Atmosphere gets personal and goes big
‘Virgo,” the lead single off hip-hop duo Atmosphere’s new album, Mi Vida Local, contains sobering observations about climate change or the nuclear apocalypse or whatever happens to be threatening humanity’s existence at the moment. “I might be the last generation of grandparents,” one line goes. On another, Slug raps, “Like fuck it, you can sacrifice me to the weather/If you promise that you’ll let my songs live forever.”
Slug—real name Sean Daley—has always embraced darkness, often lacing his lyrics with acerbic black humor and sketching downright depressing stories, and he’s no different as a conversationalist. As he said in a recent phone interview, if the end is indeed nigh, he’d prefer preemptive self-annihilation over getting cooked by our own greenhouse gases.
“Rather than burning to death or starving, I suggest we just blow the fucker up,” he said. “We just pick a date, celebrate the day before—huge celebration—then we just blow up the fucking world to avoid the hangover. And then nobody has to miss anybody, because that’s really the hard part of death—the separation. Let’s all just die at once. Then we could at least own it instead of blaming each other ….”
Atmosphere’s dark arc began in the early ’90s, when a mutual friend introduced Daley to Anthony Davis, the now-legendary hip-hop producer who goes by the name of Ant. His blues-tinged beats and Slug’s storytelling ability, plainspoken poeticism and emotional rawness have been Atmosphere’s hallmarks since breakthrough album God Loves Ugly (2002), a landmark work of LimeWire-era rap. The group has released nine studio albums and a mess of EPs, all while touring consistently and founding the hip-hop label Rhymesayers Entertainment in their hometown of Minneapolis.
Atmosphere is set to play the Senator Theatre March 8 in support of Mi Vida Local. In terms of subject matter, it’s a personal record in that Slug is rapping about what’s directly in front of him in his neighborhood in Minneapolis, his family life, etc.—but it has big-picture elements, too, because he gets updates on his pocket computer like everyone else.
“All that crazy shit that’s going on in the world is going on right in front of me,” he said. “And that makes its way into [Mi Vida Local], but I guess I’m talking about it from my own, insular perspective, which I felt like was kind of important for me to do this time. Far too often, Anthony and I get together and make music, and that music tends to take itself too serious. This time around, I wanted to make sure that while I was making this serious music, I was also staying grounded in my own personal element.”
Having long ago established a cult-like following well beyond Minneapolis, Daley and Davis have become something like underground hip-hop’s elder statesmen. They’ve been making dad rap for the past several years, giving precisely zero shits about clicks on SoundCloud or keeping up with the hottest rapper of the week. Atmosphere is a legacy act now, and Daley knows it.
“There was a time when I was in competition with other underground rappers—not in the sense that I had to sell more records than Murs, but more so an artistic competition. Now I don’t feel that way about other people’s music. I don’t compare it to ours. I just get excited for the music. I realized a while ago that we moved out of being the hot new thing and moved into being the fucking Neil Young of indie rap.”
That doesn’t mean Daley isn’t rapping with a sense of urgency—quite the opposite. Before his world comes to an end, he wants to get as much done as he can, and he wants it to count.
“My purpose isn’t to be validated or loved or to have people shower me with fucking compliments,” he said. “My purpose is to do as much as I can that I am proud of before it’s over.”