Sean Daley doesn't hate sell-outs. The Minneapolis hip-hop artist (better known as Slug of Atmosphere) will tell you that, in fact, he doesn't have a problem with anybody, especially musicians.
"I don't judge any artist for what they make, and I don't judge any listener for what they want to listen to," he says.
There are reasons why Slug can come up with pieces of personal wisdom such as these. It's because he's already had his time of being green and fresh on the scene. Looking back to those days preceding the much more copacetic Minneapolis scene that he sees today, there are things he'd change.
With the release of his seventh studio album, The Family Sign, this past April, Slug takes an inventory of relationships lost and cherished. And the blood seems to run thickest among him and Rhymesayers label peers, including its artists Brother Ali, Blueprint and the late Eyedea who past away last October at the age of 28.
I talked with Slug more about the elusive weight of Eyedea's death on the LP, as well as his philosophy on the mainstream and his advice to Nebraska's hip-hop artists. You can catch Atmosphere's current tour this Tuesday, Sept. 27 at the Slowdown (hopefully you wrangled your tickets to the sold-out show).
Hear Nebraska: So Minneapolis and Omaha probably run through the mill of the same kind of stereotypes, both being in the Midwest and not exactly being a trendy music mecca like big cities on the East or West coasts. Was there a point in time when you were an up-and-coming artist that that frustrated you? Like maybe people being oblivious to the fact that music exists in Minnesota or being disrespectful about it?
Slug: No, I can't really say that I was ever frustrated. I've always kind of taken things as they come. I've never had great expectations of, you know, what my life should've or would've or could've been like. It's always just been a matter of 'take it as it comes.' You know, it's Minnesota — we adapt. We've got four seasons. Our winter's horrendous, our summer's horrendous. So we'll pretty much adapt to anything.
HN: And you've played an important role establising Minnesota hip-hop and the Minneapolis music scene in general, just with the founding of Rhymesayers in itself. Is there any advice you'd have for hip-hop artists here in Nebraska or Omaha, where hip-hop does exist, but is relatively, for the most part, unknown?
S: Yeah, I guess the main thing that I learned that I wish that I could have applied way back in the day when I was first starting out in Minneapolis was to don't let pride get in your way of being able to make friends and network with other like-minded individuals. It was always a lot of competition and just hating on each other that was prevelant in the earlier days. And I wish I could go back to that part, that era, and just try to project nothing but positivity, to everybody. That was one of the things that really held us back as a scene when we were first starting out. I feel like that if we would've realized that all of us, essentially, we're on the same team, we're on the same page, we have like-minded goals, I think we could have all worked together towards those goals.
HN: You're talking about "way back when," are you talking like '90s or earlier?
S: Yeah, like the late '80s, early '90s. All the way up through the '90s, even. Cause even like when Atmosphere started breaking out and getting more noticed, I still looked at a lot of my contemporaries and peers in my city and saw them all hating on each other still. And honestly, there's probably still cats hating on each other right now in Minneapolis. It's just one of those kind of crabs in a barrel kind of situations. And I wish that it didn't have to be like that. I wish that all the crabs would just work together to help climb out of the barrel, together.
HN: And back in the day — like what you were talking about, well over a decade ago — what was being on the grind like in Minneapolis, trying to make a name for yourself and your label?
S: I mean, I don't really know how to describe what it was like, cause I don't have anything else to compare it to. It was a full-time thing. You were consistently looking for ways to express yourself to strangers, you know, ways to get your music heard by people who weren't already your friends. But I don't really know how to describe what it was like.
HN: Do you think you have a better connect with smaller cities like Omaha, cities that don't really have a name and maybe mirror Minneapolis as it was 20 or 30 years ago?
S: I'm not sure what's better, what's worse, what's cooler, what's not. Everywhere is different and everywhere is the same. At the end of the day, it's young people involved in a movement. They just want to be heard, they just want to be noticed. They just want to express themselves. And that's kind of the general feeling that is involved in most of these shows. And obviously there's the geographical differences, and other slight differences come into play. But for the most part, we're all the same. So I can't say that I connect better with a kid from Omaha than I do with kids from Los Angeles. Because, truth be told, both of those kids are familiar with struggle, they just have maybe different types of struggles that they're dealing with. And so I think our connection — not that it is above geographical placement — but it works on its own without neccessarily needing the intimidation of geographic placement. I think stuggle is universal. I think struggle speaks to the lower class and the upper class. I think struggle speaks to all the races. I think that's why this music, as well as punk music in particular, has managed to still consistently stay alive and produce amazing artists throughout the years.
