Members of the inordinately successful independent hip-hop duo Atmosphere, who have been releasing hits for decades, didn’t ever plan on becoming role models. Since releasing their first major album in 1997, rapper Slug (Sean Daley) and DJ/Producer Ant (Anthony Davis) have released eight studio albums plus a capacious library of EPs, collaborations, remixes and various evolving side projects. Atmosphere has topped the U.S. Independent Albums chart multiple times, and the group has achieved numerous top 10 albums on The Billboard 200. Atmosphere’s near-constant presence in the hip-hop world is virtually unheard of—especially for an independent group on the popular independent hip-hop record label in which Slug and Ant co-founded, Rhymesayers Entertainment.
Slug was born to a white mother and a black and Native American father—but he ultimately found his true identity in nonviolent, conscious hip-hop culture. CULTURE caught up with the lyricist, songwriter and voice of Atmosphere, to reflect on hip-hop, fatherhood, police brutality and of course, cannabis.
Tell us about #DadRap.
It exists because there’s a sense of moral obligation to the listeners. You see a lot of younger people just getting hot off of their own shit. Eventually, you start to feel a little bit of pressure to being accountable for this shit. I think this is something that a lot of artists go through, because when you start making art at a young age, you’re pushing, poking and taking these risks and saying, “Fuck everybody, fuck the world,” you know, this rebelliousness. As you get older, you still have those sentiments, but you are a little bit more aware of the effect that you can have with how you deliver those sentiments.
I like the term #DadRap, because someone once accused me of wearing “dad shorts” six, seven or eight years ago. I don’t remember. I had to kind of be like, “You know what, that’s just me,” you know what I’m saying. I’ve kind of become that dude. It was around the same time that I had my second child. All of these things kind of came together. I’m still mad at the world, but it’s like being mad at the world with a sense of what I’m trying to do about it.
“I support all uses of marijuana, not just medical. That includes the recreational use of marijuana. I’d rather see safe spaces for people to self-medicate as opposed to what we’ve done in the past, which is very unsafe.”
At what age did you discover you had a penchant for rhyming?
Well, I just embraced the whole shit—because the culture gave me the identity. The neighborhood I grew up in was predominantly children who were involving themselves in hip-hop through breakdancing, graffiti, rapping, DJing and all those things—but we didn’t necessarily go “Oh, I’m going to do this,” or “I’m going to do that, ” or “I’m going to make a career out of it.” It was just something we did, like playing baseball. But I wasn’t attempting to become a professional baseball player. That’s what kids do. But at some point, if a kid is good at baseball, and someone notices, things are bound to happen. And that’s kind of what happened with us. I would say that when I was in my late teens, that I was like “Oh, I want to be a DJ. I want to be a DJ on the radio. I want to be a DJ in the club.” But even then, I wanted to be a DJ, not a rapper. I thought the DJ was the cool guy. It wasn’t until the late ’80s that it was revealed to us that the rapper is actually cooler than the DJ. That was the image, at least, that was being pushed on to us. Then it was like, “Anybody can be rappers just like anybody can be in a rock band.”
I understand you co-founded Rhymesayers Entertainment. And you’ve been around for decades. What’s your secret to longevity?
I think Rhymesayers is a web of creative and business-minded people and adventurous people that are continuing to look for what they can do to keep the life going. The constant touring of Atmosphere was a weird situation. Check this out: When I was a kid, nobody’s dad liked hip-hop. If your hip-hop didn’t scare dads, you weren’t making good hip-hop. Nowadays, it’s a different thing. I still think rap should make older white people uncomfortable—I think that should be a rule. But, there’s something interesting here about how you have 50-year-olds that listen to hip-hop. That never could have happened when I was a kid. Now there’s room for the Neil Young of hip-hop.
Do you believe Americans have grown numb to the constant pervasive violence in the news?
I can’t really say on behalf of Americans, but for myself, I have to unplug from social media. I have to stop looking at my news feed. I have to stop hearing the news every so often—more often than when I was younger. When I was younger, it would be because I didn’t have time to keep up with what’s going on in the world. Now that I’m older, I’m intentionally making a decision to keep up sometimes because I’m exhausted. It exhausts me. I don’t know if “numb” is the right word, but I would use the word “exhausted.” I’m exhausted by the violence. I’m exhausted by the stories of police brutality and police misconduct. I’m exhausted by people hurting each other. So maybe the next step is numb. It’s going to exhaust my fucking ability to have empathy—hopefully not, because that’s what connects us all as human beings. I think we really, really, really need to reconsider what all this interconnectivity is doing to us. I don’t know that it’s good. And I’m not trying to be the guy with the tin foil hat. I’m just saying, when someone like me is nervous about empathy levels, that’s not good. Empathy is my superpower. I loved social media for awhile, because it was fun to meet people, make friends and sell records. But now I try to see how far in the day I can go without checking my Twitter.
