Atmosphere Producer Ant Made Music For A Decade Before Making A Dollar

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Brother Ali’s incredible album, Shadows On The Sun. The 2003 Rhymesayers Entertainment release was produced by Ant of Atmosphere—a producer and DJ known to deliberately avoid the spotlight. In a two-part conversation with Brother Ali’s The Travelers Podcast, Ant opens up about his life behind the scenes. The producer who has worked with Murs, Sage Francis, and I Self Divine spoke about keeping a full-time job as a custodian into the 2000s—an era when Atmosphere was making traction.

The duo (and its accompanying musicians) has had two Top 10-charting albums—2008’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That S__t Gold and 2014’s Southsiders, respectively. However, Ant reveals that he and Slug made music together for a decade before the producer made a single dollar. He describes coming to Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1990, and rebranding himself at a time he needed to do so. The DJ/producer who idolized Prince as well as Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis recalls picking up “square jobs” in janitorial to regain focus. He adds that one cleaning job, involving chemicals, burned scarred his foot that remains to this day. “That’s the worst job I ever had, but it paid like a mothaf__a—until this Rap s__t,” he says with a laugh at 1:24:45 during Part 1.

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In Part 2, Ant reveals that between 1993 and 2003, he made zero dollars from music—including two Atmosphere LPs and a lauded collection of EPs and mixtapes. “When we finally got a check because of Epitaph [Records partnering to release Seven’s Travels]—we did a one-off record with them. That’s what made us, really, to me, in a bigger way.” Brother Ali reminds that the LP included the MTV-rotated video single “Trying To Find A Balance.” Ant reacts, “The industry was trying to court [Slug], sex symbol-style, and all that weird s__t. So I got paid, finally. I never received money until then. Not a dime.” Ali points out that it marked an unpaid decade. Near the 1:11:00 mark, Ant agrees. “Yeah, about 10 years—of [the] Minneapolis part of the story—making music and demos before I made one dollar.”

The Seven’s Travels deal changed that. “It was $50,000—in 2003,” he shares. Ant says he had three options for the money. “One of my boys was like, ‘Aw yeah; you can pay off your probation now,’ ’cause I’d only paid off like $25,000. I still had like $25,000 more to go. I was like, ‘Okay, so I can do that or I can start this janitorial company—a startup company, and do that—if I’m smart. Or, I could buy a Cadillac. [Chuckles] So I picked the Cadillac—’cause I’m a true-blue Rap person.” Brother Ali remembers the purchase vividly. “It was a black Cadillac with black leather seats, and you had the black leather jacket at the time, and you had the Sam Jackson Kangol,” referring to Jackie Brown.

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“I was really proud of that. I was real happy. I loved it,” Ant replies. “I needed that at that time. I did [Seven’s Travels], but I kept my job. I know they must’ve been trippin’, ’cause I’d show up. I worked at a clinic with nurses and doctors and s__t.” While the Caddy was frivolous, it was necessary. “Something from the dream has to happen,” Ant admits. “That was one of the only times I did something like that. And it was the right choice, ’cause it just so happens I paid off that probation. I never started a janitorial company, but that’s alright. I could always do that if I have to.”

Moments later, the producer/DJ reveals that when Rhymesayers celebrated its 10th anniversary, in 2005, Ant DJ’d a corresponding party. It was a rare appearance for the man who claims he’s done less than 10 interviews. Hours after DJ’ing for Slug and Murs’ Felt duo, Ant was cleaning toilets at work. That surprised his MC partner who called him to reflect on the event. Shortly after, Slug invited Ant to perform with him on the You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having Tour—a 2005 album the producer largely oversaw. He accepted—and after taking a two-month leave of absence from his job, did not return.

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Elsewhere in the interview, Ant speaks about his upbringing in a multiracial family with a complicated father. He also says that Felt 2: A Tribute To Lisa Bonet and Felt 4 U are the productions most reflective of his style. Ant also suggests that disputes over sampling have cost Atmosphere greatly—including rights to one of the group’s most beloved songs.

Last year, Brother Ali released three singles, including the AFH supported “Goin’ Through It.” Earlier this year, Atmosphere released So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously, featuring Sa-Roc and others:

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Press photograph by Dan Monick provided by Rhymesayers Entertainment.