Atmosphere’s Slug Discusses the Making of the ‘Fishing Blues’ Album and Getting Inside the Mind of a Cop
The press package for Atmosphere’s Fishing Blues, due out Aug. 12, calls it the Minneapolis duo’s seventh album, but that captures a fraction of their output, and even less of their impact. Sean Daley and Anthony Davis, known respectively as Slug and Ant, have spent the last 20 years tweaking the blueprints for underground rap, building an impressive worldwide fanbase and a powerhouse record label, Rhymesayers Entertainment, in the process.
After their debut album, Overcast!, established Slug as one of rap’s sharpest voices and Ant as one of its more effective formalist producers, Atmosphere broke through nationally in 2001 with Lucy Ford. The latter record pulled Slug into a more eccentric, distinctive style, where he’d stay for the first half of the decade. Googling the term "emo rap" once led directly to the Atmosphere catalog, and while the label certainly hinted at some of the group's major themes, it was reductive at best. Lucy Ford, God Loves Ugly and Seven's Travels, released in successive years ending in 2003, vaulted them near the top of the indie world.
Beginning in the middle of the last decade, Slug started stepping outside of his own head and into the stories of others, and Ant began experimenting with more live instrumentation. When Life Gives You Lemons You Paint That Shit Gold, released in 2008 and composed largely of third-person narratives, was a creative and commercial high watermark. In the years since, Atmosphere's music -- and Slug's writing in particular -- has tried to marry decades of musical experimentation to the perspective that comes with growing older and raising a family.
XXL caught up with Slug to talk about the new album, the police, race, Spike Lee and more. Fresh off of a plane from Finland, he’d stayed on Minneapolis time while overseas, yet the jet lag still caught up to him. “I’ve been trying to write since I got home, since my brain is on some dumb shit,” he said. “So I’m like, ‘Let’s try to capture some of that.’” Get involved in the conversation below.
XXL: One of the best songs on the record is “Pure Evil,” where you get into the head of a cop in a way that’s very sinister but still feels fully fleshed out. You’ve touched on the psychology of police before in your work with “Between the Lines,” “RFTC” and “Less One.” What was your first memory of the police?
Slug: My very first memory of the police was them taking some people away from my house when I was a kid. My parents had a party and a couple of people got arrested in the front yard. Police showed up to break up a fight between two friends -- because they were wasted -- and in the process of that either became part of the fight, or interpreted that someone was trying to assault them, I’m not sure. Because, like I said, I was a kid -- probably 9 years old.
The story that I got was the story that came from my parents, which was of course that the police were in the wrong. With that said, my first memory was them taking away a few people from my house, [including] a family member. It didn’t make me hate them or anything like that -- I was a fucking kid, so I was taught that cops save kittens from trees and help lost kids find their way home, you know? Why plant anything else in me too early of an age? I get it. That’s kind of how kids are taught about police, firemen, civil servants. But as you get older, you get to start to see the humanity in it, and humanity’s fucking ugly, you know what I’m saying?
Power is -- I’m assuming, but even in my experience of it -- power is a delicate tool, and it’s an easy tool to exploit. It’s kind of like a butter knife. You can use a butter knife for a ton of shit that it’s not meant for. As a young kid, you play cops and robbers with your friends, and oddly enough, it was always cooler to be a robber. Nobody really wanted to be the cops, so I’m sure there was some sort of... something was permeating our realities, even as children.
After that, high school, there was nothing good that you could tell me about the police, you know what I’m saying? Once I got to the age where we could be fucked with by the police, or my friends could be fucked with by them, there were no stories of good encounters. And in the line that you quoted [“I’ve never been a victim of police harassment,” from “Perfect”], that’s not to say I’ve never been shitted on by the cops, or what have you, but it was more to say that I am not profiled, even though my person, my soul, my humanity stands on one side of this. [But] when the cops fuck with me, they’re not fucking with me because they see a black dude. They’re fucking with me because I’m there to be fucked with. Which, that happens also. But in that line, I was saying that I’ve never been profiled by the police for the reason my friends have been. And whenever I was filling out a job application, I wasn’t being profiled, you know what I’m saying? People took me at quote-unquote face value, which, shit, I should write a song called “Face Value.” Anyway, does that answer your question?
