Atmosphere frontman and Rhymesayers capo Slug (born Sean Daley) has carved out a singular niche as a darkly comic, confessional alt-rap heartthrob with a huge female following. Atmosphere (Slug plus producer Ant) is one of the few alternative, independent rap acts that regularly sells more than 100,000 copies of any given album, but while major labels have courted the duo, they've stuck to their independent roots by signing a licensing deal with punk-rock fixture Epitaph. Rhymesayers initially released albums from largely Minnesota-based acts like Atmosphere, Brother Ali, and Eyedea & Abilities, but it's grown into a respected national label boasting acts as accomplished and diverse as cult New York supervillain MF Doom, Seattle True-Schooler Boom Bap Project, and Chicago's Psalm One. The A.V. Club recently had a freewheeling, candid conversation with the always-outspoken Slug about his battles with the bottle, the sexual component of performing, and why he probably won't sleep with your ex.
The A.V. Club: You're perceived as a very honest, intimate artist—
Slug: I'm full of shit, though. Everybody puts me in that category, as that guy who's really honest and wears his shit on his sleeve, but it's all fake, man. I only do this for pussy. So people get it.
AVC: Do you feel like there's a spiritual element to performing live?
S: I don't really know how to describe the rush that I get onstage. I guess I would compare it to hang-gliding, but I've never hang-glided. Or snowboarding, but I've never snowboarded. All I know is that the rush I get scares the shit out of me, and at the same time, I'm addicted to it. People ask about all the touring that I do, and think that I must be making tons of money. Actually not, man. I spend so much fucking money on touring. And not even to the point where I'm complaining about it, but more so that I want those things around. I want to be able to bring 15 people on the road with me. I want to be able to do all this shit. I really don't give a fuck about the money. I know how much money moves around for touring, but I do a pretty good job of making sure none of that money goes into my pocket. Me and the guys I'm on stage with get such a fucking rush out of it—it's addictive. When I stop, I'm probably going to have to go to treatment.
AVC: Two very popular metaphors people use when talking about touring are sex and drugs.
S: Those are the obvious metaphors, because you get laid a lot and people offer you drugs.
AVC: Do you get a sexual thrill out of performing?
S: I believe it's better than sex, because I can hide my agenda. I can hide the selfish side of it so much better. With sex, let's face it, you can be an unselfish lover and still make her come 250 times, but in the end, you're still going to come. With performing, I'm not really looking for an orgasm. I'm looking for the foreplay. The little subtle moments of the show are the parts that really get me off and scare me. I wouldn't really compare performing to sex, because performing scares the shit out of me, literally. I have to shit before I go onstage every time. I get butterflies that have fangs that start up about an hour and a half before the set. And I don't even know what to do about it. I feel like I have straight-up stomach issues because of performing, and I don't know how to make that stop, but I feel like, in a way, I'm actually addicted to that fear. It's the only place in the world I've found that fear.
AVC: Is it adrenaline?
S: I'm not a doctor, I don't even know if it's adrenaline. I don't know what it is, to be honest. I've had adrenaline. Adrenaline happens when someone pulls a gun on you. Adrenaline is what happens when you know you're about to get beat up. Adrenaline to me is an excitement, but I don't know if I would call it adrenaline. I just know it affects me mentally and physically in a major way.
AVC: It doesn't get easier now that you've been touring consistently for 10 years?
S: Absolutely not. I've never once had a show where it was easier. I think it's worse. I think it was easier when I was younger. When I was "I really want these people to see me rap, 'cause if they see me rap, they're going to think I'm awesome." I think now the people who are watching me rap, they already know what I'm about. They know what they're there for. Even if it's their first time, they know why they're there. It's not like I'm getting up in front of a room full of people who've never heard of me. I think that it's harder now.
AVC: Because people have high expectations that you have to live up to?
S: Man, I can expect people having higher expectations with me. Especially people that are familiar with me.
AVC: Would you concede that you have a revered reputation as a live performer?
S: I don't know if I would consider myself a great live act. Tom Waits is a great live act. Fucking Dave Grohl is a great live act. People who can make you feel comfortable and confident while you're watching them, to the point where your confidence even outgrows their confidence, are great live acts. I don't know yet that I've reached a point where I consider myself a great live act. I know for a fact that I give 122 percent pretty much every time I get on the stage, so I get an E for effort. And maybe because I get an E for effort three times a year in your city, eventually you can be fooled into thinking I am a great live act.
AVC: The last time we talked to you, you talked about your tour being like group therapy or a cathartic ritual. Do you think that's something you need to do?
