Editor's note: This is a reprint of the Star Tribune's first full-fledged story on Rhymesayers.
No one's keeping score, but this month may be a high point for local hip-hop. Two acts in particular — the duo Atmosphere and soloist Beyond — have been in constant motion, playing two house parties and three 7th Street Entry gigs, including the "Best New Band of 1996" showcase.
"In the last month, we've done about nine shows," says Slug Daley of Atmosphere, which was also part of Saturday's sold-out "Artcore" music and dance fest at Southern Theater in Minneapolis. "I was never expecting the live thing to go this far locally, but now the clubs are coming to us saying `Come play this, come play that.' "
To this point, local hip-hop artists have never prospered in the popular music venues. The recent breakthrough by Atmosphere and Beyond is the result of much groundwork by a resourceful crew called Rhyme Sayers Entertainment. The five-person group is thriving thanks to street-wise marketing, persistent live appearances, and consistently high-quality cassette releases that have become collectors' items. And they do it with little of the ego tripping and attitude that's tripped up numerous hip-hoppers looking for respect in Twin Cities rock clubs.
"We've never dwelled on the obstacles," says Rhyme Sayers CEO/producer Brent Sayers (a k a Stress). "We're more focused on getting our foot in the door of any place that's interested in what we're doing."
Part of the reason for local hip-hop's new popularity may be generational. The twentysomething artists in Rhyme Sayers and other local groups are connecting with an audience that has grown up with hip-hop, and expects to see it live. Last year, Rhyme Sayers held a hugely popular series of all-ages shows at the Mighty Fine Coffeehouse in northeast Minneapolis.
Rhyme Sayers and various members of Headshots, a Twin Cities rap collective, have gained further exposure on KFAI-FM's Saturday night hip-hop program "Strictly Butter," which promotes live shows, and also plays Rhyme Sayers/Headshots cassettes. The most recent tape, "History: Life, Death, and Struggle," is a sure-shot local sampler dedicated to Herbie Foster IV (a.k.a. Sess) of Abstract Pack and Soul Eclipse, who died in a car crash this fall.
For their part, Rhyme Sayers have developed a lyric style that is realistic without being comically thuggish. Musical tracks are simple but catchy, without distracting from the verbal flow. And Rhyme Sayers has persisted in issuing affordable cassettes as a musical testing ground, even though tapes are considered rather declasse in the CD age. The practice has paid off in the consistently high quality of material on Beyond's debut CD, "Comparison," the first CD on Rhyme Sayers Entertainment.
"We don't make the kind of music that you throw on a single and send to a radio station to get it played a billion times," says Slug, a part-time clerk at the Electric Fetus record store in south Minneapolis. "We make headphone music."
In the past, many local hip-hop groups have been content to stay in the studio and wait (usually in vain) for a record deal. Beyond and Atmosphere, by contrast, have grabbed opening slots and unglamorous weeknight shows to get exposure and experience — part of the reason they've emerged as a leading hip-hop tandem, mixing written pieces or freestyle verse.
During a December blizzard, Atmosphere and Beyond started off playing to an empty 7th Street Entry at the dreaded 8:45 p.m. time slot. A lot of groups would've canceled, or cut the gig short, but Atmosphere worked doubly hard to bring this dead show to life. Slug urged everybody to pull their chairs onto the floor, and even singled out a wallflower in the back of the club: "Frank, we're gonna make you feel it before we're through." Frank was initially unimpressed, but by show's end, he gave the "thumbs up" after other musicians and spectators had drifted in to join the party.
"We try to get as intimate as possible with these people," says Slug. "The way we're bringing it to them is not like `Hey, look at me. . . . I make tons of loot.' It's more like, `Hey, how ya doing?
Here's what I'm doing now, you might do this too, and then I'll come and watch you.' "
Abstract Pack, Atmosphere, Native Ones and Phull Surkle perform at the CD release party for "Beyond - Comparison" Jan. 20 at 7th Street Entry, 701 1st Av. N., Minneapolis. 338-8388. Abstract Pack also plays 7th Street Entry, Feb. 2.