Atmosphere - Strictly Leakage
Written by: Chaz Kangas
Atmosphere - Strictly Leakage
Written by: Chaz Kangas
Ten years ago, Atmosphere released what has become one of Rhymesayers' best kept secrets, their surprise album Strictly Leakage. Christmas Eve 2007 found hip-hop heads reaching into their stockings and pulling out an entire Atmosphere album of completely new previously unheard music.
Due to social media largely being in its infancy at the time, only a MySpace bulletin and a post on the Rhymesayers website alerted fans to Strictly Leakage's existence. Perhaps because of its emergence directly between the lofty shadows of the previous summer's "Sunshine" and the following spring's When Life Gives You Lemons..., the album has since become something of a treasured cult classic.
Created during the same sessions that gave us the Sad Clown Bad Dub seasons and Lemons, both Slug and Ant described these "Leakers" as the tracks where they could just cut loose and have fun, a much needed balance to the intensity that went into the creation of their other projects' material during this era. While a handful of songs envisioned as "Leakers" eventually were upscaled and appeared on the duo's other projects - or in the case of the tracks that didn't fit the party vibe, found a home on 2009's Leak At Will EP, the feel good freedom of the 100% sample-based Strictly Leakage has become both a point of pride for Slug and Ant themselves, as well as one of the most enjoyed insider favorites within their fanbase.
For the first time ever, Slug and Ant are speaking on all things Strictly Leakage.
Slug: The first couple of joints that we made that we knew were not for [Lemons] but were “exercises,” as we called them, were “Road to the Riches,” “Millie Fell Off the Fire Escape” and “Young Gifted and Mixed.” Basically, I was making these - I don’t want to say parodies - but I was making my version of songs I deemed to be classic. We were doing these “exercises” just to sync ourselves up after making a song that was much more serious, like “Yesterday,” where everybody in the room is suddenly kind of quiet. “So what do you want to do now?” “You know what, loop up the piano from Billy Joel and let’s remake ‘Road to the Riches,’ from my viewpoint.” These songs weren’t made with the intention to release them, but they started coming out good. We were accustomed to getting free shit on the internet, and we were here with our hands full of these songs, and that was what set it off. “Young Gifted and Mixed” was the first song for this project, and got the ball rolling.
Ant: This was an excuse to do a take on Big Daddy Kane. Strictly Leakage was more to capture our youth, tipping our cap at what we were into as teenagers. Knowing that I wasn’t going to have anybody try to replay anything, that we were going to have fun with it, we weren’t “selling” it, it allowed me to tap into records I normally wouldn’t mess with and steer clear of because of the basic law of originality in hip-hop. We were basically doing covers, so we didn’t have all the self-imposed rules. I also put this thing on myself were I was going to sample records that all have crowds in them. 80% of the samples are from live recordings, and I put the sound of people throughout the album from the beginning to the end, there’s always a crowd going on. Some of the crowd I have looped through the background is a very unenthusiastic crowd, because we have highs-and-lows on the record, and I’d wanted to do that forever.
Slug: As long as the internet has talked about my music, there’s always been that one guy in the chatroom who says “Oh, he only makes music for the suburbs.” At the end of the day, I would fall back to the “Well yeah, but so does 50 Cent.” All this music is for the suburbs. It’s written from the city but it’s the suburbs that are buying it and every artist knows that. You’re not really dissing me by saying that. I wanted to write a song that championed that kid Matthew from the suburbs to show “Yo, you’re OK,” but there was a tongue-in-cheekness to it to that said “don’t pretend you’re a gangster because you like this music, just like this music.” And don’t go looking down on this kid from the burbs because he likes the music that you like, he’s putting money in those artists’ pockets. I always felt it was unfair to the suburban kid because he got thrown under the bus for enjoying music.
Ant: I had the sample for a long time and it was a take on an intro for a GZA song that they never really used, so it wasn’t so much a cover, but in my head it was a throwback to that.
Slug: That was just rapping-about-rapping-about-rapping for the party vibe with the crowd in the background. “I shine at night, I’m a shiner.” I remember Ant once saying Strictly Leakage was good because I had a space to say things I could never say on an Atmosphere record. The problem with a Atmosphere record is that [it tends] to take itself a little too serious. Strictly Leakage was a place to not worry about that. I could rhyme “light” with “night” and it was OK. It [also] opened up a space for me to come up with some complex rhymes and have fun and not have to save the world with my raps.
Ant: We’re just doing things that seem fun. I present one kind of beat, we do a demo at my house, it came out fun and we took it to the studio. I added a bunch of things to that song and slapped it on almost Public Enemy style, but you can barely hear it because I have it so low.
Slug: That seems to be the favorite from a lot of people. It’s “Scapegoat Part 12.” It’s an Atmosphere traditional - “the list song.” We have a handful of songs that can fall right into the “Scapegoat” bucket, they’re all lists. There’s a thing in that song that reminded me of GZA’s [“Liquid Swords”] so when we’d do it live, I always wanted Ant to slide in that GZA beat. It’s one of the few topical songs on that project, and I think that’s why it got the attention it did. It’s a little more accessible to people that don’t rap. You can’t help but love the things that don’t love us back.