S: I think that at this part of my life, the phase I'm in, yeah. I haven't really found another way to accomplish what I'm accomplishing when I perform. I haven't figured out a way to scare the shit out of myself in a manner that I appreciate better than performing. Catharsis, that was one particular tour in general. I was trying to figure out if I could make my work work for me in a way that I haven't tried before. I was dealing with a handful of things, most notably a lot of alcohol. I was really attempting to use that tour as my 12-step program to get off of the alcohol.
AVC: How did that work out?
S: It was lovely. I didn't quit completely, but I've gone down from about eight beers and four shots a night to three beers a week. I owe a lot of that to that tour. I basically put as much as I could into that tour across the board. I did as much press as I could on a daily basis. Every in-store that they would possibly let me do—I would show up at your community center. I would talk to kids about rap. I basically went as professional as I could and as time-consuming as I could to really distract the fuck out of me and get me to stop abusing my body with alcohol and fast food, and essentially it worked. I haven't eaten a Whopper Junior in over a year, and my drinking has gone way down. I can't even remember the last time I was drunk. Now, if I do have a beer, it's pretty much social, and it's pretty much 'cause it tastes great with my cigarette.
AVC: Do you miss drinking?
S: No actually, I resent drinking. I can't believe I gave so much of my life to it. So much of my time. It was easily the most time-consuming, unproductive thing that I could be doing for the last 10 years. I'm not preaching straight-edge, and I'm not preaching to people not to drink. I think I had an issue, myself. I know plenty of people who don't have that issue. When it comes to alcohol, I think it's more about you as a person, and you keeping tabs on what the fuck you're doing with your life and staying productive. As productive as I was during my phase of drinking, I made a lot of records and I did a lot of tours, I'm trying to imagine what I could have accomplished without the alcohol there. It amazes me that I didn't see that sooner. I didn't see that I could have taken things further had I not been drinking so much. I work with a family called Rhymesayers, and each of them is on the ball, and everybody's doing their thing, everybody giving everything 130 percent, and I feel like I was the one that was drinking out of our unit. Nobody else was drinking like that, and I feel that my drinking even stole away from a lot of the progress that Rhymesayers could have made.
AVC: Yet Rhymesayers has grown exponentially all the same.
S: Sure, but I just try to imagine how much more exponentially it could have grown. Had I not been drinking and had an additional three hours a day to put in the phone work, for fuck's sake. It's like the things that I could have been doing instead of drinking. The MySpace page could be up to a million now.
AVC: What do you think the appeal of drinking was? Was it part of the mythos of touring?
S: I think I was backward. I think that I fell for the concept that drinking kills the pain. And so I made up the pain so I could kill it. I look back at the pains that I thought I was trying to kill. Those weren't real pains. You go through your 20s, and drama's a big deal, man. I wanted my life to be like it was right out of a movie, so I surrounded myself with dramatic people. All of my friendships, all of my relationships, they were all really fueled by drama, except for my business. I never worried about the business going bad, because everybody else was so on the ball that I really ran with co-dependency as far as alcohol and women were concerned. I was trying to kill the pain. That's not the point of a buzz, man. Buzzes are celebratory. You don't smoke a joint or drink a beer or whatever it is you choose to do so that you can think about how life sucks. You do it to celebrate life. And I was using it wrong. I think that if I had a better perspective on it, I would have been using it the way it's supposed to be used. Spirits are for celebration, not sitting in your apartment wasted because you miss the way she gave you head.
AVC: It seems like you've been able to reach places other underground rappers haven't, like Late Night With Conan O'Brien or Jimmy Kimmel Live. Why were you able to cross over in that way?
S: It's only a matter of time. If you do this shit long enough, it's only a matter of time before people go, "Oh, yeah, yeah. You're there. We know you're there." On one hand, we had that working for us, and we were a buzz band for five years. You're only supposed to be a buzz band for one year. And we were able to do that kind of stuff, and hold down that kind of ground for long enough, that it was only a matter of time before the rest of the industry recognized us and what we were trying to do. I think that turning down all those labels actually made them respect me more than they would have if I ever did one of those deals with them.
AVC: One of my favorite Rhymesayers release is MF Doom's Mm.. Food?, but it seems like Madvillainy overshadowed its release. Do you feel that it didn't get the attention it deserved?
