Sean ‘Slug’ Daley’s self-deprecation knows no bounds. At a recent show in Australia he told the audience a teenage story about sifting through his shit for two weeks after being dared by a friend to swallow a watch battery. On the phone, he operates on a similar (if not so vulgar) level, quick to talk himself down and then his colleagues up. But Slug is also scrupulously honest, which makes him – as much as he’d beg to differ – an excellent interview subject.

A couple of weeks ago, before he got on the plane down under, I chatted to Slug about both Atmosphere and Rhymesayers. We also discussed the history of rap music in Minnesota and how the scene stacks up these days (his answer may surprise you). The interview was originally conducted for a Scene Magazine cover story, but is reproduced for Passion of the Weiss in its entirety. – Matt Shea

Judging by this area code you’d be talking to me from Minnesota, right?
Yeah.

So you’re still living there?
Yeah, that’s where I’ve always lived. I’m afraid I’ve never been good at moving around. I’ve been here forever.

Did you ever think about getting out of Minnesota? I mean, you’re a well-travelled man, even by musicians’ standards. You’ve seen a lot of the world. Did you ever think about moving somewhere else?
No, I’ve never really considered living somewhere else. But in the same breath, I’m not against it. I’m sure there may be a day where I feel like I’m too old to shovel snow and I don’t want to do it anymore and live somewhere warm, or something. But I’m not in any rush, either. It’s a good place to live. Every place has some sort of force of nature that wants to kill you: spiders, or fucking tigers, or hurricanes, or earthquakes, or who knows what. Here, it’s the snow, and that’s it. And I’ve learned how to not die in the snow, so I’ve got that covered. So, so far so good – I’m not going to go anywhere.

It’s hard to talk about Atmosphere without talking a little about Rhymesayers. We’re now in the age of the internet and the DIY ethic of hip-hop. I think some people would argue Rhymesayers pre-empted that to a certain extent. Are you comfortable with the label’s place in the modern environment?
Yeah. Yeah, very much so. Especially, every year I read about or see with my own eyes the failures that happen. And the fact that we have not only sidestepped those failures but continued to make steps up – or at least have never had to take a step downward, and I should probably knock on wood when I say that out loud – but so far, so good, you know. And that’s something to be said in itself. But I really think a lot of that is a testament to where we’re coming from as a label. We’ve never been the kind of label that focuses on making a bunch of money, and with that in mind, as long as we stay focused on what it is our agenda was to do, the money part will take care out itself, because some years we don’t spend as much and some years we spend more. At the end of the day – the bottom line – the reason why people fuck with us and support us is because they trust us to put out music that we believe in. So when we put out another artist’s record, maybe it might not be your favourite record, but you can at least say, “You know what. I believe in what they’re doing.”

Are the aims different for the record label compared to back when you kicked it off in the mid-90s? Has its purpose changed, do you think?
Well, when we first kicked it off it was just going to be for a couple of local groups. We didn’t intend for it to go national. So, that was an evolution in itself. But in the same breath, as groups – as Atmosphere and Eyedea and Brother Ali – as the different groups started to travel and become more national and international, it was easier for us to meet other artists outside of our scene who were likeminded when it came to rap music. So it was just a natural progression.

Do you remember the germ of the idea back in the mid-90s to start your own label? Did people think you were crazy to give it a shot?
Nah, I don’t think people thought we were crazy. Either people didn’t understand it, in which case they just didn’t think about us, or they thought it was a great idea. By no means did we reinvent the wheel. There had been indie labels in rap since Sugar Hill. Not only that, but we were actually at the tail end of when independent labels could make vinyl and 12”s and that could be your main force of promotion. That was a different era; the DJs that spun on mixtapes and radio were kinda the Internet, if you know what I mean. They were where people heard about music, so as long as you gave somebody a song that they’d be interested in playing, word of mouth would take care of a lot of the rest. It’s interesting, because it’s still all about word of mouth; it’s just that now that word of mouth is 100 billion times faster. It’s on wi-fi, on the satellite. But it’s the same concept. The only thing that I find interesting is that us, as a unit: if we were to start today, I don’t know that we would make the cut.

Why’s that?
Because there was a timing thing involved where we’re lucky that we are old and we started when we started, because I got to watch tons and tons of talented artists come after us and never quite make the cut because everything started to move faster and develop quicker. Let’s take Atmosphere, for example: we might not be the most cutting edge when it comes to utilising the internet. If you look at a group like Odd Future, and you see how they’ve managed to utilise the internet in a way that’s not only intelligent but also they’re breaking down barriers; we don’t really break down any internet barriers, but we’re lucky we got in before you had to learn how to do that. We built an audience before that level came into it. It’s just really interesting to see that.

