It Takes a City of 366,000 to Hold Us Back

A local hip-hop underground looks for the spotlight.

"Y'all ain't feelin' us!"

Slug is right. At just over 6 feet tall, poised atop a 5-foot riser, he's got a bird's-eye view of the thickening crowd: mostly twentysomething, mostly white, mostly sitting on their asses and nursing cheap drinks.

Slug and the other three Headshots members treading the stage of St. Paul's Turf Club--Spawn, Beyond, and Gene Pool--don't let up. Lyrics flit spastically from mouth to mike (some freestyle, some carefully composed in a nearby basement weeks earlier) while prerecorded beats and bass lines kick a meaty rhythm against the club's back wall. Each track is programmed to penetrate a little further than the last, and as the momentum builds, the four young voices anxiously follow suit. But as he pauses and looks around to see only a smattering of nodding heads--hints of half-hearted affirmation--Slug knows he's facing an uphill climb.

"I think y'all need to drink a lot more beer," he says, and in an act of weary defiance, he stops at center stage and drops to the floor, sitting cross-legged and shaking his head with microphone still in hand. Another night in the life of a Minnesota MC.

Since early 1995, the local music press has paid unusually gracious attention to the Headshots crew, a determined collective of hip hoppers whose infiltration of rock clubs and rare brand of brash positivity have made them the closest thing the Twin Cities have to critical rap darlings. To the average scenester--particularly to the average white scenester--they are hip hop in Minnesota... whatever that means.

True, the Headshots are the best publicized and perhaps the most organized in a busy-yet-marginal scene. From straight gangsta funk to gory, foul-mouthed ghetto glitz, it's all found right here in Minneapolis, even if none of it ever makes its way to wax, or even to an amateur-night stage. But as it has been since Afrika Bambaataa dropped his first breakbeat needle in a South Bronx cellar two decades ago, hip hop lives mostly underground. And although they've made critics' lists in these very pages, the Headshots are still vitally connected to that unseen, unsung spirit.

Saturday night, 24 hours after striding the tepid Turf Club stage, Slug (a.k.a. Sean Daley) descends the stairs into a South Minneapolis basement. He arrives here faithfully every weekend, gathering with fellow Headshots MCs to brainstorm, to flesh out new rhymes and beats, to try to make hip hop happen in Minneapolis.

"There are a billion weekend MCs in this city," says 24-year-old Slug, an ex-graffiti artist. "They'd rather go out and get high or get laid than really, truly work on their music."

What ensues doesn't seem much like work, at first. Slug plops down on an old sofa next to Beyond while Brent Sayers, Headshots compadre and chief of the fledgling Rhyme Sayers label, flips through a milk crate filled with old records across the room. The crate, the sofa, and the basement all belong to Ant--real name: Anthony Davis--who has settled into a position as the crew's primary beatmeister. Lit by a bare ceiling bulb, his makeshift preproduction studio contains a 4-track tape recorder, turntables, a mixer, sundry digital gear, and thousands of disparate vinyl specimens: Eric B. & Rakim, Ennio Morricone, EPMD, Gary Numan, Miles Davis.

"I'm tired of slow-ass shit," Ant says, taking an absent pull off a Newport as Sayers settles on a Pete Rock instrumental. "Back in the day, everyone was rhymin' at, like, 120 [beats per minute]. No way MCs today could bring in their dopest shit and do it that fast. No way."

Heads nod in agreement as Davis, a burly, soft-spoken guy, rests his case. At 26, he's had a hectic life, growing up as an army brat in places as far away as Germany and as near as, most recently, Colorado. He'd spent some years spinning funk records and playing a little guitar before catching the hip-hop bug after high school. Relocating to Minneapolis in 1990, he met Beyond at a concert a few years later and immediately set to producing sounds for him.

"I blame it all on Puff Daddy," Sayers says, laughing as conversation continues on the sorry state of contemporary hip hop. "All this new shit now is trying to sound like Puffy, just like everybody wanted to sound like Dre three or four years ago."

Maybe Sayers and his mates feel like they've got a real trick up their sleeves: a host of MCs, each with a distinctive character, united by minimalist beats and a polite rejection of commercial norms. "Once we started breaking it down, it was like a basketball team," Sayers says. "Ant does beats, the other guys each write their own styles of rhymes. Everybody has their position and they play it."

Sayers himself, then, seems something like the team manager. Having endeavored in both rhyming and production in the past, he made the decision in 1994 to suspend his own creative goals and dive head-first into the commercial end of the Headshots enterprise. Essentially, he's the crew's controlling spokesman to the outside world, responsible for booking, promotion, merchandise, and the thousands of dollars in recording gear the group has collectively invested in.

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