They started a local hip-hop record label in 1995 because there wasn’t one. They created a hip-hop dance party called Soundset at First Avenue in 1997 because there wasn’t one. They launched a hip-hop festival also called Soundset on Memorial Day weekend in 2008 because there wasn’t one.
All those firsts — which paid off in droves for the Rhymesayers Entertainment crew — partly explains why Minneapolis’ little indie-rap-empire-that-could opted to host its 20th anniversary concert at Target Center on Friday night. Yes, because nobody has done a major indie-rap event at a local sports arena before.
Friday’s event will bring together 30 acts spread out over five hours, all of whom have recorded for the label. They range from Rhymesayers’ flagship artists (Atmosphere, Brother Ali, DJ Abilities) to many of its earliest pioneers (Musab, Los Nativos, Micranots), and from the acts Rhymesayers fostered from infancy (P.O.S., Grieves, Dem Atlas) to well-established names that came to the label later (Aesop Rock, Freeway, Dilated Peoples).
If you ask Slug, though, the biggest bragging point for Friday’s bash isn’t that he and his cronies can fill up the biggest indoor venue in town.
“I’m more impressed that we’re able to get a bunch of out-of-town acts to come to Minnesota in December,” said the real-life Sean Daley, Rhymesayers co-founder and frontman for Atmosphere.
Rhymesayers vice president Jason “J-Bird” Cook, chief organizer of the label’s live events, is proud of another new feat: “We’re bringing in all these acts, putting on this long and ambitious of a show, and we’re still only charging $20 a ticket,” he said. “That’s unheard of for an arena ticket.”
A lot of developments in Rhymesayers history were unheard of when the label pulled them off. Here’s a look back at what we think are the most definitive moments from the company’s first two decades in business.
1. Meeting of the South Siders. Rhymesayers co-founders Slug and Siddiq (Brent Sayers) were classmates at Washburn High but didn’t converge until after school via their mutual friend, ex-Atmosphere rapper Spawn (Derek Turner). “We connected over music, and then we realized we had similar ideas and work ethic,” Siddiq recalled. The latter trait was key.
2. Their first record is a DIY do-over. After successfully shilling their “HeadShots” cassettes in 1995, the Rhymesayers crew’s first official album, “Comparison” by Beyond, aka Musab, was initially a disaster. “The guy didn’t really know what he was doing,” Siddiq remembered of the studio operator. So the budding label president plopped down a couple grand of his own money to buy their own recording equipment, which would be used on subsequent albums, too, including RSE No. 2, “Overcast!” by Atmosphere. “We didn’t really know what we were doing, either,” Siddiq said, “but we figured it out.”
3. Soundset rises at First Avenue. Future Rhymesayers sound engineer Randy Hawkins put in a good word for the crew at the club where he worked, and a weekly dance party was set for Wednesday nights starting in 1997. It was packed from the first few weeks on. “The kids didn’t know or care who Rhymesayers were, they just wanted something like that to do,” Slug said. “It was a built-in audience, and then we shoved our music down their throats.”
4. Atmosphere lands its first hit. “College radio would go crazy for any hip-hop released on vinyl back then, and we knew that,” Slug recalled of the 1997 single “Scapegoat,” from the “Overcast!” album, which is what first got them attention outside Minnesota. Future Rhymesayers staffers Jason “J-Bird” Cook and Kevin Beacham remembered playing the song on their radio show in Chicago. “It blew me away,” J-Bird recalled, “in part because I couldn’t believe there was actually a hip-hop scene in Minnesota.”
5. Minding their own store. “If you like doughnuts, you open a doughnut shop” is how Siddiq summed up the idea behind opening Fifth Element in 1999, the all-hip-hop shop still housed at the same location, 2411 Hennepin Av. S. (with Rhymesayers’ offices now above it). “It built us a good relationship with [record] distributors that went two ways, so it also served the label,” he added.
6. Eyedea wins the trifecta of rap battles. Just then old enough to start playing the 18-and-over clubs with his partner DJ Abilities and mentor Slug, the wiz-kid rapper (Micheal Larsen) took top honors at the country’s top three MC battles — Blaze, Rock Steady and Scribble Jam — in 1999-2000. “No other rapper has ever accomplished that,” J-Bird marveled, “and he did it in one year at such a young age and as a kid from St. Paul.”
7. Ford Econovan meets “Ford One.” With the two “Lucy Ford” EPs gaining national buzz, Atmosphere embarked on a 40-city tour in 2001 with Eyedea & Abilities in tow, the blueprint for many future Rhymesayers treks. J-Bird remembered being “nervous as hell” about the bigger clubs they booked, but many sold out, including their first 1,000-person-capacity venue in Boulder, Colo. “That’s the tour I came home from and said, ‘OK, I can actually pay my bills off of rap,’ ” Slug said.
8. Taking the punk rock route, Part 1. Atmosphere then signed with a booking agent at California’s Kork Agency, known for indie-rock tours. “We were at the very beginning of rappers touring like rock bands,” Slug recalled. “Before us, rock clubs didn’t want to deal with rap acts because they wanted the royal treatment. We were just like, ‘Man, give us water, 12-pack of Bud, we’re good.’ Rappers had to tone down their self-entitlement because of us.”
