Underground heads

El-P and Atmosphere wear their 'backpacks' with pride

More than 500 concerts will be performed in Atlanta during the month of October, but you can count the noteworthy hip-hop shows on one hand. Which makes it all the more remarkable that, on Oct. 14 and 15, two of the most talented artists in the underground hip-hop scene will be playing the Echo Lounge within 24 hours of one another.

The similarities between El-P, who founded the Definitive Jux record label, and Slug, whose group Atmosphere is the core of Minnesota's Rhymesayers clique, are so numerous that El-P considers Rhymesayers "like our brother label." Aside from their connections as MCs running indie labels, the two share a business philosophy and musical aesthetic that belies their different backgrounds.

El-P is the seasoned vet, having burst onto the scene in the mid-'90s as a member of acclaimed NYC trio Company Flow. Despite expectations of bigger things to come, El-P split after two successful albums to form Def Jux, which has released critically acclaimed albums from Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, RJD2 and Mr. Lif (the latter two appear with El-P at his Echo Lounge date).

According to the rapper-turned- entrepreneur, starting a label was a natural progression. "I felt I had enough experience, connections and tactical understanding of the industry to do something like Def Jux. Our philosophy is that we wanna put consistently good music out, discover unproven new artists, and nurture our artists long-term. It's a fairly simple idea," he says.

Slug is relatively new to the game, though the Rhymesayers collective has been building buzz in the Twin Cities for several years. The crew gained national notoriety in 2000, when teenage MC Eyedea was crowned freestyle champion in the "Blaze Hip-Hop Battle" broadcast on HBO. Still, Slug says, "aside from Puffy trying to sign Eyedea, it was more a novelty for us."

For Slug, starting his own label made more sense than trying to get signed. "I'm not looking to be famous; I'm just looking for enough money to support the empire we're trying to build. But the majors just want hits, and I'm not looking for that kind of pressure. You can't feed me to urban radio," he says, acknowledging the uncommercial nature of his sound. "But if I can grab 150,000 kids who'll support me for 15 years, if I can touch their souls, that goes beyond writing a hit record and having a platinum plaque. In the long-term, I come out a winner."

Like the Def Jux crew, the Rhymesayers pride themselves on clever lyricism and raw-but-inventive production, which has made both crews favorites among the "backpacker" hip-hop set. But the subgenre (named for its following among college students) has its deterrents, primarily among fans of more street-oriented rap who find the uncompromisingly artful aesthetic of the backpacker sound a bit too esoteric.

For his part, El-P couldn't care less. "There's always gonna be generalizations about everything, and unfortunately that includes rappers with content."

Despite resistance from so-called "street" hip-hop heads, El-P's Fantastic Damage and Atmosphere's God Loves Ugly are attracting both critical praise and a degree of commercial success. El-P's latest album is a finalist (one of four Def Jux releases nominated) for the Short List Prize for Artistic Achievement in Music and has received universally rave reviews. And though Atmosphere's album is just beginning to register on the pop culture radar, his group continues to build a loyal grassroots following through rigorous touring — including 70 dates on its current jaunt.

But perhaps what unites the Def Jux and Rhymesayers crews most is their mutual respect: "The Def Jux guys have an incredible sound like nothing I've heard since the days of the Bomb Squad," Slug says. "I've got a lot of respect for what they're doing for hip-hop — not just music, but their business ethics and the way they do what they do."??

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