Like the Rest of Us
Atmosphere's Slug isn't dead from tequila poisoning yet
By Chase Hoffberger,
1:37PM, Wed. Nov. 5, 2008
A hell-bent touring schedule has put Atmosphere – Slug and DJ Anthony “Ant” Davis – in Austin on two occasions in the past year, and over a decade they've released six LPs, thirteen EPs, and a two-album side project with buddy Murs as Felt. The Minneapolis duo’s also built up one hell of a devoted fan base in the process.
Their latest, April’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold (Rhymesayers), finds Ant shutting down the sampling in lieu of live instrumentation, a decision that puts Lemons’ uniformity in stark contrast to 2005’s uneven You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having. Lyrically, Slug (real name Sean Daley) veers off from Imagine as well, pushing the attention away from himself by taking a look at the hookers, drunks, warehouse workers, and waitresses he runs into on a daily basis.
Atmosphere plays Stage 1 of Fun Fun Fun Fest Saturday at 7:35pm. Chances are you’ll be able to find Slug at a Burger King after the set.
Check Yo' Self: Are you addicted to recording music?
Slug: I would never necessarily use the word addiction because I kind of use that word when I’m speaking of negative things. But I prefer to record music to pretty much anything else in the world.
CYS: So you’re recording music every day?
Slug: No. Generally I try to focus and make the most out of it, so I try to plan when I’m going to record. When I finish this tour I’ll be recording almost all of December and all of January, and then I’ll hit the road again. And I never record when I’m touring; I stay away from it just because my voice kinda gets beat up when I’m on the road. Whenever we take time off, generally Anthony and I are making songs.
CYS: How cohesive is the process?
Slug: Nowadays, very. It didn’t use to be. It used to be that we’d just get in whenever it fit in. But nowadays we build exercises for us to do to kind of work out the muscles before we actually start writing what we deem to be songs that we want people to hear. We work from scratch. I’m there when he starts to make a beat. I start writing to it once I hear where he’s going. And we tend to do eight to twelve hours a day of non-stop working. We’ve reached a point now where we can pretty much do a song every four hours.
CYS: Let’s talk about these exercises you mentioned.
Slug: They’re mostly verbal and conceptual, like school. You’ll get a homework assignment that’s not really that important, but it’s just a matter of exercising certain types of thought or certain types of writing. We’ll do those types of things because it’s better to stretch before you go to the real shit. You don’t want any mistakes to follow you into the real shit. It’s kind of a place for me to get all the silly shit out of my system. We released a full album for download last winter, called Strictly Leakage. All those songs were exercises.
CYS: I was actually listening to that album this morning. Want to offer up an example?
Slug: The last song on the album is “Road to Riches,” and the exercise was to take a song from my youth and rewrite it and make it applicable to me. There was a song called “Domestic Dog” where I wanted to write a sexual song without ever necessarily touching sex. There was a song called “The Things That Hate Us,” and that was a “Scapegoat” exercise. We have an old song called “Scapegoat” that me and Anthony will always forever be cursed by, because on every record we do you’re gonna find a song on that record that has the same line in the sense that I rattle off a list. So I made a song called “The Things That Hate Us” to get that list shit out of my system so that I could go into the album session without needing to make another fucking list song.
CYS: You followed up Strictly Leakage with April’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, and on it you and Anthony ditched sampled work in favor of live instrumentation. What went into that thinking?
Slug: We’ve been touring with the live band now since early 2005, so it was only a matter of time before they started coming into the studio with us. On our past records, all the way back to God Loves Ugly, we’ve been using live musicians to come in and help supplement the samples. So I think it was a natural process of baby steps before we decided to do it. I think we just kinda wanted to do it to see what it was like, and to teach us how to do it.
CYS: Do you approach the process differently?
Slug: No, absolutely not. In fact, when we four-tracked the demos, we didn’t even bring in the live band for that. The live band came as an afterthought. We four-tracked an album full of samples, and then when we decided to start doing the live band stuff, we started going, “You know what? Fuck these samples. Let’s recreate these moods and try to hit the same mark.”
CYS: How do you decide what should go on an album and what should go on a Sad Clown dub?
Slug: Well, the tracks for an album were always intended for the album. We’re kinda picky about how we do our shit, so I didn’t want to cheat and be like, “This song shouldn’t go on the album. Let’s put it on a Sad Clown.” You can see how the Sad Clowns are kinda different in the sense of some of the shit on there is more negative or pointless. But a lot of those, especially the seasonal ones, are exercises to get me better at storytelling.
CYS: Does releasing those exercises hold you to a higher standard of work?
Slug: I don’t know. I don’t have anything really to compare it to. I don’t know how to compare my work ethic to anybody. I tend to joke around and say that I don’t know if there’s anybody in underground rap with the same work ethic as me, but I know that’s not true. I have friends who work just as hard as me. I’ve always kind of been like this. Me and Ant have always been overly prolific and we’ve always made lots of garbage to put aside to preface for making stuff that hopefully isn’t garbage.
