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

"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.

To date, the Headshots crew has managed to produce five cassette-only compilations and two full-length discs, all for sale on consignment through local record stores. Perhaps the most inspired of these obscure documents is a tape titled History, a basement comp created in memory of Sess, a young Minneapolis MC who died last year. Featuring freestyles, interludes, and cameos from all over the Headshots camp, the cassette is as raw a hip-hop artifact as you're likely to find--provided you can find it in the first place.

While the tapes have circulated mostly through the hands of young underground fans, Beyond's Comparison CD has tracked local sales nearing 1,000 copies. Atmosphere, Slug's group project, just released their debut LP titled Overcast! with hopes of bettering those figures. Marked by a low-budget allegiance to old-school methods and an obsessive reverence for the original tenets of hip-hop culture, these works are in no position to make their auteurs rich or particularly famous--especially on a music scene traditionally ruled by stagnant blues stalwarts and soulless garage-rock mutations.

"We do this shit purely out of love--I don't think people understand that," says Sayers. "It's so much more than the music. It's the purest form of love I can think of. A lot of people are really going after the money, the fame, whatever else they're trying to get out of the entertainment industry. We try to stay far, far away from all that."

Sitting in Ant's basement and expounding further on the hardships of the Headshots' commercial independence, Sayers and his partners start to sound a bit like indie-rock snobs blowing off steam in the wake of Pearl Jam, damning the corporate rap machine and all who fall prey to its vacuous formula. And if their claims of DIY superiority ring hollow, they've got the credit-card debts to back them up.

As the night rolls on and records are shuffled to and from Ant's Technics 1200, Slug and Beyond grow increasingly quiet, eventually retreating completely into their notebooks. While this interviewer jots down notes, their own pens move twice as fast, scribbling out new verses as quickly as they come, lips spilling a lyrical flow of concentrated whispers.

A few miles away at KMOJ-FM's on-air studio, a DJ grabs a copy of a single called "What's the Haps?!" and throws it on the turntable. It's the latest track from Little Buddy, a Minneapolis MC with no such indie ethos.

"My objective is to make history," Buddy says with a matter-of-fact drawl. Sure enough, local sales of "What's the Haps?!" have already topped 1,500 copies, helped along by word-of-mouth and vigorous support on KMOJ. Built around a sung chorus and sticky lyrical hooks and with lyrical nods to I-94 and the 612 area code, "What's the Haps?!" flaunts a pop sensibility that no one in the classicist Rhyme Sayers camp would dare indulge. While Slug and his associates deal mainly in heady metaphors, pointed commentary, and sparse 4-track rhythms, Buddy's signature track is a consummate Jeep joint for Summer '97, short on philosophy and long on funk-inflected bounce.

"I have much love for the underground," says Buddy, "and we can always do things that are underground, but we need to be heard." Selling records, he insists, isn't the same as selling out, and if the buzz on this young rapper leads to a full-on record deal, he vows he'll create opportunities for other Minneapolis acts. "Someone has to open the door for all of us."

"So many local records just aren't radio friendly," says Tim Wilson, owner and proprietor of Urban Lights, a St. Paul record shop known for its crowded hip-hop shelves. "They're either way on the gangsta end of the scale or too New York. Little Buddy's record sits right in the middle. I know he's gonna be the next person to get a deal, probably the first major contract-holder out of this whole city."

A browse at shops like Urban Lights or Electric Fetus (where Slug holds his day job) can reveal much in the way of the Twin Cities' rap diversity. There's the cassette by Kanser--strictly underground and kicking a vaguely New York vibe. Then there's Murder City by Northside Hustlaz Clic, a North Minneapolis outfit whose style smacks of West Coast gangsta-funk (and whose blue-themed cover art has spawned rumors of a Crip gang affiliation). Look under "K" for KAOS, another Cali-style player with slightly softer edges.  

"I get new local stuff in the store every week," Wilson says. "A lot of it just sits there, unfortunately. In places like Detroit, Oakland, Atlanta, you can put out a local record and actually make money, get recognition. Those places support their own. It's harder around here. There's no real rap scene. Cats just don't support local hip hop."

Back in the basement, Slug has turned to riffing on the lack of club support for rap shows, local or otherwise. He and his partners have staged more live showcases than most local hip hoppers, but as rooms like the Turf Club prove, it can be a hard sell.

"It's like mainstream America needs another dozen Fugees," he says, "before they'll accept that rap is okay, or that it's even music. There's gonna have to be a lot of chemistry, a lot of cool shit on a local level."

"No more bringing it up," Beyond pipes in. "We're bringing people down to where we're at--underground."

On the right night, Headshots' weekend sessions at Ant's place run until the break of dawn. This Saturday, however, Slug catches a ride home just past midnight. Tomorrow is his son's third birthday, he explains, and he'll need to be rested to help with the festivities. Then it's off to work at the Fetus, where his product is filed alphabetically alongside dozens of other local self-releases.

Beyond barely manages a "see ya," his face buried in his notebook as Slug heads up the staircase. Sayers is distracted too, still digging through crates while Ant lights another cig and waits.

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