For over two decades, Atmosphere has been an unstoppable and influential force in hip-hop. The duo, consisting of rapper Sean "Slug" Daley and producer Anthony "Ant" Davis, played an important role in the rise of intelligent, alternative rap, and they're still going strong: their latest album, Southsiders, was released in May by Rhymesayers, the label they founded in their hometown of Minneapolis.
After just missing him at The Hudson Project a few weeks back, we called up Slug to discuss fans, family, and his fickle relationship with Modest Mouse.
EARMILK: Where are you at right now, and what are you up to?
Slug: I’m in Minneapolis, and I’m driving to the office. Today’s a fairly normal workday for me, I’m not on the road, I’m at home, so that’s usually either juggling kids, or writing, or going to the office to deal with office crap.
EM: So you’re basically on a little break from your tour?
SD: Yeah, we’re in between legs right now. We got home mid-June, and we take off again early August. Oh wait, there’s a couple festivals in August, and then at the end of August we get back on the bus.
EM: How was your experience at Hudson Project?
SD: Oh man, that was a great time. We got to play before the rain came, everybody was still kinda bright-eyed, weren’t necessarily burnt out from getting too high, hungover or anything. People were kinda just arriving, so I feel like we were very fortunate with the slot they gave us. I also feel like we had the opportunity to play in front of a number of people who had never seen us before. You know, at this point, chances are you’ve probably heard of us, and decided that you don’t like us (laughs).
So, it was kinda cool to get in front of some people who’ve probably only heard of us but never really heard us. I feel like our live show is exemplary, is that the right word? I feel like it’s a great example of who the fuck we are as people, you know, I have an opportunity to kinda articulate, to talk shit and be myself.
I thought it was kinda cool that after we were done, Modest Mouse played, and Isaac Brock said something about, I didn’t hear him say it I read it in a review, but he said something like “we’re not fuckin’ speech writers, we’re song players,” and I kinda feel like he might’ve been taking a shot at me (laughs), but maybe he didn’t know he was takin’ a shot at me.
I have a tendency to go on tangents and talk a lot of shit, so I was just wondering if he was talking to me, or if that was just my karma. Pretty great though, especially considering I’ve been a fan of that guy for a long time. I used to work at record stores in the ‘90s, and I was one of those guys that was tryin’ to get cute indie rock girls to buy Modest Mouse. Whenever they came in to buy a Built to Spill record, I was tryin’ to get ‘em to leave with the Modest Mouse record.
EM: A lot of the thematic content on Southsiders seems like a rebellion against the current state of hip-hop, the apathy, materialism, that kind of thing, song titles like “I Don’t Need No Fancy Shit”, and the song “Kanye West.” Could you just talk a little bit about how you view hip-hop right now, and maybe what’s missing?
SD: It’s interesting that anyone would make that interpretation; I’m not agitated by hip-hop, I’m not frustrated, I’m more into hip-hop right now than ten years ago. There’s a number of reasons why it might be that way. I’ve got the advantage of being old, so I’ve watched this shit now for thirty plus years, and I’ve watched it go through a lot of changes, and right now I kinda feel like it’s far more creative and experimental than it’s been in a long time.
In the ‘90s there was a lot of experimenting going on, but once we hit the 2000s, even in indie rap there was a model of how shit was supposed to be. So right now, especially with the younger cats, you can kinda tell they’re influenced not just by rap but by their iPods full of other types of music. I think rap is amazing right now. When I wrote Southsiders I wasn’t trying to be a yin to a yang or anything, I don’t care enough about the yin to be a yang to it. I love where rap is, but I’m not influenced by it necessarily, nor am I uninfluenced by it. I write about the shit that I do, the things that I think about, I’m pretty shallow like that, I keep it there.
I came from a school of representing yourself, and who you are, I’ll always be stuck in that mindset. I’ll always be stuck in that 1993 mindset, 1989 even. You know when I was 17, in 1989, that’s probably when I was most influenced by rap music. I wasn’t a full-on MC, I was only tinkering with it, but as a person being shaped, that’s the music that shaped me the most.
