On the surface, Minneapolis isn't the first city that comes to mind on the list of independent hip-hop hubs. But Rhymesayers Entertainment has rarely operated on the surface level. For the past two decades, the label co-founded by Brent "Siddiq" Sayers and Atmosphere MC Sean "Slug" Daley has grown into one of the most important -- and longest-tenured -- underground rap imprints around, shepherding the careers of Atmosphere, Brother Ali, Aesop Rock, MF DOOM and dozens more through a mix of brotherhood, dedication and capitalizing on opportunities.
Now, after more than 80 album releases and a string of creative distribution deals with Fat Beats, Epitaph, Warner and ADA, the Rhymesayers crew is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a hometown show Dec. 4 at Minneapolis' Target Center for just $20, giving back to the very fans that contributed to the growing hip-hop scene in the Twin Cities.
Ahead of their anniversary showcase, Billboard spoke with Slug and Siddiq about the keys to keeping Rhymesayers afloat for two decades.
Let's go back to the beginning. Why did you guys first want to start Rhymesayers?
Siddiq: It really wasn't a thought of wanting to, necessarily. I think it just started out of being involved in hip-hop in general and just doing it out of the love and then it kind of evolved from there into being more active, actually doing more things. I think it was just the naiveté that you had to kind of have a label if you were gonna put out a CD and that's where it kind of initiated from.
Why did you want to create your own label rather than link up with one?
Siddiq: There really wasn't anything in Minnesota. It has a music history, but there's really no industry here. Which is funny, too, because in some ways as that progressed, a big part of the industry actually was here as far as when the big box retailers -- your Best Buys and your Targets were all based here. But it's not like we were in New York or Cali where we could just go to a label or where there's label reps out and about in the city every night at shows and shit seeing artists play.
Slug: We didn't have a choice. It was like, either play shows and hope somebody somewhere notices you, or send demos out to labels in New York, or just start duplicating your own cassettes. This city has always had a musical economy for as long as I've been alive; the only thing that wasn't here was investors or people to put something behind you. So at some point you just had to say, "Well, if I'm not gonna move to where the investors live, I'm just gonna have to figure out how to do this myself."
What did you do to get it off the ground?
Siddiq: I was doing a lot of show promotion; out of high school, I had started doing warehouse parties and club nights and DJ'ing. I was involved in these microphone check showcase showdowns, kind of like a battle of the bands but all hip-hop acts and we'd bring out a national act to headline it. And out of that, I connected with all these local groups and that evolved into the Headshots crew. And so we were making these Headshots tapes and starting to build a buzz around town. And through that was kind of when we were like, "Alright, let's put out a full album of our own."
Slug: Did we know what we were doing? No. You base it off what you hear in rap songs. There was no blueprint for us; we had to just use our gut.
Siddiq: We basically just taught ourselves. I mean, we all had some experience with like four-track recorders and stuff, but beyond that, we really didn't know what we were doing. But we were like, as long as it sounds good to us, who cares? And that's kind of the way we looked at it. We recorded the Beyond Comparison album, recorded the first Atmosphere album, Overcast! and then the Dynospectrum album all in my basement.
How did you finance those early days?
Siddiq: I was working for Best Buy's music department at that time, and they were consolidating stores. So at that time, I took my pension plan and basically just bowed out and cashed in all my stock options and sat on unemployment for a year and got everything going. Between that and maxing out some credit cards, that was pretty much how it started.
Slug: Every baby step felt like a huge step. When we started putting out tapes and shit, they started selling out at the record stores. We were like, holy shit, people are starting to call us for re-ups. It wasn't a lot of money, but the fact that people were buying our tape when you could buy the Raekwon tape, it was kind of like, "Fuck, that's the shit." It was kind of like selling dope -- you take the money you made and re-invest it until you've got enough that you can start breaking it up. Word of mouth and this new young thing called the internet started happening in rap chat rooms and with college students and it got us more shows and more plays in other areas. And everything was just another baby step, but every baby step felt amazing.
Now, mind you, I was a late bloomer. When all this started happening, I was already 26, 27 years old. So at that point I was already past the party shit, so it was easy for me to start into this life and start touring without some of the pitfalls. Because the pitfalls would offer themselves to you, but at 27 it was like, "Well I'm not gonna start doing coke now." God knows, if this shit started crackin' off for me when I was 19 or 20, I would have burnt out, I would have been a mess. I would have fucked everybody and snorted everything.