Absolutely. Now, not even as an artist, but as a person, how does it feel to have your DNA and your soul fall in one area, but to experience more day-to-day freedom than some of your peers?
Well, I don’t know if I could answer that as ‘not an artist,’ because of the fact that I am an artist and because, even though I’m not huge or anything like that, I’m still publicly out there. When I say shit, it still gets interpreted as not another account on Facebook. In that sense, it’s an interesting identity dichotomy -- I don’t know if that’s the right way to phrase that, [but] it definitely allows for some identity crisis issues to get caught up inside of you.
Especially when you specify my culture which, let’s just say over the last forty years, a lot of this culture has been sparked by pushback to the police, or pushback to oppression. So in that regard, I feel not just responsible, but also passionate about speaking my mind, which was built and informed by my culture. For me, I have to be cautious. I kind of walk a line. Because I want to not be preachy. I don’t want to sound preachy about what I have to say, so I look for ways to say my shit without saying it from a place of “I know what I’m talking about.” I want to say it in a way that allows other people to join in with me without them feeling like they’re stepping across a line.
To be blunt, the majority of my audience is white. So I want to figure out how to say these things in a way that allows them the comfort to say it with me.
In an old interview, you talked about cutting “Primer” from your live set because some kids would yell the lyrics and not get that it was critiquing the speaker. Are you kind of trying to lead your audience to these ideas without them knowing it?
Well, I’d give them the credit for knowing it. Here’s the thing: It’s not a comfort thing. I’m trying to figure out the ways to [to allow white fans] to support these positions without co-opting them. I don’t want these kids to co-opt this, because there’s a problem in there.
This would’ve been so much easier to explain ten years ago, but now that we’ve developed new languages, with how we speak on these issues, and how sensitive some of the words we use are, it gets a little bit harder to articulate without stepping on yourself, so I’m just going to try to keep it straightforward: How do you give this person the opportunity to stand up and yell black lives matter without pissing off black lives? You don't want an ally to co-opt a situation. You want an ally to support it, to back the situation up, to be part of the reinforcement. But in this country, it was built on colonialism. So to colonize movements--we saw [that] happen, with the civil rights movement, or certain things in our history where we saw these movements get colonized. And not always in a negative way, but it still gets co-opted, and then it becomes a little bit less-than.
People are trying to figure out how to get involved, but then they want to maintain positions; egos get involved. As a rapper, my ego is obviously sitting shotgun with me all the time. So how do I use my ego, and use the fact that I want you to know I’m speaking my mind in a way that allows you to join, to help be a voice for this type of shit?
That’s a huge systemic problem -- I’m not an American, but I’m a white guy and we’re taught from birth that our voices and “expressing ourselves” is a really important thing. And growing up, no one really challenges that. So it definitely breeds people who are sympathetic to a movement, but without knowing it, their voices will drown out the voices that really should be heard.
Exactly. Thank you, you articulated it perfectly. Everybody looks at Bono, and goes, “Bono’s fucking awesome for speaking out,” because Bono’s speaking from the place of Bono, and also helps to signal boost the places where he got the information from.
I think as far as rap goes, and if we’re going to profile rappers, Brother Ali, as a Caucasian rapper, has done a great job of directing his arrows to the originators [of the opposition to] oppression. He says all the things that he’s got to say, and even [in Minneapolis] on the ground he does a lot. But he does a really good job of being sensitive to how important it is that the voices being held up are the voices of the oppressed. I want to learn how to do that as well. Technically, I don’t identify as a solid white guy, but in the same breath, if the cops show up, they see me as a white guy. You ever see that movie Bamboozled?
Spike Lee? Yeah.
[M.C.] Serch is like, “What about me? Why didn’t you shoot me?” That was great! Because it was, you know, it was an obvious fucking look at what I’m talking about. But I think a lot of people saw that scene and moved right past it. It didn’t make the impact -- maybe that movie in general didn’t make the impact that I wish it would’ve made.
