On any given day in Chicago, there’s a good chance you’ll run into Renaissance man Pugslee Atomz (a.k.a. Pugs Atomz or just Pugs). This MC, apparel designer, visual artist and radio host can potentially be found in nearly every corner of the city because of his varied interests and his ongoing desire to connect with the entire Chicago hip-hop community.
His local collaborations since emerging in the mid-90s include work with the Molemen, Psalm One, Robust, and many others. Having also helped lead the stylistically and racially diverse Nacrobats collective (Cosmo Galactus, Offwhyte, Kenny Keys, etc.) in the late-90s, he’s no doubt qualified to weigh in on the state and history of Chicago hip-hop—something he gladly did when I sat down with him this month. Pugs’ long history of being the co-host of the University of Chicago’s “CTA Radio” show with Thaione Davis doesn’t hurt his expertise of the city’s talent either.
Despite releasing several albums this decade, his first release that drew nationwide attention was the 2006 compilation Pugs Atomz presents CTA Radio: Chi City Hip Hop. This Raptivism project featured a respectable range of talent, from Lupe Fiasco to Molemen MC Vakill. As an extension of “CTA Radio,” which broadcasts every Wednesday from 9 p.m. to midnight on WHPK-FM 88.5, it was a testament to Pugs’ willingness to document his city’s rap scene. Last fall, he released the soulful LP Conversations with a Chamelion on Gravel Records, and in March he posted a second volume of CTA Radio as a free download on his MySpace page, www.myspace.com/pugsleeatomz.
As a solo artist, Pugs mostly prefers a more traditional sample-based sound complimented with a mix of blunt battle raps, everyman introspection and community-minded anthems. While he isn’t known to get ultra progressive, his classic sound has made a fan out of DJ Vadim: Pugs and his DJ, Intel, opened for the Russian-born DJ/producer on his North American tour last fall. Given that recent boost in exposure, Pugs is eager to release his next album Stormy this summer with Chicago producer Rashid Hadee on Enohes Music; and finish a forthcoming album with Vadim. But upcoming projects are only a small part of my discussion with this multi-talent.
Download: Pugs Atomz presents CTA Radio Vol. 2
Plug One: Can you talk about the mid-to-late 90s and the significance of that time for Chicago hip-hop?
Pugs Atomz: It was just a real free time. I wasn’t the oldest, there might have been a couple of people that were maybe two, three, four years older than me, so everybody was predominantly within that about to graduate high school to about to start real life [age bracket]. So that’s the growing time. It was just like a free for all. And the way that I ran [Nacrobats] was just, “You are who you are and we accept you as that.” It was real loose. It was kinda like, you could be on whatever you were on, and it was acceptable.
Plug One: How much were you guys thinking about recording back then, ‘cause I know you guys were real low budget. Kenny Keys told me you guys were just using a four track.
Pugs Atomz: It depends ‘cause that’s the other thing too—since we were such a large crew, it was different studio setups. So, like, the people with me recorded at the Art Institute; that’s a better setup. But if you went to Kenny [Keys], Kenny makes beats so you’ll probably get a better beat out of his session. And then if you recorded in his bathroom, you got a pretty good sound.
I remember Kanye was singing a joint that Cosmo and Rift did called “Century 21.” He was like, “Yeah my girl loves that song.” And it’s funny ‘cause it was a horrible recording — a horrible, horrible sound. It was just looped, a beat track that we recorded in the suburbs with this guy
Yoda Catalist. He had a four track.
But at the same time we would go to this place called Fast Trax to record and Twista was the first rapper to ever record there. They had tape on the wall, a little plaque or whatever, but it was real random, trying to figure the best way to go about it. Then when we found the home studio situation, it just made it so much simpler because people could hang out and kind of kick more so than just like, “We gotta rush in here, we have four hours of studio time, it costs this much money — we need to knock this out.” It wasn’t so stressful.
Plug One: So it was more natural?
Pugs Atomz: Yeah — that’s how everything went. Like with the parties, it was the same kind of thing.
