Ten-thousand-plus seats. Monstrous high-definition monitors. $8 beers and $13.50 plates of orange chicken. Odd accoutrements for an independent hip-hop showcase, but on Friday night at the Target Center, Rhymesayers showed that 20 years is a legacy strong enough to make DIY feel comfortable in a stadium setting.
Birthed from the mixtape-trading posse Headshots, Rhymesayers Entertainment was founded back in 1995 by Brent "Siddiq" Sayers, Musab Saad, and Atmosphere members Sean "Slug" Daley and Ant Davis. In their unprecedented two-decade run, they've backed over 200 releases, opened a flagship record store, created one of the United States' only enduring hip-hop festivals, and acted as an orphanage for underground rappers whose labels faltered while RSE prospered. Now, their roster alone is large enough to fill First Ave.
The only way to celebrate a pedigree like Rhymesayers' is on the grandest stage possible.
Under a gargantuan mirrored medallion that hung from the stage, the relay began. From K-Salaam to Los Nativos to Grayskul to the Micranots, the beginning of the night was all fan service for the day ones who'd been listening to RSE since mixtapes were actually cassettes. As the night transitioned into latter-day acquisitions the likes of Grieves, Prof, and Evidence, there was a clear thread developing — you could literally watch as the dynamic shifted from the raw, proto-hip-hop of the Boom Bap Project and I Self Devine into the cleaner, more diasporic sounds of The Uncluded and Dilated Peoples.
That's not to say it was the cleanest show. Taylor Swift and Garth Brooks are intrinsically engineered for the big stage, not Rhymesayers. Between the jagged, brief sets from lower-card acts and the fact that one performer (Freeway) plain didn't show up, the sets see-sawed, especially as history and the present began to muddle.
Blueprint — who traded solo songs from Adventures in Counter Culture with Soul Position classics — was something of the hinge. He brought not only the nostalgia of the '90s sound that created label and its high-concept present, but also the fan-favorite undercard with the more commercially viable flagship acts who've helped the label become an artistic enterprise in the Twin Cities and beyond.
Brother Ali and Atmosphere — the label's historically most successful acts — then took the stage. On their own merits, both have played crowds as large as the one Friday at Target Center, but never had they amassed so many of their homegrown faithful under one roof. The roar was ceaseless as Ali rewarded the fans with favorites like "Uncle Sam Goddamn" and "Forest Whitaker." His message of love, repeated over and over as he MCed the night, felt familial and intimate, even in the cavernous venue. There's no other stage in the world where the iconic Slug could bring out his long-since-forgotten partner in rhyme, Spawn, and get such an ovation. There are no other collection of people who would understand just how crucial seeing Murs come out for two Felt songs was. As Slug called for all in attendance to take out their cell phones to memorialize Eyedea during his performance of "Flicker," there was no one more equipped to understand just how tragic it was that the late St. Paul rapper couldn't have been there.
Throughout the seven-hour concert, Rhymesayers performers reacted with awe that they were even on stage at the Target Center. There was a continuing sense of disbelief that their makeshift freestyle crew could've grown into such a grand empire. But as the entire cast of the night joined Atmosphere on stage for a triumphant rendition of "Trying to Find a Balance," there was no one who could've said they didn't belong there.
Highlights and lowlights of Rhymesayers 20
Highlight: DJ Abilities' jaw-dropping tribute to Eyedea
It's no secret that DJ Abilities was fond of Eyedea or that he's the most talented turntablist in the Twin Cities, but his set at RSE20 was still incredibly striking. While visuals of his deceased Eyedea & Abilities partner flashed across several screens, Abilities spun samples from E&A Day and By the Throat to his typical, industrial cuts. It was a masterful, emotional performance that far outshined many of the other performances that evening.
Highlight: P.O.S's 5:30 showtime
While many would count the earliness of Rhymesayers flagbearer P.O.S's set as a negative, the fact that the ferocious rapper squeezed in his set to make a Doomtree show in Chicago exemplifies the hustle that built the label.
Lowlight: Aesop Rock's uneven three-pronged set
The signing of Aesop Rock was an absolute coup for Rhymesayers. He's by far one of the most talented rappers working today, and RSE got him in the middle of a nearly unparalleled artistic outburst that resulted in four albums by three different groups (Are You Gonna Eat That? and Bestiary with Rob Sonic as Hail Mary Mallon, Hokey Fright with Kimya Dawson as the Uncluded, and his 2012 solo album Skelethon).
However, these three projects did not play copacetically during his too-short set. Aes's mic was too low during the two Uncluded songs, and you could tell the gravelly Rock was holding back. The Hail Mary Mallon part went well, but Rock's solo songs ("Homemade Mummy," "Zero Dark Thirty," and "None Shall Pass") were both underwhelming. The chorus of "Zero Dark Thirty," which is ostensibly one of the most triumphant moments of Rock's career, didn't land like it should've.
Highlight: Surprise Urban Atmosphere reunion
You probably could've guessed that founding Atmosphere rapper Spawn would show up at RSE20, but it was still surprising when Slug brought out his since-retired colleague for two cuts from Overcast! More so than that, Spawn's performance was sharp and compelling. His turn on "Sabotage" was vintage — a perfect tribute to the label's 1995 heyday.
Lowlight: No other surprises
In a 30-act bill, there's not a lot of room for surprise, and that's understandable, but there were probably plenty of other unscheduled performances Rhymesayers faithful were holding out for. MF DOOM would've been too much to ask for, probably, but dreamers were hoping for it. A Step Brothers addition to Evidence's set seemed realistic. Other than Spawn's unlisted cameo, the only unplanned element was Freeway ghosting on his set. Highlight: Prof starts the party with pool toys
Rhymesayers' resident Pitbull impersonator Prof was precisely what the night needed when he hit the stage almost midway through the bill. By that point, the crowd had sloughed through two and a half hours of baton-passing hip-hop and DJing.
With a turnstile schedule like that, it's hard to build momentum. Prof didn't need much time to compensate. He kicked a bevy of pool toys — from sharks to dinosaurs — into the crowd and started waving his towel and hopping around. His set was like a Jolt Cola whose effect didn't wear off until after the show was over.
Highlight: Brother Ali's impassioned "Dear Black Son"
On a night where both Toki Wright and I Self Devine spoke eloquently about the Justice for Jamar and Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis, it was Brother Ali who made the most lasting proclamation. During his spoken word piece "Dear Black Son," Ali quaked with emotion.
He dared to go as far as calling the police terrorists, a caustic statement that felt true and necessary when leaving his lips. On a night where the focus was on the drama in the room, Ali was able to use his platform to shift the focus to something larger outside, and the fans cheered like he'd just ripped through a classic.
Lowlight: Felt's too-short two songs
When fans saw Felt — the collaborative project from Slug and Murs — would be on the bill, they knew the exceedingly rare chance to see the two titans of underground hip-hop perform together. Of course, Murs joined slug towards the end of the night, but they only did a pair of songs, "Dirty Girl" and "Early Mornin' Tony" from their Ant-produced sophomore album, Felt, Vol. 2: A Tribute to Lisa Bonet.
As soon as Murs was there, he was gone. They could've run through all three of their albums start to finish, and it wouldn't have been enough, so only two songs was an unfortunate tease.
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