Throughout the late ’90s and into 2000, Sean Daley, the 35-year-old rapper known as Slug, helped define backpack rap as half of the group Atmosphere.
His autobiographical, heart-on-sleeve storytelling, which ran over producer Anthony “Ant” Davis’ clear-cut, sample-based hip-hop loops, became a hallmark of a genre that defied mainstream hip-hop’s hoes ‘n’ hustlers mentality.
Daley wrote about his fringe tastes and fetishes, like his adoration of punk rock girls. He expressed insecurities about his personal appearance and admitted weakness in his social skills. He vented his most intimate frustrations with his romantic life and his relationship with his alcoholic father in extreme detail. In doing so, he drew a fan base of like-minded interlopers on the fringes of popular culture, who related to his persona as much as they did the style and sound of his music. Backpack rap became a culture of identity politics, one that revered its unlikely heroes. To use Daley’s own metaphor, it celebrated the court jesters, the sad clowns.
Daley was 27 when, by his own admission, the first Atmosphere album “anyone paid any attention to” was released, though his audience, then and now, is largely made up of people on the younger end of the 18- to 24-year-old demographic. That album, Lucy Ford, compiled new and old material–stuff previously released on tape, vinyl, and some humbly distributed CDs–and reached record stores in 1999. According to my best estimate, that was the beginning of backpack rap’s peak era, which lasted until about 2003–the same year Atmosphere’s third major release, Seven’s Travels, came out. By that time, Daley was entrenched in a culture he’d helped build. He was drinking too much, touring 200 days out of the year, and having sex with fans–all of which he documented in Atmosphere lyrics.
“There’s a joke Ant will say,” Daley says of his producer and decade-long friend. “‘If it ain’t a true story, then it will be. If it isn’t something Sean actually went through, give him a year and he’ll find a way to go through it.’” Daley has made a career of airing his personal failures, positioning himself as the butt of many jokes and masking his chagrin with sarcasm. Now he’s ready to try something new.
Born to Run
It’s a frigid, blustery day in South Central Minneapolis, and I am parked outside the house where Daley lived as a youth. Daley is in the driver’s seat, idling the car and chain-smoking cigarettes out its cracked window. He is hung over, only passably kempt, and he amicably warns that he will soon start smoking weed.
Though we’ve parked to look at this house, the house isn’t much to look at. It is a compact, cottage-style residence, painted white with black wooden shutters. This is the home his mother, a factory-line inspector at Honeywell, bought after leaving his father, a hobbyist bass player and assembly worker at General Motors, and moved her three adolescent boys into. Daley’s youngest brother, 27, owns the house, though he is not here now. It’s only seven blocks from the building the family first lived in. We drive there next, but pause only briefly in front of the salmon-pink duplex on a street lined by other split-level homes and apartment buildings. Snow embankments line the curbs. It’s February–deep winter by Minnesotan standards–and the streets are barren. “The snow kind of tempers it all,” says Daley. “Kind of like, ‘I’m not going outside to fight today.’ But when the summer comes, everyone gets shot.”
Ant’s home lies just up the street in this working-class neighborhood, split racially in a way that reflects the duo’s own mixed heritages: white, black, and American Indian. Many of the instabilities endemic to working-class family life were present in Daley’s own home: domestic abuse, alcoholism, divorce, and parental absence. When he entered his 20s, he transmuted those themes into his own relationship dramas. And, as Daley began recounting his memories against the backdrop of a musician’s lifestyle–with all its dive bars, late nights in dingy punk venues, and free drinks–they started to sound tragically romantic. He invented the character of Lucy Ford, a modern, feminine Lucifer, to serve as metaphor for his inner mental struggles. At times he cast her as the object of his romantic affections. ln the song “Fuck You Lucy,” she represented his developing dependence on alcohol and substances.
“I wouldn’t call my mom a feminist, although she went through her phases of politicizing herself as one,” says Daley. “When her and my dad finally split she did a really great job of not making us hate men, but she did her best to try to instill some feminist beliefs in us. So when I did get my phase of trying to figure myself out, there was a lot of tug-of-war inside of me between wanting to hate a particular woman and then feeling guilty about that. And there’s certain songs that I won’t perform anymore, because the game of tug-of-war is over and I know where I’m at.”
Where he’s at now–perhaps to the surprise of many a groupie–is in a long-term, monogamous relationship, which he talks about happily. His girlfriend of five years (though they were off-and-on for a large chunk of that time) lives with him in his new home, a spacious, impeccably decorated three-floor house, still on the South side of Minneapolis.
“Everybody’s right,” he says. “I became a caricature of the guy in those records. Writing songs about my issues manifested me to stay stuck in them. Especially when I started to deal with people who didn’t know me but only knew the personality on the record–those are the people who expected me to get wasted with them and end up trying to fuck them in their room. I made the mistake of attempting to live up to that. It opened a safety net for me to just go ahead and be an idiot. So I don’t know that writing anything helped me work through issues. If anything, I think it was kind of a mistake. It ended up putting me in a five-year space of using it to justify my co-dependencies or my methods of self-medicating. People expected that from Sean, so Sean did that. It took a lot for me to wake up [and realize I’m] not who I was when I was 12.”
