The group Atmosphere is rounding the corner of 25 years as an entity. Given the current landscape of Rap, that would mean Atmosphere has been around longer than some rappers have been born. It’s a privilege to boast that many years in existence when most can’t reach the five-year mark. But what the Minnesota group — led by figurehead Sean “Slug” Daley (and DJ/producer Anthony “Ant” Davis) — has is a loyal following based upon Atmosphere’s ability to churn out honest music.
Their latest Southsiders continues along that theme, only this time the topics move introspectively. For the first time in perhaps forever, Slug details what happens you’ve “made it” enough to pay your bills and the proverbial Rap struggle has significantly dissipated. It’s a fantasy a lot of rappers can’t fathom, yet the de-facto leader of Atmosphere and co-founder of Rhymesayers has finally reached that milestone. He discusses this next phase in his life with Life+Times, the pros and cons of his racial ambiguity, and where the pen make take him next – now that he can write checks with it.
Life+Times: How would you describe these last three years in between projects?
Slug: Made another baby – third son from the stone. Made some new friends. Made a bunch of new music. Watched Boardwalk Empire.
L+T: When you were working on The Family Sign, it was a situation of you going into fatherhood. It was a change in your personal life. With Southsiders it felt more like you wondering what your legacy was going to be as a human being – father, artist, everything. It felt like there was this underlying question of “What’s next?”
Slug: That’s funny because that’s pretty much exactly what this record is probably about. You know a lot of time the album doesn’t fully reveal itself to me until it’s been out for a little while. In this case, I feel like this is the first time in a little while that I’ve felt like, “No! I’ve got it figured out!” I knew what it was about before we even put it out! I’m probably just being arrogant; there’s still probably a lot of things to reveal itself to me. On this record, I’m talking about mortality. I noticed the topic of death a lot, but not in a fearful way, but a figuring it out way. How do I live forever? I know I can’t live forever physically, but how do I live forever through this music or as somebody who spends his time giving a fuck about something more than himself? Truthfully, there’s a part of me that wonders if every single one of these albums isn’t me going “What’s next? What’s next? What’s next?” every single time.
Slug: I do feel like there’s a theme that runs through all these records, and that theme is me! Then ha ha me again! And this one is about me too! Hell I tried to make a record once that wasn’t like that only to find out…I don’t know what to expect as far as this goes, but as far as what I think this record is about? Struggling with the fact that I’m not struggling as much as I used to struggle. And struggling with the fact that I actually can be concerned with the ocean dying. You know, ten years ago I didn’t give a fuck if the ocean was dying. I was too busy worrying about putting groceries on the table. I was too busy worrying about if my fuckin’ girlfriend was cheating on me or some shit. Now, I can actually be concerned with the ocean dying? What the fuck is that? By no means am I fucking rich, but I do feel I’m in a place where I have security. With that security, I’ve learned it doesn’t make life better; it just means that it opens up your soul and your mind to be insecure about other things. So I find myself coping and struggling with world issues now, and inequality issues, and things that matter on a global scale or on a national scale, whereas before a lot of the things I was struggling with only mattered in my fuckin’ apartment. Does that make sense?
L+T: It does make sense. It’s interesting because you’re describing the plight of the successful rapper – where the first half of the career is spent talking about what they don’t have and the second half is spent talking about what they do have. You’re taking a different route and instead of bragging about how you can pay your bills, you’re concerned about everyone else.
Slug: It’s funny that you say that because I never even considered that! I totally forgot about how successful rappers start rapping about the shit that they have. I guess, ya know technically it’s not that I’m distant from hip-hop, it’s just that I don’t listen as hard to those rappers. I don’t memorize lyrics like I used to. I’m not…in, which is a testament to what you’re saying. Ten years ago, I really cared about who was being lyrical. I cared too fuckin’ much about which rapper was spittin’ that hot fuckin’ shit. Nowadays, I’m like, man I don’t give a fuck about who the best rapper is anymore. To me, that is not an issue. It doesn’t matter to the rest of the world.
L+T: For a track like “Kanye West,” what made you choose Kanye as the archetype of not caring, i.e. the Kanye shrug? But at the beginning of the song you say “put your hands in the air like you really do care.”
Slug: Actually, that song is about giving a fuck. Maybe it’s about giving too much of a fuck. It’s about caring so much and being so passionate about something, that people misinterpret you as you “just don’t give a fuck.” It’s about caring about something so much that you no longer care about how people perceive you in regards to it. To me, Kanye is an important example of an artist who cares a lot. In my opinion, people are intimidated by that, so they try to discredit him. But I don’t believe you can discredit another person’s feelings.
