Hip-hop stirs up the heartland

  • Article by: CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 27, 2011 - 4:44 PM

The "urban" music of indie-rap's Atmosphere is finding fertile ground in sold-out outstate concerts.

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MANKATO - Unlike many of her friends at Mankato West High School, Jade Rezmerski turned 18 in time to attend the concert that had Twitter accounts a-tweeting and fans lining up for tickets in a city where this sort of buzz is not often seen. Especially not for a hip-hop show.

"I know a ton of people who wanted to come but couldn't," Rezmerski said. "But they're all going to the show in Rochester instead. That one's all-ages."

Before it hits such renowned venues as the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, Calif., and New York's mega-club Terminal 5 on its spring tour, Minneapolis' ever-popular indie-rap group Atmosphere is making its way to Mankato, Rochester, St. Cloud and even Bemidji on a tour that might finally prove that hip-hop is no longer just "urban" music.

Tuesday night in Mankato, Atmosphere launched its Welcome to Minnesota Tour, a five-city winter trek targeting corners of the state where fans previously had to travel to the Twin Cities to see the group perform -- which they've done in droves. The group's annual Soundset festival in Shakopee last May drew 17,000 fans, many from outstate Minnesota.

"Instead of these fans having to drive to see us, we're finally coming to them," Atmosphere rapper Slug (Sean Daley) said before Tuesday's concert in the Centennial Student Union ballroom at Minnesota State University. "They can arrive on their snowmobiles this time if they want."

The idea for the tour -- which will culminate in front of 3,000 fans Saturday in Duluth -- had been incubating for several years. It finally came to life with the help of social media and independent ticket-sale sites, two areas of expertise for Atmosphere and its Minneapolis-based record label, Rhymesayers. All but the Rochester show sold out right away, and the snag there was the Mayo Civic Center's Ticketmaster-exclusive agreement, which prevented the band from selling tickets on its own website.

Come on, Rochester, get with the times.

"I waited in line at Tune Town [record store] the morning they went on sale," said James Patterson, 19, who lined up again with hundreds of other Mankato fans before Tuesday's show. "Everybody I know is totally psyched about it."

And it wasn't just kids who were totally psyched. Family physician Dr. Jim Dungan, 43, made it to his first rap concert after hearing Atmosphere on Minnesota Public Radio's hipster music station the Current, which now airs in Mankato.

"It seems like a great idea," Dungan said of the tour. "Bands looking for new ways to sell their music and reach new fans should be reaching out beyond the big cities."

Shaking the foundation

Hanging out "backstage" -- a blah-looking conference room built for science and math majors, not rappers -- Atmosphere's members joked about getting in some ice fishing on the tour, and their best option for an after-party: "Watching cartoons on the tour bus."

However, the musicians sounded quite serious about the tour as both a business venture and an artistic statement.

Slug said the tour ties in with Atmosphere's upcoming album, "The Family Sign," since the songs are "all about family and the places and people that make us who we are." Guitarist Nate Collis added, "It's pretty hard from an artist's standpoint to say thank you in any kind of original way, and I think this does that."

Nobody in Atmosphere's crew was aware that Buddy Holly's 1959 Winter Dance Party -- the tour that ended in his fatal plane crash -- also played to teens in February along an eerily comparable route. Still, this week's snowstorm sent a chill through the musicians. Said Slug, "Next time, I think we'll do it in the summer."

He wasn't kidding about there being a next time: "Why not have Mankato on the tour T-shirts from here on out, next to, say, Boise?"

That question reverberated with Felipe Cuauhtli from one of the tour's opening acts, Los Nativos, whose music largely focuses on inner-city strife.

"Hip-hop music is still mostly based on urban culture," he said, "but kids everywhere can identify with the messages and the struggle in it. I think it's cool that they are getting it outside the big cities."

The young fans in Mankato had the upper hand over city kids in one regard: Their energy and enthusiasm during the concert was more palpable than usual.

"There's probably more excitement here than at a First Avenue show, just because they play there all the time," said Josh Anderson, an MSU student from Fridley.

Ryan Schwarz, 21, from Winnebago, never had the chance to see Atmosphere before but has long been a fan.

"It was always too hard or cost too much money to go see them in the Cities, so this is a big thing having them here," he said. "It's about time."

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisRstrib

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