After a three hour tour with Minneapolis’ biggest music star since Prince, Slug of Atmosphere, it became clear why Rhymesayers had to do it themselves and never left the city that cultivated their current status.
Located in the northern section of the middle of nowhere America, thousands of miles from New York or Los Angeles, Minneapolis is a quiet city that lacks the sense of entitlement the two coasts possess. Siddiq, C.E.O. of Rhymesayers Entertainment, said being from this city instilled a need in its musicians to create their own means of success. “In regards to the d.i.y. movement, we did it naturally,” he said. “Here you have a core group of motherfuckers who banded together to do something out of nothing with no help, no outside funds and we created simply for the love and art of it.”
Before there was Rhymesayers Entertainment, there were local crews. Among them were the Headshots crew, which consisted of Slug, ANT, Spawn, I Self Devine of the Micranots, Musab and other loose affiliates. “It starts out with being the dopest break dancer on your block, then it turns into the dopest emcee in your high school,” Slug said. “Then it’s dopest emcee on the Southside, but then it turns into who’s got the dopest unit.”
Siddiq, a local promoter, had been putting on Microphone Check showcases that acted as a battle of the bands for local hip-hop. Through the battles, Siddiq networked with Headshots. “There was some stuff that preceded us,” Siddiq said. “But, for whatever reason they disbanded, moved out of town or felt they hit some kind of ceiling.
Slug recalls Spawn first introducing him to Siddiq by going to his basement studio to record and get away from wack local producers. “Anybody that owned a studio here in the 80s and 90s wanted to be Prince,” Slug said. “They dressed like the fucker and slouched when they walked so they’d look shorter. So when Spawn said Siddiq had equipment we decided to go there and record.”
“And it hit me, Minnesota is dope. If only simply for not what we have but what we don't.” – Slug
Siddiq also fondly recollects first meeting Slug and seeing him earn respect locally. “People didn’t get to see it, but when we were rolling around town battling cats, I don’t recall many cats trying to go at Slug. He was no joke.”
From recorded freestyle session it progressed into making records, which led to the Headshots tapes. Siddiq said most venues were not booking hip hop shows, mostly due to a poorly organized Ice Cube concert. This dilemma pushed the crew into coffee houses and rock shows just to obtain visibility. “We had people hanging from stairs, sweating and just blowing out these little coffee shops,” he said. “Until it got to the point where people started to take notice. Then we started playing the 7th St. Entry and created a little scene out of those shows.”
As the Headshots crew gained a heavy reputation, the next step was releasing a full-length album. “Musab had 100 or so songs recorded with ANT already and that became the first album,” Siddiq said; thus Musab, under the moniker Beyond, released Comparison in 1996.
The Beyond album would be followed by the Atmosphere debut Overcast in 1997 and Dynospectrum, a crew album with Slug, Musab, I Self Devine and Swift of Phull Surkle in 1998. “When we made the Dynospectrum, I was so high, I really thought we were like a legion of superheroes,” Slug said.
These albums were supported by weekly sold out shows at the 7th St. Entry. Siddiq recalls those years fondly, especially Soundset ’97. Held in a warehouse on Lake Street, Soundset was a hip hop version of a rave that featured nearly every crew and DJ in the twin cities. “It went from 7pm to like five or six in the morning,” Siddiq said. “It was some shit that had never been done and probably never been done since for good reason.”
With that success Headshots graduated from performing the smaller 7th St. Entry to the main room at First Avenue, doing weekly events that had 1,700 hip hop heads in attendance. The weekly shows were mostly dance nights that featured a Headshots performance in the middle of the night. Siddiq said those nights set the tone for a local fan base.
“I want to be bigger than Jesus and bigger than wrestling, bigger than the Beatles and bigger than breast implants.” – Slug
As Headshots became Rhymesayers Entertainment, the crew began to dissipate in numbers with frustrations of certain members getting more shine than others. “That’s where we really saw who had the same vision and who could sacrifice themselves for a team movement,” Siddiq said. Slug attributes part of the dissolving of Headshots to local emcee Sess dying. “Everything started to unravel with people going through the frustrations of homie dying and the standard frustrations of hitting your mid-twenties and having shitty jobs,” he said.
As independent hip-hop moved into a post-Rawkus era, RSE comfortably pushed 1,000 units locally with each release. Enough so that when they traveled to events such as Scribble Jam and Rocksteady they gave away records to spread the name. But Slug was noticing his partner Spawn backing away from the vision. “By the time I did the Se7en tape, people were starting to question like ‘oh now, Slug gets his own Headshots tape?” he said. “Rather than us being stagnant and waiting for cats to catch up, I’m not stopping. And I’m not doing it for me, but for all of us as a unit because we had to keep shit coming out.”
With Spawn skipping out on shows forcing Slug to either “be mad or rock a show,” Atmosphere became Slug and ANT and Rhymesayers was realized by the remaining four — Slug, Musab, ANT and Siddiq. “That was probably the defining moment that created a buzz pushing us into the next phase of becoming a business,” Siddiq said. “After that period and once we got into Lucy Ford, God Loves Ugly and Eyedea and Abilities then we officially became more than the dopest crew. We were trying to be the dopest label.”
