When 16-year-old Marissa Mathy-Zvaifler was raped and murdered backstage by the venue’s janitor at an Atmosphere show in Albuquerque, New Mexico in June 2003, Sean “Slug” Daley’s perspective on life changed forever. Since that horrific day, the Rhymesayers Entertainment co-founder realized it wasn’t just about him anymore. He had a greater purpose, one he’s been honing in on for the past 13 years.
On Atmosphere’s 11th studio album, Fishing Blues, the Minneapolis-based MC has inched closer and closer to figuring out that purpose. Along with producer and DJ Anthony “Ant” Davis, he’s managed to create an extensive body of work that not only celebrates his assets but also highlights his insecurities—and unapologetically so.
On Fishing Blues, he consistently wrestles with his omnipresent ego and at the same time, tries to suppress the ugly side of any perceived arrogance. Now in their early 40s, both Slug and Ant appear to have made cataclysmic changes in their lives. Ant, who is infamous for DJing with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth while clutching a Budweiser, quit drinking a year and a half ago. He also hasn’t puffed a “cancer stick” in over five years. Slug is in the throes of marriage and fatherhood, which he tweeted about over the summer, referring to the narrative Hip Hop he makes as “#DadRap.”
As Atmosphere embarks on a sizable nationwide tour in September, Slug and Ant took some time to discuss the theme of Fishing Blues, the impact Mathy-Zvaifler’s death had and what exactly #DadRap is all about.
HipHopDX: Where did the theme for Fishing Blues come from?
Slug: A year ago, the record had a different name while we were making it. We had a working title and it was not Fishing Blues. We went out with our friend Dan Monick to take photos for the album, so I get way ahead of production. While we were out taking photos, I was trying to do the Beastie Boys thing and wear some costumes. I wore a beekeeper outfit, a football uniform and I also brought some fishing gear, so we went to the lake to take photos. It’s crazy, too, because in my head the whole record was an homage to the Beastie Boys. I don’t know if you remember Paul’s Boutique…
DX: Of course — the fish.
Slug: Right. If you look at the actual record, the lyrics are inside, but there’s all these pictures of fish. That’s what I was going to do for this. When we were out taking these photos, we saw a stack of canoes. We took a photo of them and one of the canoes had these stickers on them that spelled out “BB King’s Fishing Blues.” When we saw that, we were like, ‘Yo, that’s the shit. We should call it BB King’s Fishing Blues.’ But they thought the BB King part might be too weird, so we just decided to call it Fishing Blues.
DX: It was a very impromptu thing then.
Slug: Very much. After we decided to do that, the engineer—because we were still making the record at the time—told us that was a ‘stupid fucking title.’ Dylan from Stophouse [Music Group], the same guy who works with Prof, told us nobody would like it. When he doesn’t like something, that’s when we know that’s the right thing to do because he has the worst taste of anybody we know. You should see how he dresses. That’s when we were like, ‘Yeah this is what this record definitely needs to be called.’ It’s crazy because after the fact, we started to realize there were already tons of fishing references in the lyrics. Half of the songs had weird little fishing references, so I didn’t even have to add any content.
DX: Exactly, you didn’t have to write for it.
Slug: No, it was already there. There was one song called “Fishing” with Grouch and I was like, ‘Let’s just change it to “Fishing Blues” so it can be the title track.’
DX: That track is really well done.
Slug: Oh man, when Grouch sent the hook, it was like, ‘Wow what a warm song.’ The song already felt good because the music reminded me of early A Tribe Called Quest records—the beat did. When he sent his hook, I just thought, ‘My god this song is like 80 degrees on a warm summer day.’
Photo: Dan Monick/Rhymesayers
“I had to find the voice that’s going to be with me forever. This record is an extension of that. – Slug
DX: I like the song “Perfect,” as well. There seems to be this overall theme of duality on this record. Like you are trying to relinquish the ego, but preserve your integrity at the same time. To me, it’s the sound of a very mature Sean Daley.
Slug: It’s been a struggle for me since probably the You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having  record. That’s when I kind of began trying to figure out how to have an ego without letting it ride shotgun in the car next to me. It’s been hit or miss. Ever since, and I hate to reference this, but ever since Marissa died at that show in Albuquerque, it made me realize, ‘Look, these kids are listening to what I have to say.’ I have a son and he’s listening. At the time, Jacob was 11, going on 12. I knew I couldn’t strangle the ego and bury it. It’s here and it’s part of me, but how do I control it and navigate it? It’s been hit or miss. Sometimes I do it right, sometimes I do it wrong. On the albums, I’ve always been the guy that raps about humility or my insecurities or introspective shit, but how do I figure out a way to do it with the voice my mom gave me, and not just the voice Hip Hop gave me or the streets I grew up on gave me? I had to find the voice that’s going to be with me forever. This record is an extension of that.
DX: Have you gotten close to finding that voice?
Slug: On the Lemon record [2008’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold], I feel like I was really coming close. The Family Sign got close, Southsiders got close and this record is even closer. I’m going to say I nailed it, but it’s a work in progress—not just in my records, but in my life. If you talk to my wife or other people around me, I hope it becomes visually obvious. I hope there’s a vibe where people can see I’m trying to spread my wings and be the person I’m meant to be, not just the prototype.