In a way, I’ll probably always be stuck trying to emulate the Jungle Brothers, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, Gang Starr, and, probably to my own disadvantage, won’t be very influenced by what’s current. You know I really enjoy listening to it, but at 42 years old, I don’t know if I’ll ever be as influenced by rap music, or any music, or a movie or book or anything, as when I was 17. Like most, I probably have some sort of midlife crisis approaching, and when that occurs, who’s to say? But between the ages of 17 and 45, I was busy trying to prove who the fuck I was, rather than being a sponge. Does that make sense?
EM: Yeah, absolutely. You’ve featured on a lot of other artists’ tracks throughout the years, but for you to have guests on your albums is pretty rare. Is your music just too personal and introspective for that to make sense for you?
SD: I mean, I can’t say it’s that so much as that I write too much shit. When it’s time to pull together a project, it’s like, “shit, I’ve got this song, and I wanna put this song on there, and I need to have this one, and before you know it, I’ve filled it up with nothing but me. It doesn’t leave much room, you know?
I think that’s partly why I try to stay somewhat active as a guest appearance. And truthfully man, I don’t sell verses, I’ve never sold a verse in my life. I always give them to my friends, so when I do make appearances on people’s records, it’s not because they paid me. You know, I have kids that hit me up on Twitter, like “yo, how much for a feature,” and I’m not gonna do a feature for somebody I don’t know. I stick to the people I know, and I do it for free, I’m not doing this to become famous or make money, I’m doing this cuz I fuckin’ enjoy doing it.
I think I subconsciously try to stay active doing features because I feel guilty not having enough on my album. You know, the few people I have had – Brother Ali was on Seven’s Travels, I Self Divine was on God Loves Ugly, I think I did a song with El-P in 2001, he was on a hidden track on Lucy Ford, Overcast! had Musab, back then we called him Beyond, he was on a couple of tracks, and Spawn was still rapping with me, and on the Se7en tape I had a song with Eyedea and a song with Gene Poole, and basically what I’m getting down to is that these people aren’t just rappers, these are the people I’ve known for 20 years, these are my surroundings. Murs, I’ve done a few projects with him, because of the friendship that me and him sparked.
What I’m trying to say is, I’ve never been one to make music with any sort of agenda other than enjoying myself. And it’s funny to say that, considering that a good amount of my stuff hasn’t been joyful music, a lot of it has been kinda depressing, but I made those songs because those songs were fun for me to make. I’ve got songs sitting in the vault, I’ve made a lot of songs with a lot of people, but those songs never quite make it onto my records. Maybe it’s also partly that I’m a control freak, like, I really need to steer this, if I’m gonna give the steering wheel over to anyone else, it’s gonna be someone I love and care about.
EM: You just filmed a new music video last week, right?
SD: Yeah, we’ve filmed a bunch of ‘em, last week was one more. I’m trying to get a many in the can as possible. Nowadays it’s not as big of a deal to film a video, ten years ago when you made a video you were making it with MTV in mind, or trying to achieve some level of exposure. Whereas now, you make them for your audience, your fans, it’s content that your friends can watch and laugh at you. So now, I’m figuring out how I want to approach video making, and some of these directors that I know are fuckin’ cool and fun to work with and we have a great time, so we can make a video and it’s ok that I’m never getting it played on any major video station. I’m lucky if a decent-sized website will host it, but for the most part I’m just gonna throw it up on Youtube because I’ve got an announcement to make, we’re announcing another tour or another album, and by the way here’s some new visuals to go along with one of our songs. That’s more fun, that’s way more fun than the pressure of “you can’t wear those Adidas in your video cuz MTV won’t play it, or you can’t show weed in your video cuz nobody will play it. Your audience is like your P.R. They put in work just like your publicist does, they’re the ones sharing it with other fans, so for a group like us, shit, that’s a win for us, that’s how we’ve been doing this for so long.
EM: You and Ant have been working together your whole career pretty much, how much work do you do in the same room at the same time, and how much is separate?
