interview: atmosphere’s mc slug keeps pushing himself

April 18, 2011

The rap group Atmosphere has re-written the rule book when it comes to indie hip-hop. They are capable of selling a ton of records, selling out huge shows and even getting on some high profile radio festivals, while still maintaining their underground street cred. While other MC’s keep it real, Slug (aka Sean Daley) keeps it interesting and challenging. On the day after their latest disc dropped (The Family Sign) I had the opportunity to catch up with Slug on a plethora of issues.

Interview by David Carr

David Carr: On the last Atmosphere record (When Life Gives You Lemons You Paint That Shit Gold) you veered away from telling your own stories and dealt with the issues and stories of other folks. What inspired the lyrics/stories on Family Sign?
Slug: I have no blanket answer to your question. On this record, I drew from the same places that inspired the lyrics on the last record. Like the last record I didn’t really try and write 3rd person stories. It just happened. I really took a look at the songs on our last record. I wrote a song about a woman who was a single parent. I mean, I got a lot of validation for that song. A lot of people/women wrote me to tell me that I got the “story” right but I mean really; how the fuck do I know what it’s like to be a single woman raising a kid?!!? At the end of the day I am a male artist projecting what I think it’s like for a woman to be in that situation. Ever since then I pay more attention to what I am trying to say and how I say it.

David Carr: It sounds like you enjoy challenging yourself. Has anyone ever accused you of thinking too much?
Slug: I have to challenge myself. If I am not pushing myself that means I am not pushing my audience either! When I challenge myself I learn a lot about myself. There used to be a time when I got validation from the reaction of the audience; everyone singing the words, everyone with their hands in the air. Now I get validation from a totally different place. My wife was talking to me about how artists can get validation from either the presentation of their art or from the technique they use to create their art. My validation now comes from the technique. It comes from the exercises I use that lead to a story. My validation happens even before you or anyone else has actually heard the songs.

David Carr: Do you think your fans appreciate the way you try to keep them thinking?
Slug: Well I have been checking out the internet and seeing what folks have been saying about this latest record. I really thought this record would make my fans flinch! I mean it has only been twenty-four hours so I probably shouldn’t say anything but the response so far has been positive. I really thought this record would be hard to swallow if you were to give it a quick listen. We have carved out a space for ourselves so we don’t have to write a radio friendly song. We don’t need to have a hit! We have a song on the record Called “She’s Enough”. It’s a song that celebrates monogamy and it’s a danceable track. That never happens in hip-hop but that’s where we are at. We can do things like that.

David Carr: You’ve been able to build the Rhymesayers label into an impressive record label and launching pad for a ton of indie hip-hop artists. Do you ever think about the idea of not making music in order to concentrate on running the label; thus turning it into the Def Jam of the mid-west?
Slug: I don’t think like that but I like the idea that I have a couple of other skills. I like knowing that I have a few other skills in the drawer. I want to keep making music. Music is my life, but I am proud of the fact that I can do other things. Besides, Rhymesayers is more Def-Jam than Def Jam is right about now! There’s a song on the new record called “Bad Bad Daddy”. It’s kinda on the braggadocio side of things for me. It’s about me describing how I “gave birth” to a lot of these self released /indie rap artists. I am proud of what I have accomplished and my influence. In the next history book of hip-hop, the hope is that I will get referenced when it comes to indie rap.

David Carr: Tell me which of these scenarios is more plausible:

A.) A rap summit on BET featuring The Game, Wiz Kalifa, you, Brother Ali, Big Daddy Kane, Missy Elliot and Lil Wayne talking about the state of hip-hop.

B.) A tour featuring Snoop Dogg, Atmosphere and special guests Tha Dogg Pound and P.O.S.

Slug: HA! The tour scenario is more of a possibility. The tour is about the artists communicating with each other and communicating with the people. The BET scenario is about the corporation communicating with the people, and the artist is irrelevant to the corporation. You know the type of thing you are talking about is what MURS has been doing with the Paid Dues Festival in California. MURS has been the one artist who has tried to break down the divide between the mainstream and the underground. He has been the artist to make sure that I’m backstage with a performer like Xzibit so at the very least, he and I can see each other and say “what up/much respect” to each other. You know that book about the history of hip-hop I was talking about? MURS will also be referenced thanks to all he has done to bring the mainstream and underground together.

David Carr: What brings you and MURS together to do the FELT records?
Slug: We are friends. We hung out all the time. By 2001-2002, our lives became way more complicated. At one point I wanted to get together with him in LA and drink a ton of beers. In order to make the visit somewhat legit, we decided I would come to LA, drink a lot of beers and we would make a record together. He came to Minneapolis and we did the same thing. When we both have the time we get together and do it. It really comes down to our schedules. Once we can get our schedules together and get together, it becomes a very organic process.

