Midwestern hip-hop group frontman Atmosphere, Sean Daley, or “Slug” as he goes on stage, are a rare breed in the sense that they seem to wear their hearts on their sleeve and have the prospect of allowing themselves to be their own person rather than a manufactured image of a character on stage. Sean carries himself with a sobering energy that reflects his sincerity in how he sees the world and communicates with a level of authenticity and empathy that is refreshing to see in an artist of his tenure. His lyrics are particularly vulnerable and offer a real opportunity for fans to connect with his songs on a molecular level, their message allowing them, as Sean puts it, “to hold (them) to heart”.
Grateful Web had the chance to sit down with Sean at this year’s Cali Roots Festival to get to know him better and see how the past few years have taught him about his industry, what they’ve taught him about being a best dad, and how his relationship with validation has evolved over the course of his career.
grateful web: So this festival has a lot more hip hop music than a lot of people would expect from a reggae festival. Why do you think rap and hip hop appeal so well to reggae fans at Cali Roots?
Sean Daley: I believe that rap and hip hop come from the same place as reggae in all honesty. It’s all about bass and drums, and so I think there’s a specific correlation to our hearts, drums specifically mimic our heartbeats, so when I hear or see people dancing to reggae, and then I see people dancing on our set, it’s the same dance, you know what I mean? It’s the same vibe, it’s the same feeling, and you can even, I know Ice Cube plays here, and Ice Cube and Atmosphere are very different when it comes to rapping, but what connects me to Ice Cube is the battery. And honestly, it all came from Jamaica to keep it real. I think it’s been well documented that the beginning of hip hop in the Bronx, and I’m not talking about the beginning of rap, but the beginning of hip hop in the Bronx was something that a DJ named Kool Herc brought from Jamaica. The first soundsets that were happening in the Bronx were based on something he was seeing in Jamaica with the different sound clashes.
GW: I don’t think any rational person can claim that we’ve just come out of the worst two years in the history of modern music. Tell us what the pandemic was like for you. The first two weeks, the uncertainty throughout, how productive you have been, whatever you feel comfortable sharing.
South Dakota: I have to say, you’re right, obviously Covid was a huge blow to the music industry, a huge blow to artists in all industries, it was hard on the art, but I also think the tragedy and difficulty are the breeding ground for amazing the art of being born, so I’ve kept that in mind throughout Covid, what kind of amazing music is going to come out of this? There’s all these artists who are stuck at home, and they’re scared and they’re nervous, what are they creating right now. Very similar, there were people who worked in bakeries who were stuck at home, I wondered “what are they creating at the moment?” For me, I was quite privileged. I have a bunch of kids, and a few of them are school-aged, so I kind of avoided being my kids’ distance coach. I took the studio and turned it into a little school, and we would wake up every morning and drive to the studio and start school. I would sit with them until they had their lesions, then I would go up and make lunch, then make sure they got back to school, or we would go outside and throw a ball and make sure that there was some kind of recess or some kind of activity and then they would go back to their lessons and I would go back to my writing. Again, I was very lucky and lucky for me to do it. On the other side, for me, there was a positive side because since I started having children, I had never had the opportunity to spend so much time with them because I toured every year. I would spend anywhere from six to 20 weeks on the road depending on the year so I was actually like the missing parent for many years so for me to have a full year and change to be able to spend time with them in such a focused way, and to really get to know more about who I am as a person and how I can be anal when it comes to organization, you know what I mean? They got to know their dad and I learned a lot about their personalities as kids, and so honestly, just me, I wouldn’t give that up for the world. I can imagine a lot of people don’t have the same story when it comes to Covid, but for me, I wouldn’t change anything about what happened.
GW: How do you think the pandemic has changed music forever?
