Atmosphere's Slug Talks Success, Selfishness, and Expression

Slug has something to say. In fact, Slug has a lot to say. Ask one-half of the Minnesota-based Atmosphere to expound on a question, and ready yourself for an unfurling that only a rapper who’s been at this for three decades can deliver — the man indulges in words, unfolding ideas like an origami deconstruction. Slug is of a rare breed that lets you see the individual moves that make up the bigger structure.

To any hip-hop head, seasoned or otherwise, Atmosphere has been a household name, blending a familiar sense of consciousness with a musical identity that’s all its own, acting as the foundation for the revered Rhymesayers record label. Whether you came across Atmosphere on a mixtape or through a soundtrack, it’s likely that Slug’s rhymes about social issues, women, or drugs had some impact on your psyche, often delivered in a searingly blunt, clever fashion that's become his calling card. We gave Slug (real name: Sean Michael Daley) a call ahead of Atmosphere’s set at the Pot Of Gold Music Festival this Thursday night.

New Times: Something that’s interesting to me is the concept of success in the climate of hip-hop; given the impact you and Ant have had, do you feel like you’ve been ultimately successful?
Sean Michael Daley: To be fair, I think we’ve had so much fun doing this that I think we just want to extend that for as long as we possibly can. At this point, I guess we get to extend it until we die. Ultimately, if people finally realize how much we suck and turn their back on us completely, we’re going to be stuck with each other and we’re still going to hang out and we’re still going to try to make music. We just set out to have the time of our lives, and that’s what it all boils down to. Goddammit, when I say it out loud, it sounds so selfish.

I don’t know if that’s selfish per se, but it does make me ask what drew you to hip-hop initially, especially with how much the climate has shifted so much — more of what got you in and what keeps you going.
I guess what got me in was just the feeling of having a voice. When I first got involved, I wasn’t a rapper, I started off as a dude that wanted to breakdance, then I became a guy that wanted to write graffiti, then I became a guy that wanted to be a DJ, and then I became a guy that raps. Ultimately, all that boils down to wanting to have a voice, wanting to express shit that’s inside of my head in some way or another, and this culture presented the opportunity to do that.

At the time, I was 11, 12 years old, and it was written for 12-year-olds to do that. At the time, I was looking up to rappers who were probably 18, 19 years old but in my mind, they were like uncles, they were grown-ass people who had theories and ideas and information that I wanted to hear. So when I got more involved, when I chose to pursue as more than just an advocate, that’s what I was trying to do. I was trying to continue the custom of expressing and delivering thoughts and theories and information in hopes of inspiring somebody else to do that as well.

At this point, after rapping now for, oh my God, 30 years, and I’ve been doing it professionally for 20, and it’s always weird to say "professionally," at this point it’s safe to say I’ve inspired a handful of people. It’s also safe to say that I’ve gotten to express anything that I’ve ever wanted. Especially now, I have a small understanding of how things like social media work, I still, on a daily basis get to express myself.

And through that expression, and 20 years, you've definitely impacted fans as well, it would seem. 
Some people might give a fuck about what I’m saying and in that way, this is the dream I achieved. I get to continue doing it because I fucking love it, and because there’s always room to play a role and possibly inspire somebody else on their path, the same way that those dudes I speak of did for me. Now, there is some new territory going on here; if you just stop and look at well, we’re from Minnesota, so to include our voices into the larger scheme of things, that was some new ground we were breaking for ourselves. Now, our age, we’ve been doing this for so long now that this is technically some new territory. We’re not the first ones to start wandering this territory, but there aren’t a lot of rappers who have remained relevant to anybody for 20 years. That’s not to say we’re as relevant as a Jay-Z or as a KRS-One, but to somebody, we’re relevant. There are still people who are interested in what we’re trying to express. There’s nobody for us to look to to figure out how to navigate that. It’s kind of some new territory and it’s exciting.

So then are there still elements of your initial outlook of hip-hop that have remained, the slow burn that's fueled these white-hot bursts over time?
Am I still receiving the same thing I was receiving when I was 17 years old? I am, it’s just that the face changes. When I was 17 years old, I was excited because I thought we were gonna burn down the country and take it away from the leftovers of Reaganomics. Rap was making me want to party but also make me want to throw Molotovs at the fuckin’ police. Now, it’s not to say that there isn’t a little bit of desire to burn some shit down, and there’s still a little bit of a desire to throw Molotovs at police tanks, but there’s also all of this selfish shit. I’m excited today because this is new territory, man. Me and Anthony are doing something that not a lot of people get to do. When you consider how many people want to do this but [how] few get to do it, that’s a blessing and that’s just exciting. I don’t know how to translate that to anybody outside of my own head, necessarily, but in my own head, that’s a big reason to keep doing what I’m doing. Basically, I can sum it up by saying for as long as you people let me do this, I’m probably going to be excited to keep doing it.