Almost two decades in, Atmosphere still makes rhymes for Minneapolis
by Chris Morin
As one half of indie rap duo Atmosphere, MC Sean “Slug” Daley has built a career out of deeply personal and poetic musings over the course of their 17-plus-year career. So it’s not surprising that the group’s eighth full-length LP, Southsiders, takes an acerbic and nostalgic look at life in the south Minneapolis neighbourhood where they first began.
Along with DJ/producer Anthony “Ant” Davis, Slug has long been a part of a crew putting Minneapolis on the underground hip-hop map. They run their own label, Rhymesayers, which has released albums by MF Doom and Aesop Rock in addition to Atmosphere’s own records.
Atmosphere has been called the inventor of “emo-rap”: Slug’s lyrics are generally introspective and bleak, constantly picking at wounds, while Ant’s production combines gritty noise with smooth, electro beats that accent the starkness of the rhymes. Slug, now a father with three kids, says Southsiders is a contemplation of mortality set against the backdrop of his home — a follow-up of sorts to the group’s last album, The Family Sign, which was about his growing domesticity.
“For somebody my age it’s probably natural to talk about where I came from,” he says. “When I was younger I used to rep Minneapolis a lot harder because I never thought anybody outside of Minneapolis would ever hear that music. When you’re younger, you don’t really think about the fact that people in Los Angeles don’t know what the fuck that coffee shop was you just mentioned, or the car wash you talked about — you’re making music for your friends. But now a lot of my friends don’t even live here anymore.”
Those friends include even Ant, who’s now living in Los Angeles. Because of that, Southsiders is the first album the duo has created long-distance.
Slug says the process was slow going at first, but resulted in one of Atmosphere’s more daring albums artistically.
“We weren’t breathing down each other’s personal space the entire time,” he says. “We worked together but we also worked apart at our own pace, which created this continuation where he would check his e-mail and get excited and do his thing before sending back to me. And then I would wake up and see new shit in my e-mail. I think that excitement made for lot of really cool memories, and it also made for a lot of really good songs.
“When we finally got together [to work], it put us in a place where it was something new for us, where we made a record with him across the country like that.”
They haven’t exactly strayed from the elements that have made them cult heroes in underground hip-hop, but Slug says he has no idea how their audience will react to the new rhymes.
“We’ve played a handful of shows and we threw out a few songs to see how people would react. It’s always interesting because when people hear a song they’ve never heard before, especially in rap, you actually get to see them listen harder. They’re trying to see what the fuck you’re trying to do.”