Plug One: You know at that time Def Jux was coming up, Fondle ‘Em — all those big NYC indie labels. Were you guys paying attention to that or were you not worried about it?
Pugs Atomz: I really didn’t pay attention to that until I started doing marketing. And that’s when I was like, “wow, this is happening.” Before, we kinda lived in a bubble where it was just really about us. I traded tapes with everyone from Slug to Sage Francis and thought nothing of it. I was like, “Oh that’s Sage Francis. Ayo, you wanna trade tapes?” That’s the only way I’m probably gonna get your music. We were so much into what we were doing that we didn’t even really notice. We were fans of a lot of other people’s music ‘cause we listened to everything religiously. But we didn’t pay attention to the real moves people were making. I didn’t notice Def Jux until I got a box of Def Jux stuff and was like, “this is what’s paying my bills right now. It’s crazy.”
Plug One: You were one of the few people that broke out of that bubble and kept going. What else aside from doing marketing would you accredit that too?
Pugs Atomz: I was at a point where I wanted to do other things with hip-hop and there was no one that was willing to help me with it, so I was like, “Alright, I’m gonna create something.” And it’s always just that. It’s, like, “This isn’t gonna work, I gotta figure out another way.” So this is my other way. I’m just very self reliant and my parents were always just like, “if that’s what you wanna do then you need to make moves to do that. If that’s not what you wanna do, then don’t do that.” Everything was always thought of in that manner and a lot of people always asked me questions like I knew it so I was like, “You might as well know it.”
Plug One: And then you got linked up with some other labels such as Raptivism.
Pugs Atomz: Yeah, ‘cause they were managing me for a like a year-and-a-half just to help me get more focused and figure out what I wanted to do.
Plug One: And then came the Kanye West wave. Some people thought it would make more of an impact. Some people thought it wouldn’t matter. How did you think about the whole thing?
Pugs Atomz: I think it was for him. I thought it was great. For everybody else, I thought people would be more accepting to hear what we do but I didn’t think, “Ah man, all these labels are gonna come here.” That year he got signed and it went down, the newspaper did a little article about the next ten artists to blow in Chicago and they put [Nacrobots] in there, Iomos [Marad], and a few other artists and I was like, “That’s cool, but you guys aren’t the label.” It’s a whole different thing. I know so many people with record deals that never came out so that’s not really the answer either. It’s that drive, it’s that push and then just getting the right people behind you to help you do it. I just thought it was good that he did it, and ‘Fest got a chance to get it and then Lupe [Fiasco] came a little bit later, but I never really [thought that meant] everybody else is gonna be on.
Plug One: What do you think about the new wave of that fame with the Cool Kids and Kid Sister? That’s still going strong right now.
Pugs Atomz: Yeah. Every other city I’ve been to, that’s one question any interviewer is going to ask you if you’re from Chicago.
Plug One: Do you get annoyed by it at this point?
Pugs Atomz: Nah, man. It’s Chicago. I’m happy if someone wants to talk to me. If that’s one of the questions, then that’s one of the questions. I hope if another artist was like, “Yo, do you know Pugs? How do you feel about him?” they’ll be willing to give you their three cents or whatever.
Plug One: Some people from Chicago don’t tour that much and I think that’s part of the problem now.
Pugs Atomz: People don’t know ‘em so they don’t get the experience.
Plug One: How much do you think your last nationwide tour helped you?
Pugs Atomz: It pushed me like another 50 percent to where I need to be. It definitely showed me just how many more people I could possibly get if I stay on this track of just constantly moving and traveling and getting the music out.
Plug One: What kind of conversations did you have with Abstract Rude and Vadim about hip-hop — about music in general?
Pugs Atomz: Ah man, everything. Everything from the current events to the current state of the music to what beats are dope to stuff that I’m doing right to stuff they’re doing right. Everything, man. They were part of crew, which was kinda cool. It was a real family vibe with everybody.
Plug One: Did they say no matter where you are — Vadim’s in New York now and Ab Rude’s in L.A. — independent artists tend to go through the same things?