DX: What’s your favorite song on the new record, Ant?
Ant: That changes all the time. The song “Perfect” is pretty great and “Fishing Blues,” too. I probably made the music for “Fishing Blues” three or four years ago. I had it just sitting around and I took it out to the Bay to work on it with G Koop, who played all the instruments. He’s just amazing. So it sat around for a year, then I abandoned it and then it resurfaced maybe a year ago. It’s a weird song. Some songs do that.
DX: It fits really well with the record. I wouldn’t have known it was made at a different time.
Ant: It has its own intent while you’re putting it all together. It becomes part of a bigger picture. It usually takes a year to make one of these damn things—for us anyway. We could do it in a week, but it probably wouldn’t be that good (Laughs).
DX: What about the chemistry between the two of you has worked so well over the past two decades?
Ant: I’m not 100 percent sure how it stays working all the time and so well. I don’t question it too much either. I do feel it’s like a perfect yin and yang kind of thing. The parts of this stuff that is important to me are nurtured and cared for, and the parts that are important to him are nurtured and cared for. We both equally care about the big picture. That’s how it evolved and moved ahead.
DX: Slug, the line on “Anybody That I’ve Known,” where you say, “In the past I’d wish for something different from within my grasp/ Now I’ve grown/ I wouldn’t trade my world with anybody that I’ve known”—that sounds like a man who has found some happiness.
Slug: I think I’m on a path towards that. I guess, like most people, I don’t really know what happiness looks like. We can define the word, we can spell it, we can throw it around, but the problem is you can’t really have the word or even the concept of happiness without unhappiness because what do you compare it to? I don’t really know what happiness looks like. I feel like the path I’m on is heading in a positive direction as opposed to a negative direction, but the reason I know that is because I’ve already been to those negative places. In a weird way, I need those negative places to inform me of where not to go, so that I do stay focused on moving in a positive direction.
DX: Ant, how has life changed for you now that you’ve stopped drinking?
Ant: I’m just bored as shit now (Laughs). Just kidding. There’s like a clarity to my thoughts and I’m in touch with my feelings a little bit more (Laughs). My drinking really just covered a bunch of shit up for so long. I didn’t realize I had drank almost every day for 10 years. You party pretty heavy on tour, but then when you start taking the tour home, that’s where I fucked up.
DX: It became a part of you.
Ant: Yeah, yeah, so I was having a couple drinks so I could deal with the people backstage or onstage, and it just became an avalanche of shit.
DX: How is it to experience a myriad of feelings now?
Ant: I wasn’t expecting so much honestly. It’s like, ‘Oh shit, I covered that up, too?’
DX: Your beats are on point. I feel like you’ve really refined your own particular sound. Is that a symbol of success in a sense—when people can immediately recognize an Ant beat?
Ant: Maybe, but I also feel like everybody has that. After you do this long enough, people get to know you. I’ve been doing this for so long. If you stick to what you do and you’re not chasing any of the new hot shit or trying to stay ahead of everybody, and just concentrate on you and doing what’s in you, it will always shine through. Everybody has their own style.
Big Bass: As in sound and the catch of day.
DX: Speaking of style, what’s #DadRap to you Slug?
Slug: I couldn’t bring myself to talk about, you know, chasing ass. I couldn’t even do it. I can’t bring myself to rap to sound like I’m cool. I realize that a large part of this culture that I’m a part of is about a performative coolness. It is about that and it’s supposed to be. I understand that. This culture builds self-esteem and it does it by faking it until we make it. I was a part of it when I was younger. But now that I’ve reached a place where I no longer care about being cool — I don’t care whether I’m wearing cool clothes or if my hair looks good. It’s not that I’ve become apathetic, I still shower and brush my teeth, but I no longer am super concerned about what other people think of me.
So what is informing my rap then? If I’m no longer a part of that performative coolness movement, what is informing my rap now is 100 percent my moral code. Right now, my moral code is really based in fatherhood. To me that’s really what #DadRap is. Don’t get it twisted, someone like Kendrick Lamar says some cool shit and still appears very cool, but he still has traces of #DadRap in his DNA, probably because of who he grew up listening to.
DX: Who would you say influenced you in that way?
Slug: Andre 3000 put a lot of #DadRap in all of us, even though he still looked cool. For me, I love Andre 3000, but he wasn’t the one who put #DadRap in me. I was already into Hip Hop by the time he came out. The ones that put #DadRap in me were Chuck D and Rakim. These were the people that taught me that my moral code is a big part of my identity. My moral code when I was 25 might have looked a little different than what it looks like now. We’re in a culture that does not allow you to be a dad rapper. It does not allow you to be a 45-year-old rapper. This is new ground that’s being tread right now.
Jay Z is top of the dad rappers, but he suffers a lot of criticism because of this. Some of us are trying to figure out a way to make that journey into middle age and still be an MC without appearing as if we’re trying so hard to convince the community we’re cool. I don’t give a fuck if the kids think I’m cool. If I lose my job because I wasn’t cool enough for the kids, I’m ok with that. I’d rather it be like that rather than I lost my job because I was trying too hard to be something I’m not.