When he saw the 612 area code come up on his phone last week, Freeway figured it was someone from his new record label calling.
"I've been on the phone with them a lot lately," the Philadelphia rapper said with a laugh. "That's how it is with Rhymesayers: Everything's a lot more hands-on."
This year, Rhymesayers' hands-on approach has taken on a much farther reach. In a year unintentionally devoid of new albums by hometown staples Atmosphere, Brother Ali, P.O.S. and Eyedea & Abilities (the latter three all put out discs in 2009), the label has focused much of its energy on rappers from opposite ends of the United States.
In addition to Freeway, Rhymesayers also is now working with Seattle-bred, New York-based buzz kid Grieves and two Los Angeles rappers, Abstract Rude and Dilated Peoples co-founder Evidence.
The label's cross-country imprint is also evident in the lineup for its third annual Soundset festival. Happening again Sunday outside Canterbury Park in Shakopee, the nine-hour music marathon features more out-of-towners, including Method Man & Redman, Del the Funky Homosapien and Hieroglyphics, Murs, Cage and Wiz Khalifa, plus Freeway and Grieves.
Returning for his second Soundset, Grieves said the festival's reputation has grown alongside that of Rhymesayers.
"When I got out to Shakopee last year, I couldn't believe the scene," he said, pronouncing it "Shack-o-pee."
Signing with Rhymesayers years later was "like a dream come true," Grieves said, confirming that the label is hardly just a Midwest phenomenon. "For a lot of hip-hop fans, it's the only label that matters. Even if people have never heard of you, they'll pay attention when you say, 'I'm on Rhymesayers.'"
Grieves and his DJ/production partner Budo have already released one EP on the label and reissued a prior album, and they are working toward a new full-length later this year. They also made their own remix of five songs from the latest album by Felt, the fabled Slug-Murs collaboration (available at Rhymesayers.com as a charitable download).
From Jay-Z to J-Bird
While Grieves' background is similar to many of Rhymesayers' homegrown acts, Freeway was something of a first for the label: He came out of the mainstream rap world, having released two albums with Jay Z's Roc-A-Fella Records and worked with Kanye West as his producer.
"I guess I felt like we had Obama in office, so it was a good time for change in my career, too," the rapper quipped.
Rhymesayers gave Freeway total artistic freedom on "Stimulus Package," a thematic album issued in March and produced with DJ/producer Jake One. The label has also put him in front of a more appreciative audience, he said, and introduced him to something else new: a royalty check.
"I've never seen money off of my records before this, and I'm a gold-selling artist!" he said. "Before this, I was only playing in clubs where people weren't there to listen to the music. It was all guys there to pick up women. Now, the audiences are always listening and know the words to the songs."
Rhymesayers president Siddiq downplayed this year's run of non-Minnesotan releases, saying "it just worked out that way." He pointed to past signees such as MF Doom, Blueprint, Soul Position and Psalm One as proof the label has always had much more than just a local roster. And he laughed off any notion that these non-Minnesotan releases might distract from -- or come at the expense of -- Atmosphere, Ali or the label's other local acts.
"They're the ones who usually come to us and say, 'You gotta sign this guy!'" he said.
"Our local acts are a lot more than just artists signed to our label. They're guys we grew up with, family and all that. We're basically all just a bunch of rap nerds. So when we see somebody else we like and all believe in, like Freeway or Grieves, we just go for it."
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658