Atmosphere’s Slug Talks ‘Southsiders,’ Writing About Eyedea and Passion [EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]
Atmosphere struck gold yet again with their album 'Southsiders', which recently dropped on Rhymesayers Entertainment and landed in the Top 10 of the Billboard album sales chart. After working together for almost 20 years, Sean "Slug" Daley and Anthony "Ant" Davis are still delivering some of the most creative work in hip-hop today as seen on their latest work.
The Boombox had a chance to speak with Slug about the new album as well as Atmosphere's extensive career. Slug discusses the duo's evolution over the years and how this shift played out on 'Southsiders'. Slug provides a behind the scenes look into the Atmosphere creative process and shines some light on how Ant's move to California changed this dynamic. The Minneapolis MC also delves into 'Flicker', a track about the late Eyedea, and the pressure he felt from fans about writing the song. It's a revealing conversation with the always insightful Slug.
The Boombox: As far as the new album, it feels very rewarding for longtime fans. Do you feel like someone has to have the whole picture of Atmosphere to appreciate it or that a newer listener can appreciate it as well?
Slug: I guess I hope … you know, I don’t even know how to answer that question and I’m not sure if I’m even supposed to care. A part of me thinks that I’m supposed to just continue being myself and whatever happens happens. It’s kind of one of those things where the reason I even got this job was because I just committed to being myself and people seemed to enjoy that. And so, I don’t want to change the way I do s—t because I don’t want to get fired. But if and when I do get fired, if and when they do say they don’t like your s—t anymore, I’ll know it’s because they don’t like me, not because I made some sort of error in my decision-making because I was manipulating the situation or some s—t like that. Does that make sense?
Absolutely. Going along with that, obviously the new material is still you, but if feels like there is a new perspective and wisdom there. How has songwriting changed for you over the years?
I think I’m more focused now when I write than I used to be. I’m able to sit down and spend time doing it as opposed to trying to squeeze it in when I get a chance to. When I was younger, there was a lot more … I had a lot more on my plate as far as having to hold a job, and just do normal stressful s—t you gotta do whereas now, I feel like I’m in a place where I’m able to sit down and focus it out and not worry as much.
One thing I’ve noticed in your later albums is that your delivery is more measured. I think back to songs like ‘F—k You Lucy’ or “Trying to Find a Balance’ where you’re extremely intense. Is that how it’s naturally developed, a conscious decision on your part or just how the concepts of the songs dictate it?
Yeah, I think it’s more of a music thing. I will probably blame Anthony for that. You listen to the tracks that he was giving me before and a lot of the music was more gross or more harsh, but also more linear. So, I would kind of have to be the thing that dictated going up, down, side to side. Whereas now, my job is to mirror the beat for better or for worse; to do something that fits the beat well. I know what you mean. Even Evidence said, “You’re not really yelling on this record.” And it’s like, yeah you’re right. But none of those beats were made for yelling over. So in that regard, Anthony, while searching and evolving his voice… the beats on this record weren’t so linear and had emotions themselves. I don’t want to overplay what it’s doing. I just want to supplement it to the best of my ability. In a way, I felt like Anthony is at a place with his production where it’s like there’s something really new going on inside of what he’s doing. There’s a new feeling there for us. And I’m kind of in awe of it. It might even be that subconsciously, I knew that I had to play my role and just be another instrument on there.
You spoke to Anthony’s shift. Do you feel like ‘Southsiders’ was him completing the puzzle, so to speak, that he start back on ‘When Life Gives You Lemons…’ with his shift to the live [instrument] based production. Did he find that sweet spot here?
Well even then though, it was just exploring and experimenting. I can’t say that we actually knew where we were going with it, whereas now we have the actual base. Back then, it was like a stick figure of what it is now.
Is that why you guys were releasing a lot of EPs and free projects leading up to the past couple of albums. You didn’t do that this time around, so was that because you sort of found that perfect mixture and felt no need to prepare fans for what to expect?
The other part of that equation is that Anthony moved to a city called Berkley. He lives in California now and so we don’t spend as much time in a room together as we used to. We’re doing a lot of this now via email, back and forth, post office style. So to an extent, yes. When we were putting out all those EPs, it was because both of us were in a really weird place in our lives where we both preferred to hang out with each other more than with anyone else in the world. And so the result of that was a ton of music. Whereas now, we’re back to our normal output of music. We made a ton of music. We still have a lot of songs left over that weren’t put on this project, but we were kind of taking our time with how we’d let that stuff go public. And so I felt like this record, the songs that made this album were intentionally there to kind of... Here's the weird thing, and I don’t want this to sound pretentious [but] every time we put out a record, it’s not just about that record, but where that record fits in the catalog and how it sets up the next record. So ‘Southsiders’ is an extention of ‘The Family Sign’. ‘Family Sign’ kind of set this one up, at least lyrically. And now this record sets up the next one sonically, if that makes sense. I know that sounds real artsy and we’re not that artsy, so I’m not trying to sound extra f—king art guy, but I’m just trying to figure out the best way to describe that.
