Slug and Atmosphere take time for a "family vacation" tour
The Midwest music scene is fortunate to have many enterprising and passionate individuals that, instead of fleeing for the industry capitals on the coasts, set up shop in their home town determined to build their own industry.
Arguably the most impressive and important example of this is independent record label Rhymesayers Entertainment, which is based in Minneapolis.
For those not in the know, Rhymesayers is a well-respected, award-winning hip-hop label that has been steadily growing since the mid-'90s. Fueled initially by the endless touring and a cult-like following gained by the marquee group Atmosphere, the label was able to increase in popularity through partnerships with other artists that were locally, regionally or nationally respected.
Slug, the emcee of Atmosphere and one of the founders of Rhymesayers, established himself early in his career as being a rapper that examined relationships and their falling out, partying and the normal life that young adults live while trying to find themselves.
Now a married man with two children, one of which is still quite young, Sean "Slug" Daley's music has shifted to a more "mature" nature. It's filled with the reflections and thoughts of a man that not only knows who he is and what he represents, but that being the life of the party is no longer the path for his life as he gravitates further toward being a full-time family man.
Likewise, Atmosphere doesn't tour as vigorously as they once did. Where they would go out on the road for months at a time, now they break up their tours into smaller chunks so they can enjoy domestic life.
One of the things that Atmosphere stays active in when it comes to shows is the summer festival circuit. Rhymesayers hosts their own festival each year, called Soundset. It attracts five-figure numbers of people to the Twin Cities area for a healthy dose of fantastic underground hip-hop that covers coast-to-coast artists.
For the second time in their history as a group, Atmosphere will perform at Lollapalooza in Chicago this weekend. The festival, being held once again at Grant Park, is an event that takes over the city for three days each year now that they've stopped doing Lolla as a national tour. Though the tour no longer travels, its cultural impact is still deep and rich, as bands of every genre and level of acclaim come together to rock the masses.
Having done it before, Daley reflects on his previous experience with Lollapalooza and is looking forward to playing it again.
"I mean, it's a little intimidating because it's, you know, obviously, it's a lot of people. But it's, you know – those types of shows – there's extra electricity because of how many people there are," he says. "I'm not very well versed at dealing with that many people at one time. I'm used to playing clubs in front of at least a couple of thousand. So, to be in front of a lot of people, and some of them you've got to remember don't really even know who you are but they're just watching because they're music lovers there for the festival, they spent their money to get in and take in as much stuff as they can. So, all of these factors kind of add up to an extra kind of nervousness and electricity. And so, it's like, even though it's a scary thing, it's just way exciting. It's exciting to the mega degree. I don't even know how to articulate how much electricity that goes through you at these shows."
And these types of shows are no stranger to the Midwest. Milwaukee hosts Summerfest, the world's largest music festival. Chicago hosts Pitchfork's music festival, Lollapalooza, and others. The Twin Cities hosts Soundset. Other cities around the Midwest also put on music festivals. So, what is the reason for this boom in fests?
"Well, there's a lot of people in the Midwest that don't get to travel to the coasts for a summer. So, you know, it's a supply and demand kind of thing," Daley says. "For starters, the festival concept is just blowing up. Anyone that can, will throw a festival because it's an amazing event but also it's a good way to knock out a lot of birds with one stone per se. As a promoter you could spend a whole year trying to bring these bands to a venue one at a time, but if you can bring all these bands together for one event it's a good way to kill a bunch of birds with one stone."
Daley also believes that it has to do with the massive amount of shrinkage the music industry has been going through in the last decade.
"The whole industry is dealing with shrinkage, obviously, and so when you have, as a band, when you can go and play in front of a built-in audience because that audience came to see Tool or something, you see that as an opportunity to play in front of people outside of your choir so you're not necessarily preaching to the choir," he says. "So, as a band it's a great thing to have the opportunity to play these festivals. But then as a fan of music, if you went to go see 50 bands over the course of a year you're going to easily spend $500 seeing all those bands. Where here, you have the opportunity to go and hand pick the ones you want to see for $50 or something. It's just kind of, I think, part of the natural shrinkage and the way people are I guess focusing on how they want to give or take their entertainment.
"I don't think it's a bad thing. I think it's a great thing because I think it does work well for the artists and it does work well for the fans. I don't how it always works for the promoter. I only know from my own experience working with Soundset and so I can't speak on behalf of Pitchfork or Lolla or you know, any of these others, but I assume everybody does fine with it because they keep doing it every year."
With every year that Rhymesayers continues to be a part of these festivals and the national music scene, and continues to put out music, their stock has steadily risen. Their reputation and the quality of their output even earned them the nod of being the best record label of last decade by the influential Urb Magazine, which is an honor the Daley finds reassuring.
"It's really hard to see sometimes, to look at things and understand, like for instance when they said that, I was kind of like really? I do realize that sometimes when you're standing inside of it, it's hard to see what other people see when they're looking at you. So to me, the label is like this place that I go to everyday to pick up my mail and hang out with my friends and co-workers and talk about our ideas and what we think we should do. It's hard for me to see this like well-oiled machine that is run well and put out the greatest music of last decade. I don't even know that I'm really allowed to make that assessment or not. you know what I mean? Because my relationship to it is more like, these are my friends and this is just kind of what we do. So yeah, I don't know.
