPL Kultube compressor and Empirical Labs Distressor allowed for saturation and maturation. Additionally, Mabbott — a percussionist — looped every piece of kit and type of hit he could, including vocal hits.

“When I got to hear some of the sounds soloed, without Rhodes or bells, the noises could almost be gross,” Slug admits. “But when they came together, it was a fake pretty. It's like what happens when you take a shitty car but put nice rims on it. I know I had more fun making this than I ever had…and once we're not experimenting and full-on catching our groove, it will be way interesting.”