But there are a lot of White people who have been involved in this culture who have really been fucking soldiers for this shit, but can’t necessarily fully identify with [oppression], just don’t fully understand. I think the onus is on a lot of white people, who are making money on this shit -- I don’t want to sound like a broken record -- but if you’re making money off of this culture, and you’re not supporting the voices of the oppressed, the people who keep this shit alive and relevant to the world…
The U.S. is regarded by the rest of the world by a major fucking superpower, dominant blah-blah-blah, the one percent of the fucking planet, but yet it still has this voice that speaks to the broken people of this planet. I shouldn’t say broken people: the people who this planet is trying to break. If you’re making money off this shit, you have a responsibility to this.
On “Perfect,” you also say, “Irish name, Scandinavian frame, I’m a Rubik’s cube, I’m the American dream.” That reminded me immediately of “From the plantation to the reservation to the farm,” from “Smart Went Crazy,” which seems like a comment on your own experience with race. But it takes on a new light with the evolution in our political discourse. How do you talk about that sort of thing with your kids?
Oh, man. I’m not sure how to teach kids about that other than to be it. You know, I guess just speaking as an individual who has kids, the main thing that I want to try to give them is to embrace what you are, who you are to the fullest, regardless of whether or not that acceptance is there [in the outside world], or regardless of how they see you. You gotta figure out how you see you.
How they see you is important when you’re strategizing and when you’re working with your surroundings. But before you can focus on that, you’ve gotta focus on how you see you. Otherwise you’re going to be too influenced by the outside opinion.
On “Everything,” you talk about not expecting to live this long -- not because you thought you’d die, but just because you didn’t think that far ahead. Aging is a slippery thing to process; in your head, do you still think of yourself as being younger?
I obviously -- well, I’d like to think it’s obvious -- do not think of myself as if I’m 25, I do think of myself at 43. I see myself for who I am. I feel as if, if there’s any youthfulness left in my bitter, curmudgeonly ass, it’s because of my children. The key to eternal youth is to surround yourself with youth. So between my children and what I do for a living, I’m able to speak with and navigate through other people's’ children. If there’s any kind of youthfulness in me, that’s why.
For the most part, man, I feel like an older dude. I feel it physically, I feel it mentally, I feel it spiritually. And that’s not a negative thing -- I mean, maybe the physical part is [laughs]. But the other parts...it was very welcome when I finally learned how to relax and not be so stressed out about everything, or when I finally learned how to take the day-to-day for what it really is, instead of it just being a slogan.
Now for instance, in the song you referenced, what I’m saying there is that when I was 25, I didn’t think about 45. Not because I thought I was going to get killed, or die, but because I didn’t look that far ahead. I wasn’t even looking five years ahead. I was only focused on the now. And you know, to be fair, that’s still a big part of my world. I still have a hard time with that “Where do you see yourself in five years?” bullshit. If anything, I’ve maybe learned how to prepare for the future when it comes to solid, tangible shit: financially, or some health shit. But other than that, I’m still kind of on that day-to-day, for better or for worse.
I’ve done my best to always speak on shit from the perspective of where I’m at exactly the day that I’m writing it. Now, that doesn’t always work. But sometimes it does. What it enables me to do is to have a certain type of honesty with a situation. It enables me to really deal with it in a way where I don’t have to step into the mind of a younger me, or to put myself into the mind of an older me. I don’t have to pretend to know something, I don’t have to pretend to not know something.
A song [on this record] that sounds like the standard, traditional Atmosphere song is “The Shit That We’ve Been Through.” But if you take that song and set it from the standard, traditional version of that song, from Lucy Ford, they’re very different. The one on Lucy Ford was a lot of outward arrows, a lot of projecting, or blaming, or looking at the other person as the problem. Any time I was looking at myself as the problem, I was only doing that through the eyes of the person I was perceiving as the problem. Now, obviously, I’m writing from a place where I’ve realized, “Hey, I’m not the problem, you’re not the problem. This is a problem, maybe, today, or maybe we’re dealing with something.’ It’s just a more informed version. And I can’t expect a 23-year-old to listen to that and say, “That perfectly describes my relationship.” Because it shouldn’t! It’s supposed to perfectly describe mine. Just like, at 23, I wasn’t writing for a 43-year-old to relate to.
