We be clubbin'

Beyond, of Rhyme Sayers Entertainment

WHEN ATMOSPHERE'S SLUG asked the audience at Saturday's Lyn-Lake Street Fair to give him a character he could improvise a rap about, somebody near the front shouted, "Superman." The MC laughed and said he'd been thinking of something more along the lines of Charlie Brown. And that about sums up the difference between the city's most self-deprecating lyricist and the hero's welcome he receives at shows.

Along with ultramagnetic MC Beyond, Slug and his Atmospheric partner Spawn are among the renaissance rappers behind Rhyme Sayers Entertainment, the celebrated hip-hop collective/record label whose militantly underground ethic shouldn't be misread as a lack of ambition. Geniuses in the art of street-level promotion, the clique uses flyers, cassettes, endless gigging, and the Internet to build a fan base. They also dropped two rich slices of South Side street poetry last year--Beyond's Comparison and Atmosphere's Overcast!. Now they're ready to take on their most ambitious project to date: A weekly 18-and-over dance night at First Avenue.

On June 8, Slug and company officially kicked off Soundset, which took over the Wednesday night slot just vacated by Radio K's Mars 770. In addition to attracting an all-ages crowd, Slug hopes the night will provide a casual alternative to the upscale hip-hop nights at other downtown clubs. "This is a party for blue-collar cats," he says. "It's $6, and you don't have to wear $300 worth of Versace bullshit just to get in."

When approached with the idea for Soundset, First Avenue manager Steve McClellan was receptive. "Working with Rhyme Sayers reminds me of working with Jimmy Jam and Prince in the early '80s," he says. "They want to mix audiences. Their whole attitude about what music does correlates with what we believe." It probably didn't hurt that Wednesdays haven't really been hopping at the Ave. since the demise of the glorious Sex-O-Rama five years ago, and hip hop is definitely as good a bet as any for a fresh start.

The Wednesday night premiere was both crowded and--per McClellan's hopes--racially mixed. While DJ Abilities moved the dancing throng, a couple of onlookers traded some impromptu freestyle verses. To break things up, Slug and Beyond took the stage for cameos. "Realistically, I could probably walk around the room that night and go, 'Well, not all these kids are straightforward hip-hop heads,'" he says. But the reception was warm, and the MC says he hopes to bring in unheard talent from around the country to do cameos as well.

"It's like a little punk circuit," he says. "We meet a lot of underground heads from all over the country, via the Internet and the telephone. Now some of these guys can come crash on my couch and actually be able to do a show. A lot of local crews still can't get shows either, and this will give them exposure."

The Rhyme Sayers Collective performs Wednesday, July 22, for free at 8 p.m. in Stevens Square Park, before an at-dusk screening of the movie Billy Jack. Soundset continues every Wednesday night at First Avenue. Call 338-8388 for information.

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