Monday, May 23rd 2011
Sean “Slug” Daley and Anthony “Ant” Davis, the dynamic duo best known to Hip-Hop fans as Atmosphere, are godfathers to a blazing alternative Hip-Hop scene that can no longer be labeled “underground”. Having distinguished themselves with a consistently evolving body of work that unabashedly champions the underdog and runs the entire spectrum of human emotion within a brutally honest narrative, Atmosphere trade their sample surgery for stripped instrumentation on their powerfully connective latest release The Family Sign.
On the powerful 14 track collection, the preeminent independent Hip-Hop pair strip away loops and samples in favor of slide guitar, piano, and often a single drum beat in the process of cultivating a starkly mature release that embraces a bold sentimentality with Slug’s trademark unflinching honesty.
Riding the crest of a tremendous legacy and responsibility as de facto godfather of the Rhymesayers crew, Daley finds himself blending a renewed depth of family values with professional drive on The Family Sign, the focus on themes of personal value and cherished relationships.
On a day off between shows, I caught up with Sean for a conversation about Beck, of all people, as well as The Family Sign, his thoughts on fan tattoos and his evolving relationship with the Slug character. As it turns out, he’d been doing a little reading up of his own, having caught a Twitter debate between myself and some friends over Beck’s bizarrely awesosme career.
It’s strange, to know what you’re up to today through Twitter before hearing a word from you. It makes these conversations feel a little stalkerish sometimes… ‘so yo, how’s the laundry coming?’
I’m interested in the Beck conversation that you’ve got going on with @Kibbe and @Jerko. One Foot In The Grave was the first album I ever heard from this dude. I was like “oh, it’s the ‘Loser’ guy,” and went in and bought that and Stereopathetic Soulmanure, and hated both of them for a minute. But I’d still listen to One Foot In The Grave, just trying to break into it.
It takes the right track or the right moment for an album to click sometimes – especially when the artist in question is off the deep end of creativity.
I had a job at this record store, the coolest one in town. And while I was working there, these little indie-rock weirdo alternative college radio girls were picking up the Odelay record. When that happened I was like ‘Alright, let me go back and listen to these older ones again.’ And something clicked, I figured out how to love him, like damn, this dude is on some shit. Then came Midnite Vultures, and he was making some sounds that were kind of… how do I put it? I got yelled at once for saying Prince was a shitty version of Rick James, when what I should’ve said was that he was a derivative of the guy. So there were some songs on Midnite Vultures that were derivative of Prince, and I was like ‘Ah, fuck this shit.’
Then he came out with Sea Change, and I’m like ‘this dude’s a genius!’ I keep coming back and forth with him.
Midnite Vultures is Beck’s high point so far, as far as I’m concerned. He paid real homage to Prince, to the Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue and that over-the-top deadpan supersexuality, particularly with Debra – the song’s goddamned perfect.
It’s funny because you like that, but that turned me off! I was really just mad though. He was doing Prince better than Prince was doing Prince at the time. I think that made me be like ‘Aww… what an asshole! He’s just rubbing it in!’
I don’t think there’s another contemporary artist who I’ve had the type of love/hate relationship with. I get so turned off and I leave him alone for like a year, and then all of a sudden I’m just all about him again for like two years, and it comes back around. It’s just a weird cycle. The only other artist I can think of that I’ve had that kind of relationship with is Prince.
That’s kind of the price you pay for the depth of artistic variety the guy has. To go from the future-disco funk-sex jam of Midnite Vultures to the total quiet heartbreak of Sea Change is outrageous. And just when you think you’ve got him locked, the guy goes and does a full INXS covers album.
Absolutely. The guy’s a damn genius.
You’re careful not to be too instructional in your lyrics, and you’ve said “I don’t like to be preachy. I like stories. That’s the stuff I get off on.” But ultimately isn’t a well-told story just a clever way of preaching, or getting a message across?
Yeah, it’s a big trick, and I’m just really learning how to use it. But it’s definitely something I’ve been trying to figure out, how to write the perfect way. At the end of the day, I still fall short of perfect, but that’s how it’s supposed to be for me right now. I’m supposed to be falling short so that I can push myself the next time, and the next time, and so hopefully when it finally clicks and I figure out how to put frosting on these vitamins, that’s when it’ll all come together how it’s supposed to. And maybe it never does come together. Maybe I never reach that goal, but maybe I’m here to gather the resources so that a Brother Ali record will come out and do what it’s supposed to do. My job in the whole thing maybe was never to be the speaker, but to facilitate other speakers or inspire a kid from fuckin’ Omaha to be that speaker. Who knows?
In the 7 Years With Atmosphere And Rhymesayers book you mention at some point Sean & Slug became the same person – is there a perspective shift from Slug the man with all kinds of people looking up to him to Sean the dad husband son friend?
What I’m referencing there is kind of from a negative time in my life where this person that Slug was kind of becoming, Sean was turning into that. I had a period of time from 2005… well, it’s still a work in progress. I’m twisting and turning Slug into Sean. It’s still gotta be the same person – I’m fortunate to be in a position where people allow me to be myself. So rather than Sean becoming the life of the party, which is what Slug set out to do back in 1998, it’s time for me to turn Slug into that guy that my mom raised.