"But then in the same breath I really appreciate the fact that somebody recognized and felt that way about what we do because it's very validating. Urb Magazine has been around for a while. You know what I mean? It's not like they're like brand new, they were just a little Kinko's-zine two years ago type of thing. They've been around for a while and they've rubbed elbows with a lot of people and they've seen a lot of sh*t happen over the last decade, and so for them to say that about us, that's very validating and I really appreciate it."
So with accolades like the ones Urb gave Rhymesayers, and one of the biggest reasons for those accolades being the trailblazing career of Atmosphere, is Atmosphere something that Daley wants to continue doing for the rest of the decade?
"Which decade are we in? We're like in 0'11? So that would be like nine more years? That's not really fair, the decade just started.
"It really depends on the day man. Like, with anything that you develop a co-dependency with, there's going to be like a love-hate relationship there. And, you know, I've become dependent on being able to make, and to perform, and distribute music. It's not just a hobby. It's not just a love. I pay my mortgage doing this. I don't have another job anymore. There was a time that I was still driving a truck delivering vases and boxes of flowers to flower stores, but I was also rapping. I loved rapping. There was nothing you could tell me about rapping. I loved it. I had a love-hate relationship with driving a car. Now, I love driving my car! I love it. I love getting in my car and driving it because I don't get paid to do it. I actually can just do it. Oh, I gotta go to the store? I'll go, I'm out of here. And I have a love-hate relationship with touring, with writing, and recording, and all those types of things. I would say that I'll probably make music for the rest of my life.
"But whether or not I want to be co-dependent – I shouldn't say co-dependent because I don't think music is dependent on me so I take all that back, I'm just going to say dependent – whether or not I want to be dependent for the rest of my life is questionable because that dependency breeds resentment sometimes. And it sucks knowing that you're resenting something that some people would like give an arm to be doing with their lives right now. It's like, I'm not stupid. I'm very fortunate to be in the situation that I'm in. And so, sometimes, you can't help but feel like a f*cking, just a f*cking piece of sh*t if you're starting to resent this beautiful thing that you're so fortunate to do. Like what kind of piece of sh*t would resent being on tour? You know what I mean? But you can't help it because you're dependent on it, because you know that you have to take this tour because there's 20 people that you gotta make sure they can eat off of this."
However, it's not just the struggle caused by his dependency on music that has Daley turning into more of a homebody lately, but it's his love for his family that is more the core of the recent struggle with music, touring and writing.
"Well, you know, I've got a brand new baby. I mean, well, he's 15 months but he's still got that brand new baby smell," he says. "And so, when I hit the road and my kids at home, it's like I'm trying to keep my tours shorter now, and spacing them out and what not. Like, OK, we're only going out for three-and-a-half weeks, then we're going to come home for three-and-a-half weeks. Ready? Hit it! Everyday he's saying new words, everyday he's experiencing new firsts. That's the kind of thing that will make you stop and really go, 'Man why am I touring right now?' Maybe I should just put a record out and just be like, f*ck working the record, I'm just gonna stay home. You guys decided whether or not you think the record sucks. I'll tour next record when the kid's, you know, 5.
"But you know what? At 5 there's still firsts for them. And all of sudden, it's not just your children – I got two of them – but it's also, you know, I have a wife now. It's also your mom, you want to see your mom more often, you know? And when you're on the road, these are the types of things that can really get under your skin. I think most people can understand why. But, you can also blow off why. You can still be like, 'Well dude but you get to go to Barcelona, Spain and rap for strangers, how can you be mad at that?' You're never mad at that. The show is amazing. Being on stage is spectacular. It's after the show where you're like, well, these strangers are all going to the bar or they're going to this or that and I could do that or I could ... I would just rather just go back up to my hotel room and f*cking try and Skype with somebody back home.
"It's like you get into the place where it's like, touring is no longer a party. If you made it a party forever, you'd die. Like, even that guy from the Rolling Stones eventually had to quit partying. And so, I think that people see what you do but they only see it in the moment and not in the big picture of like how they see their own lives."
Fortunately for the fans of his music, the party hasn't stopped quite yet. There is new music in the form of Atmosphere's album "The Family Sign" that was released earlier this year. There is the touring they will be doing the rest of this summer and fall, with a stop in Madison at the Orpheum Theatre on Sept. 13. They are still heavily involved in the culture of Rhymesayers on the whole and how it evolves from here on out, and even if their musical output diminishes in the future, the further development of Atmosphere and Rhymesayers is certainly something that should be closely watched throughout this new decade by all fans of Midwestern music.
Atmosphere will be playing the Metro in Chicago this Friday before their appearance at Lollapalooza, but the show is sold out at this time. They will be on the Sony stage at Lolla on Saturday.
Here's a great example of Atmosphere's evolution. "The Last To Say" is a song about the reality so many face in regards to domestic violence, and it's trail of destruction.
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