I did this piece semi-recently for URB. Check it out if you’re into these cats:
“Road To The Riches” (G Rap Cover) by Atmosphere
Sean Daley, Slug of Atmosphere, has been on the road for the last ten years, performing and introducing himself to a young generation of hip-hop fans; a generation that often cites him as their favorite rapper. In a few weeks, he’ll clock more mileage for a Spring tour that’ll take him to ballrooms, clubs, music festivals, and tiny theaters across the US and Canada to celebrate the reissue of Atmosphere’s ‘02 release, God Loves Ugly. And while the 36-year-old emcee doesn’t “give a fuck about being the best”, he’s surely revered in a culture that has embraced him, a culture that “empowered” his own youth.
Here, Slug talks hip-hop, its dominant affect on him, who his favorite rappers are, working with DOOM (an admitted hero of his) and ultimately, the legacy he hopes his music will offer. You don’t get good without knowing your roots, which Slug proves, as we kick it on this old-school discussion tip.
Talk about your exposure to hip-hop and how it affected you as a kid growing up in Minnesota.
When I was first exposed to it, I was like ten or eleven-years-old. It was just stuff that was on urban radio. I didn’t know it was a new movement or anything. It wasn’t until RUN DMC where I was like “this is something else!” and that’s when I felt like it wasn’t my dad’s music. I mean, by the time RUN DMC happened, my dad was probably like “these motherfuckers are yelling at me!” where as the earlier stuff, the Sugarhill style was still like Disco, R&B, and Funk. The RUN DMC records sounded like people were smacking the side of houses made out of aluminum.
Let’s talk rap and rappers. Who were your favorites and what about them struck you?
Public Enemy, KRS-One, Mc Shan, and Big Daddy Kane are my biggest influences. I actually saw PE in Sydney recently do It Takes A Nation… and it was the fucking shit. But initially, I was a huge Juice Crew fan. I loved the Biz and Shante and was about fifteen or sixteen when I feel in love with ‘em. I loved the whole Juice Crew concept because it was relatable, and because I had my own little crew too. And in my crew, we had a dude named Mark, who was the joker, the kind of guy that would fart on your pillow or some shit. And that reminded me of Biz Markie, ya know? Everyone in the Juice Crew had their own personality. And in my own way, I wanted to be Mc Shan; in the same way kids look at a Transformer toy and want to be Optimus Prime. Plus I always liked Pumas even though I couldn’t afford them. And Shan always had the fly suede Pumas. So his records were just the shit to me.
KRS seems to be a huge influence on many rappers. You mentioned KRS—what did he do for you?
He was the one that changed hip-hop for me. When KRS came out and demolished Shan, I was like well, I like Big Daddy Kane now [laughs]! But I gotta admit, KRS is my favorite of all time. Everyone has their favorites and everyone takes it real seriously, so I wouldn’t argue with anyone about favorites. But for me, I know that KRS is the greatest. I don’t care what anyone else says. Prior to KRS, fools rapped at you and KRS was the first one to rap to you. It was like he took speech classes or something. He would use his voice and accentuate shit that made it seem like you’re the only person in the world he’s speaking to. And I picked this up, even as a little kid, so it was a big deal to me. That’s what made me want to rap. In fact, I’m not surprised people don’t accuse me of biting KRS-One, like I’m KRS-Two or some shit [laughs].
After hearing Strictly Leakage, it seems like you definitely wore your influences on your sleeve.
Sure. We didn’t intend for it to be a homage. We did a cover of that Kool G Rap joint and ANT told me to do “Young, Gifted And Black” by Big Daddy Kane too, and I was like “yes, let’s keep it comin’, this is fun”. Should we just turn the whole project into covers? We thought “no” because there were already so many great beats ANT already made that weren’t covers, so we just sprinkled a couple in there to let people know where we came from without being corny or cliché about it.
Everything else just kind of went towards the direction of “lets just kick beats and rhymes”, which I think also allowed ANT to kick some throwback shit too. Then I just followed suit with what he did with the production. It wasn’t meant to be a throwback record—it was meant to be a party record. You might have noticed that every beat has crowd noise in it. We only fucked with beats with crowd noise so that it feels like there’s a perpetual crowd for those 45-minutes. And since Strictly Leakage wasn’t a mixtape or a real album, it’s the place where I could do my fun covers too.
So was it an informal way of showing your younger fans what your foundational influences are? You covered Ice Cube too—talk about him a bit.
I have fans that are fifteen and sixteen-years-old that don’t even know that “Road To The Riches” ain’t my song. And I just hope that they’ll Youtube it and get the G Rap version. It’d be cool if some kids discovered G Rap though me, not that I’m huge or anything, just sayin’. And yeah, that Ice Cube joint was just fun too. Cube was one of my favorites. After Death Certificate, I was like this dude is in the top five for sure! So we put those three covers on there.
Seems like you particularly dug the late ’80s era.
‘86, ‘87, and ‘88 was the shit for me! I mean, everything was moving. We had a local radio show here in my city called “The Hip-Hop Shop” and every weekend you could listen to it. Every weekend it felt like something was happening, that someone was adding something new to this movement. It’s when I discovered Ultramag, and a week later I’d discover Eric B and Rakim, and a week later I’d discover Boogie Down, and a week later it was someone else! It was almost like that shit was set up so everyone had their own week. And it stayed like that all that way up until NWA.