How did you handle distribution?
Siddiq: It really was hand-to-hand at little shows we were doing and then selling direct to all the independent stores. It's funny, because people saw us as bigger at the time, but we didn't have a distribution deal, technically, until like 2004. We did a licensing deal for [Atmosphere's] God Loves Ugly and Soul Position's 8,000,000 Stories and Eyedea & Abilities' E&A and Atmosphere's Seven's Travels. But everything outside of those records we were distributing ourselves out the back of our store. At the time, we had opened up our own little retail store in Minneapolis called Fifth Element and we were just distributing out the back. But at that time, we were selling tens of thousands of records just direct. Outside of those records that we licensed, you couldn't get our stuff in a Best Buy or a Target or the big box music retailers.
When did you first start getting national attention outside Minnesota?
Siddiq: I think the first phase was Atmosphere's Overcast! We had built up such a strong foundation in Minnesota that we could put something out, pay for the cost of making our product in Minnesota alone, and then we would bounce out of state and just give copies away. A trip out to Rock Steady ended up with me putting an Overcast! CD in the hands of this guy Jay Pratt who was working with Kevin Beacham, who was doing radio in Chicago at the time at WNUR [at Northwestern]. And he played "Scapegoat" off of Overcast! and another person who works with us now, J-Bird, he heard it on Kevin's radio show. And those two knew each other and he ended up putting it on a mixtape he was doing and that mixtape ended up at Fat Beats, and [DJ] Eclipse over at Fat Beats heard the "Scapegoat" track.
Eclipse was getting people coming in asking for this song and he was like, "I don't even know what the fuck this is." And through that he found out who we were and called us and was like, "Hey, do you guys have this on vinyl?" And I was like, "Nope, but we can make some." And he was like, "I'll buy 500 of them." That trip to Rock Steady passing out CDs ended up traveling back to Chicago which made its way back to New York and that ended up being our first vinyl order from Fat Beats. At that time, if your shit wasn't in Fat Beats, you weren't really doing it.
That kind of made it legit in the indie hip-hop world. And then from there, we were selling easily 20-30,000 units directly ourselves. Everything was kind of off the grid. We wanted to do something that would put us on the radar, so we did a short-term licensing deal with Fat Beats, who had a deal with Rhino through Warner Brothers. We did the deal for God Loves Ugly and let them distribute it. I think we did 12, 13 thousand units first week. And for an independent release that no one really knew anything about, that immediately made everybody take notice. As we did that, pretty much every major label and label head from everywhere was hitting us up, trying to figure out what we were doing and what was going on.
Did you take those meetings?
Siddiq: We took all the meetings. Nothing really seemed right. Everybody, it seemed their focus was to cherry pick Atmosphere, and that wasn't really what we were looking to do. At that time, if you could show that you could sell some records with no help, shit -- that was like a coup. They were like, "Wait a minute, somebody's making money and we're not getting a piece of it? We've gotta scoop them up real quick." And those were just what some of those meetings felt like. So we ended up not doing the deal with anybody.
One of the labels that we had met with was Epitaph and what they were doing didn't really make sense for us, but we knew with the short term life [of the deal] with Fat Beats that we had to do something like that until we got to the next level. So we did another short term licensing deal with Epitaph for two records, and I would say that was the next phase. We had decent radio and video play for "Trying To Find a Balance" off the Seven's Travels record. That really put us in front of a lot of different people and just heightened the exposure.
What were some of the biggest challenges you've faced along the way?
Siddiq: I think the greatest challenge and greatest success has been keeping that core unit focused and together on one vision and goal. I think that's something you see break down all the time -- you get egos involved and different agendas and it destroys what you can do when you have a force of people all combined for a common goal. Anything else for the most part has fallen into place. You know, it's a lot of work. It's non-stop and from day one. But I think that's really kind of our strength, having a flagship artist like Atmosphere that invested in the label is part of the reason we're still here today, and I think a lot of our counterparts who were there 10, 15 years ago are no longer around.
Did you ever think about moving to one of the coasts?