Let’s go back pre-Atmosphere to Wu-Tang Clan, for instance. I’m willing to bet a couple of the guys in Wu-Tang Clan have no understanding of the internet whatsoever – and don’t need to. They’ve got people who will take care of that shit for them. It’s just one of those things that if you look at a timeline of when an artist started, what was the prime motivation, it makes sense to me why Method Man would still make a song that sounds like it would make a great 12” single nowadays, even though there’s no such thing as a 12” single anymore, you know what I mean? It all totally makes sense to me. Whereas, Odd Future can’t make a 12” single, but they don’t have to. They don’t have a song where you think, “This would totally work on a mix show after a Beatnuts song!” You know what I’m saying? It’s not there, but then they don’t have to, because people who discover them and listen to them aren’t looking for a song to mix into a DJ Premier beat.

What was the hip-hop community like in the Twin Cities area back then? I assume there was a lot of talent popping around town?

In the early to mid-90s, I like to say that we were all crabs in a barrel. There were so many of us who were trying to get our voices heard. But we didn’t know how to, so we were just mimicking what we saw was coming form the coasts. So it was kinda like, “Okay! Okay! Record labels are evil.” We learnt that from listening to New York rap. And, “Okay! You gotta be a little bit hardcore.” We knew that from listening to LA rap. It was a matter of time before Minneapolis found its own voice. And I do believe that a big part of its voice was Atmosphere, The Micronauts, Musab, who used to be called Beyond: these were the artists in the early 90s here locally who, even though we didn’t know it at the time, were developing a voice for the rest of the Twin Cities to carry on – to the point now where you hear the influence of I Self Devine in a Doomtree record. It’s resonated into the scene so much, that artists making music [now] might not even realise that they sound a little bit like the forefathers of the scene. Just like those of us who are forefathers might not realise that we sound a little bit like we’re stealing from a Nas or a KRS-One. It just kinda keeps going, but that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Headshots – how essential was that crew to the formation of Rhymesayers? Would the latter have existed without the former?
That’s hard to say. But it’s a full circle thing. It goes like this: I grew up with Siddiq. We went to the same junior high school. When Headshots formed, that’s what brought me and Siddiq back together. Since high school, we hadn’t really worked with each other, but when Headshots formed, me and him started working together again and when Rhymesayers formed, that was basically me and Siddiq. So, it’s hard to say. I don’t really know if we needed Headshots in order for me and Siddiq to start working together again, or if nature would have just kinda made it happen. But, I will say that the way it did work out was definitely for the best.

The only thing that I regret is that not all of the Headshots are here with us to enjoy this. Just like people: there’s so much pride and ego in hip-hop, and it’s sad to think that the guys I was kickin’ it with 20 years ago I don’t really kick it with anymore. But that’s nature; people grow apart. Every once in a while I think, “Man it would be really cool if Spawn was with me in, I dunno, fucking Australia.”

You made this really interesting comment in an interview a few years ago saying that the Twin Cities scene has become oversaturated. Do you still think that’s the case?
I mean… I think… (sighs, pauses) Yeah, I do. I just hate to say it. I do! I feel like there are so many people here making music, and everybody is afraid tot ell each other that they suck. It’s funny, because I come from a time where people would be honest with you; if you were wack, they’d call you wack and hurt your feelings. And if you wanted to fight, they’ll fight. Nowadays, if you tell somebody that they’re wack, you’re a hater. And nobody wants to be called a hater! You know. And then on the other side of things, if you tell somebody that they’re dope, you’re a dickrider. Nobody wants to be a dickrider!

So instead, what we do is everybody just nods and plays it off and totally deals with each other’s music. But truthfully, some of this shit is great and some of this shit is garbage. So in that sense, I do think there still is some oversaturation here, locally. I can’t speak for other scenes in other cities, but I know this scene. And this scene could do better if we got rid of half of these rappers, and the other half of these rappers were given more time to get onstage and work out their shit to become extra dope.

