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The air that he breathes 

Atmosphere emcee Slug retraces his steps from backpack beginnings to Red Rocks headliner

"Don't ever forget to put misery on the guest list," intones Sean "Slug" Daley during "I Don't Need Brighter Days," one of the darker moments on Atmosphere's sixth album, The Family Sign. But while the Minneapolis hip-hop group's frontman still doesn't suffer this world lightly, he does seem to be breathing a bit easier of late, having traded the usual personal demons for a stable home-life free of what he describes as "self-inflicted struggles."

Career-wise, things are also looking up. Slug, DJ/producer Anthony "Ant" Davis and their bandmates are touring prestigious venues like Red Rocks and Los Angeles' Greek Theater, playing what may be their most melodically and lyrically compelling album to date. It's poignant stuff, from the aching, reggae-tinged "Just for Show" to "The Last to Say," a starkly compelling downtempo song about domestic violence that manages to be heavy without being heavy-handed.

In the following interview, the emcee talks about Black Moon and Black Eyed Peas, the maturing of hip-hop, and the secret history of emo rap.

Indy: When you were here a couple months ago, you sold out the Fox Theater, and now you're getting ready to headline Red Rocks. I know you worked hard to get here, but do you ever look back and think: How did this all happen?

Sean "Slug" Daley: Oh, all the time. I don't think it's even a humbling thing to say, it's just realistic. Like, I don't know how the hell this happened. You just put one foot in front of the other, and you think you know where you're going. But there's no true north on a planet that evolves. All you can do is focus on some idea of where you wanna go, but you don't really know what's gonna happen when you get there.

Indy: So what was your idea for where you wanted to go?

SD: It started off as just validation. I wanted somebody to tell me that I was a good rapper. And then it evolved from there. At this point, I think I may have come back around to just wanting people to enjoy what we do and to be like, "Hey, this is good stuff." Because you know, I got the wife, I got the kids, I got the house. I don't really need a whole lot more, you know?

Indy: On new songs like "Just for Show" and "The Last to Say," you talk about abandonment, you talk about abuse. Do you see taking on these issues as part of a hip-hop tradition, or is it more personally motivated?

SD: I would say it's mostly personally motivated. There were definitely traces of this stuff in the music I grew up on, but a lot of times, you know, rap didn't used to be so open-minded.

It's like when rock 'n roll started, it was called a fad and it had no self-esteem. Rap, same thing. It goes through this phase of having to assert itself: "I'm so hip-hop, hip-hop is here to stay." Just like rock did in the '70s, you know it was like [adopts AC/DC falsetto] "We rock, we're here to rock, we're gonna fucking rock!"

Indy: You have a line in the song "Guns and Cigarettes" about removing the blood clot from the brain of hip-hop. Do you still feel that way? Do you think it's still got problems?

SD: No, I don't. If you look at the era that song came out — what was that, 2001? — that probably was more a sign of my own insecurity, as well as a sign of what was trendy to rap about. We were all very, "Fuck the major labels, fuck the mainstream."

But rap had to have that backpack identity, that "Fuck the major label" identity, because it gave an identity to a lot of fans as well. And some of them grew up to be artists who are making music right now, with even less boundaries than we had. And so it's important for what it did for the movement.

But let's be real. This music is a tree with many branches, and it came out of struggle. It came out of people making something out of nothing, people who were trying to forget about their problems. Now you got Slug on this branch, who writes about everyday problems, and then you got the Black Eyed Peas on this branch, who don't even acknowledge problems, they just have a good time. Which one of us do you think is actually closer to where hip-hop music was when it started? The fucking Black Eyed Peas are!

Indy: Throw your hands in the air, and party like you just don't care.

SD: Exactly! And so, you know, I wish that at 25 I was smart enough and articulate enough to say what I was supposed to be saying. But hey, no apologies, I said what I said. Look at who I was and where I was when I said it. I was broke, so of course I was mad at rappers who weren't broke. But that's not a rap problem, that's a me-and-my-own-insecurity problem.

But at the time, you couldn't have told me shit because it was an identity, and it gave us all a reason to bond together. It was like, "Oh man, there's no reason why Black Moon should not be more popular than Puff Daddy." That's how we felt. But what are you gonna do? You know, Puff Daddy made music that made people want to dance, Black Moon made music that made people want to fight. You know what I mean? It's like, it is what it is. But thank you for asking me that.

Indy: One last question: I'm sure you weren't thrilled early on when critics referred to your music as "emo rap" or "therapy session rhymes," but it does seem like your music has matured — which is probably a word you're not that fond of, either.

SD: Right, well here's the thing. There was a time where I'd cringe when somebody used the word "emo," but only for a very short amount of time. I worked in a record store, and I was also writing for a local weekly. And I realized, you know, when people write, they got to use as few words as possible to try and explain something to people who know nothing about what they're talking about. And so I get it.

Emo was a really easy way to define what the fuck me and some of my contemporaries were doing. And I embraced it. And if you want the truth — and this can be on the record or off the record, I don't care — the phrase "emo rap," I invented it.

Indy: Really?

SD: In an interview, yeah. I was doing a project with three other rappers called Deep Puddle Photodynamics — this was in '98, I think — and we were not taking ourselves very serious during the sessions, we were just having a good time making songs. And this interviewer from Urb magazine comes in while we were doing these sessions, and so jokingly I referred to what we were doing as like minimalist, post-cynical emo rap. And he ran with it! And suddenly a few years later, Jon Caramanica wrote a piece in Spin about quote-unquote emo rap, and used me as one of the poster boys for it.

But at the end of the day, who fucking cares? You know, it's all about what you die with, and what you did while you were alive. And that's just another thing that I get to add to my list of accomplishments, I guess, that I created a genre — and I literally named the goddamn genre.

And so ever since then, I've been trying to create this new thing that I call "prom-core." And it's not catching on as fast. So if there's any way you can just drop the word "prom-core" somewhere in this article, you'll be helping.

bill@csindy.com

  • Atmosphere emcee Slug retraces his steps from backpack beginnings to Red Rocks headliner

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