Ant: That’s a pretty funny one. That’s the one where at the end [Slug] calls Skye from the booth and asks him to look up a gym that will let him smoke. It wasn’t necessarily a funny line, but when he called from the booth he was trying to get him to say something and had to ask him over and over to record him responding the right way. That sample also didn’t have a crowd, the crowd was manufactured.
Slug: That’s just a joke. One time I jokingly said to Ant “I don’t understand men who wear jewelry.” We built a whole thing out of it. All I know is there’s no other way I could use that particular beat if not for that free write. The other thing about Strictly Leakage is that it’s full of scratching, and Lemons didn’t have any. Man, the rules we set up for ourselves…
Ant: I like that one a lot. It reminds me of a fast-moving pushing song. All these songs have a push to them, which I have a hard time capturing with musicians. That was not even close to a subject Slug would normally talk about.
Slug: That was good, another topical one. That’s probably my favorite one on there. At that point, I’d written a decent amount of material about the battle of the sexes, but I had never written about that, how men use their careers about sex appeal. I never touched on that, so for me to write a song like my heroes had traditionally written about was huge to me. When I find a way to put my identity inside a traditional hip-hop concept, I love that.
Ant: That whole song just made me laugh. I love the energy of it, and I bet that song was done and completed in an hour. It had no time on it at all. When I’m thinking about it now, we were doing all these songs and records at the same time, so looking back I’m surprised at how well we really separated everything.
Slug: Another one, “how to be the guy that the girls like.” “I’m this type of guy now, I still have sex appeal, I’m just this kind of dog.”
Ant: What’s funny is I didn’t know that was the name of this song. I only have the vinyl of it, and there are no words on it, and whenever I check this record that’s how I do it. All I remember about that one is the subject matter is some old school 80s kind of rap song subject-wise, playful Biz Markie type, so fun and goofy. I just remember spending a lot of time finding a perfect scratch for that song and I never found it. To be fair, I still haven’t heard it. Whenever I hear that song, that’s all I can think of. That’s the thing about songs like this, you dwell on the thing you miss.
Slug: Posse cut, another standard. I thought it was amazing to put Muja and YZ on the same song. I got to get Ali, Slim, Stage One - who nobody had put on a record and he may have the best verse on there, and I got to say “ain’t nothing free, have a James Brown Christmas,” as an acknowledgement to what had happened the Christmas prior. For me, that was the best way to eulogize him.
Ant: I’m so glad that happened. I think everyone did their thing on there really well, [like] Ali’s part on there and Stage One at the top.
Slug: That was an Ice Cube song. I took Cube’s song [“What they hittin’ foe?”] and made it line-by-line about poker.
Ant: We had done a version of that before, but it was a whole different thing, it was about being in a cypher. The poker thing was about the whole poker craze. Both times were an after thought, but this time I made it more like an Ice Cube song and made sure the crowd was more involved. My deal with that was I wanted to have an unexpected Cube cover.
Slug: That’s an answer record to a diss record that was never made. That’s me talking to the invisible rapper questioning my place in hip-hop, or something.
Ant: That was one of those things where I got to use the “one, two” stuff, and that was priceless.
Slug: That’s the best song on there. The beat on there, the vibe to that, that’s the song I wish more people had liked and made it to the live show. That might be the first song we released with Plain Ole Bill on it. He’s always been a part of us, but now he’s the driving force behind Atmosphere’s live show. “The Old Style” might be the first time he performed on an Atmosphere record.
Ant: That’s a little bit of a take on the Beastie Boys with that 808-kind of thing.
Slug: [on the disruptive fan from the third verse] I found that kid after the show. When I was out front hanging out, I knew he’d be out there, so I went out there on-purpose and knew I had to find that kid. As everybody left, he showed up and got in my face, raising his voice. I pulled him one level downstairs toward the subway station outside of Bowery to keep us both out of contact. I basically apologized to him “it’s not what you wanted,” and he started crying and he hugged me and we parted on good terms. I wasn’t going to fight him. It wasn’t that kind of party. I did give him his money back. That was a real thing. That stuck with me, I wrote about that on purpose.
Ant: I knew that was a true story, he told me all about it. Some of these covers I feel might have been my idea in some ways because I could do the beat, kinda. If I could do the beat, we could do the song.
Ant: I think that’s probably my favorite one. It’s almost, like, perfect. I can’t even lie. The crowd in that song is Brother Ali from an acapella version of [“Talkin’ My Shit”] we released on vinyl. We never did acapella before really, but for that song we did. It got used for the crowd and I was always proud of that because on that song, that crowd was Ali.
Slug: That one was so fun to do, to pay homage to one of my favorite rappers ever and easily flip it from my perspective. To be able to take a song you love and change the words to your perspective without breaking your neck to do it, is very real and very true. It’s those kind of exercises that set off the project to begin with. Ant and I have done exercises forever. We come up with an idea and do them just to build ourselves up to get to the point of doing a project, but we never use [them] on the project. To be able to have a project that was essentially not just inspired by exercises, but one big exercise and put that out, I think that was love. And me and him hold high regard for that whole project to this day. I think Lemons, Leakage and You Can’t Imagine, for both of us, are our top three of our albums of all time.