Even if Sean Daley, aka Slug, of long-running independent Minneapolis hip-hoppers Atmosphere, can’t exactly pinpoint when it all started, it's without question that he’s been plugging away at this rap thing for some time now. Anywhere between 15 and 20 years is a fair assessment, but, given the fact that it's underground rap we're talking about, you have to do something like the "dog years" conversion to truly understand and appreciate those numbers. And as a co-founder of Rhymesayers Entertainment (which preceded the group's debut album by two years), he's been able to do it all while avoiding everything but distribution deals with the big labels.
The rapper, along with longtime producer and beat maker Anthony Davis (Ant), just released The Family Sign, their first album in three years, and will be at the House of Blues on Friday night as part of a handful of U.S. shows before they spend most of the summer in Europe.
I spoke with Daley on the first night of the current tour -- he was in Columbus, Ohio -- about his start, the music industry and what it means to be labeled as an independent musician.
Scott McDonald: Three years off and now a new record.
Sean Daley: Yup, The Family Sign came out last week.
SM: Is that your son’s hand on the cover?
SD: It sure is.
SM: You’ve been able to do this on your own for years now. When did you start?
SD: I actually don’t know what year to call my start. It really depends on where you draw the line. If you draw it at the first time that I sold my music to a stranger outside of (famous Minneapolis club) First Ave., to someone other than family or friends, while they were waiting to see someone else’s show, then that would be about 1994. But I really started recording things in 1988. I was recording vocals over other people’s instrumentals, putting raps over Ultramagnetic [MC’s] beats, but nobody was hearing the music. Well, except for me, my girlfriend and my little brother.
SM: You see it both ways, as an artist and with Rhymesayers. Do the way things work now make for a better product or does it f--- the artist?
SD: Let’s be honest. When we say artists are getting f---ed, they’re only getting f---ed by rules that were created by “the industry.” And “the industry” created these rules to make a bunch of f---ing money off of art. And if you look at it historically, artists have been getting f---ed since the beginning. They’re just getting f---ed in a different way now.
SM: But aren’t you one of those artists?
SD: I’m just not one of those artists that will complain about it. Because I know that a hundred years ago, you’d be lucky to get a bowl of soup and a pillow if you could sing a song. But with the creation of rock & roll, and the exploitation of youth with the counterculture, they created a whole industry around it. And they’ve been working that s--- for decades and decades.
SM: What’s the biggest change now?
SD: The audience is just getting back to being able to hear the music for free. And on the one hand, that’s great, because it seems like you’ve got more people participating in this art form than ever before. It’s just that the money isn’t moving around like it used to. But more people are listening to music than ever, more people making music than ever, and so, with the depletion of the industry, we’re looking at a renaissance.
SM: And on the other hand?
SD: Things are definitely going to be different, post-renaissance. But pre-renaissance -- not as much. But if I’m not mistaken, the times of renaissance that make the history books are the ones that occur at a time of revolution. So, to me, it makes perfect sense that the digital revolution would be creating one as well. And at the end of the day, it’s a job. I thought when I was a kid that I’d be riding around in limousines with a ton of chicks in the back and a bunch of fat gold ropes around my neck. But as an adult, I realize it’s not like that. I’m hands-on and in touch with what I do. And I don’t really complain about it because I feel like I’m really fortunate to be in this situation.
SM: When you started, independent was a bit of a dirty word.
SD: You’re right. But we turned it into something. And when I say “we,” I don’t mean just me and my friends. There was a whole movement. But it’s like anything: You say it enough times and people who like what you’re doing are going to listen.
SD: But whether you’re shouting "independent for life" or "f--- the mainstream" from the stage, it’s still just marketing. And you can mean it, feel it and all of that, but even when you’re screaming it, you’re marketing that movement. People are relating not only to the music but the ethics and the lifestyle, and all of the things you’ve got going on. It’s just another part of the counterculture being fed to us.
SM: That seems unavoidable.
SD: Well, I also look at it another way: The underdog theory has been around for a lot longer than rap. It’s been around forever. People love the underdog. They relate to it. And if you take that theory and apply it to rap, it’s going to take hold. Rap is a music that was born out of struggle, and it will relate to anyone who relates to struggle. It’s magnified, and means a lot, to a lot of these kids because it means that they can defeat their struggles as well. They can get past it. What’s interesting to me is what happens when you’re not the underdog anymore. I mean, by comparison, we’re still the underdog in a lot of ways, but in the grand scheme of things, we’re not the underdog that we used to be. That’s why you don’t hear me constantly talking about how independent Rhymesayers is. I mean, our CDs show up in WEA boxes. So what’s next? Am I supposed to try and take that next step? What is my role now? And thinking about it, I guess I don’t care what that next step is. Because, at the end of the day, per usual, I’m just going to put one foot in front of the other.