Fiery independence is a must for anyone serious about breaking into the hip hop game. But very few rap groups have achieved a level of DIY success like Minnesota’s Atmosphere.
Long inured to being overlooked by the rap game’s bicoastal power structure, MC Sean “Slug” Daley and DJ/producer Anthony “Ant” Davis have released nearly 10 full-length albums in 20 years, including their latest, Mi Vida Local. And they’ve done it all on their own label, Rhymesayers Entertainment. In 2008, they founded the Soundset Music Festival, which attracts more than 35,000 fans to Minneapolis during Memorial Day weekend. But perhaps the greatest indicator of Atmosphere’s resilience is the fact that Slug remains a passionately personal writer.
“My life experiences shape my music, and my music continues to shape my life experiences,” he tells Folio Weekly. “If you don’t like me as a person, you’re probably not gonna like these records I make.”
Folio Weekly: Atmosphere has been touring now for nearly 25 years. What’s different about this 35-date stint in support of Mi Vida Local?
Sean “Slug” Daley: We’re not necessarily reinventing our wheel—we didn’t hire a cellist to bring on the road with us by any means—but it’s all one long, evolving work in progress. We learn new tricks every time we go out. The last time I came to Florida, I had two DJs with me, and that’s still the look. But now I require the DJs to do even more work.
What is your opinion of the crowds at your concerts here in Florida?
You know how the kids say “turnt”? In that area, the kids are turnt! I shouldn’t say “kids,” though, because they’re all 30-year-old men with beards. But where a lot of fans do what I like to call “listen and brood,” it’s more of a party scene in Florida. When we get there, we can’t go super-dark. [Mi Vida Local] isn’t very hopeful, so we’ll bust out some of the hopeful older jams to help offset the darker new garbage.
On Mi Vida Local, you address the things most pertinent to your life right now: your kids, your family, your neighborhood, your city. Why such a local focus when most artists now are thinking so big?
Every time I write a song, I listen to what the music says to me. What kind of song is this supposed to be? What is the concept? What is the story? When I find the story, I look for the struggle in the story, and I highlight the struggle. That was my struggle in 2017, when I wrote these songs. It’s not rocket science. Ant and I are simple people from a simple space. Ant’s music sounds like what Ant’s life looks like; my writing sounds like what my life looks like. And that’s for better or for worse-—some people might think I’m the most boring rapper in the universe because I’m rapping about real life. Other people might think that I’m engaging because I’m rapping about real life. Beauty is in the eye of the interpreter.
Some writers develop more of a filter as they get older, while some lose whatever filter they once may have had. Which side of the fence do you fall on?
Oh, man, it’s all of the above. When I was younger, I would weaponize my writing to hurt people. Maybe not intentionally, but I would write about situations that were personal, for me and for someone else who could be offended by the fact that I was unintentionally throwing them under the bus. I’ve learned over the years it’s not OK for me to weaponize my writing against anybody but myself. I’m not allowed to harm anybody but myself. In the past, I was guilty of hurting my father, of hurting different partners. Not intentionally, but I was just being very open with my writing. I’m more cautious with that.
Your early work also caught a lot of flak for its depiction of women.
I’m more cautious about that now, too. I’ve written songs from the perspective of a single mom. What kind of f*cking arrogance and entitlement did I have to think it’s OK for me to write from the perspective of a person that I can’t even relate to? I’m not a single mom. Part of me has stepped back from that as well. I don’t want to speak for somebody who should speak for themselves. I can be a signal booster or help uplift somebody else to speak. But I don’t think I should be the one to speak for that person.
Has the creative process between you and Ant changed significantly over the years you’ve been working together?
Making songs for us is almost like solving puzzles: you come up with an idea of what this song should look like, then you start taking all the parts and pieces and organizing them to make the full picture. Now imagine if somebody was, like, “I want you to make this puzzle, but I want you to do it without using any corner pieces.” Or, “You can’t use any pieces that have the color blue.” We start creating these rules for ourselves to follow while trying to solve these puzzles that make them even more difficult exercises—on purpose. We try and figure out how to exercise these muscles so that eventually, someday, before we die, we can make the perfect song. We’re nowhere near it yet, but every time we make an album, we get a little bit closer.