9. Taking the punk rock route, Part 2. It wasn’t as big as their subsequent partnership with Warner Bros., but a deal with Epitaph Records in 2003 was a key steppingstone. The famed punk label helped distribute and market Atmosphere’s “Seven’s Travels” and Eyedea & Abilities’ “E&A” albums, still some of their biggest sellers. “Epitaph got us from the start,” J-Bird remembered, “because we were doing what they already did, but in hip-hop.”
10. Taking the punk rock route, Part 3. Recognizing the crossover between skater-punk and hip-hop among teenagers, Atmosphere joined the summer teen-punk caravan the Warped Tour in 2004 and 2005, a path taken later by Eyedea and P.O.S. “Besides putting them in front of a lot of new fans, I think it put a lot of good industry people in our corner,” J-Bird said.
11. Conquering Europe via Scandinavia. Atmosphere’s first-ever overseas appearance was at a festival in Aarhus, Denmark, where they arrived to hear a local kid rapping their song “Scapegoat” in Danish. Another memorable moment came a year or two later at a festival in Sweden, where a stage manager cut them off after an ailing Slug vomited behind DJ Dibbs’ table. “They couldn’t get the next group on stage because kids were chanting ‘Atmosphere!’ and throwing rocks,” J-Bird recalled. “In Sweden!”
12. MF Doom joins the roster. It wasn’t the first Rhymesayers album by a non-Minnesotan act (that was Soul Position’s “8 Million Stories” a year earlier), but 2004’s “Mm ... Food” by metal-faced New York rapper MF Doom was a game-changer. “It earned us a lot of respect,” J-Bird recalled. Said Siddiq, “Even with all of Atmosphere’s success, they still fit a little bit on the periphery of the hip-hop spectrum. Doom was, and is, a legend in hip-hop, no question.”
13. Making the TV circuit. There were more momentous national television appearances in Rhymesayers history, including Brother Ali’s NBC debut with Conan O’Brien in 2007 (he was invited to sit on the couch) and Atmosphere’s 2008 Letterman gig (Slug broke the policy and wore an Obama campaign T-shirt). The first time may have been the best time, though, when Atmosphere took to the set of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” in 2003 with his new Felt bandmate Murs in tow. “It was all so new to us, we were just crazy excited,” J-Bird said.
14. Politics come into play. The artistic tone at Rhymesayers changed with two key records: I Self Devine’s “Self Destruction” (2005) and Brother Ali’s “The Undisputed Truth” (2007). “There was topical stuff here and there [on the label], but ‘Self Destruction’ really put it all out there,” Siddiq remembered. Ali followed suit and landed a surprise hit with the single “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” which Siddiq said, “was the breakthrough moment of Ali being seen in a different light.”
15. Casting the Web. The crew took a leap ahead in online marketing with Atmosphere’s 2008 album, “When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That [Bleep] Gold.” They created special YouTube promo episodes and other viral marketing techniques ahead of the advent of social media. “We even won an Effie Award,” Siddiq bragged (an international marketing award, per the gold trophy in their conference room).
16. Atmosphere cracks the Billboard top 10. “When Life Gives You Lemons” earned a No. 5 chart position by selling 36,000 U.S. copies in its first week. “It meant a lot to my mom, but not me,” Slug said, pointing out that the other big new releases that week were by Mariah Carey and Flight of the Conchords. “No kid was in the record store holding up Mariah Carey’s record and ours saying, ‘Damn, which one should I buy?’ ”
17. Soundset rises again as a festival. An idea that dated back to 2001 finally came true in 2008 when Rhymesayers drew 12,000 people to the Metrodome parking lot with a lineup that included all of the label’s local acts plus future signees Aesop Rock and Dilated Peoples. J-Bird remembered, “We talked about it for so long, it was just such a thrill to see it work.” Did it ever. After drawing sellout crowds of 30,000 in recent years outside Canterbury Park, the fest moves to the State Fairgrounds next Memorial Day weekend.
18. Rap legends pay respect. Brother Ali was invited to guest on a 2012 track by Public Enemy, whose leader Chuck D said in a Star Tribune interview: “Rhymesayers set up a real good prototype for the rest of us and showed us how to do it.” A year later, LL Cool J invited Slug to join him for “Big Ole Butt” at Target Center. “That was one of the biggest thrills of my life,” said Slug, who freestyle rhymed “LL Cool J” with “Pizza Lucé.”
19. Where Freeway, Dilated Peoples and Aesop Rock turned. After turns recording for Capitol, Jay Z’s Roc-a-Fella and Def Jux, respectively, those reputable acts all came to Rhymesayers for a more hands-on support for their recent albums. “It’d take a major label years to do what [Rhymesayers] can do in three months,” Dilated Peoples rapper Evidence said at a South by Southwest panel celebrating Rhymesayers in March.
20. Entering a new arena. “We couldn’t fit everyone at First Avenue, so this is the next best option,” J-Bird said of Target Center, where his crew will be the first (mostly) local act to fill the seats since Prince in 2007. Slug summed it up this way: “The fact that we’ve been around 20 years means a lot less to me than the fact that we’re still very much moving forward. We’re still creating big moments every year.”