The Okayplayer Interview: Slug Talks New Atmosphere LP 'Southsiders' & The Geography Of Hip-Hop
They named their debut Overcast! for a reason. Sean Daley AKA 1/2 of Atmosphere AKA Slug has made looking inward and digging into life’s gray areas an MC artform. And while “Sunshine”may be one of their best-known cuts, most of the pages in Atmosphere’s rap almanac chronicle cloudier skies. It’s a style that has earned Slug both criticism and profound respect from the four corners of the hip-hop world–and given listeners an unusually intimate look at the man behind the mic. Most of all, though, it’s granted Slug and his producer partner-in-crime Ant longevity. Slug has been following his own hip-hop North Star for over twenty years and the Minneapolis-born, bred and based lyricist is without a doubt one of alt-rap’s living legends. He’s released over a dozen records, grown Rhymesayers into a bastion of independent hip-hop and amassed a base of die-hard core fans that love to find themselves within the MC’s introspection–all while trudging through the Minnesota snow.
Atmosphere’s 7th record, Southsiders, dropped today and is the group’s first full-length release in almost three years. It’s also Slug’s first record since turning 40. Listeners of the new LP–which is dedicated to the group’s south Minneapolis home turf–will hear a Slug that’s a little less angry but still no less invested in hip-hop, his hometown and the push to challenge his fans. We were lucky enough to chat with Daley about Southsiders, his 80’s influences and what it means to make hip-hop from the middle of the continent.
Okayplayer: Can you speak about the writing process and where you wanted to go, lyrically, on Southsiders?
Slug: I never really have an idea of where I wanna go, I just want to do my best to create a feeling with the music. It sucks when you write songs and you hear other good stuff–like you hear a song and you think “Oh, why didn’t I write about that?” I don’t have any sort of rules about what I could or couldn’t do. I didn’t force myself to stick to anything. I didn’t want to apply the rules too hard to myself.
Other than that, shit was all over the fucking place. Later on we kind of went through and weeded out certain stuff so that we could have a project that felt cohesive, after the fact. But when I was actually writing a lot of it, I was open to whatever. I think that a lot of times we just kind of do whatever happens. Then someone will say “Oh man look there’s a theme going on here”–and that’s when we start to write a little more seriously.
This record in particular I felt has a little more with regard to mortality and thinking about some sort of bigger “What am I doing?” picture. Mortality is something I hear a lot now in the record that I didn’t necessarily know was there when we first started. But in hindsight I started seeing things that made sense. This is what a dad in his 40s should be rapping about. Especially you’ve got songs like “Star Shaped Heart” which on the surface are kind of just a function of one-liners and a cool vibe, but inside of the music and the lyrics there’s all these moments where I was like “Woah, I was actually almost getting with something really heavy right there.” There are these moments all over the record that get really close to touching on something heavy.
“Kanye West” is another example of a song where when I first started writing it I was like “Ah, this is cool cause I’m writing a relationship song.” I’ve written a handful of those in my time, you know? But this one isn’t mad. I’m not super aggressive. It’s not coming from someone who’s having a hard time with his love, but instead with the love that I’m trying to talk about. It was love and aggressive but it wasn’t angry. The 25-year old me would have written that same song and it would have been angry. I thought it was so cute that things worked out like that. Cute…there’s a great fucking hip-hop word.
OKP: In that song, “Kanye West,” you have this line, it’s kind of the crux of the tune: “Throw your hands in the air like you really do care.” I’d call that a continuation of what seems to be a defiance that you often have in your lyrics; defiance against some of the more pervasive norms of hip-hop. You seem to be strongly suggesting in a lot of your lyrics that your listener up their investment in whatever’s going on around them, or somehow “wake up”.
Slug: Yeah, I was born out of that. I grew up listening to KRS-One and Chuck D, and I felt like these artists were expecting more out of me than just nodding my head to their shit. A big part of what hip-hop informed me of is that you are supposed to expect more of each other. You are supposed to hold yourself and your community up to a very bright light. That’s not to say that’s how everybody should keep their hip-hop; I’m not trying to suggest or say “This is how hip-hop’s supposed to be,” but that’s just how it is for me and I’ll never break out of that.
I expect more from the listener–to do something with themselves. Push yourself, challenge yourself. I sometimes feel as though I have a fickle audience. As in “I don’t like your new album,” etc. Sometimes I get kids that are just like “Yo, I’m not into what you’re doing now because I was into the stuff you were doing in 2002 or 2008.” But if any point I’ve challenged you–not just gotten you to listen to our shit but challenged you? –that’s my job, that’s what I’m here for.
And I am aging. I’m embracing it, and I’m rapping about it. And there’s not many that get to age and rap about it. A lot of my contemporaries have a tendency to try and keep up with whatever the young kids are into, and that’s cool, but my challenge is to get 19-year-olds to care about what a 41-year-old actually has to rap about.
OKP: Do you think, then, that apathy is a problem in hip-hop’s larger national fanbase?