Between the arid, soulless desert of Los Angeles, and the insane, squalid mess of New York, lies about 3,000 miles of fertile farmland ripe for nurturing (among other things) institutions that stand alone from the music business monsters operating on either coast. Enter Rhymesayers, the Minneapolis-based independent hip-hop label that is home to local artists like Atmosphere and Brother Ali. Since its transformation from ragtag ambitious rap crew to bona fide record label, Rhymesayers has expanded to include artists from across the country—from Seattle native Grieves to L.A. rapper Evidence to the New Yorkers of Hail Mary Mallon. Over the years, Rhymesayers has become a staple at the top of the charts (including CMJ’s own Hip-Hop Chart) and hard-working rectors of the hip-hop music business with the label’s Minneapolis record store Fifth Element and annual music festival Soundset, which this past May showcased Rhymesayers champions like Atmosphere and Brother Ali as well as big rap names like Big Boi and Curren$y. The label has made its name in the business based on its D.I.Y. nonstop work ethic, attention and adaptation to industry changes, whole-team unity and, of course, its artists’ dope rhymes.
Before it was Rhymesayers, the label consisted of a crew of Minneapolis b-boys, taggers, producers, MCs and DJs known as Headshots. The crew, which included Rhymesayers’ founding members Sean Daley and Anthony Davis (aka Slug and Ant of Atmosphere), Musab (formerly known as Beyond) and other artists like Spawn and I Self Devine of the Micranots, produced a series of Headshots mixes in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until 1996 that Rhymesayers released its first record, Beyond’s Comparison. The label had risen from the collapsing remains of the Headshots crew only a year earlier due to the collective efforts of Slug, Ant, Musab, Spawn, and now-CEO Brent Sayers (aka Siddiq). “Things used to be more lackadaisical,” Slug told CMJ. “Whereas now, everybody’s on the ball, everybody’s got their A-game on.” With more employees, more artists, and hands in the record store and festival promotion sectors of the industry, Rhymesayers is more organized and hardworking than ever.
“There’s not a lot of party-throwing and confetti-popping and shit, it’s more like, ‘Good work, now get back to work,’” Rhymesayers artist Evidence told CMJ. “What I really loved about Rhymesayers, and what I noticed in the past, was the focus they gave me and that they give each artist when it’s their turn to drop. They make sure it’s right before it does, and when it does, they get the same attention the other guy gets.” Rhymesayers has pushed an ethos of independence that allows its artists to stay in control of their work. Slug refers to it as, “the desire to be in charge of your own destiny,” in an industry that can snap up and mutate artists into radio-ready musicbots programmed to crank out hits for high profits. “I’ve met a lot of artists—who are not involved with our label—who really aren’t involved in their destiny,” Slug explained. “All they do is just focus on making their art, but they don’t have any idea how the machine works. I feel like that’s unfortunate in this day and age, because it just leaves you open to be taken advantage of.”
In order to incorporate its artists in all parts of the production process, Rhymesayers creates a tight-knit collective Slug calls an “artist-run label” that “feels like a co-op.” Artists are treated as long-term projects coordinated in harmony by driven artists and knowledgeable management rather than one-off hitmakers to be tossed aside to record executives once a hot new album goes cold. “Back in the day, labels used to be really artist-development driven, and that’s kind of gone away in a lot of places,” Rhymesayers tour manager J-Bird told CMJ. “I think that’s the whole thing with us, like, the vision is not just like putting out a record here and there, but working with really good artists that make great music and helping them build a career.”