It’s a whole new Atmosphere at Belly Up
If You Go …
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Saturday, Sept. 20, 8 p.m.
Tickets and more info: www.bellyupaspen.com
Sean Daley, the rapper in the Minneapolis hip-hop duo Atmosphere who performs as “Slug,” has always looked inward for lyrical inspiration.
The group first made its mark around the turn of the millennium, with inspired lyricism and a bare-bones aesthetic that some branded “indie rap,” anchored by Daley’s ability to tell the kinds of stories that weren’t being told by other rappers. He dropped the braggadocio we’d come to expect from hip-hop for complex narratives about dependency issues, jealousy and fear, along with some social commentary. His emotion was raw, his delivery was aggressive, and his lyrics were finely crafted.
Seventeen years since its debut, the band released its seventh full-length album, “Southsiders,” earlier this year. It shows Slug, now 42, still taking a hard look in the mirror in his rhymes, but now he’s a grown-up and joined by a family.
It’s an interesting album, with high- energy bangers like “Southsiders” — representing the neighborhood Atmosphere has turned into a mini-Midwestern rap mecca through its Rhymesayers label — alongside the defiant “Kanye West,” with the chorus “wave your hands in the air like you really do care” and rhymes that examine the home life of Slug as father and husband with the same kind of unflinching, honest lyrical eye he turned to his life as a young punk.
“I still kick it with angels,” he raps over a simple piano funk beat in “Camera Thief,” the album opener. “The difference is that instead of the bar, I’m at my kitchen table.”
Nearly a decade ago, he used similar imagery on “Angelface,” mining the emotional darkside of bedding groupies and partying on tour in a series of verses, bracketed between the chorus, “Look around you; there’s angels amongst us.”
“I’ve always been accused of being a guy who raps about his f—ing feelings or his life,” he said from a recent tour stop in Las Vegas. “So it’s only right that as my world and my life and feelings evolve, so does my music.”
Atmosphere’s MC, Ant (Anthony Davis), frames Daley’s rhymes with elegant, uncomplicated beats and samples. On the current tour, the duo is joined by fellow Minneapolitan DJ Plain Old Bill, in an old-school two-DJ-one-rapper setup reminiscent of Main Source or Doug E. Fresh.
Rap is a young man’s game, and Daley said he’s grateful to be able to grow up on his records.
“A lot of my contemporaries don’t get to hold onto this job as long as me and Anthony have,” he said. “Part of that is because we did allow ourselves to grow outside of the box that we put ourselves into. … A lot of my favorite rappers still rap about the same s— they rapped about 20 years ago. I think about how that’s unfortunate for them, like, ‘You’re still rapping about selling drugs on the corner? Didn’t you get a promotion? You must be a horrible drug dealer.’”
Given the confessional nature of Daley’s rhymes, though, it makes you wonder whether there’s anything he’s released that he wishes he could take back.
“My relationship with the material evolves,” he said. “There isn’t anything where I wish we never put that out there, but there are songs that I won’t perform because I don’t feel as attached to them. I’m not the same guy.”
A song like “Primer,” for example, is a sort of ironic misogynistic anthem. Some fans have taken it literally, and Atmosphere retired it as a result.
“There was a point to it, a social comment going on, but you can’t control how people interpret this s—,” he said. “And if they don’t get your little moment of activism, you can’t blame them. You didn’t communicate it. So it’s good for me to be humble and know that until I can communicate that feeling better, then I need to put that feeling away.”
Though they take more time to perfect records, Daley and Davis’ collaborative process has stayed pretty steady since they first started recording in the late 1990s. Ant gives him a handful of beats, which he listens to on loop for a period of time (“while I fold laundry and s—”), and eventually it brings lyrics out of him.
“Once it gets inside of me, it tells me what kind of story it needs, what the vibe is, the color and scene,” he said. “Then I sit down and work it out.”
They’ve played Belly Up a handful of times in recent years, though they normally play bigger rooms. At Saturday’s show, Daley said to expect some of the new material sprinkled in with fan favorites.
“We’re not a band that goes out and beats people over the head with a whole new record,” he said. “But we think about how to give you songs you do like and intersperse it with songs that you might not know yet.”
And while an Atmosphere show is a fun way to spend a Saturday night in Aspen, Daley encourages fans to be open to finding more than just a party at the concert.
“I try to remind people that this isn’t just an opportunity to come see a band you like or show off your new hairdo and your cool shoes,” he said. “There’s a spiritual experience in all of this, and it’s as close to church as a lot of us get.”
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