An interview with indie hip hop champs Atmosphere

We spoke to the Minneapolis duo’s Sean “Slug” Daley about their new LP, dad rap, Macklemore, indie integrity and more.

Once upon a time in Minneapolis — a little over 20 years ago, to be more precise — Sean “Slug” Daley and Anthony “Ant” Davis formed Atmosphere and began a journey that would help propel the idea of independent hip hop (and in time, independent music in general) from a regionally centred pipe dream to a credible grind of touring, tons of albums and merch, and the type of fan accessibility that major label artists would never even consider granting in their rose-adorned, brown-M&M-and-Perrier-only dressing rooms.

A mix of laid-back and a little hyper, not unlike his live show, Slug isn’t one to repeat himself and excels at seeing an idea through, whether in song or conversation.

Atmosphere are back in Montreal with their Rhymesayers labelmates Brother Ali and dEM Atlas this Monday, so we caught up with Slug by phone to get his take on their excellent new LP, Fishing Blues, his friendship with Ali, dad rap, independent integrity, the Macklemore phenomenon and growth. Here are some of that conversation’s highlights.

On first meeting Brother Ali:

“It was a small scene and there were too many rappers there. When I first noticed him it was because he was really good at what he was doing. I probably gave him props and in the same breath I probably gave him some of my ego. But at some point he reached out to me and asked me to go have lunch with him. We’d been kinda cordial to each other a few times, so I was down. We went and hung out at this spot called the Canary Café next to the duplex where I was living. We had a lot in common so it started as a friendship, you know? Years later I realized he strategically did that to everybody in my crew. And it was his way of kinda letting us all know he wanted in.”

On Fishing Blues:

“I don’t know that my opinion matters just because of how close I stand to all of it. I really don’t see this record as more or less introspective than any of them. Every record is a reflection of where we were when we made it. So any differences or similarities you might hear on this record are there to represent (that). I don’t think we’ve made the same record over and over, but it’s been the same concepts. That concept is basically, ‘Who is Sean? Who is Anthony? Right now?’

“The one thing I could say I consciously did with this record was to make music that didn’t take itself as seriously. Ever since You Can’t Imagine — the mohawk record, ‘you can’t imagine how much mohawk we’re having’ — the music became very self-aware. There are a number of reasons that happened and it was natural; our progression as people going into our 30s and becoming adults, finally. And also dealing with some of the shit life throws at you. Things became a little less insular, a little less selfish, even, in some ways.

“With Fishing Blues I was almost trying to put the fun back in funeral and figure out how to show all the sides of us again, because I was afraid we weren’t showing our corny side. I wanna be careful how I word that because there are plenty of people out there who would criticize and say we’ve been making corny music all along. That’s fine. But moreso the corny side of me that I’m aware of; the side that tells dad jokes, the side that wants to have fun. I think I intentionally tried to show some of those aspects of our personality on the record. (We were) writing songs that weren’t trying to save the world.”

Dad rap,  emo rap:

“I invented the term ‘dad rap’. I started mentioning it and tweeting it and shit. I don’t think I ever heard it until I started using it, as a joke, to apply to ourselves, during The Family Sign (era), like, ‘What we are making is dad rap.’ So I embrace it obviously. I’ve got t-shirts that say #DadRap on the front and Atmosphere on the back. I’m fully into it.

“Just like ‘emo rap’! When that term was floating around, people don’t realize that I invented that fucking term. In an interview with Dave Thompkins in like 1998, in URB magazine, I referred to Atmosphere as cynical, minimalistic, emo rap. Thus, the term was born, and people started using it about two or three years later and throwing it around as a way to insult us. But it was too late for that. I made it up. It can’t hurt my feelings. I used to be a battle MC and it meant the world to me, and the thing I learned early on is that you step in and say the worst thing you can think of about yourself, first, so that nobody else can really knock you down any notches.

