Minneapolis hip-hop act Atmosphere, at Paper Tiger this weekend, has enjoyed an atypical career in a temperamental genre with a constantly shifting base. Comprised of rapper Slug (Sean Daley) and DJ/producer Ant (Anthony Davis), Atmosphere has churned out seven LPs and nine EPs since its 1997 debut Overcast. A longtime favorite of the hip-hop underground, the duo has made a name for itself primarily on the strength of Daley's unique gift for writing and delivering raps that are brutally (sometimes humorously) self-aware, insightful in their observations and uncommonly sophisticated in their handling of literary elements like metaphor, symbolism, and characterization.
Daley's work, at least for the most part, is also notable for going against the mainstream rap grain in three particular ways. First of all, his raps are often intensely personal, honest, diary-like meditations on his own actual life. Secondly, his presentation of women and violence in his music has largely avoided the pitfalls of objectification and glorification, respectively. Thirdly, he's got a decidedly blue collar slant and avoids superficial materialism in his work, seeming to see himself more as an artist and public servant than as a star emcee. A few weeks ago, Daley — a busy dude, who also founded and runs the influential Rhymesayers Entertainment — was kind enough to indulge some of my questions about his career and his approach. Below are some highlights of that chat.
“Have you seen us live,” Daley asked after I mentioned my longtime fandom, near the beginning of our talk. A bit embarrassed, I admitted that I hadn’t. “Good,” he returned, without missing a beat, “because we sucked until about six months ago.” This comment not only served to break the ice and set the tone for an interview in which dude dropped some serious truth-bombs, but it’s also indicative of the self-deprecating humor that colors even the rapper’s bleakest songs with reason for hope and fuel for growth.
On his earliest rapping:
As a kid, I was just making songs for myself or my close homies, because I wanted to be a rapper so bad. So a lot of my writing before Overcast was just me trying to imitate what I thought rap should be, like rapping about rapping and shit. Then, there was a transition that happened when I really started writing songs for other people to listen to. In 1995 I wrote a song called “God’s Bathroom Floor.” People, especially locally [in Minneapolis], responded overwhelmingly to it. It made me feel that I was able to stand apart from some of my contemporaries, because it was a bit more conceptual and more open to interpretation. That’s where [my style] really started. I never had a diary in my life, so I think writing these songs helped me exorcize some of these things I needed to work through … I was no longer just rapping to string words together. It's funny because now, all this time later, I'm having to re-learn just rapping for fun and just kicking it.
On his place in the history of hip-hop:
[Laughs] I really only think about it when people ask me about it. I mean I want to go down in rap history, but I don't feel I should write my own name in the book. Plus, I don't know my impact yet because I'm still doing it.
On his blue collar mentality vs. the lavish trappings of mainstream rap:
People want to criticize the excesses or bragging in rap, but you've got to remember that these are have-nots who are looking for a way to feel like haves. When you think about that, it's really amazing that anybody claims a blue collar mentality in hip-hop, because that's kind of like aligning yourself with what your parents were, and that's not very hip-hop. Me, personally, I never thought I would be a rapper for a living. So, my roots are still from a point of view of work ethic. Just like my parents, I'm a backbreaker. I'm going to break my back doing this, but that's just me and where I'm coming from. I don't know how to shit on anyone else. Look, I come from the underground scene, so I know I'm supposed to look down on rappers with mainstream success and mainstream style. But, I have more perspective than that. If hip-hop is like a tree, all of the branches are important. If you start cutting off branches, especially some of the ones that are the most alive and thriving, then you're going to kill the tree. It is important that this whole tree stay intact. People have to be able to admire the whole thing for what it is.
On his treatment of women in his rhymes:
To be fair, I don't think you can say that I don't objectify women in my music. Maybe they're just objectified in different ways or more creative ways. We are constantly objectifying people of both sexes because we want to make them into something that is easy to hate or love or whatever. Or, it's a defense mechanism. I have been guilty of not always being able to find ways to describe people, including women, that doesn't involve putting them in some sort of a box. I definitely want to reach a place where I am able to tell a story and feel like I have really freed the characters from stereotypes. But, it's an ongoing process and I don't feel like I have reached my best yet. I mean, come on, I made an album called Lucy Ford, where I literally represented a woman as the devil, but it's not seen that way because my rap so often gets viewed through the lens of literature.
On the role of hip-hop:
If this shit makes you dance, then it's doing its job. If this shit makes you think, then it's doing its job. If this shit makes you want to go back to work after lunch and stab your boss, then it's doing its job.