"I think art can light the fire, and then the people have to figure out how to take the fire and burn shit down," says Slug.

When Sean “Slug” Daley grabbed his first pen and paper to jot down a few similar words through cadence, the first Bush sat in the round office, 2Pac was still alive (or maybe still is?) and interconnected computers only existed in laboratories and on costly military bases. The world was different. The past always is.

It wouldn’t be until 1997 before his group, Atmosphere, dropped its first album titled “Overcast!” The defining collection includes one other emcee, Spawn (who left the group before the album was released), trading verses with the underground newcomer over tracks produced by Anthony “Ant” Davis. After its release, the two remaining members easily solidified their respective handles in the midwest hip-hop culture through college radio spins.

As time passed, the realities surrounding the two artists began to develop exponentially, with the duo moving through — with little help from popular media — national tours, venue sellouts and embedding themselves into a burgeoning subculture of wayward loyalists searching for a voice of their own.

The group’s demanding touring schedule even fed a rumor mill around Colorado (before anyone had pocket access to Google) that the emcees were a locally bred act because of how often they played. The state often claimed them as their own.

“You know, it’s not just Colorado,” says Slug. “Chicago thought we were local there, too. You say things like ‘south side’ or ‘Clinton Avenue’ in your songs — you don’t think about the fact that there’s probably a Clinton Avenue in many, many cities across America. [laughs] Or that every city has a south side.”

Slug and Ant were fastened to the road, which — even in today’s industry — is an absolute bullet point to any artist who wants to be taken seriously as a contributor, especially in the underground hip-hop arena, where fans tend to be more finicky about locale and representation than other scene. Atmosphere had to build its base organically before legitimacy fell into its reputation.

“When we started touring, we committed,” says Slug. “We made that commitment, because it was more fun than not. It was more fun than being at home, so we did it, and it worked.“

At current, with damn near twenty years behind him, Slug says he often wonders why fans still willingly flock to his vocal deliveries en masse. It’s a solid validation he’s never taken for granted, then again, he says he’s never really asked for much from fans to be legitimized anyways.

“I’m the easiest,” says Slug. “I’m just validated by the fact that people still let us do this shit. For me, my main validation here just comes from the fact that people show appreciation and people care. People care about what we do, and that’s huge.”

Even though he’s deep in the game and says he treasures what he does, Slug still sits back to think about what would have to happen in order for him to “land this plane.” He doubts anything could happen, really, and wants to continue making songs — regardless if anyone were on the receiving end to hear them.

“I’m gonna probably be in Anthony’s basement writing songs far, far beyond when people have stopped listening to the songs we’ve made,” he says.

But the future comes without much of a warning, and he knows that. So here he exists, between reflections of his long-running artistic past and the inevitable visions of a future in hip-hop — a powerful culture that’s given him uncountable opportunities to change lives. If the ability to speak to strangers through song continues, Slug says, there’s no reason to give it up. What else would he want to do?

“Politics,” Slug jokes. “Government — I’m gonna run for governor … no, I don’t know, man. I don’t know — I’m at a place where the balance is starting to shift and it’s becoming more fun and less work. The job part has taken a backseat to the fun part again.”

Jokes aside, conscious hip-hop — like that of Slug’s introspective gallery of self-worrying anecdotes, often masked between metaphorical rhyme structures and humoristic prose — has always been a plea of social evolution. It’s there to try and make things better. To damn that which make it worse. It’s a shout outward from the tops of computerized snares, vinyl scratches and worldly inspired 808 beats to alter the course — to make things better for the next generation of heads.

The art itself isn’t powerful enough though, says Slug, because if historic predecessors couldn’t do it, why can he, why can anyone with a microphone? He says he was there when Chuck D and Public Enemy tried to do it, and is fully aware of what Bob Marley tried to do … and John Lennon … and others. Current artists like Kendrick Lamar try to do the same, but he’s not ready to give art a credence of power.

“I want to 100 percent cosign on that,” he says. “We always romanticize how powerful art and artists can be, but the truth is, you’re only as powerful as your congregation. I don’t want to fall for it. I don’t want that to be the reason I slipped and didn’t pay enough attention to what the politicians were doing. I’m afraid of teaching the kids that art is the way to go. Or that art is what’s going to effect change. I think art can light the fire, and then the people have to figure out how to take the fire and burn shit down.”

He’s clear to mention that every influential artist is important and necessary, and he has the greatest respect for what they do, but he also fears the current climate of violence and oppression overshadows a few well-meaning songs. “Here’s the thing,” says Slug, “all the white people love Bob Marley, but here we still are today, in 2015, still having to yell ‘Black Lives Matter’ because of the fact cops are still profiling black people.”

Action is the people’s responsibility; an artists is to get them behind an idea and to use that idea as society’s rebuild.

While he stays wrapped in a culture of personal and social transition, he still has a business to maintain. In 1995, while he was still relatively new to the industry (a few years before the pirate sharing site Napster would rattle the foundation of music), he and three others started the Rhymesayers Entertainment label — now an iconic independent label with more than two-dozen rostered artists.

Being able to come into the industry without initially dealing with the dramatics of online consumption and streaming worries is a blessing, says Slug, because it allowed him and the lineup of artists to reach followers who still bought physical albums before any changes happened to the industry. Their loyalty — to both himself and the Rhymesayers brand — has kept it selling physical copies, even in today’s throwaway culture of singles and dispensable artists.

“I recognized this early on,” he says, “people want to support you, because they believe in you — not just because they like your songs, but because they also like what you have to say about certain topics. Or they like the way you address them. Or who knows what.

“If you can get people to believe in you, then it doesn’t matter if you’re selling a shirt, a record, a book, or just distributing handshakes. Support comes, and hopefully it turns into somebody offering you a pillow and a bowl of soup sometimes.”

He says Rhymesayers hasn’t had to alter its business plan much over the years, because he believes the fans value the motive behind it. There are obvious expansions it enacts to stay on par with the rest of the industry, but the label builds value first, and worries about money running through the account second.

“We continue to try and do our best as old people to stay up with whatever the youth are into as far as how they prefer to listen to their music,” Slug says behind a laugh. “That said: we try and make the packaging as interesting as possible. We make it something that’s fun to hold in your hand. If someone is going to show me appreciation by giving me money they worked for, I have to make sure they’re getting some work in return.”

The decades of work he’s reaping returns on keeps him in a place where he’s able to continue performing to crowds of fans. It’s not lasers, mirrors cloaked in smoke or any other theatrics he relies on to put an audience in the seats, either — it’s words. Rhymes written in a rhythmic succession with lines filled tight of thought and experience. It works.

“I’ve never been much for bells and whistles when it comes to what we do,” he says. “I just want to show you what’s on my mind or what’s inside of my heart right now — oh goodness, I sound like a greeting card. You know what it is? You know what, that’s what we’re bringing to Red Rocks, is a big fucking greeting card!”

He’ll bring his pen to sign it, too.

Atmosphere w/ Dialated Peoples, Brother Ali and Get Cryphy // Friday, August 28, 2015 // Red Rocks Amphitheatre