Horrorshow’s Solo MC catches up with Atmosphere front man Slug to talk about the early day’s of the Headshots Collective, his inability to stop making music and Australian Hip Hop…
Speaking to me from Detroit during a day off on their second national tour of 2008 (separated only by a series of dates in Europe), Atmosphere front man Sean Daley aka Slug projects the composure and wisdom of a seasoned veteran. Which in many ways he is — having recently released their sixth official studio album in addition to countless EPs and years of heavy touring around the world. Atmosphere have come a long way since their early years coming up as part of the Headshots collective in hometown Minneapolis.
“It was definitely vibrant even prior to the forming of Headshots, there’s always been a lot of people that loved hip hop and then some of those kids moved on to being advocates and actually being participants”, says Slug. “And in the 90s there when battling started to get really big, that was when there was a lot of room for the confidence and the personalities to grow and for people to start forming their own voices and I was just lucky to befriend a lot of other dope MCs, and that’s how we formed Headshots. And when that happened, that was the first large unification in our city. There was always crews that was down with each other and whatever but that was the first time we’d ever had 20 MCs or so who were all on the same page who were all chained together to form this unit — like Voltron or something — to move forward together. And yes, it was definitely very exciting times.
The modern embodiment of this movement, Atmosphere’s label Rhymesayers Entertainment, has steadily grown into one of the powerhouses of contemporary rap with nearly 100 releases under their belt from an ever expanding roster. However, Atmosphere remains at the forefront both in terms of profile and sheer amount of product released. So how does the duo stay so prolific? “We just keep doing it – we always work at it. I mean you’ve got MC’s who only spend this much time a year working on their music, whereas me and Anthony spend that much time every week! That to me is just the sign of a work ethic, once we were both able to be self employed and live off of this, we both pretty much vowed that’s what we would do and we would treat it like a real job, so even when I’m not on tour and even when I’m not making a record, I’m still spending up to 40 hours a week writing and making music, just because that’s how I have to be so that I don’t get lazy, you know what I mean? I don’t think it’s a matter of us being more prolific, I think it’s a matter of when you compare us to average rappers. Those rappers are not spending enough time; you know I think we spend how much time you’re supposed to spend on it”.
Their most recent album, When Life You Gives Lemons, represented a significant change in their approach to making music — they used no samples, instead making heavy use of live instrumentation.
“That was one of the things that Anthony wanted to do, because he saw how I tended to set up challenges for myself, and Anthony came up with a few challenges of his own, and one of them was to go organic with the music” says Slug. “You know I’ve been touring with the live band for a few years and he was with us for a few of those tours and he started to get into the mind state of the live band as well so I think it was only a matter of nature for him to start figuring out how to communicate with these guys what he wants and he would like to sample and what he would like to see happen. So they could come in, play a couple of lines and he could pick the part he likes and chop it up just like he would chop up a record maybe, or maybe he’ll pick a full four bars from them if he likes what they did”. Even this deep into their career, Slug says the change taught him and Ant some new lessons about making music. “I think really man, the one thing me and him learned this time, was how much music really is just a language. It’s no more, it’s no less – it’s like another language. It’s like knowing how to speak Spanish and English and German. Music is just one more human language that some people know how to speak, and I think this record was just another step of me and him getting closer to actually learning how to speak the language of music”.
Atmosphere will be appearing at Sydney’s brand new Days Like This festival on January 4, but they’re no strangers to our shores. I asked Slug about a particularly memorable moment at Sydney’s 2005 Big Day Out when he and his whole crew watched from onstage as the Hilltop Hoods played to a packed house, visibly dumbstruck by the reception they were getting from the crowd.
“It’s funny you mention that cause I was going to bring that moment up — that was an amazing thing for me to see. You know, when I came to Australia, first of all I wasn’t expecting too many people to know who we were, so when I was seeing that we were getting 500 kids that were coming to our club dates, and we were getting 500 kids come watch us at the Big Day Out festival, that to me, amazed me. But that particular day, when we got on stage behind the hoods and we watched them perform and saw, I dunno, it felt like 15 to 20 thousand people crammed into that big ass tent thing – that was amazing! I mean I’d heard of the Hilltop Hoods but I had no idea how much of a movement they had going. And to me that was just inspiring – and it’s funny because I gotta say, when American journalists ask me, ‘what are some of the most inspiring moments you’ve had touring?’ I bring that up sometimes; I bring up how I got to watch this rap group from Adelaide get on stage and rock like 20,000 fucking people. In my country, Jay-Z doesn’t get 20,000 people at a show! It’s like, Jay-Z plays for four, five, six thousand people when plays, unless he plays like one show at some big event. I will never forget that, I’ll never forget that…”
As hip hop grows and develops in Australia, artists are facing similar challenges in establishing their craft to those experienced by Atmos and their peers in the early years of their careers. So what advice does Slug have for hip hoppers down under?
“I think what I would say to people from Australia, from Minneapolis, from Burgundy, Idaho, from South Korea, is just keep doing what you’re doing and do what you feel is right for yourself. I think for Australia in specifics, what I see is beautiful. You know, when I first started hearing Australian rappers, I started hearing how people would complain about Australian rappers who would rap with American accents. And you know what; I understand that because back in the day I used to sound like I had an east coast accent. Why? Because I listened to so much rap and I loved it so much that I was like a chameleon and I picked up on the ‘rap’ accent. But nowadays I hear the Minnesota accent from rappers, I hear the Australian accent from the rappers, I hear the German – You know, people are rapping in German! And to me, that’s what it’s really all about, figuring out how to be your own voice, be yourself, you know – and make honest music that reflects who you really are, not trying to make songs or music that fit the niche of what you think hip hop is; rather than trying to be hip hop, be yourself, and let hip hop speak through you, you know what I mean? And I think Australia is doing really good at that, like honestly, much better than a lot of other nations that I’ve been to”.