Sean Daley didn’t have it easy growing up. The offspring of a forbidden teenage romance, Daley grew up a poor white kid in one of Minneapolis’ impoverished neighborhoods. Although Daley is hesitant to give many details, he says that his home-life was tumultuous and he didn’t make it out of the neighborhood entirely unscathed.
“Oh, yeah, I definitely got my ass beat a few times but it always because I have a big mouth. I never caught a free bad one,” laughs Daley. “But I consider myself lucky because I grew up in the same neighborhood my father grew up in. So, I had somewhat of a privilege having some OG’s who would show me the way and stand up for me. Also, being mixed race let me walk two lines without having to choose sides.”
Although Daley laughs when he talks about his experiences growing up in an inner city, his nonchalance seems like a thin veil over the truth. Years of partying are evident on the 46-year-olds face and the burning intensity in his eyes when he raps are dead giveaways—he’s seen a lot.
“I just wanted to do what was needed of me. You know, that’s how I saw my path. I wanted to be a DJ, but I was needed as a rapper, so I rapped,” explains Daley.
Becoming what’s needed is a constant theme in Daley’s life. When he had his first child in 1994, he put down his musical aspirations to find a way to provide for his growing family.
“I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any structure and I was so stressed out all of the time. Having a kid meant that I had to have a fucking job that had fucking health benefits,” says Daley.
Despite mounting pressures at home, Daley found a way to keep pushing forward and in mid-90s, Daley, now known by the moniker Slug, joined a musical collective with fellow rappers Musab, Phull Surkle, Black Hole and The Abstract Pack. The super group released a series of cassettes under the name Headshots and Daley and his crew were quickly gaining popularity, even appearing on NPR’s All Things Considered in 1996. That same year, Daley signed with newly formed record label Rhymesayers.
In 1997, Daley’s musical trio Atmosphere, comprised of Ant and Spawn, dropped their first album—Overcast!. The album introduced the emerging rapper to a wider Minnesotan audience, largely due to the airplay on college radio stations the album’s first single, “Scapegoat”, received. Atmosphere went on to release two more albums before one of the founding members, Spawn, left the group.
Spawn’s departure came right when Atmosphere began to establish themselves as a nationally touring act. It was also the first time that Daley was able to leave his job at a record store as well as his second job working overnight shifts at a department store.
Riding the success of Atmosphere’s 2001 release, Daley and his DJ partner Ant quickly released a follow-up album. The album—God Loves Ugly—was a departure from their three previous albums. With battle-centric lyrics, the grittier album caught the attention of music giants Interscope, Sony and Warner Brothers. But Atmosphere shunned offers from major labels and continued to stay independent with Rhymesayers.
The duo continued to release new music nearly every two years with almost military precision. Increasingly, Daley was becoming malcontent with the process.
“I feel like we’ve gone down a road that I don’t know how to get us off of,” explains Daley. “For lack of a better way to phrase it, Atmosphere music takes itself too seriously. When I try to make some music that’s a little bit more lighthearted, I’m embarrassed of it. I think people expect us to make music that’s always serious which is unfortunate. I mean who wants to always listen to music that you have to fucking sit there and study? I mean some of us like to make albums that you have to fucking stare at the speaker while you listen to it and some of us make music that you just play in the car and forget where the fucking speakers are.”
Daley may want to do it all musically, but he has carved out an admirable career by being who he needed to be—a brooding, introspective lyricist. At a time where mainstream rappers like Drake seem stuck in the rut of rapping about frivolous hook-ups, the rap community is lucky to have someone who uses his music as a platform for something deeper. Still, Daley just wants people to know that he can have fun and isn’t always the mysterious loner sitting in the back corners of bars.
“For real! I am a clown and I’m stupid—I mean I enjoy being stupid,” pleads Daley.
For now, fans will have to take his word for it. Atmosphere’s last three albums function as a triptych that deep dive into themes of death and legacy. Not exactly the best topics to convince people of your implicit hilarity.
“Each album is a reaction to the last album, and I try to pick up where I left off. So, whatever the last song on the previous album was is how the next album starts,” says Daley of Atmosphere’s most recent album, Mi Vida Local.
But why are Atmosphere’s albums taking such a dark turn? According to Daley, the answer is simple—parenthood.
“Having kids later in life when you’re established changes things. I don’t come from a long line of people who lived in a way that would ensure they had long lives. But having my last kid in 2010 made me realize that I had to find a way to live longer. I had to cut back on partying and drinking because I needed to live for my kid. My first kid got a very different father than my younger kids have and that’s a pain I am going to have to live with. I think maybe that’s why I’m thinking about what we leave behind and the relationships we have,” Daley explains.
He admits that Mi Vida Local deals with feelings that may be harder for a young audience to identify with but he’s content making music for an aging audience. As far as he’s concerned, youthful frivolity is best left to the next generation of rappers.
“Just as long as someone is out there making music that scares old white people, then I’m cool,” laughs Daley.