Members: Slug (Sean Daley), Ant (Anthony Davis)
Occupation: Producer (Ant), Rapper (Slug)
Current release: Atmosphere's new full-length album WORD? is out via Rhymesayers Entertainment on October 8th 2021.
Recommendations: I personally love memoirs. A couple of my favorite books are from two artists that I find truly inspiring, and am in awe of:
• Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
• Miles: The Autobiography - Miles Davis
If you enjoyed this interview with Atmosphere and would like to get to know their work better, visit their official website or their artist page at Rhymesayers. You can also follow them on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I started out as a D.J. in the early 80's making mix tapes, showing off how I could scratch a record and gradually began working with rappers. At that time, having a drum beat and doing scratches for a chorus was all the job required. As the times, music, and my own personal growth progressed, so did the art of what I did.
I was influenced by my dad who, in the late 70’s and early 80’s, made a hobby of collecting records. He was deejaying these disco parties and playing music that included early rap records. Then 1983 kicked in — I was 13 and I saw GRANDMASTER FLASH in the movie WILD STYLE.
Same year, I saw D.ST in the Herbie Hancock ROCKIT tour video. It was a very influential year for me.
I would say a combination of those early influences have had me on the same path all of my life.
What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Definitely that my dad was big into playing records all the time, particularly funk, soul, and jazz. All of my early life I had a soundtrack to go along with the moments, memories and feelings that I had. Now I am drawn to, and want to be a part of making that for other people.
For example, I remember at a very early age my dad playing Herbie Hancock’s "Watermelon Man" and hearing that amazing intro, then the drums kick in, and at the same time looking at the beautiful purple and yellow spaced out record cover, just having my mind completely blown.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own sound?
I started by trying to copy deejaying routines by FLASH, D.ST and JAM MASTER JAY. The actual physical part— let alone the mental part, was not an easy thing to figure out. Asking myself questions like …. What is that box in the middle of the turntables? What's in the headphones compared to what I am hearing? What are those records they are using?
The basics of scratching records was a mystery in the beginning. Once I moved naturally into drum machines, keyboards and samplers it became a little easier because at least there were manuals to read for those! Even though I was never big on directions, at least there was a starting point. I just messed around until I thought I was getting to what Marley Marl was doing.
In hip hop, you were always supposed to be original—NO BITING! Admitting you were copying your heroes was a no-no, so I pushed myself to be as original as possible as fast as I could, but there were tons of influences over the years.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
When I started making music, I believe I was trying to find a place I belonged. When I started feeling accepted, making friends, gaining some admiration and had something to care about, that helped me form my identity and gain confidence. That confidence has fueled my creativity.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The main challenge in those days was lack of equipment, and knowledge. Rap was new and there was no Google or YouTube tutorials. Now I would say time is my only real challenge. Figuring out how to spend my time on particular pieces. I could spend countless hours on a minute detail that probably doesn't matter. Knowing when to let go or whether to keep going is something I still struggle with.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument?
When I started, my main tools were records and turntables, and that remains the case. Around ’86 I started adding any cheap keyboard or drum machines I could get my hands on. I would do a very primitive repetitive process, like record-cutting two break beats onto tape, then play that tape through a mixer, and then I played a keyboard part onto another tape. Then I repeated that with a rapper doing his part and me doing the scratch chorus part — but live without the option of punching in for either of us. Obviously the sound quality would be horrible but it was still fun.
I discovered four-track tape machines by ’88-’89 and that changed everything. I could not believe how far behind I was — I was doing everything the hard way! Soon after that I found the EPS, and then the ASR10 — that was another life changer. I still use the ASR10 to this day. These discoveries were also financial challenges. I rarely had extra money, so I would have to be lucky to get a hold of these types of machines.
I slowly collected pieces here and there. Of course that was on top of collecting new and old records too, that has always been a thing for me.
What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments / tools / equipment over the years?
Starting back in ’94 I was using the ASR10 sampling keyboard for my building blocks, though more recently I use it more as a sketch tool.
For about the last 15 years, in order to get something deeper and a more dynamic sound for what I am doing, I have started hiring various musicians to help me achieve this goal.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Absolutely, like when I finally gave in and started using protools, and came around to the idea of computers being involved in the making of hip hop. That was when everything became limitless. Mostly for the better, at least for my music. I still don’t like computers.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
When I’m working with a vocal artist, I prefer initially working together at my home studio. I play the sketch of what I have and then together we go over the subjects they are working with and talk about the various ways to write about what they are feeling. Also the way it could be delivered, and arrangements.
Although every situation is different and being flexible is something I try to work on. These days a lot of stuff is done via email, but that’s not as fun of a process.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule?
When I’m not touring, my routine is to try and get up around 10 or 11 a.m. I have some morning beverages—lemon water, daily greens juice, coffee. I do some kind of cardio, and then a bunch of time with my two young kids. We do family things, and then at the end of the night, after my kids and wife go to bed, I go down to my basement studio.
So by 10 p.m. I am just creating whatever I feel. If it's going well then I will only stop when I’m exhausted, but if it’s just going okay I’ll stop by 3:30 a.m. and go to sleep. I wake up and do it all over again the next day.
How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Music is my passion, and it’s also my business. On top of that, a majority of my friends are in the music industry as well. With those friends it does feel seamless. We can hang out and talk business and everything else. Some aspects of my life I do manage to keep separate.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
For me there is not a single event or show that was the breakthrough. My breakthrough has been all of the people I have met and the lifelong friendships I’ve made and all the experiences that happened along the way. For me, it’s all of it.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I have no magic key to being creative. Sometimes things come easy, sometimes nothing at all. I can’t force it—but I will attempt to give it a push though.
I do my best to not let a day go by without at least trying something, even if it’s something very minor.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I have seen people carry guns because they heard it in a song, that probably never would have otherwise. Same with the use of drugs and alcohol. However, I have also seen music heal. It’s something as simple as feeling that you're not alone, or that you are not crazy for the feelings you have.
Music can also teach. I personally can't count how many things I learned from artists like Public Enemy, KRS-1, and Rakim.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I believe as long as being inspired by other cultures is done with respect, care and acknowledgment, it can be beautiful.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
For me, seeing a movie and the use of musical score to strike certain emotions is an amazing art.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Stop reading this, go plug in your headphones and listen to Maggot Brain by FUNKADELIC, and that will answer this question.
Eddie Hazel’s guitar playing is one of the most heart wrenching things ever recorded on this earth.