Siddiq: It was never really a consideration. Hell, it's more a consideration these days, and that's mainly just because of the fucking winters. [Laughs] But nah, I think -- we're so rooted here. For the better part of the last 20 years, we've played a huge role in developing a scene and building a scene here. I think if there's one thing legacy-wise that I can say we played a huge role in doing, it's actually building and developing a scene here in Minnesota. Early on, I think it was part of our identity. I think it's so embedded in us now, it really wouldn't matter if we moved to California tomorrow. But I think early on if we opted to do something like that it probably would have had an adverse effect.
At the 20-year mark, many of your peers in the indie hip-hop world are not around anymore. What have you done differently?
Siddiq: I'd like to think we have very good business practices, first of all. We don't claim to be perfect, but I think we always are striving to do right and do the best by our artists first and foremost. And I think that speaks to the relationships. When you look at our roster, you have a bunch of artists that we've worked with for 20 years, 10 years, 15 years. You don't have a lot of turnover like you see at a lot of labels.
Slug: You know, I'm happy to say that we just continued to work with friends. Looking for talent sucks. Everybody's opinion on what talent is is different. But working with friends is like, "Look man, what you're doing is great, we think you're a great human, if we have anything that you think could help take you to the next level, let us know, because we like you." Whereas I think if we were the kind of label that was looking for talent so we could develop it and sell it and all that kind of shit, who knows what the fuck would have happened to us? We could have been like any number of indie labels. But I think that because of the type of relationships we've built, that's a huge part of why we are still around.
Siddiq: For the better part of 20 years, out of necessity, we basically were all of our core artists' management, booking and publicity. So I think those shifts in the industry have never really affected us much -- clearly not as much as the majors felt them and definitely not as much as some of our indie counterparts -- because we've always worked that way. When you take off like a rocket ship, you've got nowhere to go but down. And we've never done that -- it's always been a slow build. So I think you've got a much stronger foundation of people invested in it, so you have a much smaller drop off and you're still being introduced to new people.
What makes you most proud?
Siddiq: Keeping our core unit group of cats together. To me, that means a lot. I think there's what we've done here locally in Minnesota in the sense of helping build and develop a thriving scene. And then I think it really is the connections we've made with fans. Those are lasting things. The relationships within our organization, fans and people who have been a part of it and who have actually felt some sort of connection to something that we've done.
Slug: For me, I always think about how I've employed both my siblings -- one of whom still works for us -- and I've been able to employ a lot of my friends. Creating jobs is massive to me. It's bigger than hip-hop, to me. I love this culture and I love my part in it and I love what I've been able to accomplish, but at the end of the day, had I not been able to use this voice the way I'm using it, I could only hope that whatever I did I was able to fuckin' create jobs for friends. That's about as validating as it gets.
Is there anything else you haven't accomplished yet that you still want to?
Slug: I would love to figure out how to take what I've done and try to turn it into even more. And when I say that, I don't mean more money, more music or even music-related, but as far as the type of impact we've had on this city. We built a label here, we built a record store here, we bring a festival here. We've added to making sure that people understand that this town qualifies as a hip-hop town.
That's the type of shit that translates to legacy. Whatever I do as a rapper, I'm just another fucking rapper, you know? When I was a kid coming up, there was a couple older heads that looked out for us and made sure that we had shit to do and made sure that there was shit available to us and made sure that hip-hop was here for us. And I'm one of those older heads now, and I just want to remain one of those guys who continues to make sure that these kids have something to do to keep them out of trouble.
Twenty years later, how does it feel to have built something like this?
Siddiq: It's cool. I think you're lucky if you can get 20 years deep in a business startup these days. And so obviously there's a sense of accomplishment there, but it's hard for me to even look at it like that because I'm thinking about what I got to get done today after I get off the phone with you. That's just the mentality we've always had. I think a lot of our artists are the same way. Honestly, I don't think we've accomplished shit. Now, I know that's not true. I don't say that literally. But I'm saying in the sense of how I see the things that are in my head, the things I want to accomplish, we've only scratched the surface. There's so much more.
What can we expect from the show on the 4th?
Slug: Oh, man, it's gonna be a big, wet cluster fuck of rap. For me it's not really as important that we've been here for 20 years. The real story is that we were able to get the basketball arena and throw a fuckin' $20 concert in there. That room is an expensive-ass room to get, just the cost of the union labor alone. We pulled a coup. To be able to get that room for $20 a ticket, that's a story. In five years, that's what I'm gonna look back on. We had all our friends come and hang out and feel the love. And that is a fuckin' celebration. Hell yeah.