“Fast forward 20 years, my ego’s not riding shotgun anymore. It’s not my driving force like it was in my 20s. But I’m still very aware how connected my ego is to everything. So even something like the terms ‘dad rap’, it plays into my ego, in a positive way.”

The mature MC:

“We’re kinda forging new ground here. When I was 16 and I wanted to be LL Cool J. There was no such thing as a 44-year-old rapper. They didn’t allow them. Chuck D had to lie about his age! Def Jam, whoever, PR, talked about Chuck as if he was actually younger than he was. Now this is new territory, especially in underground rap. I don’t know how much younger or older I am than Jay Z, but I think me and Nas are a similar age. This is a new area. And I’m one of them. But it’s just that I happen to be one not from the mainstream side but from the weird, faux underground side of it. And they haven’t fired me yet. They still let me put out records.

“So nobody really knows what we’re supposed to be rapping about right now. You watch some of these older guys — and I ain’t gonna name names but some of our heroes — and they haven’t figured out what to rap about. They’re stuck in this place where they wanna rap about the same stuff they did at 25. And it’s like, but you’re not living that life anymore, bro. And if you were, it would be a travesty for you to have made it 20 years selling vials of crack without any sort of promotion. You never got promoted? You’re not a fuckin’ boss yet? You’re still on the corner, after 20 years? Really, bro?

“So with that in mind, I intend to be one of the ones that figures out how to do it, and actually evolve at the same pace as my life evolves.”

Macklemore, Chance, BEP and indie integrity:

“I wouldn’t necessarily put either of (Macklemore or Chance the Rapper’s) bars above each other — not that I’m trying to lower Chance, or heighten Macklemore, but as far as bars go, they both spit what you’d consider kinda, ‘everyman’ bars. Chance maybe puts more style or swag, or whatever the fuck the kids are sayin’, on it. I mean, he is more soulful. He’s black! It is what it is! Macklemore’s a fuckin’ honky, and it is what it is.

“But here’s the thing though: Me and you both know Macklemore grinded it out, holdin’ down the circuits in small clubs for 50 people for a fuckin’ decade. I don’t know if Chance did that. But they are a good comparison. In a way they are two sides of a coin that are not that different from each other.

“I’ll admit though, I tend to cringe a little bit when people throw Macklemore under the bus, the same way I used when people threw the Black Eyed Peas under the bus. It was the same thing: (BEP) fuckin’ grinded it out hard for years and years, and then they made it. And once they made it, everybody started shittin’ on ’em.

“Identity, our personal identity, plays such a huge role in what we consider to be the integrity of musicians, that it becomes hard for us to actually look at the integrity of the musician. At the end of the day, Will.I.Am was being listened to — and I don’t just mean his music, I mean his threories — by Quincy Jones! Quincy Jones would call Will.I.Am for fuckin’ advice! You know what I’m sayin’?

“Plus the music they were making, and I’d say this about Macklemore, goes back to being closer to the root of what made this culture, even…like, it’s disco. This shit came from disco and reggae crashing together in New York and people trying to make something out of nothing. People creating a party so they could forget about the fact their light bill didn’t get paid.

“Peep this. You could argue that me and Ali had a baby and named him Macklemore. You could argue that, and I’m not saying that, but I’ve heard it said. With that said, if me or Ali had seen mainstream success like that in 2004 when it was our chance — no pun intended — how would people have reacted to that? Because that’s basically, like, Macklemore in 2014 was to the 16-year-old suburban kid what Atmosphere in 2004 had been to the (the same sort of kid). It’s just that it reached a wider audience. He made artistic choices that allowed for (radio play), choices that I didn’t make, not to say I should have or shouldn’t have. It’s just, you know, everything is consequential. It’s all about intent.” ■

Atmosphere’s Fly Fishermen Tour, with support from Brother Ali (see our new Brother Ali interview here), deM atlas with Plain Ole Bill and Last Word, comes to Théâtre Fairmount (5240 Parc) on Monday, Nov. 7, 9 p.m., $12/$15