That brings us to a real talking point on the album: She’s Enough. That song’s about as polar opposite of mainstream Hip-Hop as it gets, but the track resonates – particularly with women.
It doesn’t seem like a feminist anthem, though, so much as a celebration of monogamy and appreciating what you have. Is that right?
You can throw monogamy in there, or whatever you want, but just appreciating something that you do have, something that you love and care about, and celebrating it. And at 99 BPM. And that was really the starting point of the song. I wanted to write a song about love, but to a fast beat. It’s rare. It’s happened, but it’s rare. Anytime someone talks about love on record, it’s usually 80 BPM or less. So that’s what drive us into it, and turned that song into more than just an exercise. I tend to overthink this stuff. That song was also a challenge to me because I had to be careful not to use too many Slug colloquialisms.
I wanted to make this a song that anyone from my family could relate to. From my mom to my step-dad to my son, to even weird art freaks that I hang out with. Anybody in my family. It wasn’t necessarily aimed at my demographic or anything in particular, but I want this to be something accessible enough from anyone from my grandmother to this hipster kid on the corner, know what I’m saying? It was really kind of an interesting exercise, at first. We were so happy with the results, it made us smile, so we decided to put it on the record. And goddamn, I’m so glad I did, because that BPM doesn’t rise over 90 but like two times on the whole record! It’s a pretty slow record. We needed that to anchor the record somehow, so it doesn’t sound like we made it in 1996.
In Millennium Dodo Anthony’s just dropping this sick 4-note progression over a slow beat/chill guitars. At what point do you know you’ve got the track locked and stop adding flavor?
Well it’s funny, because it was harder when we were doing strictly samples. There’s a thing about adding another sample, where it’s like, if it works, that’s amazing, you found another thing that works! When using the live instruments, it’s not really the same. Because we know we could add more guitar parts for days, but it’s easier to stop at the point where you know it’s communicating what you need to to get the point across. But with samples, there’s a certain kind of pride and vibe to be like ‘Oh, I added something else.’ Look at the Bomb Squad and what they did with Public Enemy, fucked our heads up. And even a record like Paul’s Boutique, records like that have so much going on. Those of us in our early twenties when that came out, it changed our world! Musically, it was a matter of showing off how dope you were with the more layers and sounds you could pack into it.
With us now, with five instruments, that aint necessary. Sure, there’s spontaneity, if someone busts out a little thing in the studio at the last minute and we like it, we keep that. But now we try to be minimal, really embrace the whole ‘less is more’ philosophy, you know?
Bearing that shifting philosophy in mind, a lot of your songs reference tattoos, and you obviously respect the art. How do feel about people that have an Atmosphere based tattoo, even direct lyrics on their skin? I noticed you don’t sign people’s bodies anymore…
I stopped signing people’s bodies because they wanted to get that autograph tattooed. I’m usually going ‘No, don’t do that. You should get a pretty flower, or a squirrel rockin’ a cowboy hat, riding a triceratops.’ I appreciate tattoos, and it doesn’t freak me out when people get lyrics tattooed or things of that nature, because I know it has less to do with me and more to do with them. I look at my tattoos, and think of the reasons I got them. There’s connections I have with certain things, and I decided to mark my body to celebrate that or mark that moment or experience. So in that sense I embrace when people get lyrics tattooed on themselves or whatever. Whether it be my lyrics, or AC/DC lyrics or what have you. Whatever. I embrace it, but when it starts to cross into something about me, like you want something of me on your body, I tend to try to talk people out of that. Because that’s not what it’s about. You connected to this. It wasn’t me that connected you to this. You got connected to this. You decided to be a part of this.
If we play a show and 1,500 or 2,000 people show up, it aint about the band anymore. It’s about the likemindedness of this audience, and them becoming a community for one night. They don’t know each other, but tonight they’re all together for a reason. Sure, I could ego trip on that and say it’s because I spit hot fire… [laughs] …but the real reason is because you’re treating yourself to go out. You’re not at work right now, you’re not at school. Maybe you’ve been struggling for some reason, but tonight you decided to dedicate some resources, some money, time and energy to being here. And there’s a lot of reasons why you may have chose to do that. But at the end of the day, you have to realize I’m just a part of that equation. I’m not the whole thing.
So that’s where I’m coming from when I tell cats like, look, I didn’t save your life. Thank you for carrying me with you while you saved your own life. Thank you for letting me be a part of that, but I’m not the only part of that. Survival is a motherfucker. People look for catalysts, because they haven’t been taught that they can find the answers within themselves.
You said on Twitter the other day, in response to a fan, that “Atmosphere doesn’t have 25 good songs. sorry.” You can’t mean that, can you?
I don’t have 25 joints that I would bump in my car. Maybe I didn’t give that the right context, necessarily. That’s just like picking my favorite kids. I love all my kids, even the ugly ones. Not just the honor students.
Stay on top of Atmosphere’s movement and pick up The Family Sign at Rhymesayers (if you know what’s good for you).