Pugs Atomz: Yeah, it’s all around the same. I mean, Vadim, he’s seen a lot more just because he’s a pretty big DJ; and Abstract Rude, he’s pretty big out West. It’s similar but slightly different in stature. But it’s all the same.
Plug One: What was it like for you when you came back from tour, coming back to Chicago?
Pugs Atomz: It felt good ‘cause I missed it, trying to catch up on what’s been goin’ on. Like anything else, if you miss a couple days, all types of stuff changes. Some people pop up, other people fall off — that kind of thing. I was a little bit like, “Man, I wanna get right back on the road.” But at the same time, I hadn’t seen my girl, I hadn’t seen my family. So I can get that time back in. And then also to sit down and record ‘cause I did a little recording while we were out. I didn’t get a chance to do my stuff ‘cause I was doing songs for other people. To a point that’s limiting ‘cause you’re trying to go with what their vision is.
Plug One: Did you start working with Rashid [Hadee] when you came back or was that before?
Pugs Atomz: Nah, me and him have been working on this record for about two years.
Plug One: And that’s due out this summer?
Pugs Atomz: Hopefully. Hopefully. That’s the plan. I mean right now it’s just seeing what would be the best way to put it out.
Plug One: And what about the record with Vadim?
Pugs Atomz: Vadim is a slower round on that one ‘cause we only have probably about six songs.
Plug One: Are you guys just e-mailing tracks back-and-forth?
Pugs Atomz: Yeah.
Plug One: One thing I also wanted to talk to you about is the whole “haterville” thing ‘cause you made the song “Haterville” with Longshot. How do you feel about the perception that people [in Chicago] can’t really support each other outside their own crews?
Pugs Atomz: I think that’s everywhere. I think that’s business. There’s Starbucks and then there’s Caribou Coffee down the street — they’re not gonna be like, “We ran out of coffee, here you go, we have some extra for you.” It’s a thing of competitiveness. Sometimes I see it as real unnecessary.
To me, the scene is such a small scale that at the end of the day to be vengeful about stuff really doesn’t matter. If you have a more united front you can get so much accomplished. And also, that stops other people from detracting what’s going on here. If one guy says, “These guys suck,” and they’re from Chicago, [then] somebody in New York sees that and they’re like, “Yeah, you guys suck.” They’re rolling with it. It’s not really helping our situation.
Plug One: What do you think can be done to help it?
Pugs Atomz: I don’t know man, I don’t know. That’s such a hard question ‘cause that’s really a personal thing and people rising above themselves and seeing the bigger picture.
Plug One: You seem like the type of dude who hasn’t been worried about that — the segregation and the different sides of the city. You’ll work with anyone.
Pugs Atomz: Yeah — that’s how it’s supposed to be, though. From my start in hip-hop, that’s what I was on. Some people deterred me from that in the beginning ‘cause they were like, “Nah, we don’t’ wanna work with you” — that kind of thing — when I was younger. But I still carry that on. Like with the Nacrobats thing, anybody that got down was somebody I met and I was like, “Man, I like what you do, come on with us.” And the others in [Nacrobats] might not have even liked the dude or the girl before and they had beef with ‘em, but when they came it was like, “We gotta be cool.”
That’s what’s funny looking back at that whole crew: the majority of those people weren’t even cool with each other and then because of the crew they became cool. Otherwise they would have never ever done songs with each other — they wouldn’t have even have talked to each other. To me, it’s not necessarily about a peace thing, but we all are here and we need to figure out how to get it and the more of us together, the easier it becomes.
Plug One: But what about the mentality that in order to be successful you gotta leave here?
Pugs Atomz: I’m sure if I had left Chicago a while ago I probably would have been in a different place. But at the same time, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had some of the same experiences within it. That’s a tough one. I mean I was just talking to Naledge [from Kidz in the Hall] and he was like, “Man, I haven’t been to Chicago in a while.” But he can’t really come to Chicago because all his business is in New York right now.
Plug One: But does it help being in the middle of everything — if not the industry, then in the middle of the whole country?