Did other kids in your area seem similarly affected?
Yeah, man. I mean, you could bump into a complete stranger at school, someone you never spoke to before, and if you were into hip-hop, you had this bond and could discuss it, and other kids could never take that away from you. And granted, we’re from Minnesota so we already felt like outsiders. We didn’t feel like hip-hop belonged to us, we felt like we were taking part in something that belonged to other people. But that made us take it more serious, and study it more, and treat it like the beautiful thing it was.
I got the DOOM album a while back and noticed you were on it. How was that experience? What are your thoughts on DOOM, his career from KMD to now?
He asked me to be on his record and I of course said yes because I’m a fan of and all the weirdness that he represents. DOOM hit me up and I was like “Hell Yeah, give me a fucking beat!” When I got it, I thought it was wild. He actually had to coach me through it a bit, and normally, no one has to coach me through a beat. ANT does my coaching and that’s even rare. When DOOM hit me with that beat I thought it was bananas when I heard it and it made me kind nervous. And DOOM was like “in your head think of it like this and that”. But it didn’t really matter, so I just ended up writing to the drums basically [laughs]. I wish I had more time because when I re-listen to it, I thought I could have done better—but oh well. He was happy with it, so I was happy to make DOOM happy. That’s my whole thing anyways—I don’t really give a fuck about being the best of all time. I just don’t want to disappoint people. That’s why I was such a good worker when I was blue-collar. I mean, I had dreams about stabbing my boss in the neck, but I always worked hard. It’s just something that’s in my work ethic I guess because I don’t like to be a disappointment to anybody.
So you’ve been a DOOM fan since the early days I assume.
Look, a lot of people, especially white kids, champion the fuck out of 3rd Bass. I get it, I can see why; you finally get to see somebody that looks like you, doing the music you love, and that’s motivation. I understand that. 3rd Bass could rap better than the Beastie Boys at that time because the Beastie Boys were still doing their old-school style. 3rd Bass came out with more up-to-date styles and beats and everything. But to me, the best thing 3rd Bass ever did was introduce me to Zev Love X. No disrespect, but if I had to give 3rd Bass VH1 hip-hop honors, it would be for introducing me to Zev Love X. Sorry Serch.
Then DOOM’s story got even thicker as his homies passed away, then the record never got released, and KMD went through all the turmoil. Then in the mid-90s, he comes back with Bobbito. And I hadn’t heard anything from Zev Love for years until someone told me he put out a 12-inch as MF DOOM. So I bought it and thought “this dude is buggin’!”
His new album is a monster. What do you think of his career thus far?
I’m just a fan of him and his ideas and what he does with them. People were on his dick so fucking hard, harder than most underground rappers you’ll ever see. And I mean, there were cats that sold more records and were more popular, but people just jocked the fuck out of DOOM. The image, the icon, the personality, the mask—people loved it all. All this time, no one even really knew what he looked like! To me, that was genius how he made people eat up an image that wasn’t even him.
I mean, I was a huge fan of the Mr. Hood record. I loved their singles because they had weird extra shit on them and the b-sides were fresh too. At the time Elektra was unstoppable—they had KMD, they had Brand Nubian, Leaders Of The New School. These groups were all fresh to me.
What about the groups you mentioned struck you?
They were like a new era, all conscious but a little street, and also just fun. It sounded like me and my friends. We read Malcolm X’s autobiography and other books because hip-hop told us to. And, we’ll fight you if we had to! So these Elektra records were perfect for me at that age.
As a major purveyor of it, as a fan, sum up what hip-hop it means to you.
To me, this music is more than music. It’s an identity, like punk rock is for some people, like folk music is for some other people. There’s an identity here for people to hold onto, for people to communicate with other people. For me, and I’m sure the story’s very common, but hip-hop was a way for me to meet like-minded people who were on the same shit, who relied on the same information. There’s a force there that I always felt was important for young folks to have. If it weren’t for hip-hop, I would’ve gone out and did stupid shit when I was younger. It gave me some shit to do with my friends that made us feel like we were a part of counter-culture, without forcing us to go out and steal cars and shit. If old people hated hip-hop, that was perfect! I liked being into some shit that old people didn’t like, ya know?
Hip-hop played a role in my life and as I got older, I was like “Chuck D told me to do this and that…”, so I did it. Hip-hop even had me trying to be a vegetarian when I was a kid [laughs]. Now that’s power.
You think that same sense of power exists?
In a sense it does. I think that same power exists that gives kids the feeling they can go out and control their own lives. Maybe not to the extent it did for my generation. Kids want to control their kids financially now, which is fucking great, but it was a little bit different for us then.
Ultimately, I just want hip-hop to be a farmers market for kids to go out and pick up some healthy shit and have a good variety to choose from. A lot of people in my genre point fingers at other musicians and other genres to try to set themselves a part. I understand that. But I’m over that man. I’m turning 37 this year. I just want kids to get something important out of hip-hop. Atmosphere doesn’t have to be the greatest, I just want us to be an option. When I was young, I needed some LL Cool J one day, and the next I’d need some MC Lyte and the next I need some Ultramag, and the next I’d need a little of this and a little of that. I just wanna be there in some positive way that all the people I’ve talked about have done for me.
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