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Rhymesayers at 20: How the best roster in hip-hop was built

The core of Rhymesayers: Siddiq, Slug, J-Bird, and Ant

The core of Rhymesayers: Siddiq, Slug, J-Bird, and Ant

Rhymesayers Entertainment, Minneapolis' homegrown hip-hop label that became a worldwide leader in independent music, is celebrating its 20th anniversary Friday with a massive concert at Target Center.

It's the label's biggest hometown show ever, and frankly it has earned it. It's rare for an independent rap label to even hit the 10-year mark, and Rhymesayers has doubled that figure on its way to becoming a global force and an influential model in the music industry. It's a legacy that commands respect.

For two decades now, fans have come to identify Rhymesayers as not just a record label, but as a family. RSE's origins trace back to the mid-'90s Twin Cities hip-hop collective known as Headshots. The Rhymesayers buzz started out local, but fierce touring schedules and one-off distribution deals through bigtime labels like Epitaph saw the brand grow. Today — with over 50 releases, 20-plus artists, the Fifth Element record shop, and the Soundset music fest — the Rhymesayers legacy is as enthralling as it is essential.

For the big 2-0, we asked members of the Rhymesayers family to share some of their first impressions and favorite memories. Among them: Brent Sayers (aka Siddiq), the CEO of Rhymesayers Entertainment; Sean Daley (aka Slug), the co-founding member of both Rhymesayers and its flagship act, Atmosphere; Karim Panni of Seattle's Boom Bap Project, a longtime friend/tourmate of many RSE artists and one of the first non-local signees; Jake Anderson (aka Prof), one of RSE's most recent signees; and Joshua Turner (aka Dem Atlas), one of the label's youngest stars.

Atmosphere

Slug's heart-on-sleeve raps paired with beats from producer Anthony Davis (aka Ant) provided the first taste of the Rhymesayers sound to thousands of fans. Atmosphere continues to release bigtime albums under the RSE banner, most recently 2014's Southsiders.

Siddiq: "I knew Sean, but we didn't hang out. I had been doing a bunch of warehouse parties. One night, I had ran into Derek [Turner, aka rapper Spawn] and we were talking. He was like, 'Me and Sean got a rap group,' and I ended up coming over to the house. I had an event called the 3rd Floor coming up at this venue, and I ended up putting them on that show. That was the first time I had seen them perform as Urban Atmosphere."

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Karim: "We eventually met them at SXSW in '98 or '99 when hip-hop was really small at SXSW. I met Eyedea and Slug and J-Bird and put faces to names. It was inspiring and dope to know people were doing that type of hip-hop elsewhere, and that immediately made us feel at home with them."

Dem Atlas: "My first tour with Atmosphere was Welcome to Minnesota in the winter of 2014. I was just signed and I was performing in front of 20, maybe 50 people if I was lucky. On the road, the crowds would reach over 1,000 each night. Since then, I've been on several other tours opening for them and I'm studying how they worked the crowd each night — it was beautiful. I've had the joy of traveling everywhere and back with Atmosphere and I am so grateful. They've been like mentors since I first was signed to Rhymesayers and they continually inspire me.

Prof: "Don't remember meeting Atmosphere. I feel like I've known them forever. I remember hangin' with Ant at the Dinkytowner, smoking a million cigs."

Brother Ali

A commanding presence on the Rhymesayers roster for more than 15 years, Brother Ali brings an infectious live show. His extroverted take on introspective subject matter has made him one of the label's most popular MCs and one of the biggest names in indie rap.

Siddiq: "First time I saw him, he was performing at a spot called Bon Appetit. There was a weekly going-on there, and he frequented that. He hit the stage and his presence was so ridiculous. He was beatboxing and had hella different styles — it was dope. Later on, he ended up bringing me his demo. He was like, 'What do you think I should do?' I was like 'Well, shit, do you want us to put it out?' And pretty much the rest is history."

