Sean Daley doesn’t seem to exert a lot of energy making other people feel welcome in his world. Or at least me: When I step into the smallish midtown-Manhattan hotel room he’s sleeping in for a few days, he shows me a seat next to a slightly cracked window through which he’s blowing some of his cigarette smoke, the rest of which envelops my face. When he loses his train of thought during his answers to a couple of my questions, he devolves into hoarse giggles and admits that he’s really fucking high right now. When he doesn’t lose his train of thought one time, he says he wishes he didn’t tell me what he just told me, because he doesn’t want to ruin his songs for people who don’t know what he thinks they’re about.
Despite the reluctant-interviewee mien, Daley is one of the most strangely open folks I’ve had the pleasure of lobbing questions at. He talks freely about his emotional ups and downs, his relationships with women, his use and occasional abuse of drug and drink, the fluid opinion he holds of his audience, and the record-biz machinations that have landed his Minneapolis-based hip-hop group, Atmosphere, on L.A.’s venerable punk institution Epitaph.
“I get to be the first rapper to put a record out on Epitaph!” he beams. “Actually, they should probably put out an M.O.P. record — that’s the most punk-rock rap music in the fucking world.”
Anthony Davis, Daley’s producer partner in Atmosphere and someone I’d nominate for Best Organ Sounds That Evoke Happy-Sad Backyard Barbecues, ambles in after 15 minutes or so. Holding a dwindling six-pack, looking mightily baked himself, he unloads the first in a series of sotto voce chuckles: He’s seen his dear friend do the interview thing a zillion times before, and it still hasn’t gotten old.
Daley’s behavior totally justifies the two references he always gets, both of which begin with em: Eminem and emo. Like Marshall Mathers’, Daley’s raps are hilarious, brutally personal telegraphs from his rowdy but broken Midwestern heart; Lucy Ford, Atmosphere’s 2000 set, might be the underground (and slightly less psychopathic) companion to Eminem’s Kim Mathers plotline. And like the countless groups of tortured young men currently swimming in Jimmy Eat World’s wake, Daley (who, in true self-flagellating emo style, is known on record as Slug) is pretty much obsessed with the relationships he’s managed to destroy or disrupt or deny. Here in this room, he’s trying to square his desire to gush it all out with his inclination to keep it tucked inside; it’s the passive-aggressive exhibitionism so many of his media-celebrity peers share. Plus, he’s really fucking high right now, and can’t remember the question a lot of the time.
“I think that somehow there’s a mood going on in the music that’s being related to not just because you can nod your head to it or move around to it, but there’s an actual mood going on that can fuck with anybody,” Daley says of his music’s unique emotional potency. “I feel like some of his music” — he gestures toward Davis, who’s also called Ant — “it’s not very demanding music, but I still think that it fucks with people. And I like that. I get stories from a lot of kids who explain to me, ‘I used to play this with my girlfriend.’ Or, ‘My boyfriend broke up with me, but I’m still coming to your shows.’”
In the emo world it’s common for fans to approach like that, but doesn’t it happen less frequently in hip-hop?
“I guess so. But I’ve always been the kind of dude that makes friends that way, makes friends by listening. I think it started on a smaller scale, just maybe in my neighborhood. And now I’m in a position to meet tons and tons of people, so the ratio of that climbs. Maybe it’s got something to do with an energy I give up. Lots of kids are fucked up. When I meet kids, it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m fucked up, too.’”
Atmosphere’s new album is called Seven’s Travels, and it’s probably the best one Slug and Ant have made. Inspired by the heavy touring the group did in support of last year’s God Loves Ugly, it follows Slug through a coast-to-coast blur of bars, bedrooms and backstages, the MC deftly capturing life on the road without resorting to lame steel-horse cliché. Of course, that’s easier when the road offers as much drama as home: “Here I am alone in an airport bar/Why? I guess ’cause I don’t own a car/It’s Valentine’s Day, I’m returning home from Berkeley,” he raps in “Denvemolorado,” a queasy rush of swirling soul strings and bare-bones boom-bap. “There’s one woman in the back left corner/Who looks like she could really use a support/If only I could muster the strength to be a friend/Who knows how this adventure could end?” Then Slug gets really emo: “Bend me up, slip me the tongue, shoot me down/Cut me loose, bury me in piss on the ground.”
I ask Daley about a new song called “Shoes,” which zooms in on a conversation between a man and a woman on her living-room floor, “in between a coma and
“Those are your shoes, these are my shoes,” he notices. “We’ve got issues.” He says the cut’s not emo. “I just sound like Tupac on that song.”
“That’s like a fucking standard rap song,” Davis adds. “It sounds like rap, like some hip-hop shit.”
“I think that I accidentally play the part of the character in the story pretty well,” Daley continues, “with my voice and my cadence and where I go, but I wouldn’t call that emo.” He thinks for a split second. “I’d call that act-o.” Laughter all around. “It’s a new genre, spearheaded by me. All the kids’ll be doing it in a minute.”
Daley’s New York–based pal Ian Bavitz, who goes by the approximately 517-times-cooler name Aesop Rock on wax, is less complicated at his record label Def Jux’s Tribeca office earlier that day. Which is unexpected: Bazooka Tooth, Aesop’s excellently titled new album, is an uncommonly dense-ass slab of labyrinthine wordplay and diseased-swamp production, much by the rapper himself. Aesop’s one of those underground MCs for whom a virtual guarantee of zero commercial airplay translates to carte blanche in the verbal-complexity department.
“The Aesop Rock sound isn’t popular,” he says plainly between bites of takeout pad Thai. “People wanna hear something that kind of immediately latches on. And that’s what I wanna hear, too — that’s why I listen to Freeway, some shit that’s immediate adrenaline. And sometimes I wanna hear something where I need to take time with the record.”
Bazooka Tooth’s 70 minutes do require time to properly unpack. Aesop’s production style often sounds like two records playing simultaneously — there’s eerie Arabian bounce, desiccated Blade Runner funk, muscular oompah cave-rock. And where scansion’s a dream with Slug, who rides the beat like a suburban commuter, Aesop burrows deep into the space between the beats, his husky, pinched baritone just spewing words like a fire hose. But his music shares with Atmosphere’s a singularly candid, even immediate emotional intensity. “No Regrets,” a highlight of the rapper’s 2001 breakthrough, Labor Days, charted the life of a hermetic painter named, like Daley’s muse, Lucy. “Dream a little dream or you can live a little dream,” he rapped. “I’d rather live it, ’cause dreamers always chase but never get it.” The new “Babies With Guns” excavates a festering underground of Beanie Babies and drug money, where you field a “midlife crisis when you’re 10 years young”; in “No Jumper Cables,” he illustrates more urban entropy over pealing New Orleans horn blasts and dizzy prog-rock guitar. It’s the same travelogue of everyday disorder Atmosphere delivers, just limited to Aesop’s nonexistent back yard.
“I’m a pretty high-anxiety person,” the MC admits. “I try to have everything be an honest reflection of what’s going on when I’m writing. And, you know, it’s been a funny year and a half in my life. There’s some songs where there’s just weird vocal shit garbled and chopped up to bits, then the beat’ll come out of that, and it’s like — that’s a direct reflection of how I feel every day.”
Atmosphere performs at the Henry Fonda Theater on Monday and Tuesday, September 22 and 23; Aesop Rock performs at the Troubadour on Saturday, September 27.