Slug of Atmosphere: We're not scared of Colorado in January

Sean Daley is family man. He's got a cat, a wife, two children and a house, and he just took his first family vacation, to a small island in the Gulf of Mexico. The music world, of course, knows Daley better as Slug from the Minneapolis-based rap group Atmosphere, an act he co-founded with Anthony "Ant" Davis in the mid-'90s. Pioneers of indie hip-hop, Daley and Davis have released more than a dozen records on their own through Rhymesayers, the imprint they co-founded in 1995.

Now on the heels of his second son's birth, Slug spends his free time focused on the joys of being a father and struggling with a number of things related to his career — things like not taking his success for granted, making new records that aren't the same as the last ones, and figuring out a way to do what he loves well into retirement.

Backed now by a full band, Slug and Ant have proved that anxiety about growing up and insecurity about girls who shop at record stores is very real shit. They've shown a generation of hip-hop kids that it's perfectly natural to grow up struggling to find your identity. On the eve of Atmosphere's playing the first-ever winter show at Red Rocks, we spoke with Daley about the significance of the show and what it means for hip-hop.


Icelantic's Winter on the Rocks

Icelantic's Winter on the Rocks, with Atmosphere, Common, Grieves + Budo and Get Cryphy, 7:30 p.m. Friday, January 27, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 West Alameda Parkway,Morrison, $39.50-$50.25, 303-830-8497.

Westword: What's it like being able to play the first Red Rocks show in the winter?

Sean Daley: Talk about validating! I think it's really amazing that of all the bands that would've said yes to this show, they asked us. It's crazy for me to try to think about. They could've gotten someone like Radiohead to play this, but they chose a rap group? It's not only Red Rocks, but it's the first-ever show during the winter. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it.

What do you think this means for hip-hop in general?

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When I was a kid in the '80s — I'm 39 now — we were afraid that rap was going to be a fad because all the adults were like, "Why are you trying to spin around on your face? Why are you drawing all over the garage with your markers?" Here we are, thirty years later, and rap music is not only still here, but it's relevant enough that it's going to play the legendary Red Rocks — and in winter, no less.

Your last Red Rocks stop saw a full band instead of just you and Ant. What brought about the need for a full band?

It was around 2004 that I started planning this, and I had just gotten home from the Warped Tour. I had this moment where I realized I could drink something like 37 cans of Budweiser and get on stage and nail my set. I started to think that I was taking this whole thing for granted. And, honestly, I scared the shit out of myself. The best idea I could come up with is to just change everything. I feel like this was a good way to challenge myself. I feel like it challenged my fans, too. So I decided to try it.

 How do you think it's been received? Would you say it's been a better experience all around?

It's hard for me to put myself in the shoes of the audience. From my perspective, it seems like everyone is having a good time. I tend to still be attainable to the fans, and I like to stay available to them before the show. It's not like anyone is complaining to me about the live band, though. Let's face it: If I was standing in line next to you at the urinal, it's not like you'd say, "I wish you'd go back to just a DJ." What's important for me is to keep focused on what I do. It's kind of selfish, but I love what I do. My friend Evidence said, "Love your fans. Like your record label. But don't make music for either of them."

Have you ever played in the conditions they are expecting? It's Colorado in January, which typically means frozen.

The only thing I can grab on to is that we're from Minnesota, so you can guess that we've played outdoors in the winter before. We aren't scared. We kind of have a decent-sized audience in the scene and snowboard community. It makes sense that they would book us. We also make music that, truthfully, is better for headphones than a club or a car stereo. Headphone music is the kind of music that snowboard and ski people live with. I could just be saying that to help it make sense to me. It's intimidating to be playing after Common.

When you're performing and revisiting old tracks and records, are you playing songs for the fans, or for a particular show?

I'm following Grieves and Budo, who have a hometown-hero kind of following in Colorado. I'm also following Common, who is a legend, and one of my heroes. I'm also following Get Cryphy, which, I don't know if you've heard them, but they're like a non-stop party with a mustache.

The burden is on us to follow these acts. So I might go for a set that avoids the darkness that is Atmosphere, or go the high moral ground of preaching about life, or I might go into straight early stuff. That's the fun part about one-offs like this. If it's up to the audience, I'd probably have to do a bunch of mean songs that degrade relationships.

With all of your experience, then, where would you like to see Atmosphere down the road?

Wow! I look at my peers and contemporaries, and they're gone. So I know how lucky we are to be a part of the class that didn't disappear. At any point, though, the audience could say, "We just aren't feeling you anymore." I've seen it before, so I'm not worried about it. You can look and see younger rappers coming up and say that they might have come from the Atmosphere school of rap.

This is cool, because it wasn't that long ago that people were looking at me saying, "He comes from the Hieroglyphics school of rap," and now to be one those reference points, that's a beautiful thing: I got my name in the books. As long I get to still play a role, or just be the guy that owns a record label, hell, I'll drive the damn bus if I have to.

So instead of five years down the road, what is it that Slug daydreams about? Is it an island with mai tais, or family life?

It's definitely not drinking fucking mai tais or anything like that. My favorite thing in the world is to make music. Writing, recording and producing music is the best part of what I do. It's not the best part of my world — I've got kids, a wife, a cat, a mom — but the reason I have those things is because I established myself, in my head, as the person that I am. When the day comes that I have to retire, I'll retire to making music, even if people don't want to hear it anymore. In a perfect world, I'll spend eight hours a day making songs.

Are we ever going to see another Felt album?

I couldn't know how to answer that. For the first one, I needed to escape. So I went to L.A. to meet up with Murs, and I crashed on his new couch, and we ended up recording the first Felt record. For the second Felt record, Murs called me and needed to escape, so we made one when he came out. I can't say I hope there will be another one, because I don't want to jinx it.

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