L+T: What was Minnesota’s hip-hop scene like when you started? What is it like now?
Slug: When I started, it was a scene full of excitement, but with very few outlets to perform and create this music we loved. Now it’s a scene full of excitement with many many outlets to perform and crate this music we love. It’s validating to know that we played a small role in making the powers that be [in this town] take hip-hop music more serious. Because now there are many many opportunities for young cats to play shows and get their beats and rhymes heard. As far as artistry, the scene here has always been progressive and productive. I don’t think that is exclusive to hip-hop music. I think all forms of artistic expression are next-level in the Twin Cities. Full disclosure: I’m probably biased.
L+T: Atmosphere has an interesting fan base. While sometimes they’re like a cult following, who love what you’ve done for Minnesota hip-hop and hip-hop in general, there are many really mad at you for whatever reason…
Slug: Here’s the thing that I’ve learned about it: it’s bigger than me. I am the least important part of the whole equation. People need hope, and some people — there’s a group of kids and some adults — who have made me some sort of a catalyst for their search for hope. And then there’s another group of people who have made me some sort of a catalyst for their own search for hope and identity by being against me. Now if you take me out of the equation, those people still have those things inside of them and they will just find another catalyst. I feel fortunate that I’ve been given this position for some people, and I’ll do my best to be responsible with it and do the right thing with it. But I know better than to think it’s about me. I’m just a thing that’s in the right place at the right time for these kids. A song like “Sunshine” is one of our more popular songs, and when you break it down, it’s a song about a fuckin’ hangover. It’s not a very intricate song; I literally wrote it while I was hungover. I rode my bicycle hungover to Ant’s house and started to feel better from sweating out some of the toxins. When I got there, I was like “Ay man I feel like shit.” He was like, “Smoke some weed, drink some coffee, and let’s make some music.” So we started making music and I started writing the truth then and there. I know I didn’t spend a ton of time writing that song. It’s not my Sistine Chapel, but it is something these kids can relate to. People need that. There are artists that do that for me, where it’s the same kind of thing of something I want so I’m going to find it — in a rapper, or a painting, or a book. I just have to remind myself not to get too big headed about it and not let it necessarily play into the ego, but the motivation to keep going. A lot of my motivation in the past has come from negative shit, moments that were not pretty moments. As of late I’m trying to take the pretty moments and turn them into motivation too.
L+T: This may be old news, but you’re still listed as a “Top White Rapper.” How do you react to that when you are African American and Native American as well?
Slug: In my opinion, race is a tool; a dotted line used by the powers to keep us separated. Many of us without power have fallen into their trap by applying it to ourselves as well. Though I don’t subscribe to the dotted lines, I realize that I’m surrounded by a system that is built upon these dotted lines. So I no longer knee-jerk when someone on Twitter or in the media industrial complex uses these dotted lines to describe me. Instead, I stay focused on being the best person I can be, and presenting that to the handfuls of people who listen to us. Also, I have to be realistic about it. To someone who doesn’t know my background, I look white. When the police pull me over, they see me as white. So I’m privy to a lot more privilege than even my browner-skinned sibling receives. So if that’s the box this system has put me in, my job is to figure out how to work my art within that box to create positive energy and positive actions that further our movement against the systemic inequalities that we were born into.
L+T: You discussed before the idea of success and how now you can pay your bills. Has success affected anything else, like have your tastes for certain things evolved?
Slug: I still wear the same shit. In fact, I still have some of the same clothes. It’s affected what I eat, though, mostly. I eat better. I can afford to buy food that’s a little healthier. It’s also affected some of my codependency issues because it felt like some of the self-medicating I was doing and the escaping I was doing was based on feelings of…I don’t want to say depression, but weight on my shoulders. And so…I don’t drink as much as I used to. I don’t search for the party, or that high to balance out all those lows. So yeah, my life has evolved to a healthier place physically, spiritually, and presumably mentally. It’s affected my parenting. I’m not as stressed out about money now, so I’m able to actually focus more attention on certain aspects of my relationship with my children than I was able to when I was 21, when I had my first child. On a material level? Not so much. I’ve been driving this same truck for fuckin’ twelve years. It’s kind of a piece of shit, but I love it because it has exact stereo I need when I listen to the demos that me and Anthony are making.
L+T: Do you have any idea of what you’d like to write about next?
Slug: I have no idea, but wouldn’t that be convenient?