Full Circle

8 May 2012 | 8:34 am | Cyclone Wehner

"I got to freestyle with Prince," claims Atmosphere's Slug, "If you were to ask him about that story, he probably would deny it, but I’m here to tell you it’s true.”

Atmosphere's Slug (aka Sean Daley) may have been the first emo rapper. He made it cool to articulate urban neuroses. But alt.rap's original anti-hero isn't about to suggest that he opened the way for that sweater-loving introspective Drake. “I don't wanna claim that I have,” Daley says evasively, “but I'm not gonna argue with anybody else that says that I have.” The Minneapolis native – who, ironically, started out as a DJ – has never been into the braggadocio.

As he juggles multiple interviews ahead of Atmosphere's first Australian tour in three years, Daley sounds like a chirpy receptionist. (“Hello, can you hold for a second, please? Thank you, I'll be right back.”) The indie hip hop duo – Daley's partner is lowkey DJ-cum-beatmaker Anthony “Ant” Davis – were once regular visitors. However, there's a good reason for their absence, Daley reveals. “I decided to have a baby and make a record and so I just stayed at home.”

Atmosphere initially left a mark in the late '90s with the album Overcast!, after which Daley's early MC cohort Spawn quit. He and Davis built up their own indie, Rhymesayers Entertainment, an industry in itself. Nevertheless, they signed to the punk label Epitaph for their third outing, Seven's Travels, which garnered them unprecedented attention – Atmosphere toured with the Big Day Out. The pair have been prolific with not only albums, but also EPs, side-projects and collabs. Indeed, Atmosphere could yet be the most famous act to spring from Minneapolis since Prince. And Daley, “a Prince obsessionist” from the age of ten, has a tale about the R&B legend. In the mid-'90s he was MCing in a small local venue as a member of the jam collective Freeloaded. One night a local newsreader, pals with Prince, brought him along. “We all were just sweating with the fact that Prince was in there listening to us make a mess. Then midway through the night, he got on the stage and got on the piano and played with us – and I got to freestyle with Prince. If you were to ask him about that story, he probably would deny it, but I'm here to tell you it's true.”

A little more than a year ago Atmosphere delivered their seventh album, The Family Sign, following the huge US crossover success of When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold. This time the outfit actually involved their band members in the recording process. The Family Sign was, even by Daley's standards, very cathartic. The MC remembers it as “a lot of fun to make,” although, unusually, he recorded his bits “in solitude” in a garage. “I really appreciated that, because I was able to get a lot of other work done at the same time.” Daley is planning new music. “It's too soon for me to confirm any details, but I'm always plotting another album – I'm plotting three more albums right now. I don't know how to not plot and continue plotting more music.” The ongoing challenge for him is to “properly communicate” his ideas – and explain them better in interviews. “It's never really just about the records,” he says. Self-effacing as ever, Daley worries that he isn't an authentic musician, his “only real skill” being an ability to “spit”, so he strives to make the best of it. “I wanna be Billy Joel! I wanna be Stevie Wonder! I wanna learn how to write a song that affects a person the same way it affects me.” What hasn't changed is his easy rapport with Davis. “Overall our dynamic is: Daley cracks a joke, Ant laughs at the joke. That's kinda been our schtick for almost 20 years now – and in between we make songs.” Their “bond” is strong largely because they are “very similar”. “We don't agree on everything, we don't even hang out all the time, but, when we do, it's always familiar because of the fact that he could have been my sibling.”

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In 2012 mainstream hip hop is in a strange place, much of it sounding suspiciously like '90s Euro dance music, and Atmosphere seem more 'alternative' than ever. The group's bio takes a sly shot at those of their 'underground' contemporaries who “are mired in nostalgia and stagnancy,” but today Daley is all positivity. He doesn't necessarily feel like an outsider. “I don't know if there are any outsiders anymore – and, truthfully, I don't know if there ever really were. I think a lot of the times people who thought they were outsiders, or who claimed to be outsiders, myself included, kind of drew those dotted lines around themselves and maybe even exploited the idea of being an outsider or underdog – because we didn't know any better or because we didn't feel like part of the movement. But the truth is every single piece that moves is a part of the movement.” He's now surprisingly enthusiastic about hip hop culture, no matter how splintered. “It's gone full circle for me. I love hip hop again. I'm not cynical about it anymore – and I don't feel mad at the mainstream. I don't feel like I need to scream that I'm underground or independent as fuck… I don't feel the need to use any of these different cliché titles to define my identity within this. I'm back to feeling like we're all a part of this – and we all have our own way. It's interesting 'cause there's so many of us nowadays – and there's so many different 'genres' – but, really, it's just all about trying to communicate with people. It comes back to that for me again… When you're caught up in those dotted lines – and genres – it's really easy to point across the fence and go, 'Well, that stuff's bad, what I do is good'. But I don't really think that's true. I think that's more so because artists are fuckin' insecure and they need another reason to prove that they're good, so they find something to compare themselves to that must be bad.” Most of the subgenres, Daley holds, are borne of “struggle” – even the party music. “I still mostly listen to ol' school shit when I'm listening to rap but, when I do hear some new stuff or a new artist or something, I listen to it like a hungry child – hungry to hear somebody say some shit that really resonates with me.”

Atmosphere will perform their unique brand of struggle music when they again tour with a band. Supporting them is sometime Dilated Peoples stalwart Evidence, now aligned with Rhymesayers. Daley is determined to keep things fresh – as well as 'real'. “We tend to play songs from my whole catalogue. I've never been big on just playing songs from any particular record. I like to fuck around and play some of the more popular songs from the catalogue, but also some of the more obscure shit – just because we've been doing this for so long that most people have seen us, they've seen us more than once. It's always nice to surprise people with what we've decided to slip into the set this time.”