CYS: So you never regret that material?
Slug: Well, I do when I release it as an album. We had one album that we released that was pretty much all throwaway tracks.
CYS: You are talking about which album?
Slug: I don’t know if I’m really publicly supposed to admit that.
CYS: Oh, come on.
Slug: The album is called Seven’s Travels. The majority of that album is tracks that did not make it on the God Loves Ugly record. We probably were about five songs short of an album with the leftovers from God Loves Ugly, so we put together five more songs to make Seven’s Travels a complete album.
CYS: And you wish you hadn’t done that?
Slug: I’m not mad that any of it was released, because there are kids out there that really liked hearing that album. And I’m a part of it. I’m invested in it. I’m never really that freaked out letting people hear the songs that I don’t particularly love. There was such an emphasis on that album when it came out because Epitaph wanted it. I explained to them that it’s not really an album, but they didn’t care. They wanted to license it. So when they did that – because of the fact that it was with Epitaph and how novel of an idea it was for this punk rock label to put out a rap record – the label got a lot of exposure. And that was weird for me. Here I am doing press and talking about an album that I knew was an album full of exercises, and so it’s kind of hard for me to sit here and bullshit and say this is the best album that I’ve ever made. Instead, I went the other direction and I stayed honest with everyone about the record. It was just kind of a weird year.
CYS: Your following seems to like hearing that honesty from you.
Slug: And I have no problem talking that kind of shit to fans one on one, at the merch table or outside of Burger King. When you’re talking to critics or people who write, it has to go through the filter of how they see it. I was kind of seen as the poster boy for self-deprecation, and here I am saying some of the most self-deprecating shit and it looks like I’m doing it just for image.
CYS: How accountable do you think lyricists should be for their words?
Slug: I don’t think people should listen to the songs and think this is my life story. Let’s face it: I’d be dead from tequila poisoning by now. People shouldn’t expect me to be the guy in the songs. People should make room for storytellers. I think there’s this weird mentality that’s coming into rap where the young kids wanna believe that everything coming out of our mouths is a true story. To me, that’s kind of suspect. When I was a kid, I knew Slick Rick was just telling a story. I knew Kool G Rap was just telling a story. Let’s face it, man – half these dudes rapping about selling drugs never sold drugs successfully. They might have tried to. They might have stood on the corner and tried, but they weren’t successful at it. If you want to be a successful drug dealer you gotta focus, and if you want to be a successful rapper, you’ve got to focus. You can’t spread yourself between both; you won’t be successful at either.
CYS: Is there anything you can do to change the way people perceive you as a lyricist?
Slug: It’s just on me to keep being myself as responsibly as I can. People tend to get surprised that I’m kind of a goofy dude who tells stupid jokes, because my records may not lead you to believe that that’s who the fuck I am. Ultimately, in the wash, I don’t know if it is a matter of trying to change the bigger picture. I think you just let nature take its course. I just have to make sure I stay on top of my shit and make sure I don’t tell a lie. If I tell you that I didn’t cheat on you, that may be a lie, but if I tell you that there’s a Santa Claus that’s just story time.
CYS: Would you say Minneapolis hip-hop has an identity?
Slug: The artists in Minneapolis who create hip-hop, their identity is that they are fans, much like the hip-hop that’s coming out of St. Louis or Chicago or Santa Cruz or Austin. I think we’re all fans first. We were huge advocates and fans and then we slowly developed into taking part in it. Ultimately, we’re all a sum of our influences.
CYS: I noticed you didn’t mention Atlanta, L.A., New York, or Houston.
Slug: In certain areas, there are regional sounds. I don’t believe Minneapolis has a regional sound. I don’t think Austin has a regional sound. I think what Austin has is artists that love what they do, and they do it. Sure, they’d like to be successful, but that’s not always necessarily their priority. I think in Austin, the kids making rap there on the underground tip, they’re making rap for the whole country, not just Austin. Same with Minneapolis. They’re making underground rap for anybody who will listen. Whereas, the underground rap in Atlanta, their concern is that the Atlanta clubs bump their shit, first and foremost.
CYS: How’d it work out for you?
Slug: I really believe that having that support system is about 50% of what my success is owed to. And the other half is owed to being in the right place at the right time. If I had come out with what I was doing in 1991, it probably wouldn’t have worked. If I’d come out with what I was doing in 2004, it probably wouldn’t have worked. But Overcast! came out in 1997 when there was this underground identity that was being felt by kids all over the country – you had Rawkus, and Fat Beats was doing really well – and they happened to latch onto me. That I credit to luck. As far as being able to make the right moves and do the right thing, I credit that to being surrounded by a very strong support system.
CYS: You got anything else for the ATX?
Slug: Brush your teeth, and your gums. It’s very important to brush your gums.