Emcee and artist Pugs Atomz created paintings and sculptures that showcased life on the south side of Chicago through his eyes in an exhibit called “Mookie on the Southside.” Mookie is the main character of Spike Lee’s critically acclaimed film, Do the Right Thing. Atomz’ transported his version of Mookie from Brooklyn to Chi-Town first visually, and now auditorily to accompany his art work.
Mookie On the Southside is a 12-track album produced by DJ Real One and Cache 22. The project comes courtesy of Headnock Records and features appearances by J. Arthur, Shawn Dippington, Mr. Misfit, Katrina Blakstone, Hexsagon, and Thaione Davis.
Pugs Atomz spoke to The Real Hip-Hop about merging his art with his music, the normalcy of American gun culture, and his new album, Mookie On the Southside.
TRHH: Mookie On the Southside is the soundtrack to your art exhibit of the same name. What made you decide to create music to accompany your paintings?
Pugs Atomz: Well, in my development as an artist I’ve finally come to a point where all the things that I do for myself as well as other people are all coming together now. So, it was like the perfect time to merge it to keep it all now as one thing instead of these different things that people tune into. So, now people just can connect all the dots and they’re like, “Oh, I get it.” And the paintings show you all the references.
TRHH: Where did the name Mookie On the Southside come from?
Pugs Atomz: My cousin was a saxophone player– a jazz musician — and that was like the first musician I ever met as a little kid. And then also like Mookie is often used like a term of endearment in black neighborhoods — that’s little Mookie — in that sense. And then it was a play on Do the Right Thing. Around the time when I started doing the paintings it was just a lot of discussion about who started house music, where did drill music come from, all those things. And just thinking about how many Chicago things get taken by other cities and paraded as theirs. I was just like, what if I took something New York and made it Chicago?
The first example was like, well what if Mookie from Do the Right Thing lived in Chicago? What would that look like? In the sense of, we all know the same things that he was into — we relate to those, we grew up with those in the same sense but in Chicago he would work at Italian Fiesta Pizzeria, he might have broke down the Rothschild Liquor Store window instead. It was like those kinds of conversations happening.
TRHH: You mentioned house music and you start out the album with “Michael Reese Housespital.” What made you decide to kick off the project with a house song?
Pugs Atomz: I think it kind of just went again with the story of when I got into rap in Chicago house music was more dominant. It was kind of like you’re breaking through going to house parties, but I want to rap or I want to break dance. It was just really setting what Chicago is. And then also, that track is killer, man. There is no better opener, it was just too good.
TRHH: Do you believe that we lost house music? Like, the knowledge of where it came from is lost?
Pugs Atomz: I think at a time, yeah, but in the sense of right now I think definitely that discussion is right back on the table. It’s a lot of different documentaries that have dropped or are dropping that are starting to pinpoint it more, but I think the appreciation is definitely coming back around in that sense. But also, I think we’re about to move into a time where we want to have fun again. And that’s like a good vessel for that.
TRHH: Do you think drill music is something we should be proud to claim?
Pugs Atomz: I mean, it’s a style of music. I’m not the biggest drill music fan. I don’t really know all the artists. There are certain songs where I’m like, “Wow, that’s a crazy beat,” or, “He said that wild line,” or there is somebody that I’ve seen grow into a rapper. I mean, it’s still a form of an expression and it made so many other people change how they rap. You have to honor that, but also, I think a lot of times with rap we judge it way harsher than any other genre. Listen to Blues music, it’s a bunch of negativity in that, but we just take it as its Blues and just leave it there, same with country, et cetera.
TRHH: “Nintety Three” is a song that mirrored my life 30 years ago, even though I’m from the west side. What inspired you to go back and write a song about 1993?
Pugs Atomz: Well, ‘93 is the year I became Pugs. That’s when I picked that name. It’s like, this is the name, this is what I’m sticking with. Also, it’s the year that I started the Nacrobats. So, those two things, then also I used to have a big affinity for Ralph Lauren clothing and collecting it. ‘93 is a pretty big year for him and then also in Hip-Hop that’s a huge year with releases. When people are always talking about how certain music brings back memories for you, that’s a year a lot of records bring me right back to that time. But then also with Real and Cache, they listened to a bunch of my music before we started the project. They were like, “We want to do something with you, but we want to do it where we’re matching where you’re going, instead of it being that kind of fight back and forth figuring out what are we doing and who’s taking the lead, et cetera.
TRHH: So, what was the process like doing the album with them?
Pugs Atomz: So, over the past like maybe four years each one of them just randomly would send me beats and be like, Hey, do you think you can do something to this?” And I’m like, “I like that, don’t like that, take this part out, send me that,” but I was also like, man, what is this gonna be? I don’t really wanna just do a bunch of random songs just because I’m too old for that now. I would rather it be a focused endeavor or we could just have fun. They just kept going and then about maybe eight months ago Cache hit me up and was like, “Hey, you know me and Real have been talking and we really would like to try to do a whole project with you. Would you be interested?” I said yes and then maybe a week later they sent me this folder of maybe 14 beats, but based around them listening to my last album and where the beats were going.