Slug: "Brother Ali and I used to get sandwiches at the Canary Cafe when it was on Franklin and 2nd. We'd get food and talk about rap and our kids and everything. Back then, I didn't know that I was making a friend for life. He's the kind of friend that I can simultaneously feel protective of, and protected by, at the same time."

Dem Atlas: "Brother Ali, the Reminders, and I played a show in Boulder, Colorado, on New Year's Eve. Later backstage, I got to chop it up with Brother Ali. He taught me that being overly humble is just as bad as being mad arrogant. I immediately sensed his integrity."

Sab the Artist

One of Minneapolis hip-hop's most influential figures, Sab the Artist (aka Musab) served up his debut LP, Comparison, under the name Beyond; it's often considered the very first CD in local rap history.

Siddiq: "He used to perform with this crew called Labyrinth. I was doing these showcases with a partner of mine called Universal Parliament of Hip-Hop: Microphone Check Showdown. His group performed, and the group was cool, but I just thought, 'Who is that dude right there?' He just had this presence and the voice that stood out from everybody else."

Slug: "Musab was my partner in crime in the beginning of Rhymesayers. Siddiq was like the parent, and Musab and I were like the rebellious teenagers. Musab is the guy who introduced me to Anthony. Back then, Musab was the only guy I knew who wrote and recorded more songs than me. Fully inspirational. Even to this day, when I'm writing songs, I ask myself what Musab would think of them if and when he hears them."

Blueprint

The Columbus, Ohio, favorite has released solo projects on Rhymesayers, but also two albums and one EP as half of Soul Position with RJD2. His unforgettable live show has been a part of many label tours.

Siddiq: "I met Blueprint and Aesop Rock at the same time. It was in New York at Aesop's house. Me and Sean were in New York for something, probably a show. Slug had started corresponding with those dudes. We went over to Aesop's house and everyone was sitting around playing new music. Blueprint played 'Share This,' which ended up being on the first official Soul Position album, and Aesop played 'Daylight.' Right then, I was like, 'I'm trying to fuck with both of y'all.'"

Aesop Rock

The core of Rhymesayers: J-Bird, Ant, Slug, and Siddiq

The core of Rhymesayers: J-Bird, Ant, Slug, and Siddiq

A longtime friend of Rhymesayers who finally signed in the early 2010s, Aesop Rock has been fairly prolific since making RSE his home. In addition to his solo work, he has released albums with Kimya Dawson as the Uncluded and several releases as Hail Mary Mallon with Rob Sonic and DJ Big Wiz.

Siddiq: "We were actually supposed to put out the 'Daylight' single. When they were finishing [2001's Labor Days], he felt like there wasn't anything like that on the album, so they kind of needed it. I was always told [Definitive Jux president] El[-P] never really liked that song, but Aes thought it would be important to the album. It was kind of like, 'Hey, I know we talked about this, but the album really needs it.' And I was like, 'Do your thing, man.' If he wouldn't have signed to Def Jux in-between there, we probably would have signed Aesop back then."

Slug: "One of the times that I slept on Aesop Rock's couch was in 1999, maybe 2000? We recorded a song called 'I'll Be OK' in his apartment. The beat he showed me was kinda twangy — is that a word? If I remember correctly, I attempted to rap like how he raps, and when I hear that song, I like to pretend that he was trying to rap the way I rap. Also, he had a cat that I wanted to steal. Best kitten ever. His apartment was on [New York's] Lower East Side above a bar called Brownies. Whenever I stayed with him, I would go downstairs and drink by myself, because he didn't drink, and watch bands play. I think I saw Lifter Puller play there once."

Karim: "We knew Aesop was different. He had just released his album with Blockhead and everyone was bugging out on him. He was a super guy, and with [Karim's old supergroup] Oldominion doing the same sort of stuff, we were blown away by him. When I first heard his voice, it was so distinctive and so crazy, and the way he rides beats is like nothing we'd ever heard before."

Los Nativos

Los Nativos, longtime members going back to the Headshots days, have an inimitable style that continues to ignite crowds to this day.