Incidentally that was also when Slug made a conscious decision to stop writing battle raps and do songs about a soul-weathering girl named “Lucy.” “It was never done out of a disdain for straight forward hip hop,” Siddiq said. “He challenged himself to not just be a rapper, but to write songs. For him to do that so early on was ingenious and now everyone has to follow his method to be successful.”
“Most times I write with a pen, sometimes I write with a buzz and if I ever go gold, I must have wrote that shit in blood.” – Slug
For Slug the change occurred after he wrote “God’s Bathroom Floor”, a song he critiques heavily, but at the time needed to write. “We always talked about how abstract we were in the 90s,” he said. “When I wrote that song, it was the first time I felt as though it was actually abstract because you could break it down a hundred different ways and not know what I was talking about. It was purely accidental. I was freaking out and struggling that I was a fucking loser, had a two year old kid at the time and I was delivering flowers, destined for a union job somewhere.”
Slug wrote that song about fatherhood and the crippling realization that he needed to secure his life. When people responded to it with individual interpretations, he understood that he could take his personal thoughts and blend it with his need to be abstract. “Few people were doing those songs yet,” he said. “But everyone who was listening to rap through their backpack was ready for that kind of shit and I just happened to be the dude who started doing it.”
Today Siddiq sits in a spacious office above the RSE owned record store, 5th Element, his workspace littered with CDs, RSE memorabilia and an authentic MF Doom mask — officially the owner of one of the dopest labels. Slug stops in during our interview to discuss the next tour, joking about Atmosphere karaoke and not wanting anyone to do “Vampires” because he hates that song. Soon I am in his Envoy cruising around Minneapolis discussing his weird take on everything leading up to today. “Its still kind of weird to talk about,” he said. “Even Musab has branched out and is releasing records with Heiro. I’m fortunate that it never fucked me over. But, sometimes being the guy that can feel blessed for all that, it can suck when you look at it from other people’s perspectives.”'
As we drove past local spots like Liquor Lyles, familiarized by Slug’s lyrics, he admitted that each year he wanted to quit, but optimism kept him going. “From the age of 20 up to 32, I quit rap every year,” he said. “I always had one eye on a job application for a decade.” Slug attributes his longevity to luck and timing, but Siddiq and Brother Ali will not give him the pleasure of passing it off as fortune. “Nobody crossed it over to non-hip-hop fans and made them feel like hip-hop, until Slug,” Ali said. “Run DMC did it. They were a great rap group that operated with rock and roll ethics. Slug was our punk rock model that would play for anybody because he felt this was music you needed to hear — no matter who you were.”
Besides a growing roster, little has changed amongst the Rhymesayers. Each new member is sent through the RSE boot camp until they are molded from rappers into artists. Eyedea and Abilities started as hype man and DJ for Atmosphere on the first tour, while Brother Ali had to host at concerts before he got a slot as an opening act.
Siddiq said Ali was a part of the crew for four years, just developing his skill and hype, before he even released his debut Shadows on the Sun. “He really submersed himself in what Atmosphere was doing,” Siddiq said. “He just soaked up all the knowledge from all the people around him, taking it and putting it into himself to make it his own.”
Ali speaks of those times with no abhorrence. He recollects utilizing brief minutes between sets to make sure he was remembered. “Siddiq would DJ at the time and so I’d go to him and have him throw on a record while I did crowd interaction, then queue him to switch it and I’d rap for a minute,” Ali said. “That was some of the funnest shit ever.”
Back when Atmosphere was breaking even with tours, Ali was told if he could drive himself to the venues, they would give him the opening slot. Being legally blind, Ali can not drive. “I would come to [5th Element], find hardcore Atmosphere fans and say ‘hey want to go to a show in Iowa?’” he said. “I would get them to drive on the promise they would get to hang out with Slug.”
“From the heaven I've had to the hell I been through. I'm always coming back home to you.” – Slug
Siddiq still has an ear to the local scene, citing Big Quarters, St. Paul Slim (heard on Atmosphere’s free mixtape Strictly Leakage) and Toki Wright (who’s touring with Brother Ali) as the next class of Minneapolis elite. He said each year it becomes more difficult to invest time in developing new groups and invite them into the RSE crew.
Siddiq said the scene is probably better today than it was when he started. He laughs thinking of how the new scene’s first albums better his label’s Headshots tapes. “People like to throw this clique mentality at us,” he said. “How do you get that? There is only one group on our label that was down since day one. Every other group has come in after the fact. We’ve been about looking for young local talent and developing it into something pliable for them to go fulfill whatever their dreams are. We are just a vehicle to help them achieve it.”
A year ago RSE celebrated its 10 year anniversary; looking back on a decade of influential music that altered the course of independent music. In the spring Atmosphere will release its sixth album and another Sad Clown EP. “For anybody to reach that [level] you better respect what you’re doing and treat it like the job that it is,” Slug said.
Imagine former Def Jam president Lyor Cohen, Epitaph Records owner Brett Gurewitz and Siddiq all sitting in a room discussing the inception of their respective labels, each person having the same story at different moments in history. “To hear those stories from their era, it is so dope because they are all one in the same,” Siddiq said of his experience meeting both men. “We didn’t read Russell Simmons book and think ‘this is how you do it.’ It wasn’t something we were conditioned to think. It was something we truly felt and acted upon.”