Head in the clouds

Another day in the life of Atmosphere

P.J. Nutting | Boulder Weekly

When you combine the prestige of being a headlining MC, the ego of a smartass working stiff, a career that has only grown over two decades and a show at the Fox that immediately sold out months in advance, one might assume that Sean Daley (aka Slug), the voice of hip-hop duo Atmosphere, has turned all his dreams into reality.

But what really happens in Daley’s head as it rests on hotel pillows between tour stops? In a phone conversation with Boulder Weekly, Daley lazes on a hotel bed in El Paso as he describes his latest memorable dream: a tornado filled with sharks, the most terrifying natural disaster spewing hordes of the most terrifying animal across the countryside.

Daley admits the shark tornado is a combination of a running joke and medication he’s taking to curb an established cigarette habit. He said he rarely dreams of making music, occasionally about performing it — but if he were to go back 15 years and dream of his present life, that image would be nearly as farfetched as super-catastrophe weather patterns. It’s not because of a decadent lifestyle or unexpected fame and glory. Sometimes, life is just too real.

“I think maybe if the dream was me in the back of a limo with a bunch of chicks and a fat gold chain on — 15 years ago, I might have believed that dream,” Daley says. “But if the dream actually would have shown what this life is really like, I would have been like, ‘No way. So I’m a rapper, but I have to find a McDonald’s so I can have a decent place to take a bowel movement because the venue doesn’t have doors on the stalls?’ There’s no way you could have convinced me that this is what it actually would have looked like.”

Atmosphere is perhaps the most well-known “underground” hip-hop group, and Daley is one of the scene’s most venerable elders. It may remain this way for years, as Daley continues to tirelessly tour and release new material with help from the equally talented Anthony “Ant” Davis managing the instrumentals.

Atmosphere established themselves as an intelligent blue-collar champion with their 1997 debut, the Overcast! EP, and furthered their brand of humor, sympathy for struggle and distaste for pretension with each subsequent release (2010’s double-EP release, To All My Friends, Blood Makes the Blade Holy, grabbed the No. 2 spot on iTunes, and Daley has grown his hometown record label, Rhymesayers Entertainment, to include epic talent such as Brother Ali, DJ Abilities, MF DOOM, P.O.S. and Eyedea, who passed last year).

But no amount of notoriety has dulled Daley’s perspective on life’s hardships. Growing up in a working-class Minnesota neighborhood and with his own children to support, Daley’s best works recall perfect moments of imperfection. Double-shift diner waitresses, strung-out addicts in bathtubs, world-weary single parents and sinister nightlife creepers are just a few of the characters who populate his lyrics. No matter how dark the situation, the setting is painted so vividly that listeners are beckoned to go to that place and experience it anyway.

It’s hard to imagine Daley being anywhere other than the bus stops, gas stations and the wintery Midwest streets he describes in between sharp-pointed shit-talking and gentle self-loathing. There’s no doubt he has been the hungover party leftover, the desperate bachelor, or the grimacing face of rejection. For example, he refers to 2005’s You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having as “the mohawk record” because of the hairdo he sports on the album’s cover, a consequence of heavy drinking and hair falling out in clumps.

And though the characters are often imaginary (Daley says 95 percent of his stories are fictional), it’s obvious he has been there, met caricatures of beauty and ugliness, felt the emotion that drives those people upwards and downwards and can relate it all in a seamless lyrical flow.

“The message is honest to who I am, but the story I tell to achieve that message, most of the time I made it up,” Daley says. “Granted, it doesn’t just pop out of my imagination out of nowhere. They’re based on ideas that I understand, based on stories I’ve seen or experienced, but I change the story. To be fair, it’s not okay for me to implicate my friends or to embarrass anybody other than myself.”

Now that he’s a few lessons wiser, it’s no wonder he will be remembered as one of this generation’s great storytellers. With momentum that will carry him well into the future and a live performance that has stepped well beyond a braggart and a turntablist, Daley will continue to keep it real.

“I’m in a fortunate position,” Daley says. “I don’t have to be anything that I’m not for anybody. I know a lot of rappers, and a lot of them don’t have that freedom, and I don’t take that for granted.”