Atmosphere, the duo of Sean Daley (a.k.a. Slug) and Anthony Davis (a.k.a. Ant) has been a commanding force in indie hip-hop since the group formed in 1989. Not only did the two help found Minneapolis-based Rhymesayers Entertainment, but their 2003 release, Seven's Travels, co-released by punk-minded label Epitaph, helped expose alternative audiences to the likes of left-brained hip-hop.
Some critics termed Atmosphere "emo-rap," due to the highly personal nature of Slug's lyrics, viewed by many at the time as a way independent rap distanced itself from the "bling and bitches" posturing of mainstream hip-hop. These days? Slug finds the restrictions of realism stifling.
"I think this 'keep it real' mentality that we've worked so hard [to create] has become a cliché," Slug says. "It's beyond cliché. We don't want to allow our rappers to be griots, to be storytellers. It doesn't make any sense to me. You really think that rappers kill people? You really think that Slick Rick got gang-raped in prison? These are just fucking songs, man — everyone is just writing songs. Any other genre of music, and they will allow for these singers to be storytellers."
The Family Sign, released by Rhymesayers earlier this year, shows signs of Slug pushing away from a "keep it real" mentality while embracing a sonically live aesthetic, buttressed by subtle keys and jazzy guitar. The record features more straightforward narratives, like "My Notes" and "Millennium Dodo," but songs like "The Last to Say" and 'Bad Bad Daddy' showcase Slug layering his stories in strong, almost grotesque metaphorical layers.
But many missed the point.
"[In] the initial reviews, I noticed that a lot of people were taking the "Bad Bad Daddy" song literal, as if it was about a bad parent, a guy who's got a bunch of kids and is a shitty dad, and he takes them to the bar," Slug says. "Really, the song is about all the indie rappers that have come out of my balls. And 'taking them to the bars' was me taking them on tour and trying to be the 'parental elder statesman role,' with all these rappers, who are basically little Mini-Mes.
"It was kind of a shit-talking song, a tongue-in-cheek, boasting and bragging song that I wanted to use a metaphor for because I don't know if I'm allowed to make 'boast and brag raps' anymore. I always try to shield the shit inside of a certain story or something. I feel bad; it was almost, like, people were looking into it trying to figure out 'why the fuck would he make this song,' and they missed the whole joke."
Slug says that his records have always been made up of stories, though he admits his personal life does inform his work. (Check out "She's Enough," from The Family Sign, which features impossibly sweet lines like "She's my lady, case closed / She want a baby so I gave her one of those / Belly getting big, look at the tits grow.") But things are rarely as literal as they seem.
"I've got all these songs about being wasted in bars and chasing after girls and this and that," Slug says. "If I really lived like that, I would have died from whiskey poisoning or I would have herpes. We tell these stories to illustrate a bigger point."
For Slug, the trick is managing to figure out multiple meanings for a song in an effort to create something that varying listeners can relate to.
"I know I need to have a few different interpretations before I even get into it," Slug says. "I have to know where I stand with the fucking song, because I know there is some 19-year-old liberal arts student that's going to fucking grill me about it."