So, from there I picked the majority out of there and then I’ll hold some of the old ones that I was just holding on to because I thought they were really good beats. Like the gun record, I had that beat for a time, “Uber from O’Hare” I had that beat from maybe three years ago and just holding it and being like, “Man, do something proper, awesome.” And then we picked Just Made Media Studio in the Chicago loop, so, that was fun to be downtown cause for me ‘93 to like ‘98 I was always downtown rapping, or trying to throw a show, or going to buy records, et cetera. So, being back there and then inviting all the guests to come there to record was a great experience. It was fun. It felt like then, so, writing a lot of these nostalgia records were just second nature because they were already kind of in that spirit. But then also, that’s what the paintings kind of all reference — it’s all nostalgia.
TRHH: You mentioned the gun record and “Even Tom Got Shot” is such a profound record. Gun culture is American culture, yet inner-city gun violence is viewed through a different lens. Why do you think that is?
Pugs Atomz: I think it’s just the easy way to say “it’s not happening to us” and just kind of pushing it all on just the urban environment as the cause and leaving it there. In my life, it was funny, the better neighborhoods I was in that’s where I saw it. My white homies were the ones that really had it and from the way it was painted to me it was only like, “Oh, it’s only in your neighborhood.” Then also, it’s depending on your grandparents. I mean, my grandma had a little pistol next to the night stand just in case something goes wrong.
TRHH: I mean, it’s American culture. You reference movies, you could talk about video games, you could talk about TV, you could talk about songs of any genre.
Pugs Atomz: Cowboys and Indians. Being a kid in the 80s we were pushed so much. I had tons of cap guns, tons of water guns. I had Megatron and I remember I got into trouble for the Megatron after they thought I had a gun at school and they were like, “Nah, you can’t have that here.”
TRHH: Yeah, it looked a little too real [laughs]. I love Transformers, man, it takes me back. I don’t know, it’s definitely a problem in Chicago. I don’t want to front like we don’t have a problem, we do, but I think it’s important that you said what you said in the record because it’s not just us. If you go to any poor white community you’ll find a lot of guns, it’s just what it is. You’re gonna find crime, it’s just the American way. I know there are countries with strict gun laws and they look at us like we’re crazy.
Pugs Atomz: I mean, living in London and coming back and all of that, definitely. And being in other places where it’s like no fear of that, but then being in a place like in Russia where everybody’s got a big M16 that’s security. They’re just standing there while the civilians are just walking with nothing.
TRHH: Yeah, that’s intimidating, wow. I don’t know what the solution is, man.
Pugs Atomz: I just think people have to value life. I think that’s really the solution to most of the stuff that happens. If you value life certain decisions you just don’t make, even if you have the capability. You think about it in a bigger picture of it like, “I don’t want to have to live with that.”
TRHH: Is that an issue of not living a good life? I feel like these people that do this got nothing to live for.
Pugs Atomz: Well, that’s a part of it. If you have something that you gotta make it back home to you look at it in different ways. If necessary, yes, but if it’s not necessary, I’m out of there. I’m trying to enjoy what I have. I think the availability has just increased whereas, before it’s kind of like you had to know a guy that knew a guy. It’s a longer process, now it’s pretty simple. just like the Internet and everything else.
TRHH: What about that story, I don’t know if it’s a bogus story or what, about somebody leaving a trunk full of guns in an alley on the south side?
Pugs Atomz: That’s like a recurring story throughout urban communities. I mean, me personally, I’ve never seen it that way. Definitely seen it on the freight trains though. It could be. I mean, it wouldn’t be surprising in the sense of how everything went down with the Panthers, et cetera.
TRHH: What’s your favorite scene from Do the Right Thing?
Pugs Atomz: My favorite scene would probably be when the older fellows were under the umbrella and they’re painting this picture of a hot day, but then also the way the color tones are, it was like so good. Then from the cover of the album when they’re sitting on the curb after Radio Raheem and everything else just went down, and just that deadpan look into the camera but being next to your sibling but still feeling helpless — really touching to me.
TRHH: Who is the Mookie On the Southside album made for?
Pugs Atomz: I would say one, people that are into art in general. Two, I would say people that are into Hip-Hop and in the serious sense of it. People that like really like storytelling, that love colorful imagery, love bars, and love production in that sense. And then outside of that, I think people trying to figure out what’s the new record they could just leave on and let it play. That was definitely the goal to make something that’s not redundant and you could just let it go and get all these different emotions. All my favorite albums have that, you know?
Purchase: Pugs Atomz – Mookie On the Southside