By now, Rhymesayers would know what it takes to build a successful career. Its summer releases, by Atmosphere, Hail Mary Mallon and Grieves, each spent weeks at the top of the charts, and Evidence has been touring with Slug to promote his upcoming sophomore solo album Cats And Dogs, which hits shelves September 27. Artists are really hands-on with everything with us,” said J-Bird. “We don’t say, ‘Hey, this is going to be the single for the record, and this is how it’s going to come out.’ It’s all really together, and the artists are a really big part of everything here.” According to J-Bird, Rhymesayers has been artist-driven from the start, when musicians used to stuff their own envelops to send to radio stations.
“I feel like they’re good at letting you create what you want to create before they’re gonna step in and fuck with the flow,” Evidence said about what he called Rhymesayers’ “sobering process.” Rather than directing every move an artist makes, Rhymesayers’ managers allow artists to “sit in the clouds” and make music, then act as a “second doctor’s opinion” to their ideas. Rhymesayers’ approach to career-building has set them apart from less attentive labels vilified by artists like Evidence.
“It’s kind of funny because my whole life I’ve been on the label, you know, ‘Fuck the label, fuck the label, we’re gonna push this through, fuck the label, we want our single, fuck the label,’” explained Evidence. “Now I’m on a label and I’m not saying, ‘Fuck the label.’ It’s not that kind of party.” Rhymesayers is instead a communal, family kind of party, where everyone gets to know each other through the label’s cooperative work efforts and shared tours. It is customary at Rhymesayers that a new artist like Evidence tours with a staple like Slug to ease the transition into the Rhymesayers clan. “For me, I’m like an outsider looking in,” Evidence said. “Fortunately, I’ve gotten to know some of the people pretty well in a short period of time, but a lot of the artists have known each other a lot longer than I have. I’m still figuring it out.”
According to Slug, Rhymesayers artists come to the label with a do-it-yourself work ethic and “that family vibe,” which allows artists to establish themselves as successful musicians and members of the pack. “There’s definitely a following to the label that’s really been a part of the branding from the beginning,” J-Bird told CMJ. “I think we have a strong reputation, and we always have groups on the road, and we’ve always branded the label with groups that we’ve done, so people know the brand. You go places and people have the logo tattooed on them, it’s crazy.”
Key to Rhymesayers’ branding is the label’s Minneapolis roots, even now that it’s branched out to artists from across the U.S. The Fifth Element record store is based in Minneapolis, as are the label’s headquarters and the Soundset Festival, which takes place in nearby Shakopee, MN. “When we first started going on the road you would see that people were proud that the music was coming out of their town and going to different cities,” said J-Bird. “You’d be in Japan and it’d be like, ‘Hey, I’m from St. Paul!’” Rhymesayers’ devoted fanbase has inspired the label to take measures to ensure fans’ satisfaction and adapt to a struggling music industry. J-Bird described Rhymesayers as “fan-driven,” taking the consideration to reward fans for their support with lower ticket prices, discounted presage tickets to Soundset for its followers, rock-bottom prices for label merchandise, and packaging physical albums in creative and interesting ways to entice buyers. Such an approach has helped the label survive and thrive in the face of declining album sales and a dismal economy.
16 years after the kids from Headshots banded together to become Rhymesayers, the label is stronger than ever and still true to its do-it-yourself ethos and synergistic approach to producing top-of-the-charts hip-hop. For Evidence, on the verge of his Rhymesayers debut after years of hard work on his part and on the label’s, this is—to be both corny and honest—just the beginning. “How I fit into [Rhymesayers] I’m still trying to figure out or it’ll be determined through what happens, but I’m super grateful to be on the team,” he said. “And I think they’re grateful to have me, you know what I mean?” Judging by Evidence’s induction into the Rhymesayers “family” and his history of working independently, it seems that Cats And Dogs could kick off a healthy Rhymesayers career.