I’ve given myself the room to do that, thankfully. If I hadn’t, if I’d continued to write from a place that stood still in time, even though I myself didn’t, there would be a ceiling to that. I do believe that. The only way to get through these ceilings, if you’re trying to stick around and write for a long time, is to keep pushing it further and further yourself, regardless of what anyone else is going to interpret from that, or what they’re going to think.
On Twitter every day, man, I get comments like, “This new song is trash, where’s the old Slug?” And it’s like, okay, I’ve definitely grown a skin to that. It doesn’t phase me, because I realize you’re not talking about me, you’re talking about you. This has nothing to do with who I am or what I’m trying to do. If this song isn’t for you, that’s okay. There are plenty of artists out there who are writing songs for you. I have to write what I’m going to write, and just hope for the best.
And on the other hand, you don’t want to pander to whatever slang 14-year-olds are using, because people see through that. Those same dudes on Twitter would probably hate that just as much.
We could speculate and say that, yeah, but we’re never gonna know because I’m not that dude. But here’s the thing, man. We talk about things like remaining relevant. But look at me, Murs, Aesop Rock, El-P. There’s four of us, right there, who’ve been doing this for 20-plus years. All four of us are still doing it, none of us have had to go drive a truck. Now you can say, “Oh, this one, that one, they’re not that relevant to what rap is today,” and it’s like, “Well okay, but you’re looking at a small chunk of time in American art.” How do we even quantify what the fuck is relevant and what’s not? Is it because this dude was on the radio for five years straight?
It’s a weird thing, especially as you get older and realize that it’s not just about who’s hot in the moment -- God, I sound weird saying this [laughs] -- in the bigger picture, you’re not going to be able to erase my name out of the book. Whether or not I can keep up with the ASAP Fergs or the Danny Browns or what have you, you’re never going to be able to erase my name from the book. I got it in the book, let’s keep it moving. Now, if I ever am lucky enough to put my name down again, with another new entry, beautiful -- El-P did it, and that was beautiful, he put Company Flow in the book, then came back and did it with Run the Jewels. But at the end of the day, all four of us had an impact on this art, and really, if you get any of us drunk and ask us what we really wanted out of this, that’s all we wanted. There are kids who will say they discovered Company Flow, then that got them into underground rap, and they discovered Eyedea and Atmosphere and, bro, that’s all we wanted. We wanted that, we wanted a fat gold chain, and we wanted to be in a limousine. And we got older and realized that the gold chain and the limousine don’t mean shit.
Sure, and it would be nice if everyone was on Hot 97 all the time, but I’m looking at your tour schedule, and it’s not like you’re struggling to keep people’s ears.
And to be fair, you reach a point where you realize that if I was on Hot 97, I wouldn’t be this. I was able to become the alternative to that, while still maintaining at least my sense of self-credibility. If I had been an artist who made it onto Hot 97, there’s no telling if I would have become the artist that I am today, or if I would have a career still today. Because you can go down the list of artists who are on Hot 97 today, and you can probably count on two fingers the ones who have been doing it for 20 years.
How does it feel to see people have your lyrics tattooed on them?
At first it was awkward, because you don’t know what to say. And then you realize that, you know what? It’s not about me. You take yourself out of the equation, and you see that that’s about them connecting to some music. Now, coincidentally, maybe I made some of the music that they connected to. The bottom line is we all have that. We didn’t all get tattoos, but we have them on the inside. That’s the one thing that all of us--even those of us who argue with each other and think each other’s opinions are trash--the bottom line is we bother to do that because we all love this shit. Once I connected that, I realized that I just happen to be the guy who said the line that girl put on her arm--she needed to put that on her arm regardless of who said it.
