They could almost call it “Beats by Slug.”
Rhymesayers Entertainment has made a big impact on hip-hop with its little homegrown operation. Now, the Minneapolis record label behind Atmosphere and Brother Ali hopes to give its devoted fan base a big sound on little phone cases, which double as handheld boomboxes.
Like Dr. Dre did with his hugely successful Beats by Dre audio gear line, the local company has partnered with a Los Angeles-based technology start-up, PERI, to create the Rhymesayers PERI Duo case, now available for pre-order for $99.
The cases slide onto an iPhone 6 Plus like a battery-charger case — and they operate as chargers, too — but their main feature is two small, built-in speakers with surprisingly decent audio quality.
Rhymesayers sees it as a melding of new and old: About 60 percent of the label’s music is now streamed via phones; this device offers the kind of old-school, front-stoop party experience that came with boomboxes in the 1980s.
“We think it’s sort of symbolic of what Rhymesayers is all about: cutting-edge with a little classic flavor,” said the label’s chief financial officer, Skye Rossi.
In a demonstration last week at the Rhymesayers offices above Fifth Element record store in Uptown, the sounds of Michael Jackson’s party-starter “P.Y.T.” filled the label’s modest-sized conference room with the power of a small desktop speaker set or average home-docking audio system — not exactly booming like a car stereo, but clear and loud enough to make a conversation difficult.
Even more impressive was when two of the cases were cranked at once. Using a Wi-Fi signal generated by the case itself (instead of the less music-friendly Bluetooth technology), listeners can sync multiple Duo cases to the same song to create a room full of speakers.
“Can’t you just see a bunch of kids hanging out, all playing their music together?” said Rossi.
After hearing the latest prototypes last week, Atmosphere frontman and Rhymesayers co-founder Slug — who has three sons at home — also thinks it’ll be a hit with even younger kids. “[It could] bring parents and their children together for endless hours of living-room dance parties,” he said.
Rhymesayers even intends to stage a phone-case symphony with several dozen of the Duo cases at its Soundset festival at Canterbury Park in May, which is when the cases are expected to start rolling off the manufacturing line. Rossi recounted a similar “phone concert” idea being hatched by one of the label’s star rappers, P.O.S., when he was on the Warped Tour a decade ago.
“He wanted to create a ‘fourth stage’ somewhere over in a corner where the audience could all listen in on their phones,” Rossi recalled, laughing at the memory of them trying to set up a 1-800 number to do so. “The technology obviously wasn’t there yet.”
The new technology was brought to Rhymesayers last year by PERI co-founder Michael Hsu, a Wayzata High School graduate who worked with high-tech companies as an investment banker at Morgan Stanley in Silicon Valley before relocating to L.A.
A technological engineer by trade, Hsu admitted he was not all that aware of Rhymesayers’ music before the newly launched PERI brought in the label as an investor. However, he said he knew enough to know “Rhymesayers has an incredibly loyal fan base, and it reinvented how hip-hop labels are doing their business.
“We had plenty of chances for investors, but not any that brought as much to the table. Their audience is a unique one, and a great one for us to start with.”
Rhymesayers is selling the cases via its website and building the hype in much the same way it would a new album. PERI is also now offering other models via an Indiegogo.com fundraising campaign, which is already well past its initial $100,000 goal.
While he bragged about the technology offered by the Duo cases, Hsu said more generally, “We’re right on the cusp of a big wave of change from Bluetooth to Wi-Fi for audio listening, and it’s a vast improvement.”
Both Hsu and the Rhymesayers crew, however, bristled at the comparisons to Beats by Dre, despite the astonishing $3 billion payout Dre’s company just got from Apple.
“Beats by Dre was more about providing sexy fashion accessories to people who wanted to look cool,” Rossi said. “This is more about a practical, high-quality new way to listen to music.”
Well, sort of new, anyway.