Father's Day came a few weeks early for members of the Rhymesayers hip-hop crew -- or at least that's how it looked backstage at the Soundset '08 festival.
Held over Memorial Day weekend in front of 12,000 fans outside the Metrodome, the day-long concert was an all-out family affair. The Twin Cities' best-known rappers came out tough and cool on stage but were pussycats behind the scenes. As rappers' kids played and moms talked over picnic tables, the dads made sure that their kids had proper ear protection and were drinking enough under the hot sun. So much for groupies and Cristal or whatever else 50 Cent will have you believe is behind every rap show.
"I know you understand why I go out of town," the scene's ringleader, Atmosphere's Slug (Sean Daley), sang on stage near the end of the day. "I also know my days are colder when you're not around."
Slug's song "Little Man" -- an open letter to his son Jacob, 13 -- is one of several in the Atmosphere canon to address fatherhood in realistic, sometimes painful but more often elated terms. Brother Ali has a few such songs, too, notably "Faheem," named for his 8-year-old son, in which he shares hard truths: "I just pray that you don't remember us sleeping on the floor/ And me cleaning mouse droppings out of your toys/ It took a lot of hard work for us to get where we at/ And young man, we ain't quitting at that."
Now that success has come for many of the Rhymesayers rappers, parenting hasn't necessarily gotten easier. Ali lamented the fact that he would be on a monthlong European tour over Father's Day, which meant that his wife, Tiffany, would be home alone with Faheem and their 2-month-old daughter, Soul. "I'll have some making up to do when I get home -- if my wife even takes me back," he said sheepishly.
Background: Ali (last name: Newman) fought for custody of Faheem, 8, with his ex-wife, a battle recounted on last year's acclaimed album "The Undisputed Truth." Faheem has become the youngest Rhymesayers star, thanks to an MTV commercial for the new Atmosphere album in which he battle-raps Slug (and wins). Ali and his new wife welcomed a daughter, Soul, in April.
Favorite thing about being a dad: "I love everything about it, even the parts that are hard. It feels like one of the very few things I'm on this earth to do. I basically have my music, my spirituality and my family. That's my life."
Biggest challenge as a rapper dad: "Being gone. I'm gone a lot. It's really unfortunate, but the positive side of it is that when I'm home, I get to make my own schedule. I go work on my music after he goes to bed until he wakes up. I sleep when he's at school. I wake up when he gets home."
General philosophy on exposing kids to hip-hop: "There's a lot of music I like that we intentionally don't play around him. There are some songs, though, where if the message is positive enough, the cursing is OK with me. He knows and likes Jay-Z, who curses a lot, but I feel like his music is still positive. Whereas Ghostface, who I love and is a friend, he's painting a picture of something that's ugly and negative, so we don't listen to it."
Favorite thing about having a rapper dad: "These fans come when Daddy's coming out at a show. They're like, 'Alright, let's hear it for Brother Ali! Sing!' It's like everyone is a person who's a son, and he's like a rapper taking care of them."
Least favorite thing about it: "When he goes out on tour, it makes me really sad. One day, I was doing my homework and he was about to leave, so I finished my homework so I could hang out with him."
Favorite song by Dad: "Daylight."
Favorite rapper besides Dad: Slug.
I SELF DEVINE
Background: A pioneering local rapper in the Micranots, I Self (Chaka Mkali) has also been a leader on the fatherhood front. He has one daughter -- Sahkeena, 14 -- and three sons -- Ash, 10; Ezrah, 2, and Kahlil, 6 weeks.
Favorite thing about being a dad: "Children are an investment you can constantly see. At the end of the day, they're my biggest accomplishment."
Hardest thing about being a rapper dad: "They both require a lot of time and work, so the challenge is figuring out how to balance it all. If the MC-ing is requiring some kind of stability, then it's a job, even if you love it. I've been fortunate enough to be in that situation, but I also know that people on their death bed don't wish they had been a better musician. They wish they had spent more time with their family. I have the kind of family where they let me know. My son will say, 'I feel like you haven't been spending enough time with me,' and just the fact that he says that speaks volume to the relationship we have."
General philosophy on exposing kids to hip-hop: "It's going to be around regardless of whether I introduce it to them or not. In my presence, though, certain things are not going to be flagrantly displayed or said if it's not in line. To a certain extent, that even informs how I write. I'm not going to say 'b----' about a woman. With my mom, the N-word is one where she's like, 'Come on!' and I think about it more now, too."
Favorite thing about having a rapper dad: "He's really cool when he raps. He's a good rapper, one of my favorite rappers."
Hardest thing about it: "There are times he's not able to come home at my bedtime, so I can't give him a good-night kiss. Sometimes I can't hang out with him as much as I want to."
Favorite song by Dad: "Cold Anger."
Favorite rapper besides Dad: 50 Cent or Ludacris.P.O.S.
Background: The punk-styled, sociopolitical rapper (Stefon Alexander) became a dad while still a teenager. He has often credited Jacob, 8, for driving him to be more ambitious in his music career.
Favorite thing about being a dad: "Pretty easy: watching him grow up and learn things like respect and responsibility, but also still getting to watch him be a kid and have fun through it all. Sometimes I feel like I'm hard on him -- you know, I'm a real dad that way -- and it's nice to see that stuff actually pay off, because he's a great kid."
Hardest thing about being a rapper dad: "Aside from touring, which is the obvious thing, it's hard to see what I do reflected on his daily life. One of his friends in school mentioned to him that he thinks I rap like puke [laughs]. I'm certain this kid never heard any of my songs, he just knew I was a rapper. Stuff like that could get harder."
Philosophy on exposing kids to hip-hop: "I am very traditional in the sense that I don't let him listen to much that he shouldn't hear. As cool as some stuff can be, he'll figure it out on his own when he gets older. When he does hear a song with swearing in it, he knows he's not supposed to say those words. For the most part, though, we listen to the stuff you can sing along to more than the stuff you rap along to."
Favorite thing about having a rapper dad: "I think it's really, really fun. I ended up making a friend named Elliott because his dad listens to my dad. He said my dad could be a legend. I'm like, 'Why?' And we became friends."
Least favorite thing about it: "When I go out on stage, sometimes I get a little stage fright. I get stage fright a lot."
Favorite song by Dad: "The one where he's like, '[grinding/humming noise].'" ["Flex."]
Favorite rapper besides Dad: Cecil Otter, P.O.S.'s cohort from Doomtree.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658