S: Oh, I don't feel that way, I feel like with an artist like Doom, you can't really base it off of this record or that record. Doom is an enigma. Anyone who can release two albums in a year for three years in a row and not get shit on for it, it's because he has a fan base that will never go away, and will continue to grow. It's not really about which record is more successful. Just to take part in his career is an honor. This is fucking Zev Love X. Just to be aligned with him in any way whatsoever tickles me. I've got no complaints about what his record did as far as numbers, or people knowing, or anything like that. It's not like it didn't recoup. Above and beyond all that, we're a part of his story now, and I'm glad I got to play a part in that. And I don't even know if it did get overshadowed. They were two totally different projects. With the Madvillainy thing, Madlib already had his fan base in place as well. That record had a much bigger story to it than Mm.. Food? just because it had a whole other person involved who already had a name, who already had a fan base and audience, who was already on critics' lists as a cool producer. I would expect that record to receive more press.
AVC: As revered as MF Doom is, he's still underrated as a producer.
S: But you got to remember that when people talk producers, they're talking about everything. They're talking about Dr. Dre. We could take away the word "producer" and say "Dr. Dre," because the people who get revered as incredible producers are generally the people who are appealing to critics and the radio. If you can do both, you're looked at as a good producer. Doom, the beats he makes have a feeling only because his beats are never going to get played next to a Timbaland beat on urban radio. There's a feeling that you've got to be a part of this movement to appreciate a Doom beat. You've got to be somebody who loves boom-bap hip-hop or quirky stuff in order to call that dude a great producer. I fall into those categories, so I call Doom a great producer. Apparently Ghostface falls into those categories, 'cause Ghostface uses Doom production. As far as standing him next to a Timbaland or a Scott Storch, who also get called good producers, it's a whole different type of thing. The word "producer" changes. It doesn't mean the same type of thing when you talk about those types of producers.
AVC: How did MF Doom come to join the Rhymesayers family?
S: I think he and [Rhymesayers executive] Saddiq formed a friendship, for starters, that is much more than just a music thing. I think Doom just kind of saw what we were doing. At the time, Atmosphere was getting a lot of love and a lot of hate. No matter how you cut it, at the time, Atmosphere was getting a lot of lot of. After meeting me, most people go, "I don't like the guy's music, but I believe in what the guy's doing." Whether you're a fan of what I do, if you're a fan of hip-hop, you're going to recognize me when you meet me. And I don't even know if Doom's a fan of what we do or not. I couldn't imagine anybody being a fan of what we do. Different story. I don't know if he's a fan of what we do musically, but I know that he's a fan of how we got to where we are. Doom has been burned by the majors in the past. Has probably been burned by contemporaries. He's been burned by so many people that he's probably got his own version of bitterness toward the industry, and when he saw how we did what we did without the industry, I think he's a fan of that. Upon meeting me, like everybody that meets me, you think that I'm a little bit of an arrogant prick, but when it comes down to it, I really mean what I do, and I do what I say, and I stand next to my words, and people gravitate toward people like that.
AVC: How can you say that you can't imagine anybody liking what you do?
S: The songs that I have that are good, I don't see how anybody else can like those, because those are generally really personal to me. If you know me, I could see how you would like it, because you'd be like, "Oh, that makes sense, that makes me understand, that explains something." I look at the audience and I see this 18-year-old girl from the suburbs singing along to my shit, and I wonder how the fuck she could possibly relate to this 34-year-old alcoholic. It amazes me. I'm not that fucking cute, and it's funny there, too, because I get cool points from some people on my appearance, and I'm like, "Are you serious? If I was the dude that was delivering your pizza you wouldn't fucking look at me twice." The only reason you think that is the dichotomy of the stage. I'm fucking five feet taller than you right now. I don't get it, man, but I'm not going to complain just because I don't understand it.
AVC: Do you think there's a stigma attached to acts that are popular with teenage girls?
S: There's a stigma attached to everything. People call my music soft, and a lot of that is based on the music, but a good portion of that is passed on to the audience who listens to my music. But when people criticize you for your fan base, it ultimately says more about them than it does about you.
AVC: Do you think that because you rap about personal things, people assume that everything you do is autobiographical? That you're constantly baring your soul?
S: I feel that if all that shit was autobiographical, I wouldn't be alive. It's funny how people do that. I grew up on Slick Rick, who could tell any story he wanted, and you never stopped and wondered if that really happened. It was just a story. And rap has turned into such a literal thing. Especially because of all the "reality rap," kids actually think that rappers do these things. It's like, I got news for you, Lloyd Banks has never shot anybody, and I've never done heroin. But at the same time, I'm not going to change my technique because I'm worried about whether people are interpreting it right or wrong. That's not really my problem.
AVC: People who listen to your music probably do use it to form ideas about who you are and what your life is like.