Right. Each album is not labeled a sequel, but it’s all chronological. There’s an overarching story being told.
Exactly! And I guess that story is me and my evolution as a human being. Cause I was a piece of s—t when we made ‘Lucy Ford’. Now don’t get it wrong, my mom didn’t raise a piece of s—t, but I was a confused guy who was not as worried about what surroundings I ruined as maybe I should have been. And from there, the evolution has been a portrait of me as I slowly make my way toward showing what potential I might possibly have as a human being. And hopefully before I die, it gets around to the reveal, which I don’t really know what that is yet, but I’m hoping it’s a positive thing. I’m hoping to leave the world better than I found it.
I was reading your interview with NPR and you were speaking about the song ‘Kanye West’. You mentioned that passion can be viewed as a negative and you also speak about that in the song. Do you think that’s changing, at least in the perceptions of hip-hop now, and perhaps somewhat do to your work?
It’s hard to say. I still see … I will still use Kanye as the example of how people kind of knee-jerk and having negative reactions towards his passion as a human. When you put your passion inside of the music, I think that’s a universal thing. 2Pac is that. That’s why 2Pac got as big as he got. That’s what made 2Pac as important as he is. It wasn’t because he was a great rapper; it was because he was a passionate communicator. So I think that’s always been around in hip-hop and in other genres of music. I think that you can find the same passion in country, the same passion in punk rock. So I believe it’s there because that’s kind of what this job is to do. But outside of the music, when an artist is overly passionate about something, it can create a negative reaction. I mean look at how many people make fun of Bono for his political moves or the s—t that he does. People will poke jokes at him instead of just going, “This guy is really trying to do something good.” You know what I mean? They don’t want to just give him credit for doing something. They’d rather crack jokes about his sunglasses. Or Kanye, he’s really the best example. Because the media industrial complex totally jumped on Kanye and turned him into some sort of, almost a bad guy. And it’s like this dude is not a bad guy. This dude is just a passionate guy. I don’t know what to say about that. I don’t know that the world is ever not going to be intimidated by passion.
Make sense. On perhaps a more somber note, I really enjoyed ‘Flicker’ and felt it was one of the best tracks you’ve ever written.
Was that difficult for you to write?
I think the most difficult part about making that track was the timing because you can’t really force a song like that to come out. So, I had to wait for when it felt right to write. I was consistently being asked by fans and younger people like, “When are you gonna make a song for Eyedea?” and “Why don’t you make a song for Eyedea? You owe us a song for Eyedea.” That’s a weird pressure. What do you mean I owe you something about my feelings? You know what I mean? It’s kind of a weird position to have people tell you, “You owe us this, I can’t believe you haven’t done this yet,” without realizing this s—t doesn’t just write itself. There’s no switch that you can turn on and off. So for me, the difficult part was in waiting for when it happened. Once I sat down to write it, no, it wasn’t difficult to write because I could've written 12 songs about Eyedea. It’s one of those things where there’s no way to fit it all in three verses. There’s so much material that I actually had to figure out what material to use and what not to use to present the point I was trying to present. You know at the end of the day, the song ‘Flicker’ is not really about Eyedea. It’s about me and my coping mechanisms. It’s about me and discussing the different stages that I went through after he passed away, much like a song that I did from a few years ago that was called ‘Yesterday’.
Yeah, it reminded me of that.
Yeah. People interpreted it as, “Oh that’s a nice song you wrote about your dad.” But I didn’t write it for my dad. I wrote it for me to be kind of a catharsis to get through the f—king guilt that I had for not being a more communicative son. I held a lot of resentment against that dude. So after he passed, the only way for me to work my way through that was to write about it and it became a song. I didn’t want ‘Flicker’ to be another version of that even though I do mention that I felt this resentment in ‘Flicker’. I wanted ‘Flicker’ to be a little bit more exclusive. I wrote ‘Yesterday’ in a way that I was hoping that anyone who ever lost a parent or sibling or loved one could relate to, whereas I didn’t expect anyone to relate to ‘Flicker’. I didn’t care. I don’t care if anyone relates to ‘Flicker’ because I didn’t write ‘Flicker’ as an ode to Eyedea the fans love. I hope they like it, but I don’t care if they like it. I wrote that as my way of expressing, like I said, the phases I went through when dealing with his death. Eyedea’s death was as impactful as my father’s death was for me.