Pugs Atomz: I guess. I mean being in Chicago I’ve met every artist I really wanted to meet. There’s only maybe one or two that I haven’t met to somehow talk to or just vibe off of. I think it’s all about what you do, too. If you look at the Cool Kids, they weren’t really traveling — it was all from out of Chicago. To a point, they still live here. They’re on the road heavy gettin’ it in, but I still believe that somebody can do it from the city. They just have to travel a lot.
Plug One: You’re already thinking about the road again?
Pugs Atomz: Yeah, man. That’s all I really think about — that’s all I really do: my art and my rapping. There’s nothing else really to think about but those two things.
Plug One: What about the radio show? Will you remain a part of it?
Pugs Atomz: I’ll probably do it ‘til life won’t let me do it anymore. It’s like a release. Also, it makes me listen to so much music than I normally check out. It was a godsend when I got the opportunity to do the show, ‘cause I was at the point in my music listening where I had my select artists and only certain friends could hit me with something else. But doing the show made me have to search out stuff and give stuff a try. Also, there were people coming into the studio that I might not be familiar with as well as people I am familiar with.
Plug One: So that sounds like going back to when you said that you don’t discriminate too much. That must help the show, because you say, “I’m not familiar with you, but I’ll give you a chance.”
Pugs Atomz: Yeah. That’s really what it’s about. At the same time, being an artist, it puts you in that mind state too of “What if this was me coming up here and I’m trying to get my joint played?” As an artist everybody has felt that one time they went to some radio station and dude was looking at ‘em like, “Who the hell are you?” So I’m just trying to diffuse that.
Plug One: You wanna give people at least one shot?
Pugs Atomz: Yeah, you get one shot. If it’s horrible, it’s horrible. It is what it is. At the same time that’s the beauty of college radio — the good parts and the bad parts, having somebody call in and say, “Man, that’s the wackest thing I ever heard!”
Plug One: What were some of the better experiences?
Pugs Atomz: The best experiences? Definitely G Dep ‘cause we didn’t know what he was gonna do. We didn’t know what kind of artist he was. He just freestyled like crazy and killed it. Cappadonna freestyled over, like, six beats. He came unannounced. It was one of those things where he just showed up with his people and they’re like, “Yeah, Pugs, Cappadonna is out here now, he wants to get on the radio and do his thing.” KRS-One, right before he [re-launched his Stop the Violence project], talked with us for about an hour on air about the current state of everything.
All the freestyle sessions – [when the show first launched] one of the major parts was when we did the freestyle sessions at 11:30 p.m. every Wednesday. Some of the city’s best rappers would be in line just to leave one 16 and get out. And people would be battling in the other room while [the on-air session] was going in.
Connecting with the people is just crazy, from the artists, to the people that call, to the people that [drop by the station], to the people that are just curious. When I released CTA Radio: Chi City Hip Hop, that was a real big moment ‘cause Raptivism really got behind that product. They set me up with a bunch of in-stores and listening stations at different stores. It was really cool. The publicist was on it and really showed me how important it all could be.
Plug One: You just mentioned the Stop the Violence project. You made a song (“You and Me”) about it, you had that concert with KRS, and you guys even got on CBS News.
Pugs Atomz: That was shocking because the lady that was running everything, Joanne, was telling me that this was coming. She was like, “Yeah, we’re working with KRS, trying to figure it out.” Within a matter of two weeks all these events were set up around it. It was just crazy to me to see movement and somebody say, “This is what’s gonna happen,” and then that’s what happens.
So often, people with the music stuff dream all day, saying this is what they could do, and they end up not doing any of it. And it’s a waste of time. So it’s good to see that whole thing come together for Chicago that quick, from talking to schools to appearing on WGN news to fundraising. It was crazy to see that many people at the Cubby Bear [where KRS-One held a Stop the Violence fundraiser on April 13] despite limited promotion. To have some of my older friends [and] their wives being like, “I got a e-mail with your name in it, Pugs, about that show.” And I’m just like, “Wow, we’re reaching a whole new group of people.”
— Max Herman