If you can pull yourself back a bit and see that it’s bigger than you, it’s beautiful. And, if you can do that, when you talk to that person, it allows you to do it on an even playing field, without them feeling like they’re talking to the dude they got tattooed on them. When they see that you get it, it reinforces to them why they got [the tattoo], and it reinforces to you why you [make music].
What’s your writing process like today?
Right now, I’m waking up and writing songs when I can, but there’s a lot of extra legwork involved with the album release. I’ve been traveling and doing shows, so it’s not as hardcore right now.
But last summer, when I wrote the majority of this album, I would wake up, fuck around a little bit in my basement, drink some coffee, shower, go and get more coffee--a couple of fucking huge iced coffees--and go over to Anthony’s couch, in his living room. I’d put on ESPN, on mute, while Ant was in the basement making beats.
Often, either Ali or Josh [Rhymesayers signee Dem Atlas] would also be there, in a different room, writing. That’s kind of how me and Josh ended up on a handful of songs together over the last year. It was almost like one of those incubators, like that Silicon Valley TV show. Ant was basically running a rap incubator, where there’d be one, two, three, sometimes even more rappers in the house, but we’d all be working independently of each other. But if I needed a second opinion on something, there was always somebody I could [go to and ask] “Hey, how does this chorus sound?” or Ant could come upstairs and say “Come downstairs and hear this real quick.”
It created an environment that was very loose and didn’t take itself too seriously. We had a lot of fun, and I think a lot of that got captured on this record. In the past, it would be like, “I like this, I don’t care if anybody else likes it.” Sometimes it would be “I like this, Ant likes this; I don’t care if anybody else likes this.” Here, it was kind of, “I like this, Ant likes this. Hey Ali, what do you think?” “Ali doesn’t like it -- I don’t care if Ali don’t like it” [laughs]. But at least you had the soundboard. I can’t turn to my kids and be like, do you like this? Because they’ll be like, “Yeah, you said ‘pelican.’” It’s crazy, because I joked with you the other day about the animal references, but that shit’s so real. If you listen to this record, there are robot voices all over it. That’s all because the kids were falling for it: ”Ah I love the robot voice,” so I guess we’re keeping the robot voice.
That’s funny, while listening to the record someone said, “This sounds like some Roger Troutman, some Zapp shit.” But I figured it might be even simpler than that.
I would say a little bit of Zapp, because obviously Roger’s an influence, but a little bit of Kraftwerk too. Me and Anthony have always kind of fooled around in the Kraftwerk area, but we’ve always hidden it in the production. But if you listen to a song like “Always Coming Back Home to You,” or a song like “The Keys to Life vs. 15 Minutes of Fame,” you hear electro noises in there. Or “Musical Chairs.” You can hear electro noises show up in our music, where it’s like, why would you even put that in there?
Yeah, on “Always Coming Back Home to You” the drums really sound like they could be from some European electro stuff.
Exactly. There’s definitely -- for both of us, but I can speak for Anthony especially -- there’s a lot of Kraftwerk influence. The Roger thing is real. One of the dudes that Ant works with is actually a part of Parliament, he backs George Clinton and shit. So it’s kind of like, it all bleeds through. When you hear the robot voices on [our album], it’s because we’re fucking around with them. And I’ll be like, “Well let me save that, take it home and sleep on it. I’ll come back tomorrow and we’ll decide if we’re gonna keep it.” I take it home, and the kid hears it in the car while I’m analyzing it, and it’s the only thing he hears: “I really like the robot voice!” He doesn’t hear any other shit. So it makes me go, “You like that? Alright, I’m gonna keep it.” At the end of the day, if you can make music that your kids appreciate, that’s huge. That feels amazing. The kid isn’t over-analyzing it. He’s not looking for how smart the song is. To him, it’s just a song.
