“People are just looking for something they can relate to. Something that they can take and apply to themselves. Some of us are lucky enough to become that through our art,” Sean “Slug” Daley, the rapping half of Minneapolis underground rap stalwarts Atmosphere tells me. “I’m lucky to be one of the ones that people will listen to.”
For the better part of 20 years, Atmosphere has been a constant on the indie rap scene, releasing more than a dozen projects of their own, running the successful Rhymesayers label, and helping found the ever expanding hip-hop festival Soundset. Their most recent album, this year’s Southsiders, finds Atmosphere trying to balance being 40-year-olds with families while still making hip-hop records at a time when many of their contemporaries have hung it up.
“When we started out in the 90s there was a lot of us. I look around now and a lot of those guys are gone,” Slug said. “I can count on two hands who’s left from 97. Who’s left from the Rawkus era? The early Rhymesayers, the early Def Jux, the early Stones Throw? And so I’m fortunate that I’m still allowed to have this voice.”
One of the album’s highlights is “My Lady Got Two Men,” a chilled out, laidback track where Slug tries to resolve the two sides of his personality for his wife. Watch the premiere of that video below, and read the rest of our talk with Slug.
Noisey: This far into your career—10 EPs, six albums—how do you decide to make music videos? What’s the process?
Sean “Slug” Daley: I don’t know, man. I’m willing to do anything that they’ll let me do. If it were up to me, I’d make a video for every song. Obviously from a budgetary standpoint, that would be the thorn in the side of a guy at an indie label. In my head, when I get an idea, or a visual concept, I just kinda pass it around to people to see if anyone cosigns it. And I kind of organically grow it from there.
With this particular song, I’m not certain anyone expected us to have a video for this one. This idea came from Ant. He was inspired by this video from that band 10CC, that song “I’m Not in Love.” He saw the video for that and thought, “We need to make a video like that.” When they brought me into the mix, I was like, instead of a backup band I want to bring in my mannequins, because I own a bunch of mannequins. I wanted to make it feel natural, like when I’m at home and I play music with my mannequins.
Why do you have a lot of mannequins?
Well, to play music with.
Ant came up with the idea for this song, and you wrote the lyrics. I know you guys emphasize that you’re a group—your credits say “Written by Atmosphere”—he sometimes helps with lyrics you sometimes help with beats. How does that process work for you guys?
We are just very open and honest with each other when considering each other’s ideas. Sometimes my ideas make it into the beats, and sometimes his ideas make it into the lyrics. Because ultimately we both have the same goal: just to make a complete song.
Especially now that we’re older, we’re just trying to fit puzzle pieces together to make a complete song. When I was younger I wanted to be a dope rapper. I wanted other rappers to think I was a dope rapper. I wanted rap fans to think I was a dope rapper. Now, I don’t really fucking care who thinks I’m a dope rapper. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve gotten older, or I’m trying to learn new tricks. My incentive is no longer to be Mister Lyrical Miracle. Now I want to crack the code. In that way, I’m very open to what Ant might have to say, because this is a guy who knows me as much as I know myself when it comes to my art. So if he’s got opinions or input he wants to put on it, I’m super open to it.
You guys go on an European tour starting next week. I’m from Wisconsin—I live in Madison—and it occurred to me I don’t really know how you guys are received anywhere else in the country, or abroad, because since 03-04, you guys have been huge in Wisconsin. And I lived in Minnesota for a year and you guys were like the biggest band. I literally have no idea how the rest of the country perceives you guys at all.
That’s good! That’s good! You don’t wanna know! You don’t wanna know. It’s best to just be familiar with what’s right in your face, in that regard. People I know around Minneapolis that go, “You’re on tour again? How well do you do out there? You playing in front of 50 people in L.A.?,” I don’t want to necessarily give people real numbers because it starts to feel like I’m bragging. It feels like I’m about to toot my own horn. I don’t want to be that guy.
As far as you know, no one outside of Madison likes me, and I’m okay with that.
I was going to ask how crowds in Europe respond to you guys, but I guess I don’t need to know that.
It depends on the part of Europe. Travelling abroad in general is just like touring around the states, but maybe with a few more challenges. Those challenges are sometimes finding a decent meal. Or finding a quality place to take a shit. For the most part, it’s really not that different from touring the U.S. You just have to be careful about what you plug into what, because of the voltage.
When you guys started, Minneapolis wasn’t necessarily known, at least nationally, as a hip-hop hotbed. But now you have tons of people coming out of there, Doomtree, etc. What has it been like for you guys to see that happen?
I think it’s awesome. This place has kind of been a secret garden for art for a long time. The rock bands broke through 20 years ago—Husker Du, Replacements, Soul Asylum—and we had Prince and the Time. This is a place that is known for having people who are little too artsy for their own good. And rap is just another branch of that tree of Minneapolis art. Seeing rap born from here make it’s way to the world, obviously that’s a great thing that makes me proud of my city.
Like probably everybody else that’s interviewed you this tour, I want to ask you about the song from Southsiders called “Kanye West.” In that song you use him as a stand-in for being passionate and just going for it, and I don’t think some people give that the credit for doing that like he does.
I think it’s fortunate that right now we have a pop icon that is not afraid to lose his status. And that’s rare. If you look at the pop icons we’ve had over the last 20 years, they’ve all been people that have had handlers and stylists that help them keep their role in that world of pop icondom. Here we have somebody who is huge and successful, but still is using his place to say the shit he wants to say, for better or for worse.
We have a guy who doesn’t give a fuck. Wait, he gives so much of a fuck that it offends people. I feel like this dude is the most incredible pop icon we’ve ever had. He’s still himself. You already know what Bono is gonna say and do about things. Justin Timberlake? What the fuck does he have to say? Nothing. I’m not trying to diss Justin, but with Kanye, you don’t know what he’s gonna do and say about anything. And I think that’s something we could all use more of.
There’s an edge there, and there’s a truth there with him that freaks people out. They say things like “He’s controlled by his ego.” Get the fuck out of here man. Who isn’t? He’s what happens when you take a regular guy, give him a shitload of talent, and some power.
Definitely. Atmosphere has been releasing music for 17 years, where do you think you’ll be in another 17?
I don’t know. Maybe I’ll have a couple more kids? Maybe I’ll invent something that stores energy. Who knows, man? I’ve never been good at planning. “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I don’t fucking know, man. I don’t know where I’m gonna be next week. I’m just gonna ride it till the wheels fall off.
Andrew Winistorfer loves Miller Lite. He's on Twitter — @thestorfer