In 1995, DJ Brent “Stress” Sayers and rapper Sean “Slug” Daley formed Rhymesayers in Minneapolis (the name was partly inspired by Stress’ surname). It was a venture that consisted of the usual neighborhood hustles — organizing shows with their Headshots crew and making Headshots tapes for fans. It was part of a wave of subterranean, local scenes that flourished in the mid ‘90s, nurtured by protean Internet chat rooms and college radio stations. Homegrown collectives like Rhymesayers, with its DIY ethos, seemed hopelessly removed from the mainstream, and distinctly distanced from the East Coast and West Coast rap conflicts that threatened to tear the industry apart.
Two decades later, Rhymesayers Entertainment is planning “Rhymesayers20,” an anniversary concert December 4 at Minneapolis’ Target Center, with tickets going for the egalitarian price of $20. More than two-dozen artists from the label’s history will appear, including early Headshots member and rapper Musab (then known as Beyond), and newer signees such as Prof and deM atlaS. To commemorate the event, Rhymesayers released an 80-track compilation of essential cuts in November.
From Indie Upstart to Major Player
Rhymesayers is arguably the biggest indie rap label in the country (it has been distributed by Warner Music Group since 2007). Its flagship artist is Atmosphere, the group Slug formed with producer Anthony “Ant” Davis, and rapper Spawn, who left the group after the group’s 1997 debut, Overcast!. Atmosphere’s early recordings are classic “emo rap,” with Slug confessing his neuroses, fears and difficulties sustaining relationships through vividly told stories such as “The Woman with the Tattooed Hands,” and “Modern Man’s Hustle.” Since that start, Atmosphere has built a modest mainstream audience, and their 2014 album, Southsiders, peaked at number 8 on the Billboard album charts.
However, Rhymesayers remains critically ghettoized, reduced to a peculiarity not worthy of mention alongside other imprints like Cash Money and Roc-A-Fella. But, how can one compare Rhymesayers to Cash Money’s roster that once boasted everyone from Lil Wayne and Drake to Nicki Minaj? Rather than debate whether Rhymesayers is as important as Cash Money, it’s more important to note Rhymesayers has made an impact that can’t be quantized in terms of record sales and radio hits.
In the late ‘90s, Rhymesayers was one of the first companies (along with Stones Throw, Hiero Imperium, Solesides/Quannum and a few others) to recognize the self-sustaining indie-rock model created by Sub Pop and Matador could be successfully adopted within hip-hop. Part of that model requires Rhymesayers to take a multitude of paths: they receive scant national press attention, yet are able to sustain a healthy following; its artists tour constantly and they’re supported by a web store stocked with merchandise and limited edition items; fan events like the annual hometown Soundset Festival held on Memorial Day weekend serve equally as a show of gratitude as well as a means to draw in new fans. This all means that, unlike, say, G.O.O.D. Music and Maybach Music Group, Rhymesayers’ income stream isn’t dependent on a major label’s marketing support. As a result, it has inspired other hip-hop labels, such as Mello Music Group, that want to reach a wide audience but don’t necessarily have artists with pop potential (Red Pill, Mr. Lif, Apollo Brown).
Rhymesayers is an undeniable business success. To paraphrase one of Atmosphere’s best-known songs, even the rap nerds hopelessly enthralled with zeitgeist-shifting major label baubles “don’t ever f*cking question that.”
Commensurate respect for Rhymesayers’ output is often lacking despite occasional projects by universally beloved rappers like MF Doom and his 2004 album, Mm.. Food. So much of mainstream rap in 2015 centers on rappers disarming themselves through first-person storytelling: whether it’s J. Cole reminiscing about awkward teenage sex in “Wet Dreamz,” or Yelawolf trying to find peace with his longtime girlfriend throughout Love Story. It’s easy to trace those songs back to Atmosphere with “The Abusing of the Rib,” a 1998 track where Slug weaves metaphorical language to illustrate his tortured relationship with women, or in Biblical terms, Adam’s rib. Yet overall, the group’s indirect impact on hip-hop stars goes unacknowledged.
Atmosphere didn’t invent emo rap. Earlier rappers, notably Common on “Book of Life” and Organized Konfusion on “Stress” established rap lyricism as a potential navel-gazing exercise. But it was Atmosphere that personified it.
A 2000 article in the Minneapolis/St.Paul alt-weekly City Pages identified early on how Atmosphere would be typecast. “[Slug] feels some of the ambivalence the other Rhymesayers – most of them men of color, most of them parents – must feel about the giddy white teens pouring into the crew’s Soundset parties at First Avenue,” Peter Scholtes wrote. It wasn’t always the case: Overcast! earned positive reviews in traditional outlets such as The Source, but that they were eventually marginalized reflected wider trends. As rap mainstream increasingly centered on the acquisition of fame and wealth, underground hip-hop was dismissed as a netherworld for white “backpackers” who hopelessly clung to outmoded musical styles.
Race within hip-hop culture also remains a fraught and difficult subject. Critics and fans often dismiss white rappers such as Macklemore (another chart-topping rapper clearly influenced by Atmosphere), as unworthy beneficiaries of societal privilege, whether it’s true or not.
Yet, Rhymesayers’ roster has always been distinctly multi-racial. Slug’s father is African-American, and his mother is of Scandinavian descent. Brother Ali, perhaps the label’s best-known act next to Atmosphere, is partially blind from albinism. Black, Latino, Asian, and white artists have recorded for Rhymesayers. Collectively, they carry an outcast ethos, slightly out of place in the world, who use hip-hop as their means of communication. Their modesty and rebel spirit is what draws people to their work.
When Brother Ali released The Undisputed Truth in 2007, he sounded a call for political activism and spiritual renewal. He protested the federal government on “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” and celebrated his Muslim faith on “Daylight.” Michael “Eyedea” Larsen, who passed away in 2010, won several MC battles in the late ‘90s, and used that freestyle technique on recordings where he relentlessly probed his mind and the world around him. His 2002 solo album as Oliver Hart, The Many Faces of Oliver Hart, or, How Eye Won The Write Too Think, is an under-heard gem. P.O.S, aka “Pissed Off Stefon” Alexander, codified a fusion of underground rap and hardcore punk on 2005’s Audition. He also formed Doomtree, a record label and crew inspired by Atmosphere and Rhymesayers’ ethos of poetical epiphany.
Throughout its history, Rhymesayers has released significant work that demands the audience expand its understanding of rap beyond Internet trends and pop juggernauts in favor of a view that encompasses all aspects of the culture.
A Durable Institution
Today, the Rhymesayers business seems secure. It re-issues memorable albums from its catalog, most recently Atmosphere’s 2007 album You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having on green and red vinyl, and a 10-year anniversary edition of Felt 2, a side project between Slug and L.A. rapper Murs. No longer just a home for Twin Cities rappers, Rhymesayers attracts former major label acts (Dilated Peoples), indie kings (Aesop Rock), party rappers (Prof), as well as acts that reflect its emo reputation (Grieves). Two decades after the first Headshots tape, Rhymesayers has grown into a durable institution.
For its anniversary concert, a list has been posted on Rhymesayers’ website, “20 Reasons to Spend $20 on Rhymesayers20.” Among the justifications are “Seven hours of Rhymesayers music, dancing and throwing your hands in the air like you just don’t care,” and “Atmosphere, it’s just a ten letter word.” Left unsaid is the fact that it’s also a chance to celebrate one of the great rap labels of the millennium.