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Atmosphere’s Evolution Southsiders Rips the Masks Off

By Kyle Eustice

As a young child, Minneapolis native Sean Daley was affectionately referred to as “Little Slug-O.” He would eventually adopt the moniker “Slug” as an emcee name and pursue his irrefutable passion for hip-hop. Fast forward to 2014 and Daley sits atop an impenetrable empire known as Rhymesayers Entertainment, an independent hip-hop label founded in 1995 by Daley, Anthony “Ant” Davis, Musab Saad, and Brent Sayers. As Atmosphere, Daley and DJ/producer Ant are easily the most prominent act on the roster. Atmosphere has helped put Minneapolis on the musical map thanks to the label’s monumental success. Home to indie hip-hop artists like P.O.S. of Doomtree, MF Doom, DJ Abilities, Aesop Rock, and, of course, Atmosphere, the label established a voice for indie hip-hop in the Midwest. As the business has evolved into the reputable label it is today, it has also documented Daley’s evolution as not only an artist, but as a person. Beginning with 1997’s Overcast! and culminating with this years’ Southsiders, Atmosphere’s catalog vividly showcases Daley’s transition into adulthood, fatherhood, marriage, business owner, and seasoned emcee. At 41, he’s finally comfortable juggling all five.

“For me, a big part of where I am right now is you know what I’m trying to impress upon or communicate, is that it’s ok to be all of it,” Daley says. “I’m a dad, I’m a husband, I’m a rapper, I’m a business owner, I’m a fan, I’m a lot of different things, and I don’t have to pick and choose which mask to put on any time. I can be all of them all the time. I can be on stage and be a dad, I can be off stage and be a rapper. To me, that is one of the biggest things we need to press upon this movement.

“The movement itself has been so lost in its identity crisis for so long,” he continues. “We’ve allowed so many different energies to pull this stuff into so many different directions. There are so many powerful voices in here that still don’t represent who they really are. And I feel like that’s hurting the children. I don’t want to overdramatize it, but I feel it’s a disservice to ourselves, the movement and these kids. We need to start being a lot more honest with them. Why aren’t we trying to keep things as real as possible?”

Southsiders dropped May 6 and one track in particular has already stirred up some online controversy, even prior to the album’s release. “Kanye West” is the tenth track on the album and was released in early April. The rumor mill turned it into “Atmosphere did a song with Kanye West” and people were accusing the group of “selling out.” Furthermore, it was assumed he named it “Kanye West” as some cheap publicity stunt, which was not the case.

“I thought I thought about everything,” he explains. “Anthony calls me an ‘angler.’ He says I angle everything.’ So I thought I had angled everything. Somehow the one thing that was the most obvious thing, the one thing that was in front of my face, I couldn’t see. It might seem opportunistic. When I named that song, I literally meant it as in the same way when I named “Bob Seeger.” I’ve got a lot of songs that are named after artists. Unfortunately, even if I got up in front of everybody and said, ‘No, that’s not why I did it.’ Who’s going to believe me? It’s one of those things where why would you ever admit to doing something like that? Anyway, so I just have to sit back and let people assess it and have their own assumptions. I don’t really feel like I should push back against any of it. The funny thing is, the amount of people that came that criticized the name of it, the majority of those people were people that wouldn’t have mentioned us or thought of us if I had named it something else. In a way, I have to accept all the criticism as kind of a positive thing. It’s just another energy for me to eat and consume.”
“Bitter,” the seventh track on the album, almost didn’t make the cut. The song started off as a private joke between Daley and Ant, but Daley wasn’t really feeling the hook. Ant, on the other hand, thought it was “an advancement” from the last record and more “straight up hip-hop,” which is what he liked about it. It took a little convincing.

