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In Any Medium, Pugs Atomz Explores Culture, History And Life

Written by on October 7, 2021

Pictured above: “Boom Bap On Michigan Ave” (2020) by Pugs Atomz

Collaboration has defined the decades-long career of local MC, designer and artist Pugs Atomz.

Pugs Atomz by CosG

For more than two decades, Pugs Atomz, perhaps best known as an MC, has wrapped himself in the finery of expression, exerting his artistic impressions across music, visual art and fashion.

His latest foray into fine art, “Mookie on the Southside,” is up at the Connect Gallery through Oct. 22. It’s an amalgam of history, the pandemic era and mediums that traverse a lifetime of contemplating culture, all reified in vibrant hues and textures. A daily sort of expression, though, is still just as immediate to Atomz.

“With fashion, in general, like rapping and drawing, it was in my house. It was something I grew up around and pursued,” said Atomz, who has worked with Iridium Clothing Co. and heads his own brand, USUWE. “My grandma, she owned a couple different thrift stores, and I used to be in there selling my old toys to get new toys, selling clothing. When I went to high school, ’cause I went to [Kenwood Academy High School] — people are really into trends — people would buy a T-shirt off my body.”

“Mookie on the Southside” (2021) by Pugs Atomz is on display at the Connect Gallery until Oct. 22.

His entrepreneurial spirit expanded during the mid-’90s, as Atomz began excavating vintage Ralph Lauren for resale. But after completing studies at The Art Institute of Chicago, a musical vision animated his creative life, and Atomz pursued a solo career, as well as working as part of the Nacrobats, a local ’90s hip-hop collective. The group, which also included Psalm One, issued its debut, All Ways, in 2003 before splintering.

Visual art, though, always retained a place in Atomz’s varied practice, beginning with an elementary school triumph in a poster contest. He worked on it with his mother and today still expresses a need to collaborate, whether it’s on music or as part of The Englewood Arts Collective. Test Drive, his upcoming album on 600 Block Records, features guest spots by Killah Priest and Rockie Fresh, and past work with Russia-bred DJ Vadim extends proof of collaboration as a necessity.

“I really never wanted to be a solo artist,” Atomz said. “I was really pushing for [Nacrobats] to be the thing. It was cool when me and Thaione [Davis] threw the Nacrobats reunion at the top of 2020, and we put out the vinyl on Culture Power45 — and to see the impact that it had. For me, it was just something I was doing, because it was something I wanted to see. But to hear the feedback from other labels and other artists at the time, just people who were fans — how much it meant to them — it was amazing.”

“First Date” (2020) by Pugz Atomz

Decades of work have culminated in the themed Test Drive, a recording the MC said revolves around life’s uncertainties.

“I’m referencing driving a lot on the record, but it’s moreso, in life, everything is really a test drive, because you don’t know how it’s going to be,” he said. “[The opening song] ‘Test Drive’ is talking about a first date with a girl, and you just don’t know if it will work out. Will she like you? Will you like her? Will it become a long-term thing or a short-term thing?”

That sort of unknowing extends from the personal realm to the political and social on Test Drive. “Sunsets in the U.S.A.” offers a dour outlook at the future, pushing back against a narrative that issues around race and equality in the country are improving. It contrasts dramatically with “Malcolm 64,” which references the year the tune’s namesake founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

“That song’s talking about awakening — that picture of Malcolm in the window. That’s a point in time where white America was scared, seeing him in the window with a shotgun, when he’s really just trying to stay alive,” Atomz began. “That’s a wake-up call in Life magazine, talking about what he’s going through, but also his perspective and where America was at the time. It’s in a way a rebuttal of [‘Sunsets in the U.S.A.’] — the other side of it — because I’m just saying, we’re looking out for each other. It costs nothing to help each other.”

Written by Dave Cantor

Follow Pugs Atomz on Twitter and Instagram.

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