“Ringo” is not necessarily a song that I would have chosen to go on the record, or to be the first fucking single. But when the kids--both of them, the two-year-old and the seven-year-old--started singing along to the hook, I knew that there was something there. And then when Siddiq was like, “Yo, I like that one, that should be the single,” I was like, “Alright, here’s where I’ve gotta learn.” I’m slowly learning over the last few years to not be such a fucking control freak. It’s not doing anything for me. So it’s okay for Siddiq, or for these kids to have this influence on me. It’s not that I’m pandering to either of them, but because they both were like “Ahh, I’m singing that hook now.”
When people talk about letting go and not being a control freak, it’s usually about delegating at work or whatever. But at the end of the day, for you, your name is still on the record. That’s a pretty big step.
Dude, it’s a huge step for me. It started with The Family Sign. With The Family Sign, there were two other guys who were involved in making that record, Erick [Anderson] and Nate [Collis], and so if they had something to say about the words, I wanted to listen, because I had things to say about the guitars, you know? That was where I first began to try to not be such a control freak.
That’s not to say I was good at it, there’s a learning curve to this shit. But when you talk about delegating responsibilities, the video to “Ringo” might not have been the first thing I would have chosen for a video to that song. But to be able to say that this director has a vision, so let’s sit back because I trust the guy as a person and an artist, that’s important. I was there on the set while they were making it, and there were things where I was like, “Man, I don’t know about that,” and shit like that, but I had to fall back and see.
And it turned out that the video he made was great to me, especially the very end of it. It made me actually feel happy. And I was like holy shit, you made me feel that? Who the fuck has made me feel happy through art in a long time? It is hard to make art that feels happy. Most of the shit that you and I consume is probably dark. So the video is super dark, but at the end, when they show the guy hanging upside down and everyone backstage is laughing slow motion, I got happy. And I had to admit that to myself.
That hook on “Ringo,” about America building up and then tearing down stars, is definitely true, but struck me as strange coming from someone who seems, from the outside, to have had such a steadily successful career.
In my head, I’ve been built up and torn down a couple of times. But that’s just in my world. There’ve been a few things throughout my life that... we’ll call them mega reality checks. They’ve all been attached to my art. So in my world, I’ve experienced that. In Anthony’s world, he’s experienced that. And because of the fact that we’re now, I guess, what you’d classify as career artists, we can’t separate that from who we are as people.
Sometimes I’m envious of the people who are able to make the separation. DOOM for instance, he’s the obvious one, just because he wears the mask. You don’t know shit about who he is as a person and what he does on the day-to-day. But if you listen to Atmosphere music, you get a decent idea of who I am. It’s a gift and a curse -- gift because it allows people to support me as an actual individual, as person. Curse because it also allows people to disavow their support of me based off of that shit. But so far so good, it’s worked.
You do a lot of collaborations, but you rarely put other voices on the Atmosphere albums themselves. What made you change your mind this time?
It just kind of happened naturally. I played a track for Evidence last summer. He was like, “You know who would sound good on this? Kool Keith.” And I was like, huh, I just left it at that. But I listened to it again later, and it did sound like some dark, late 90s, Dynospectrum-type shit. I reached out to [Keith] and was like, “Hey, I want you to fuck around on this track and talk some shit, because I was looking for an outro.” I just wanted to get his voice on there. Because at the time, remember, I don’t put a lot of collabs on my records. But if I could get this outro from Keith, that would sound good, plus it would make Evidence laugh [laughs]. Keith was happy to do it, so we did a trade. [Slug appears on Keith’s forthcoming Feature Magnetic.] After that, it opened the floodgate.
A lot of our shit comes together based on idea that either Anthony or I think would be funny. And it’s weird, because our music doesn’t really reflect that. But a lot of times, the things that inspire us to make something are, “Haha, what if we did that?” So it’s really weird that, especially nowadays, I don’t have as much sarcasm in my music as I did during Lucy Ford. But this whole time, a lot of music we’ve made -- especially an album like [When Life Gives You Lemons You Paint That Shit Gold] -- the whole project was based on a, “Hey, what if we did this?” kind of thing. So it’s interesting to kind of see how that translates into songs.
I just referred to my shit as “interesting.” I’m sorry about that. Quote me if you’ve gotta.
Listen to Atmosphere's Fishing Blues Album