David Carr: Years ago you dealt with the fact that you are a bi-racial MC with a predominantly white audience in the world of indie hip-hop. How have you made peace with this situation?
Slug: It’s been a while since anyone has asked me about that. It was really a thorn in my side when I was younger. I had to come to grips with it. I didn’t want to be the guy who was bitter about his audience. My audience shows me love. When I got into hip-hop it was during the conscious era of hip-hop. I realized that this music was about struggle. Hip-Hop is struggle music and I make struggle music. It’s not a about a Black thing or White thing anymore with me. It’s about the different types of struggles people go through. If you can relate to struggle and people struggling then you can probably relate to my music. Eyedea (of Eyedea and Abilities) taught me that even if you don’t have pain going on right now, you can still feel the pain happening to people around the world, because we are all interconnected. We are all dependant on each other. There are different types of dotted lines that keep us connected. The crackhead and the guy selling the crack are both fucking struggling. The concept of me worrying about my audience is over.

David Carr: You mentioned Eyedea (Michael Larsen) of Eyedea and Abilities. He passed away last year. How have you been able to cope with the loss of your friend?
Slug: Naturally when I first heard the news I was shocked. I had a lot of emotions. I was angry; I was negative about it. I mean he was 10 years younger than me. He was not supposed to go before me. I am at a place now where my coping mechanisms suggest that I grab on to the things that Michael taught me, while he was here. I need to re-enforce those things in my message, like the idea I was telling you about, how we are all connected through pain and struggle. I am just trying to cope with my feelings as I move forward and deal with his death.

David Carr: It sounds like Michael had a positive effect on you.
Slug: We were like siblings. Me, Michael and dj Abilities were like siblings. And like siblings we had are moments and our issues but we were like family. He was a really fucking special dude.

David Carr: The hip-hop scene in Minnesota has given birth to its own daylong, annual hip-hop festival. How did Soundset come to be?
Slug: Way back in the day we wanted to lockdown our own city when it came to showcasing hip-hop. We had the idea to have our own party. We decided to throw our own 12-hour jammy- jam with all local groups! I mean we had like 30 groups on this thing. Many of these people didn’t even really know each other and some of them might have had a bit of drama with each other. We were able to pull it off. It was a success and everyone rocked the house! Years later, we got the chance to partner up with a big promoter who could put some money behind it and liked the idea of a one day, outdoor rap festival which again, could bring together both indie and mainstream hip-hop. The last festival brought in 18,000 people. It’s good for our city. It’s a great opportunity for young people to see and hear some great music. It’s also good for the younger artists to see how to really conduct themselves. They get to see Method Man and Redman backstage not wilding out and going crazy. They get to understand that this is an art form and a business and that these are two grown ass men!

David Carr: Speaking of growing up, you are a father correct?
Slug: Yes I am I have one 17 year old son and a 1 year old.

David Carr: What has being a father taught you? How has fatherhood influenced you as an artist?
Slug: Well it has definitely influenced me as a man and it does inform my art. One of the things fatherhood does is that it gives you this extra governor when you are making choices. I have to make a conscious effort to do the right thing. It forces you to reconcile your poor decisions. It makes you want to do better. It makes you want to live better. I have grown more in the last five years than ever before! My son hit the teen years and I really had to change the way I lived my life. I couldn’t hide aspects of my life anymore. I needed to just change my lifestyle. When I was younger, I just did a lot of stupid shit! I drank a lot and chased women. I need to show my son now there is a better way to live. The best thing about all of this is, as I change my life in order to be a good father, I benefit from it as well! I actually begin to live better.

David Carr: Now that the disc is out will Atmosphere be on tour?
Slug: We will be hitting the road and doing shows from now until November.

David Carr: Slug thanks for taking the time to chat with me. It has been a pleasure.
Slug: Thank you man…thanks for listening.

Check out Atmosphere on tour.
04.20.11 – Columbus, OH @ Newport Music Hall – SOLD OUT!
04.21.11 – Munhall, PA @ Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead
04.22.11 – S. Burlington, VT @ Higher Ground – SOLD OUT!
04.23.11 – Boston, MA @ House of Blues – SOLD OUT!
04.24.11 – Philadelphia, PA @ Electric Factory
04.26.11 – New York, NY @ Terminal 5
04.27.11 – Washington, D.C. @ 9:30 Club
04.28.11 – Richmond, VA @ The National
04.29.11 – Asheville, NC @ The Orange Peel
04.30.11 – Birmingham, AL @ Zydeco
05.02.11 – Austin, TX @ Stubb’s BBQ
05.04.11 – Tucson, AZ @ Rialto Theatre
05.05.11 – Pomona, CA @ Fox Theater
05.06.11 – San Diego, CA @ House of Blues
05.07.11 – Berkeley, CA @ Greek Theatre
05.09.11 – Portland, OR @ Roseland Theater
05.10.11 – Vancouver, BC @ Vogue Theatre
05.12.11 – Calgary, AB @ MacEwan Hall
05.13.11 – Edmonton, AB @ The Starlite Room
05.14.11 – Saskatoon, SK @ The Odeon
05.17.11 – Boulder, Co @ Fox Theatre