Slug: "These guys go way back, original Headshots. Two of my favorite artists from the Twin Cities. Due to circumstances and work and life, I don't get to see them as often as I'd like to. But when I do, we pick right back up where we left off. Much like Micranots, these guys stand for their culture in a way that a lot of people outside of hip-hop might not understand. But, if you grew up on this music and culture, you will recognize what's special about Los Nativos."

Sean “Slug” Daley of Atmosphere

Sean “Slug” Daley of Atmosphere

DJ Abilities

DJ Abilities, who rose to fame winning a plethora of DJ championships, is best-known to Rhymesayers fans as one-half of Eyedea & Abilities. A constant innovator, he also released an album as Semi.Official with I Self Devine.

Siddiq: "At the time, Headshots had formed and Felipe [Cuauhtli of Los Nativos], who was part of Headshots, was telling me about them because he was affiliated with the Battlecats crew and [Eyedea] rolled with the Battlecats crew. Felipe was like, 'You gotta check out this kid Mikey [Larsen, aka Eyedea]. He and this kid Max [Keltgen, aka DJ Abilities] got a group called Sixth Sense.' The first time I saw them it was just hella energy. Just the raw energy they had was just so dope and, after that, we had brought them into the fold. The next time was when they played at the first Soundset back in '97. They played at literally six in the morning and rocked it like it was jampacked early in the evening."

Slug: "Abilities was my first real tourmate. Him and I laid a lot of touring groundwork. Eyedea joined the Atmosphere touring soon after. But in the beginning, when it was all about sleeping in cars and on couches, Abilities was my road dog. Maybe the first time I ever felt like I had a brother from another mother."

I Self Devine/Micranots

Twin Cities hip-hop icons Micranots basically taught an entire generation how to be live performers. MC I Self Devine has also put out well-received solo projects on the label, and DJ Kool Akiem is MF DOOM's turntabilist of choice.

Slug: "I was a fan of Micranots long before I became friends with them. When we were younger, they were the group you wanted to open for. You could learn so much from watching their performances. It was like a How to Really Do This Shit Manual."

Anthony “Ant” Davis of Atmosphere

Anthony “Ant” Davis of Atmosphere

Dilated Peoples/Evidence

Known for early 2000s singles like "Worst Comes to Worst" and "Work the Angles," Dilated Peoples have always been a favorite of hip-hop purists. Their longstanding relationship with Rhymesayers has seen the releases of both their work as a group and Evidence's solo material.

Slug: "They paved a lot of road for the indie groups that came out of the late '90s. It was kinda surreal when we became friends years later. Also, Evidence has saved me on plural occasions from getting beat up by explaining to people that I'm actually a decent human."

DJ BK One

Beloved by Rhymesayers fans as Brother Ali’s tour DJ, BK One more recently has experimented with genres through his duo Bones and Beaker.

Slug: “I'm pretty sure the first time he and I met was at Radio K, but I didn't really get to know him until he started touring with us. When we hit the road for the Godlovesugly tour, I had to figure out a way to stop accidentally mispronouncing Brendan as "Br-And-On" so I came up with a plan. I told him that every time I say his name wrong, he should punch me in the back of the head. Took two punches to correct myself forever.” 

P.O.S

The standout Doomtree MC has released his four acclaimed solo albums — all of which forge punk-rock abrasiveness with spit-fire wordplay — via Rhymesayers. Last year, P.O.S told City Pages about the signing process. 

P.O.S: "Siddiq always had the door open to ask for advice. After I had been hustling and Doomtree was making some little tiny baby moves, I started getting calls from different record labels. I would call Siddiq up for advice on how to handle it, what kind of steps I should take next. Slug brought me on Warped Tour [in 2004] to sell merch and play a show at the rap tent or whatever random stage. Right when I got off that tour is when I got signed. Rhymesayers are helpful people, and [I had] really good friends there, and it just seemed like the smart move. I don't think anybody [in Doomtree] took it as, 'Oh, he's stepping out.' I think everybody was just inspired to keep moving."