A writer I know brought up an interesting point when talking about Mid-West rap and Atmosphere in particular, and that’s your work ethic. You guys helped build up an entire scene out of nothing, and put out some kind of release every 18 months. Is there something particular that inspires that output?
From my angle, I just think that if I don’t stay busy then I’m exploiting my position. That’s the quickest way to get fired, if you start taking it for granted. And I don’t want to get fired. I love this job, man – it’s the best job I’ve ever had. So when you look at it like that you’re going to put eight hours a day into it, regardless of what it means. For instance, this is the tail end of a second hour of interviews. So I did two hours of interviews, I was at the office for about an hour and a half before that, and then I wrote two songs this morning. Those two songs I wrote this morning probably suck, the time I spent at the office meeting about t-shirts and that sort of shit probably didn’t need me, and then the press: I give horrible fucking interviews. But regardless of whether or not I have a very productive, amazing day at work, I still put in the work, so at the end of the day all that energy I’ve put into it just continues that cycle of energy, you know.

I think of You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having as the endpoint of the first cycle in your career, where the songs were plainly written about yourself, before you moved into a more storied style of lyricism. Looking back, how much do you think you’ve changed over the last six years since that LP was released?
Oh, man. I feel like I change a lot every two years. I feel like every two years or so I undergo some sort of reset. So it’s hard to say how much in six years, because that’s three resets. But a lot. A lot. Definitely, a lot. The first time I came to Australia, I was a partied out mess. I was passed out on the floor, like I’d roofied myself or something. Whereas now, coming back there, I’m a very different person to what I was the first time. I’m much more focussed, much healthier and more in control of my own destiny.

Obviously the Twin Cities is important to how you’re interpreted or defined within the United States. Does the meaning of Atmosphere change a little when you travel outside the US?
Um, not really. But I think that the longer that we do this, the smaller the world feels. Bells and whistles aren’t as exciting to us anymore, because we’ve gotten to eat the meat and potatoes in a lot of different places. Man, I’m sorry about the extended metaphors! But, no: truthfully, nowadays it’s all becoming natural.

So what’s the plan for the upcoming shows? You are touring with the full band, right?
No, no more full band. We stopped doing the full band in ’07, I think. Now, it’s the same thing that I’ve been doing for a few years, which is Ant and then a keyboard player and a guitar player – Erick [Anderson] and Nathan [Collis], respectively. So it’s a four-piece. And it’s essentially the same line-up as was on Family Sign and When Life Give You Lemons. The same guys who worked on that.

That really was the band I was thinking of. I’m not sure I ever encountered you with more players than that.
Oh yeah, man. When we first started the band in ’04, we had drums, bass, DJs, guitar, keyboards. I had a dude whose job it was to play triangle and then I had a bartender onstage, who also did back-up vocals. But I think that’s what happens when a rapper starts his first band: he’s so insecure about what he’s doing that he just tries to put all this shit onstage to distract the audience from his insecurities. And as time went on and I got more secure with this, I realised what our sound was – that it wasn’t some hippie thing or a try-to-be Roots band – and you just grow the balls to be you.

How long do you see Atmosphere running for? With the different focus of your more recent material, do you feel like Atmosphere can go for years yet?
I don’t know, man. I like to think that we’re gonna go until we get fired. But on the other hand, it’s better to fall off than fade away, so maybe we’ll go out with a bang. I’ve always wanted to crash my own plane. I don’t know, I don’t really know. I’m going to keep going until it’s not fun anymore.

And the rest of the year?
You know, that’s a good question. We’ve got a lot more travelling to do. We have a lot of shows booked up in the summer and the fall. And then we’ll probably start piecing together another collage of an album pretty soon.

Talking about being on the road: you guys have always been road warriors. Do you feel like it’s given you a head start in this tour first, record later era that we find ourselves in now? Particularly when so many rap artists were slow to get beyond the national border?
I started touring heavily in ’97. I got my feet wet for the first six months and then I thought, “Fuck it!” So I borrowed a car from my girlfriend and drove around the country sleeping on people’s couches. I think that was when I first really cut my teeth and it gave me such a taste for touring that I never stopped. It’s funny, because when I started touring, rappers didn’t tour. Maybe if you were Jay-Z, you did a big tour with other big name acts, or if you were a Run DMC, you did a big tour with other old school acts. But on the independent side of things, we were the guys who wrote the book on how to tour independently without label help. I think we stole most of the shit from the punk rock groups. The whole idea of getting in the van and sleeping on people’s floors: punk rockers had been doing that for 25 years already. So when we started doing it, we didn’t reinvent the wheel, by any means. It was just part of the game.