Atmosphere The Phoenix, Toronto ON, May 30

Atmosphere The Phoenix, Toronto ON, May 30
Photo: Shane Parent
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The average wintering rap group wrestles with the challenge of hooking a younger audience, stealing fresh ears, convincing a whole new crop of fans to buy T-shirts and concert tickets and download their new records, which aren't quite as passionate as their old records. Atmosphere doesn't have this problem.

Slug (the emcee) and Ant (the DJ/producer) are on the dark side of 40, but you wouldn't know it if you swiveled your head and looked away from the stage and into the faces of the Phoenix's rammed crowd, hands in the air like they really do care. Most of the fans amped up for the Toronto stop of the duo's 11-date, cross-Canada North of Hell Tour were '90s babies, at least a half-generation removed from Slug's thoughtful family man status. (Sample lyric from new album Southsiders: "I want to leave the planet better off than it was handed to me.") They are likely living the nights when Slug had less answers, more rounds and a double-shot of heartbreak.

They memorized songs first released on Memorex; they've dug into the Rhymesayers catalog and latched onto words and hooks that speak to them. So they sang along and smiled and stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the merch booth to buy Atmosphere toques after a 90-minute set that spanned 17 years of material.

Who cares if Atmosphere never had a crossover hit? These are quality fans over quantity fans. This is the reward of persistent touring, candid songwriting and word of mouth. This is why a 1997 lyrical mixtape exercise like "Scapegoat" can rock a crowd that was watching Elmo when Atmosphere was catching on with college kids digging for rap that wasn't spoon-fed to them by MTV.

The Slug stage show has taken many forms over the years: he's been backed by DJ wizards like Mr. Dibbs, toured with a full band, and linked up with like-minded colleagues like Murs for collaborations. North of Hell is a scaled-down affair. Ant spun the instrumentals while Slug — an everyman in a black zip-up hoodie — took care of the rhymes, and an emotional chord was struck.

A red, neon "SOUTHSIDERS" sign glowed overhead and a beach ball volleyed among the outstretched hands. That was the extent of the frills.

New songs like "Kanye West" and "January on Lake Street" were peppered in with sure things like "God Loves Ugly," "Sunshine" and "Modern Man's Hustle." "Dirty Girl" from side project Felt won.

Of course, the twentysomethings demanded an encore. Show openers and new Rhymesayers signees Dem Atlas and Prof returned for a freestyle session that was a shadow of the ones Slug used to share with Eyedea (R.I.P.). But then "Trying to Find a Balance" from 2003's excellent Seven's Travels ended Friday on a high.

Good-husband, fun-dad Slug found his balance. Lucky for him, his listeners haven't. In the crowded Phoenix on one of the season's first hot nights, Atmosphere was bigger than guns, bigger than cigarettes.

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