You’re a master at writing breakup songs, such as “I Should’ve Known” or “Fuck You Lucy.” Is songwriting a form of emotional therapy for yourself?
I would say it’s had its moments of being cathartic. There’s times when I’ve used it to handle and deal with situations. I’ve always written material to get through shit. Not just breakup songs, but the loss of a loved one. I’ve been fired from jobs, and I’d write about it. You gotta understand that a lot of rappers’ writing never makes it to the record. But if you were to look through the pages and pages of shit that I’ve written, you could kind of see all of the negative shit that’s ever happened in my life. Shit that’s happened to me or shit that I’ve perpetuated myself. It’s a way to vent. It’s a way to get through it. You write your way through your problems. I’ve also used the good things in my life to inspire the writing. It’s always interesting to me when someone says “Yeah, I like Atmosphere when they used to write songs about this, this and this, but now that they’re writing songs about this, I’m not into it.” If you’re not going through the same kind of shit that I am, why would you?
Do you believe artists who are in the public eye have a responsibility to speak out on political issues?
I would never say it’s a responsibility. People have to do what’s comfortable with them. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking out, because it’s just not who you are, then don’t! Because you could be doing a disservice to the particular movement that you’re trying to help. So no, I don’t think it’s a responsibility. The only thing that any of us are responsible to do is just to do our fucking best. Whatever that means, however you want to interpret that, that’s up to you. Just do your best. Do your best to do your best. I’ve always put political shit in my music. But back in the day, I was insecure about it, so I would be more cryptic. I would tuck it in cryptically. I didn’t want to come off preachy. My heroes were Chuck D and Rakim and KRS-One. Chuck D and KRS-One would cross the line into preachy. I appreciated that, but I didn’t feel confident enough to try to do what they were doing because they were my heroes. As of lately, I’ve been a little bit more direct but I think that comes with age. You’re just like, “This is who the fuck I am, and there’s nothing you can say that going to make me feel awkward about it.” Before I would pause as say to myself, “Am I right for the job.”
“They’re filling prisons up with people who are basically just trying to self-medicate or help someone else self-medicate. People are trying to deal with how depressing this fucking society is. For instance, if you put my dad away for doing drugs, all you’re doing is putting me in a position to do more drugs—because now I have to cope with the fact that you threw my family in prison over drugs. It creates a cycle.”
You frequently rap about police brutality. What are your opinions on injustices like the Philando Castile shooting?
Here’s the thing: These cops are scared. If we don’t figure out how to address that in an honest and human way, A, the system is going to continue to happen and B, they’re going to continue to disappoint us with their fucking excuses. They should just say, “Look, I was scared, and I acted incorrectly. I did the wrong fucking thing out of fear.” And give them the punishment they deserve. Why was that particular cop scared? He was scared because Philando Castile was black, period. That needs to be fucking addressed. Everybody needs to be aware and confront the fact that this is what’s happening and this is why it’s happening. For 400-plus years, the black man has been made out to be a fucking scary guy. We have all been conditioned, especially the police. I couldn’t tell you whether or not that particular cop hates black people, but I could tell you that cop is scared of black people. What is this irrational fear they have that makes them overreact? Why are we hiring police that feel that way? We have a very strict way that we do jury selection. Why can’t we approve or disapprove who gets hired to be the police? Why don’t police have to carry an expensive insurance policy like how doctors do?
What do you think needs to happen in America to handle this overpopulated prison system?
If I knew, I would not be rapping, and I’d have a job in the public sector. It’s due time to legitimately decriminalize a lot of drug offenses. They’re filling prisons up with people who are basically just trying to self-medicate or help someone else self-medicate. People are trying to deal with how depressing this fucking society is. For instance, if you put my dad away for doing drugs, all you’re doing is putting me in a position to do more drugs—because now I have to cope with the fact that you threw my family in prison over drugs. It creates a cycle. So now I’m next.
How do you feel about medical and recreational cannabis?
I’m pro-marijuana, but I’m not pro-drugs. That means I don’t want to personally do drugs, but I certainly don’t want to govern other people who want to do drugs. I support all uses of marijuana, not just medical. That includes the recreational use of marijuana. I’d rather see safe spaces for people to self-medicate as opposed to what we’ve done in the past which is very unsafe. Unfortunately, I don’t spend enough time thinking about solutions.