Murs

Rhymesayers COO Jason “J-Bird” Cook

Rhymesayers COO Jason “J-Bird” Cook

Murs, one of the most ambitious MCs to ever touch the mic, has enjoyed a tremendous career as a solo artist and with groups like Living Legends, 3 Melancholy Gypsies, and Felt, his Rhymesayers duo with Slug.

Siddiq: "We were outside the venue passing out Headshots tapes, and [Murs' group Living Legends] were outside hustling their tapes. We ended up exchanging tapes. It was funny because I really wasn't familiar with them prior to that, but that was the moment we realized we really weren't the only ones doing that. These same movements that were going on in Minneapolis were going on out West and out East, and people were trading all these tapes."

Dem Atlas: "I first heard of Murs when I lived in the suburbs and was desperately trying to find good music to listen to. [2008's Murs For President] had just come out and the image stuck out to me. Here was this cat who had these crown, spiky dreads defying gravity, screaming at the world on the CD cover. It was a cool image that stayed with me even after America electing its first black president. I brought it home and began dissecting it."

Prof: "First time I met Murs, he took off his pants in front of me, mid-conversation."

Mr. Dibbs

One of the baddest dudes to ever touch a set of turntables, Ohio’s Mr. Dibbs is known for turning live hip-hop crowds into mosh pits and live shows into demolition derbies. Dibbs backed Atmosphere during several early-2000s tours and also has put out an album and breaks compilation on the label.

Siddiq: “Dibbs was part of this crew 1200 Hobos, and some of them were affiliated with the Anticon cats, and when Sean did the Deep Puddle Dynamics projects, it kind of connected those worlds. And Dibbs was involved with Scribble Jam, which we had frequented, prior to knowing him. We went out to Scribble Jam after we put out the Overcast album, and really didn’t know anything about it. I think I saw in a flyer in a Minneapolis record shop for this hip-hop event with “for vending call…” We had a vending table and basically sold Rhymesayers product, but ended up giving away a lot of CDs while we were out there, and that’s where a lot of those connections came from.”

Slug: “This guy toured the world with me. He kept me safe from harm. He kept me company through some of my darkest days. One time, while I was leisurely getting arrested in Sweden, he dropped his pants and let his testicles hang in the wind, presumably to distract the cops while I made a break for it. I'll never ever forget that. He's a big brother to me.”

Freeway

Perhaps most famous as a standout talent of Jay-Z’s Rocafella Records heyday, Freeway came to Rhymesayers through his collaboration album, The Stimulus Package, with producer Jake One.

Siddiq: “I had built a relationship with Jake One, and Jake had done some production for Freeway. The first time we actually met, we were doing SXSW and he was going to be out there as he and Jake had started working together on The Stimulus Package. We had just met, and Freeway’s in a lot of ways from a whole different world. So, we had him come play SXSW, which was pretty last-minute. He barely knew the label and just fell into the mix. He played a SXSW showcase, and it’s hilarious because he kept saying “Rhyme-Slayers” instead of “Rhymesayers.” Me and Jake One clowned him all night long. Just a really cool, genuine dude.” 

Abstract Rude
A veteran of prestigious West Coast hip-hop collective Project Blowed, Abstract Rude released his 2009 album, Rejuvenation, on Rhymesayers after more than a decade of cross-country friendship.

Slug: “Way early, maybe 2000, Eyedea, Abilities, J-Bird, and myself were touring the West Coast, and Abstract Rude reached out to us and asked Eyedea and myself to come to a home studio and record. It was a big deal because Eyedea and I regarded Project Blowed as legendary. Though we'd all met each other prior, the level of love and respect he showed us was highly inspirational to say the least. Someday I hope to repay that feeling! I remember the house we went to. It was in Silver Lake, up a short small hilly street from Sunset, right above a laundromat and a restaurant that had a "C" rating, which I think is kinda rare.”

