The way up high
Atmosphere’s Slug reflects on his long career in hip-hop
As a high school student in Minneapolis, Sean Daley didn’t even attempt to grasp literary devices like symbolism and metaphor. He finds that funny now, since those devices help define his art.
“I had to teach myself all of those things after becoming a rapper,” he said. “People went ahead and gave me the job of ‘rapper.’ Then I started learning how to write.”
For the past 17 years or so, Daley, now 42, has been more widely known as Slug, the emcee half of one of hip-hop’s most enduring underground acts, Atmosphere. Slug’s storytelling ability, poeticism and emotional openness have been hallmarks of the group since their breakthrough, and second full-length album, 2002’s God Loves Ugly. All told, Atmosphere has released seven studio albums and nine EPs while touring relentlessly and co-founding the group’s hometown hip-hop label, Rhymesayers Entertainment.
During a recent phone interview with the CN&R, Slug reflected on Atmosphere’s formative years. The duo’s arc began in the early 1990s, when a mutual friend introduced Slug to Anthony Davis, or Ant, the producer with whom he formed the group.
What was your relationship with Ant like at first?
His first impression of me was like, “Who’s this skinny white dude coming over here to rap?” And my impression of him was like, “Who’s this skinny white dude making these beats?” But I was kind of floored. I could see the work ethic in this guy—he was making 30 beats a week. I really didn’t have any aspirations to be a career emcee; I was a hobbyist. But I was so attracted to how much work this guy did, I just wanted to be around that. As I spent time around him, I became that way, too.
How has that relationship developed?
Now that music has become authoritative in my life, as well as something I love, it’s almost like a marriage. I don’t feel like I’m married to Anthony; what I’m married to is the relationship with Anthony. I depend on him to give me beats, so I can make songs and afford to purchase organic milk.
When you started out, was it more about proving your rap chops?
In any art, validation from your peer group, your contemporaries, is one of the first validations that you seek. Then you move on to seeking validation from an audience, from members of the opposite sex, and then even from your parents. You couldn’t have told 22-year-old me that, one day, which record my mother likes would matter to me. It would have been, “Yo, mom, this ain’t for you!”
Do you use metaphor and symbolism to write about personal subjects?
Yeah, it’s insecurity. Sometimes you’re afraid to just tell it, because it might show you’re vulnerable. The record When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, that was 95 percent fictitious, just a bunch of stories. But in the end, those songs were about me. Even though I might change the names or the gender of the character, it’s all secretly first-person.
Do those literary tools help make the songs more universal?
If you want people to relate, you have to keep it broad—or keep it dark. Everyone relates to dirt colors, to struggle. Not everybody wants to relate to yellow. Pharrell’s song—that “Happy” shit? That was fucking amazing. I’ll never listen to it again, but there was nothing dark about it and I still related. That’s so difficult. It’s not like Anthony and I haven’t tried—we have a song called “Sunshine.” That’s probably as close to happy as we’ve gotten, and even then, I couldn’t help putting a couple of little clouds in it.
If Atmosphere was starting in today’s hip-hop scene, would you make it?
Timing was a huge part of what enabled us to create the voice we have. I was 30 years old when God Loves Ugly came out. We were suddenly propelled into a situation where money was floating around, there was notoriety, girls liked me. What would have happened if that came out when I was 22? We were very lucky with our timing. That’s the word I want on my rap tombstone—“Timing.”