Pledge Empire gets set to celebrate 10 years of independent Minnesota rap

Prince Carlton

Prince Carlton Dreams and Wonderlands

Independent rap thrives in the Twin Cities, and Carlton Dildy isn’t shy about acknowledging this fact.

“In the United States, we have the best independent hip-hop scene, easy,” says the 35-year-old Carlton, aka Prince Carlton or God’s Prince. He and his 33-year-old brother, Cedric, who raps and produces as Ced Linus, co-founded the Minneapolis-based Pledge Empire Records in 2007, and in the decade since, the label has become an increasingly major player in that scene.

The Dildys grew up in Virginia Beach. Their taste in rap moved beyond MC Hammer when an older cousin, former Pledge Empire artist Rodney Ricks Jr., turned them on to acts like A Tribe Called Quest, eventually encouraging them to start rapping themselves. Carlton and Ced would later come to Minnesota to attend Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, where both played basketball. After they realized the NBA was not a likely option, they pursued music in earnest.

As a duo called the Pledge Empire, Prince and Ced recorded a song for the school’s “Bethany Lutheran-palooza” album and played coffeehouse shows in Mankato, even opening for a then-fledgling P.O.S at the What’s Up Lounge. They scored a few gigs in the Twin Cities at places like the storied northeast Minneapolis dive the Terminal Bar, but Prince and Ced struggled to find a foothold in the Cities. “It was nobody there at, like, our first seven shows we had, so we had to learn the hard way,” Prince Carlton remembers.

I meet up with Prince at Honey, the northeast Minneapolis bar where he’s holding the Tupac Day dance party, an event that Prince put together to follow up his recent Biggie Day. It’s the evening before the release of the Pac biopic All Eyez on Me and what would have been the slain rapper’s 46th birthday. A few attendees are wearing Tupac T-shirts, and the bar is serving Thug Passion, Pac’s signature adult admixture. (One part Alizé, one part Cristal—though other champagne brands may be substituted if you’re on a budget.)

As an East Coast native and Biggie Smalls loyalist, Prince says he “hated” Tupac at first, but he could no longer deny Pac’s greatness after his cousin Maurice gifted him The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. In talking about Pac today, Prince articulates some of the qualities he values in music, which, not coincidentally, are also some of the qualities that Pledge Empire artists bring to the table.

“Tupac’s music just means truth and honesty to me, no matter what it takes,” he says. “He told the world his mom was on drugs. I think most people would just keep it in. Being a rapper, you want to be the cool person, and Tupac let all his insecurities out in his music. Tupac was the closest rapper to what we were as a person.”

Though there’s musical diversity within the Pledge Empire roster, the artists still fit together nicely. There’s Ced, a contemplative, conversational MC whose “Lights” you may have heard in rotation on the Current, and who, in Prince’s words, “brings the honesty and the truth—he’s kinda like the conscious rapper.” Sti-Lo Reel, a more swaggering and technically showy MC, is “the lyricist—he just spits.” Meanwhile, 22-year-old Niko Slim is indicative of the label’s future. He’s distinctly a product of the 2010s rap landscape, more prone to melodic sing-rapping and trap beats. “I would like to compare him to a Bobby Raps type of rapper,” Prince says. “We had to sign him to keep Pledge Empire Records young. We wanna try to hit every avenue when it comes to our artists.”

The Pledge Empire roster—officially eight artists, though that number includes Prince, who doesn’t really rap anymore—releases new music at a fast clip. In fact, earlier this year, Sti-Lo Reel (who will open for Bone Thugs at a show in Red Lake later this month) undertook a special project—releasing a new song every week for almost four months straight. And the label’s artists have collaborated with some of Minnesota’s finest: Toki Wright, Mally, Tek, the Lioness, Why Khaliq. “Everybody works with everybody,” Prince observes of Twin Cities hip-hop today—a stark contrast from the cliquier scene he first encountered a decade ago.

It’s been a busy summer, even by Pledge Empire’s hard-working standards. The label signed a new artist, Australia native Rosei 22, and following Biggie Day and Tupac Day, they’re planning two Michael Jackson Day dance parties (one here, one in Duluth) and a Beyoncé Day. The Pledge Empire staff is also looking ahead to the label’s 10th anniversary in November, which they’ll commemorate with a compilation album. And Prince has been working on an all-genre music awards show called the Minny Awards (a name the Dildys’ mother came up with), set for December.

An admirer of hip-hop moguls like Diddy, Dame Dash, and Irv Gotti who’s also learned from the likes of Rhymesayers, Prince makes it a priority to tour all over the U.S. and abroad. Pledge Empire artists have performed in London, in Winnipeg, even in Sydney. Ced Linus’ current tour, which just kicked off in Minneapolis, will eventually take him to Australia in January.

With a laugh, Ced says his brother is “a little loony” for pursuing some of his “grandiose ideas”—like setting up shows 10,000 miles away, for example. But he ultimately trusts Prince’s vision when it comes to booking shows, promotion, and signing new artists—and that allows Ced to focus more on his own music and performances.

But no matter how far Pledge Empire’s artists tour, Minneapolis, with its unique competition and camaraderie, will remain the label’s home. “I think Seattle is probably the closest thing to what we have,” Prince says, “and Denver has a nice hip-hop scene too. But nobody has anything like Minneapolis.”