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Revered MC Slug on fame, mortality and his 120,000 bosses

Indie hip-hop legends Atmosphere perform at the Squamish Valley Music Festival



The latest single from Midwest indie rap icons Atmosphere, called "Kanye West," has been criticized in some snark-fuelled circles of the Internet for its supposedly blasphemous title.

But dig a little deeper and you find something altogether more noteworthy than the taking of our Good Lord, Yeezus's name in vain.

In fact, it's right there in the song's first few pulsating seconds: "Put your hands in the air like you really do care," beckons Slug, one half of the veteran alt-rap group along with producer, Ant.

For a lot of rappers, this contrarian hook would be nothing more than a throwaway line, but for the 41-year-old Slug, born Sean Daley, it's a rallying cry of sorts, a cri de coeur for a man who's forged a long career out of speaking with a straightforward genuineness that most MCs either lack the interest, or ability, to convey.

Be it religion, relationships or raising a son, no subject is safe from Slug's inward gaze, and it's gained him some of hip-hop's most devoted fans. But that emotional vulnerability laid on the page so eloquently has also had an unintended side effect, one that Slug admits is just par for the course.

"There's been a few times where (fans') feeling of knowing us personally has translated into scary situations, but I just pretend that's part of the job," he says while driving on the streets of his beloved Minneapolis. "You gotta remember that everybody who supports with their money, their resources, their energy and time, feels a tiny piece of entitlement to you. It's almost as if you have 120,000 little bosses instead of one big boss.

"I keep myself in check and try to remember to be polite and nice to my boss even if my boss is having a shitty day, or freaking out, or standing outside my house in an alley with binoculars."

That entitlement has also translated to many fans feeling a deep sense of ownership over Atmosphere's music. Despite regularly pumping out albums of a consistent quality most rap groups will never achieve, the release of every new Atmosphere record usually comes with a chorus of groans from a vocal subset of fickle fans who yearn for the Slug of a bygone era — even when that version of Slug doesn't exist anymore.

"One thing I really had to come to terms with as a control freak is that the one thing I can't control is time," he says. "When we made (2005's) You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having ... there were kids that were like, 'Fuck you for not making another God Loves Ugly (2002), and then three years later those same kids were like, 'Fuck you for not making another You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having.

"The main thing is I can't allow what my audience wants to affect what I make, because that's when they will surely turn their backs on me. People know when you're faking it."

You get the sense that Slug wouldn't be capable of "faking it" even if he tried. Here's a man who helped turned introspection into a mainstay of modern hip hop. And he began doing so at a time in the late '90s when rap was just starting to go pop, when big-name MCs were all flash and no substance, and who, along with a handful of his peers, helped populate an emerging underground hip-hop scene with misfits and wierdos hell-bent on carving out their own niche.

Yet, with all the contributions Atmosphere has made to the art form, megastardom has mostly eluded one of hip hop's most enduring acts, not that Slug really cares at this point.

"When I first started touring, I was trying to get famous, I wanted some money, I wanted some sex, I wanted to party," he says. "Now, I want to try new tricks onstage. I want validation from the audience and from my peers. I want internal validation that comes from basically pulling off a stunt I've never pulled off before. It's a whole different trip. I don't give a fuck about an after-party. Are you fucking kidding me? I'm 'bout to go on the bus and watch Season 3 of Game of Thrones and smoke a joint by myself."

As he inches further into middle age, Slug — an empathetic soul if ever there was one — seems to have gained a better understanding of just what makes us tick — the good, the bad, and yes, the ugly.

"I believe that the things we do, even the negative traits we show, they're all very natural to us," he muses. "We are a bacteria, but I don't want to say that in a way that reflects negatively, I wanna say it in a way that shows this is what we are and I still love us — even for that."

As the interview winds down, Slug — your favourite rapper's favourite rapper — stops the car to give directions to a passerby.

"Some dude was way on the wrong side of town," he says. Because Slug knows we all get a little lost sometimes, and when we do, he'll be there to help us find our way.

Atmosphere's eighth studio album, Southsiders, is in stores now. They play the Squamish Valley Music Festival on Sunday, Aug. 10.