SD: That evolves, that changes. For instance, the Family Sign album, we did almost all of that record separately, mostly because that was just where our lives were at. I hibernated in my house for about a year when my wife was pregnant, and so he would just drop off beats, and I would sit on my back porch and write, I had a little space heater back there but my porch wasn’t insulated, and it was winter.
I think I lost a couple toes to that record, I’ve got these two toes on my left foot that go numb, it’s two middle toes, so when they go numb it’s almost like I’m throwing up the heavy metal foot. That record we didn’t do much together, this record we did a little bit more, but also this record Anthony lived out in the bay, so we had to do a decent amount of stuff separated. Every record’s a little different.
Our records follow our lives, whatever situation our lives are in, the records are gonna be made under those circumstances, we’re not gonna break out of the box of normal life to go rent a fuckin’ cabin in Maui to make a record, or go up in the north woods of Minnesota to escape. I got kids and shit, I’ll make music in my bathroom, I don’t give a fuck.
I’d say it’s evolved to a point where 50% of the record is made separate, and the other 50% together. But who knows, maybe for the next record I’ll go out to the bay, I’ll have one kid that’s a toddler and one that’s a preschooler and one that will be 21, and I might just be like “I need to get the fuck outta here for a minute.” It changes every time, we don’t really follow any sort of guideline.
EM: You’ve always been pretty big on touring, but now that you have a family, do you feel like touring is both harder and more necessary?
SD: I wouldn’t say it’s more necessary. As far as difficult, I don’t know if I’d say it’s more or less difficult. It’s like your reasons change. When I was younger, I went on tour just to party, you know, I wasn’t making no money. Sure, we were getting exposure, but it was like “holy shit, they’re letting us go on tour? Fuck yeah I’ll go sleep on people’s floors, to rap, you know what I mean?
Now I wouldn’t do that, I wouldn’t come sleep on your floor just to rap at a show. Not because I don’t love to rap, because my body can’t take that, my mind can’t take that. I’ve already drained a lot of those vials out of my soul. So now, when I tour the initiative is probably one part spiritual, because I love performing, then there’s the financial aspect, I support a family with this job, and also the quasi-bonding-with-males thing.
I don’t tour for super extensive periods of time, I’ll go out for four weeks come home for two, I spread it out because I can. So now when I go out it’s like eight dudes on a bus watching fuckin’ football, or baseball, playing shows, watching movies, hanging out, it’s almost like summer camp for grown men or some shit. But you couldn’t have ever convinced me 10-15 years ago to tour for that purpose. But there’s a need to be validated, to try out some new tricks, and just to see how long these fuckers will let me do this, they haven’t fired me yet, and none of us really know why. We’ll keep doing this shit until they do fire us.
EM: I heard that you might be covering a song from Prince’s Purple Rain at an upcoming benefit show in Minneapolis?
SD: Oh yeah, we did that already, that was a couple weeks ago, that was for the Minnesota Heart Association. It was the anniversary of Purple Rain, fuckin’ 30 years or some shit like that? And Bobby Z, the drummer from The Revolution, asked me to come do a song, I performed “Let’s Go Crazy.” Possibly one of the more intimidating things I’ve done in the last couple of decades. I got to meet Appolonia, though.
The night before I’d played a show in Milwaukee, a festival called Summerfest. We flew home the next day but our flight kept getting pushed back because of the weather, so by the time we got home, I had to go from the airport straight to the venue, and pretty much straight onstage.
It was pretty intense, I was in the car practicing the song one last time before we got to the club. And I actually executed it far better than I expected, I was really thinking “Oh my god, this is gonna be such a train wreck, and they’re never gonna ask me to do anything ever again. I actually remembered all the words, I didn’t hit all the notes or anything, I’m not really a note-hitter, and as Isaac Brock would say, I’m not really a song-player. It was fun, man, it was a good time.
EM: Well, thanks for taking the time to talk with us, and best of luck with the rest of your tour.
SD: Yeah likewise, thanks for helping me keep my job.
- Rhymesayers Entertainment