HN: As an indie hip-hop artist, is there a sense of holding a standard that the mainstream or its artists blatantly don't hold?
S: I guess I don't know. I'm sure my standards are different from a mainstream artist's standards. But who's to say, really, which standards are correct? I think everybody has a tendency to identify with this music, but then kind of selfishly try to make it their own identity. It's like, you got kids that are like, "Oh, I only listen to underground rap. Fuck mainstream rap." And then you've got some people that don't even know underground rap exists, and all they listen to is the rap that's played on the radio. And who am I to judge between the two? Everybody uses music for a different purpose. It's a language that a lot of us speak, and even more of us know how to listen to and interpret. But everybody uses this language differently. Some people, they only want it to get them to work and back in their car, and that's it. And that's O.K. There's nothing wrong with that. Some people just want to dance, and that's O.K., there's nothing wrong with that. And then you've got other people who might listen to artists like myself because they want to analyze, they want to hear stories. Everybody has their own needs in the subsities within this. So I don't really spend much time anymore judging anybody.
It was different years ago. Back in the day, like anybody who was younger, I, of course, fashioned hip-hop along my identity. And I made it meet the needs that I needed. You know, it's very much like religion. When people get involved, when they get super involved with religion, they tend to twist that religion up to meet their needs. And I think people tend to do that with cultures and counter-cultures as well. And then after you spend some time there, for a while, and you get more perspective, you realized it's not really about me. It's not about what I think is hip-hop. I'm not the one that gets to make the rules. You know, especially considering the hip-hop I make is fairly new. When you look at the history of hip-hop, the music that was being made in the '70s, the hip-hop music back then was more similiar to what The Black Eyed Peas do nowadays than to what I do. And so, who am I to say the The Black Eyed Peas aren't doing it right?
HN: You're talking about hip-hop, music in the '70s. Does that kind of music still inspire you though? Even though maybe it doesn't sound like you?
S: Sure. I can hear a bassline and be inspired. Shit, I can hear a Willie Nelson song and be inspired. I don't have to be inspired by good hip-hop. I can be inspired by somebody crashing their motor-scooter into a bunch of garbage cans, for fuck's sake. Inspiration comes from anywhere.
HN: With the new album, The Family Sign, being your seventh studio album that you've done, would you say you've developed a go-to process when it comes to making albums, or is the making of an album a pretty new experience every time?
S: It's pretty new every time. But I think a lot of that is because every time we go to make a record we try to incorporate new brush strokes and new techniques into what we're doing. It's like, you always wanna try and do better than what you did with the last one. You wanna take what you've learned and apply it to the next one. So there's always this newness, and there's always this paranoia that people might not like it, but there's also this pride where you go, "Fuck 'em, I don't care if they like it." There's certain things that are always there, but other than those few things, everything is always different. So the one thing that you can always depend on is that you're going to be scared about it being different.
HN: The new album explores personal relationships and who you closely surround yourself with. And with next month marking the first anniversary of the untimely death of Eyedea, who you've toured and worked with as a part of the whole Rhymesayers group, would you say that he's present on this record?
S: Well, this record was written before he passed away. We wrote the record last summer and then we recorded the record last fall, and he passed away while we were in the process of recording the record. So I would say this his death did influence, let's say, the time, the moment for us. But I don't know yet, it might be too early for me to be able to say whether or not his death actually influenced the music. But, when I think of his death, I tie it to this music because it ocurred at the same time in my life. When I think of the songs on this record, I will tie them to his death, because that was my moment — that was a moment I had. But as far as for the listener, I don't think the listener should be listening to the record and looking for traces of Eyedea, because I don't think it's that obvious.
HN: So who would you say is present on this record?
S: I would say that in that sense, Eyedea is present on this record, because he was our friend and because I wanted to impress him with some of the raps on here. But just like Brother Ali was present, and just like Blueprint is present, and just like, you know, all of my friends are present. I just remembered though, there was one song, the very first song, that we made after he died. We wrote that after he passed away. But that's the only song that I wrote. In fact that's the last song that I've written.