“I was just getting the gears moving and he sent me this beat that was almost funny to me,” Daley says. “I think I even told him it kind of reminded me of some mid-2000 era Eminem kind of shit. I don’t know how to rap like Eminem. If I did I would [laughs]. I was still like, ‘Ok, let me do something funny on here’ so I wrote the first verse and the hook, which was just intended to make Ant laugh. He hit me back and was like, ‘I love this. It makes me smile.’ I was like, ‘Oh shit. Does it make you smile for the right reasons or the wrong reasons?’ I couldn’t believe he loved it, not that it was horrible, but I wasn’t taking it very seriously.

“So he told me to finish it so I finished it,” he continues. “And I didn’t necessarily want it to make the record. I didn’t want it to come out, but he called me out on it, man. I love this dude. He’s so real with me. He’s so beautiful. He said, ‘Look, the reason you don’t want people to hear this is because you’re insecure about it and that’s the main reason you should put it out.’ And I thought about it and was like, ‘you know what, he’s right. What am I insecure about?’ I was insecure about the hook. It’s pretty fucking awkward. Then I realized that’s the risk. The risk is, ‘Can I let people hear me do something like that?’ Even though I wasn’t being super serious when I did it, I still did it. I made this postcard; I made this painting so if I’m afraid to show it to people, the only way I can approach this challenge is to say ‘fuck it’ and let people hear it.”

“I just bullshitted him,” Ant jokes. “I was like, ‘You’re fine man.’ I totally understand all that type of stuff though. When I look at the whole album now, I can see that as the odd one out. I mean, not really, but you get over it.”

Overall, Southsiders is a commemoration of the group’s longevity; it’s also a deeply introspective body of work. While it’s a natural progression from the last record, The Family Sign, it also takes a very detailed look at his life as a husband and father of three. From the melancholy album opener “Camera Thief” to the uplifting closer, “Let Me Know That You Know What You Want Now,” Daley spills his guts out on the page as Ant delivers his intricate beats. Daley isn’t the only one who has evolved. Ant has grown, as well. When he stands behind his turntables, this time without a cigarette hanging from his lip (he quit over two years ago), he looks out into an endless sea of faces and feels humbled.

“It’s a trip,” Ant says. “I don’t know what’s happening to me lately though. The older I get, the more emotional I get. It’s kind of weird. I get sentimental and emotional about all kinds of shit, especially my music. I think it’s showing in my music, too. It’s emotional shit. The time, it’s just pouring out.”

It’s evident on the beautifully arranged “Mrs. Interpret” and with the haunting melody of “January On Lake Street.” Ant speaks through his production almost in the same way Daley speaks through his words. The working relationship the duo has cultivated over the years has grown into a brotherhood. Whether or not that’s the secret to their longevity remains to be seen, however, their bond is undeniable. Even though Ant spends most of his time in the Bay Area these days, he still makes it back to Minneapolis every two months.

“Our friendship is everything,” Ant says. “I wouldn’t even do this with anybody else. I don’t see that ever happening. It’s really something else. I don’t even know what to say. I owe everything to the man.”

“Over the years, we have actually we have naturally and unnaturally started to even look like each other,” Daley says. “I don’t mean physically, I mean like who we are. They are experiences that he’s had that sometimes I have flashbacks of them as if they are mine. That’s how close we are now.”

The fifth track on Southsiders, “I Love You Like A Brother,” could have been written about Ant, but there’s more to it than that. Nothing is that simple in the world of Atmosphere.

“Technically, that interpretation makes total sense,” Daley says. “That song is about passion. Here’s the thing, in terms of confrontation and conflict, people have such a hard time with that sometimes. You have to remember this, the only reason you even bothered to have that conversation or any conflict is because it’s rooted in love. It’s like if I hate you, it’s probably because I love you. If I’m having a problem with you, it’s because I care about you that much.”

While Daley admits to holding on to moderate amounts of insecurity, he continues to rhyme with confidence and an undeniable fluidity just like the cocky rapper people often (incorrectly) assume he is. However, underneath it all Daley is as insecure and self-critical as the next person, but he’s still got a solid grasp on what matters and who he is.

“I hope the kids like this one,” he says. “I don’t give a shit if they buy it. I just want them to like it. You know what? I take it back. I don’t care if they like it. I’m having fun either way.”

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