Another song I’d like to spotlight was ‘My Lady Got Two Men’ as I really liked the concept of the song. I just want to get your thoughts on the concept and creation of that track.
That was Ant’s idea. He said, “Here’s a concept you should write about.” And he told me the concept and I’m like, “Yep, you’re right. I’m gonna go write that.” To me, it’s a beautiful thing that I can tell somebody that. I can tell you that’s Ant idea, he told me to write that. He gets credit for the concept. I get credit for or critique for how well I pulled it off. A lot of times I don’t think people realize how much of a role we play in each other’s jobs. People probably don’t realize how much of a role I play in Atmosphere beats and how much of a role Ant plays in Atmosphere lyrics. But we do our best to present it [that way] if people want to know. Like if you ever read any of our liner notes, it’s always “written and produced by Atmosphere” because we both know that we work together as unit. Even when we’re working separately, when he’s in California and I’m in Minneapolis, it’s still a matter of me going, “You should take the flute out and maybe put an organ there instead.” Or he will hit me up and be like, “That hook is garbage; it makes no sense.” Or he’ll be like, “Here’s an idea for a song,” or I’ll be like, “Here’s an idea for a beat.”
So technically he gets credit for the beat and the lyrics on that one in the sense that it was his idea. I obviously wrote the lyrics, and if I remember correctly, he probably had a few complaints about the original draft and it probably changed. That song is a short first verse and long second verse, and I think that was his idea. I think when I first made it, it was three short verses. Things like that. I’m glad you like the concept. I thought the concept was great. I personally don’t know if I fully nailed it lyrically, but since it was his concept, he liked what I did with it. So I was like ok then, let’s go. If you thinks it done, then we’ll call it done. Now if I were to go comb through it, I’m sure I could find little moments in that song where we could’ve changed that line to something else. But he really likes that one, and I like it too. Don’t get me wrong, I like every song on here. But I do know that certain songs on here have more of his fingerprint on it and certain songs have more of my fingerprint on it.
Obviously you guys are synonymous with Minneapolis and its hip-hop scene. Rhymesayers has sort of branched out to sign big names like Evidence and Freeway, but also recently signed hometown guys like Prof and deM atlaS. And you’ve been working with guys like MaLLy and Haphduzn. I wanted to get your thoughts on the Minneapolis scene and if you feel it’s flourishing at this point.
Right now, it’s at an amazing place. It’s had its ups and downs. Right now though, I feel like there are artists in Minneapolis who are getting attention that are really thought provoking artists and also committed to representing, I guess whole tree of hip-hop, and not just certain avenues. You know for a long time in Minneapolis, besides Brother Ali, the only people you heard about fell more into an alternative rap kind of area. You had us, P.O.S. and the whole Doomtree movement, but you had a ton of artists like the Micranots or I Self Devine who weren’t getting the attention. Minneapolis has always had a very vibrant and varied scene. Lots of different voices speaking out on lots of different s—t, but the only ones of us that were getting any attention were the ones that could get play on rock radio or play on NPR or what have you. Whereas now I feel like with Rocky Diamonds or Haphduzn, there’s just more dudes that actually kind of rep the hood that are getting attention, and I think that’s important. I kind of feel like otherwise, people might starting seeing Minneapolis as this one-trick pony. So I am excited right now. Like there’s a girl coming out named Lizzo who’s making almost kind of club bangers, but she raps fast. Now it feels like we’re getting to a place where we’re not just saturated with one type of hip-hop. We’re seeing all different branches of this tree get publicity. The fact that you are mentioning MaLLy and Haphduzn, even though they’re not signed to Rhymesayers, to me that’s inspiring. That makes me feel good that people are getting this attention.
As we wrap this up, I want to talk about your longevity. You’ve been around for a lot of years and built up an intensely loyal fan base. What’s this journey been like for you? Have you been able to sit back and enjoy it at all?
I’ve had the time of my life. I don’t always get to sit back and enjoy it, but I still enjoy it. This is a blessing. I’m very fortunate to been able to have these experiences. Cause honestly, me and Anthony were never supposed to be this. He was supposed to be a janitor and I was supposed to drive f—king courier trucks. This was all just kind of some accidental, follow our way into it and whatever people let us do, to the point that we’re still here. It’s almost been 20 years working together and we’re still here. I don’t even know how to articulate how weird that is. But in the same breath though, I’m just gonna continue to do my best, to be who I am and represent myself as fully as possible. I love this job and I want to hold this job for as long as I can. I do believe the reason I was given this job was I was being myself when I came to the job interview. I didn’t try to trick you into giving me this job. I didn’t try to coerce you or manipulate you into giving me this job. So therefore, I’m just gonna continue being myself until I get fired. At least when I get fired, I’ll know that I got fired because of me, not because the trick wore off.