South Dakota: Well, I think, on the one hand, the pandemic has changed music forever because it has shown us how fragile our ecosystem really is. How when he stopped he broke everyone. It broke the people in the places and the people who worked there. It broke people in booking agencies, it broke artists, it broke everyone, and everyone, I think, now knows what it’s like to be artistically insecure, financially insecure also, the whole world could see that, but in artistic insecurity. Which I think is important, you know, because there’s a whole part of this world that’s stuck in financial insecurity forever, and there’s a whole part of this world that’s stuck in artistic insecurity forever, so when you took some of the people who lived this lavish life or as artists, on top of the world and you scared everybody about what’s next, and when the will things go back to normal, I think that maybe evened the playing field, at least in an emotional sense and it grabbed all of us and made us realize that we’re all the same. It didn’t matter if you were the guy from Metallica or if you were the guy from the band who lives next door, because everyone was scared.
GW: What was your first post-lockdown show?
South Dakota: After the confinements we did a tour. We went on tour in August last year. We booked a whole outdoor tour with Cyprus Hill. It was amazing because Delta was chasing us, and we all went through the tour, no one got sick, we were all living in a bubble. We weren’t allowed to hang out with anyone outside of the bubble, we stayed in the bubble, and it was a lot of fun, man. Playing with my own crew and hanging out with the Cypriot crew guys, and Z-Trip was with us, and it was a lot of fun because it kind of felt like a rap summer camp.
GW: What’s one of your favorite paintings you’ve done lately?
South Dakota: I don’t title the paintings, but the one with purple and silver is probably the best I’ve done in a long time.
GW: Last night, I was pacing around my room listening to “God Loves Ugly”.
South Dakota: Oof, you have my condolences.
GW: No way. But it got me thinking, a lot of your music has always been about how we’re judged, how it affects us, our self-image, and I wonder, how has your relationship with validation gone? has it evolved throughout your career?
South Dakota: My relationship with validation. I think validation is tied to, I mean inspiration, but it’s tied to a goal, and so when you hit a goal, you can do the dance in the end zone and sting the ball, or you can achieve that goal and then look up and see the next goal and keep running with the soccer ball. What if a footballer did that? And if he got to the end zone, and instead of dancing and throwing the ball, he just kept running and jumped over the thing and ran up the stairs and ran for the door, and kept running . For me, that’s what I see as validation. You’re never quite, it’s not there, it’s not a real thing. It’s that carrot dangling in front of you that you run to, but the minute you grab the carrot and eat it, you realize you have to keep going, so you have to prepare the next carrot. My relationship with that over the years is probably, I would say, when I was younger I just wanted to be heard and understood and then as I got older I wanted to be able to provide and so I needed resources and then as I grew up I wanted to feel that unconditional love that comes from family, and now I’m older and I just want to be heard and understood, so I don’t really know, it just keeps moving, you’re just keep going to place the carrot a little further.
GW: What is the next step for Atmosphere?
South Dakota: I’m going on tour this summer with a band called Iration. The tour is called Sunshine and Summer Nights, and I’m really excited for this tour because I feel like it’s going to give me the opportunity to not just party with these guys, have barbecues and having fun on the road with them, but I feel like they’re going to bring in an audience that has no idea, necessarily, who we are, and that, like with Cyprus Hill, the same way, even though it’s a different audience, when you get to play in front of people who don’t know who you are on a regular basis, it really builds your chops. It forces you to learn new tricks, how to talk to new people, you know what I mean? For me, that’s one of my favorite parts of the performance. By doing my own headlining tours, you can often start to realize that everyone here is there for you, and so you just have to do the songs they want to hear, the ones they care about, but when you’re playing in front of people who don’t know you, they don’t have songs that are close to their hearts, so you have this opportunity to leave a first impression and possibly convince them to go and get songs that are close to their hearts heart they can be dear to themselves.
GW: What question have you never asked in an interview?
South Dakota: No one ever asked me how much I weighed.
GW: So can you answer that?
South Dakota: Surely not! Why should I answer this? I didn’t know that was part of the deal.