S: That's important though. I'm not mad at that. These are the people who are never going to know me and are never going to have to pass judgment on me as a person. These are people who get to pass judgment on me as an idea, essentially. And as long as they decide upon hearing these songs that I'm a piece of shit and they wouldn't like me, that's important to them, because that's part of what reminds them to stay away from pieces of shit who really are in their life. If certain things that I say remind them of the dude they've been seeing on and off for the past four years, and it helps them realize that this dude is bad news for them, then so be it. I don't mind people passing their judgment on me. It's interesting when people assume that I'm probably a really nice dude or something based on the music, because I don't understand how anybody could hear that in the music. But I do like when that happens, 'cause then when they meet me, they tend to be like, "Oh, you're just like what I thought you would be."
AVC: It seems like having an emotional connection to people who listen to your music is very important to you. Do you ever worry that someday you'll be so big that you'll lose that sense of intimacy with your fans?
S: I've gone out of my way not to do rooms that hold 4,000 people. At this point, I could do that. But I would rather go, "You know what? Fuck it, we're going to extend the tour an extra two weeks and do two shows in Chicago, and two shows in L.A. I do worry about that, because the few times I've been onstage in front of more than 2,000 people at one time—and I can't even believe that I'm saying that. Two thousand people in my head right now feels like too much. But any more than that, it's not really right for what I'm trying to do. That's part of why I do keep my own leash on where this stuff goes and how big it gets.
AVC: So you have control over who sees it and how it's seen?
S: Honestly, even in my phase of being a press whore, I wasn't really doing it because I wanted tons of press. I was doing it because I was going to stay as active in my job as possible to keep me from going out and doing other stupid things. So I was just taking on anything that anyone threw my way, because you know what? There's another 15 minutes where I won't be smoking weed or drinking tequila.
AVC: You're 34 now. It seems that hip-hop is an inherently youthful genre, and it's very hard to grow old with dignity. Is your crowd aging with you? Or is it being replenished with teenagers discovering Atmosphere?
S: It's a lot of young kids who discover Atmosphere. I'm doing what I can about that as well. I don't necessarily know what to do, I'm just feeling my way through it. I do have every intention of being able to build an audience of women over the age of 30.
AVC: It seems like after a certain period, people become disenfranchised with rap—they associate it with college, with that period of life where they're trying to figure out the world. And eventually they become complacent, and hip-hop has less appeal.
S: I want those people. I want those complacent people. I want to figure out a way to tap into those people. Nobody in rap has done it, and I have every intention of doing it, it probably just won't be on the scale of what Neil Young or Tom Waits or any of these people are. Because, let's face it, they're much better artists than I could ever dream to be. But in my own small-scale version, I do intend on reaching a place where you can go to the show with your kid. Essentially, I'm probably going to have to scale back from even 2,000 people, and get down to 500, 400. Something like that. I do want to reach a place where I reach that soccer mom who has become complacent. She still likes what she hears when she plays my records.
AVC: What's the best and worst part of touring?
S: The best part of touring is the drive. I am the dude that sits at the window and watches everything go by. I'm the dude that sits at the window when we get to the city and analyzes the city and watches street signs and goes, "Oh, whoa. There's a record store there. I'm going to remember where that is so I can come back here after sound check." For me, it's the actual travel that's the best part of the touring. Every piece of it.
I'm a driver by heart. I'm a professional driver. That's what I did before rap. I'd drive those big trucks you see and get scared of on the freeway. I love that part of it. I think the worst part of it is… If you were to compare touring to an acid trip, there's those parts where the trip gets really intense, and for five minutes, you start to go, "Fuck, I wish I wouldn't have taken this." When you're gone for that long, you don't have much control over what goes on back home, and I'm kind of a control freak. So there are really dark parts of being away. The best and the worst part are the same part, the travel. There's a time when the worst part of touring was the hangovers. But let's face it, I'll be honest, now when I'm touring, one of my main priorities is finding a good place to shit. And I would have never thought of that when I was 23. I would have never given a fuck. I would have shitted in a sink in a truck stop. I didn't care. But now I need that five minutes to be Zen-like.
AVC: Why do you think Rhymesayers has been growing so steadily and has managed to avoid many of the pitfalls of the music industry and independent labels?
S: Without mincing words, because it holds water. You can't poke any holes in us. Any holes you can poke are based solely on your opinion of the art. You might not like this record or that record, but that is all of the criticizing that you can do of the unit. Everybody involved is a stand-up human being who is not going to fuck you over in any way whatsoever. You'll never hear any bad stories of any of the 20 core members of this unit. The worst story you're going to hear is that Slug fucked your ex-girlfriend. And honestly, I really doubt you're going to hear that, either. Our success is based off of the quality of the people involved.