Darkness on the Edge of Town
Before making Atmosphere’s fourth widespread release, You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having, in 2005, Daley decided to sober up. He went six months without drinking. Halfway through that period, he acquired alopecia as a side effect of an advanced tooth infection, which caused him to lose most of his hair. He shaved his head into a mohawk, displayed on the cover of that album; though it’s since grown back, he took the simultaneous breakdown of his physical and mental health as a sign that it was time for a new approach to life, including a revamping of his creative process.
He began sitting down to write every day, finishing each song he started. Prior to that, “songs would sit around my house for months and not go anywhere,” he says. More importantly, he and Davis would meet to create songs together, rather than trade beats and rhymes, then work in isolation as they had in the past. It’s a method they took even further on their latest, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold. For several months in 2007, Daley arrived at Davis’ home around 11 a.m. most mornings, setting up camp in the basement for marathon work sessions, which sometimes lasted several days without so much as a shower
When we arrive at Davis’ house–an upper-middle-class residence only 10 minutes from Daley’s place–I ask the producer, who, at 37, only recently began establishing himself as the second public face of Atmosphere, if he feels that Daley is his best friend. (Davis toured with Daley for the first time in promotion of You Can’t Imagine…, in the place of Atmosphere’s longstanding tour DJ, Mr. Dibbs.) Davis pauses, and then laughs. “I don’t talk like that,” he says. “But I’ll put it to you this way. He’s more to me than that.”
Though Seven’s Travels is Atmosphere’s highest selling record (over 200,000), You Can’t Imagine… is the one Daley and Davis agree they are most proud of. Both look back on prior records with a great deal of disdain.
“A lot of kids will be like, ‘Nah, Lucy Ford, that’s the one,’” says Daley. “But if you take that album apart piece by piece, I was on some shit where I would drop my verse and go, ‘That was it!’ Because I thought that was the way to do it: Just capture the emotion. It doesn’t matter if ‘contradictive’ isn’t really a word. Whereas now it’s like, yeah, actually it does matter. I get embarrassed when I say words that don’t really exist on a record. I get embarrassed when I mispronounce words. We didn’t think of editing. We didn’t think of polishing. So the reason people like it is not because it’s good, but because there’s a rawness that reminds them of them. If a kid wants to make a record it probably would sound like Lucy Ford. It would be a dude not knowing what he was doing.”
When Life Gives You Lemons is a departure from past Atmosphere work, both in production and lyrical content. On You Can’t Imagine…, the pair pushed themselves to go beyond sample- and drum-machine patterns and hired a live band to recreate Davis’ beats on record and tour. This time around, they stuck with the same musicians, combining their traditional, organic instrumentation for a sound palette comprised largely of vintage analog synths. The result is something like an ’80s goth interpretation of hip-hop’s boom-bap. “I don’t know if it’s dark–I hear optimism in some of the record–but it’s definitely cold,” says Daley. “In that way, it represents where the fuck we live.”
As a writer, Daley pushed himself in a whole new direction. Before heading to Davis’ house in the mornings, he walked to a shop down the road to buy coffee, which he’d drink sitting at the bus stop out front. Buses came every half hour, but he waved them past.
“I would just wait until I found a car at the stoplight in front of me that had a story inside of it,” he says. “I’d look in the car and I’d be like, ‘I wonder what their story is.’ And a few hours later I’d go to Ant’s house like, ‘Okay. I’ve got this guy and this kid. And the guy is mad, and the kid is sad–won’t even look at his dad, he’s looking out the window. In fact, he might even notice me. But now I have to find the beat that makes me want to make up their story.’ What I needed to figure out was how to tap back into eighth-grade creative-writing class and figure out how to tell stories that are not from my perspective, but still have a moral or a point to the story that’s still rooted in what I believe in.”
The result is a record that sees Daley recasting himself from the sad clown into a working-class hero on par with John Cougar Mellencamp or Tom Waits. In many ways, these stories are the same as the ones he told before: Their heroes are conflicted, if not tragic, with bad guys showing they’re capable of doing good and good guys sometimes doing bad. Daley just isn’t personally playing all the roles anymore. On “Your Glasshouse,” he raps about waking up on the bathroom floor of a stranger’s home, paralyzed with a hangover, though he says the situation is a metaphor for his frustrations with the war in Iraq. “In Her Music Box” is about a little girl making sense of her parents’ relationship and the world from the backseat of her father’s car, while absorbing a steady stream of misogynistic rap. “Guarantees” is told from the perspective of a husband and father struggling to make ends meet on a factory wage. “Dreamer” is the story of a working mother with a heart condition and a job that doesn’t pay the bills. “This is life/We all strain,” he raps. “While we pray for dollars/We work for change/It’s all the same/We all struggle.”
About the closest Daley comes to inserting himself in a song is on “Yesterday,” which recounts a chance meeting with a long-estranged friend. A subtle piano-riff sample plays an easy emotional chord as Daley rhymes, “But you knew me back when I was a younger me/You’ve seen Sean in all types of light/And I’ve been meaning to ask you if /I’m doing all right yesterday.”
“How the fuck do I still get to be doing this?” says Daley as we leave Davis’ house, almost as though he expects an answer out of me. “I’ve totally oversaturated my market. I think that it has to just be that people are not just liking me because I’m a great rapper. They hear something in me that makes them think they might get along with me if they met me.”