Siddiq: “Obviously, [he’s] somebody we’d known of for years and had a mutual respect for. There were two albums that were really instrumental when we opened up Fifth Element — MF DOOM’s Operation Doomsday and Abstract Rude’s South Central Think Tank. They both came out around that time, and they were two album that, if anybody walked into the store during that time period, you definitely heard and were recommended to buy those albums. It wasn’t the typical California album, but I always listened to that album and felt like I got a clear picture of a really California vibe and lifestyle. I thought it was be dope to hear him develop something like that with Dre production. Obviously, I wasn’t going to get Dre, but I had this idea to pair him up with cats from the Pacific Northwest like Jake One and Vitamin D, and that’s where that idea came from. It took on a life of its own.” 

Grieves

The talented Seattle MC saw his fourth album, 2014's Winter & the Wolves, peak at No. 57 on the Billboard charts.

Siddiq: "A person that works in the industry that does licensing hit me up and was like, 'Hey, you should check this guy out. I think he'd be perfect on your label.' When I checked him out, the first song I heard was so much like an Atmosphere song that it kind of turned me off a little bit. Fast-forward, he sent me "On the Rocks." Not only was he dope, but it was super unique. I could see that he progressed a lot and had built up a bit of a following. For that, I ended up signing him."

Rhymesayers CEO Brent “Siddiq” Sayers

Rhymesayers CEO Brent “Siddiq” Sayers

Slug: "Grayskul introduced me to Grieves. Their co-sign speaks volumes for a person. I became a fan quickly, and like Grayskul, he had the same kind of road loyalty that made me relate to him and appreciate him."

Prof: "Meeting Grieves, I knew he was a teenager."

Toki Wright

Toki Wright has been everything from a community organizer to Brother Ali's hypeman. First and foremost, though, he's one of the most charismatic, disarming, and enlightening presences to rock a crowd.

Siddiq: "We put out [2009's A Different Mirror] in the process of trying to start this series of, not really traditional deals, but artists that we believed in who we were cool with that we wanted to expose to people. At the time, he was working as Ali's hypeman and we just believed in him: super eager and energetic and trying to get his name out there."

Prof

Prof, who is among Rhymesayers' newest artists, built a rabid following with the same discipline and energy that sparked the RSE movement. His album from September, Liability, is Rhymesayers' most recent release. Prof's relationship to RSE has gone fan to friend to family.

Siddiq: "I got to give him a lot of credit because he really built his own shit up on the low, you know? He got out and grinded it and really put in the work and developed his own big-ass local following. We were always kind of loosely affiliated through Ant. Ant was always good friends with him, and had done some productions for him here and there. He does some crazy, big-ass shows, and I have a real respect for his work ethic and the amount of work he put in to build up his whole following and build his thing locally."

Dem Atlas: "I first heard of Prof through a friend in high school. He was like, 'Dude have you heard of Prof? He's wild.' I had no idea that a couple years later we'd be labelmates. We would later go on tour with Atmosphere several times in the U.S. and Canada."

Dem Atlas

Dem Atlas is less than a half-decade older than the label itself. Still, his earnestness, sharp writing, and uncanny abilities as a live performer makes him him a perfect fit.

Prof: "Dem chases butterflies and gives huge hugs. He'll dig those dreads right into your neck. He's a teenager."

Siddiq: "The first time I saw him perform live was at our Institution of Production and Recording showcase, and I pretty much knew I was going to sign him right after I saw that show. His energy was just so captivating and compelling, I was like, 'This dude's hella rough and it's going to take some time to develop, but what he has, you can't teach.' If there's one resounding theme with a lot of the artists that we've worked with for the better part of 20 years, it's they're all really good, genuine people. I think that's the reason there are those relationships that are there for 20-plus years." 

Rhymesayers 20
With: Atmosphere, Brother Ali, Aesop Rock, P.O.S, Prof, many more.
When: 5 p.m. Fri., Dec. 4.
Where: Target Center, 600 1st Ave. N., Minneapolis.
Tickets: $20-$100; 612-673-1300 or www.axs.com.