Rhymesayers Entertainment

Rhymesayers: An Oral History Of The Indie Rap Empire

The label's celebrating their 20th anniversary.

Rhymesayers Entertainment might fly under the radar sometimes, but their influence is far from underground.

Before "Thrift Shop," for example, Macklemore called the label a model "to follow." He's done quite well for himself with that, right? Cats like J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg have all been part of the camp's annual SoundSet festival. Other artists ranging from Logic to Vic Mensa have been fans of the label for years.

In two decades, Rhymesayers Entertainment (RSE) has become an important and influential independent hip-hop empire. But how did that happen?

In honor of their 20th anniversary, MTV News spoke with the label's CEO Brent "Siddiq" Sayers, Atmosphere's Sean "Slug" Daley and General Manager Jason "J-Bird" Cook about how five friends in Minnesota turned a dream into a global powerhouse. This is their oral history, and it's packed with lessons.

Lesson #1: Do The Important Sh-t

In 1995, Rhymesayers was born. "It seemed like the right thing to do since we didn't have a record label," Slug told MTV News. Their first projects were free mixtapes as part of Headshots, a local Minnesota collective that soon broke up. After that, the core of RSE featured Slug, Siddiq, Anthony "Ant" Davis, Derek "Spawn" Turner and Musab "Beyond" Saad. Together, they decided to push their dreams forward.

"Doing that, we drew a hard line on what type of dedication we expected from ourselves," Slug explained. "With Headshots, we smoked weed, had fun, partied, rapped and were just kickin' it. Once we actually got all the way behind the label, it was like, ‘Well, party ain’t over, but we got important sh-t to do too.’"

Lesson #2: Build With Friends And Find Your Role

In order to do that "important sh-t," the group had to become selfless.

Siddiq, for example, stopped producing to focus on the business side of things. "I loved making beats," he said. "But I just couldn't find the time anymore. [I had to go] 'I’m not gonna worry about getting any shine because that’s what’s gonna be the key for us to actually build something.'"

Rhymesayers

The rest of the crew saw it as a big moment, too. "He was the guy with the vision and the knowhow to make the professional endeavors happen," Slug explained. "I’m grateful that he was there to take that role so I could focus on being an artist."

Once they all found roles, new opportunities came.

Lesson #3: Take Advantage Of Every Opportunity

One day in the label's early years, Siddiq got a surprising phone call. A promoter in Dallas wanted to book RSE for their first out-of-state show. The crew was stunned, but they packed a van full of merch anyway and drove more than 900 miles to Texas for a small, 50-person gig. "Whatever we made didn’t even pay for gas," Siddiq said.

It wasn't the most efficient trip, but that didn't matter. "I wanted to go see the f--king world," Slug said. "I’d drive to Dallas for one show and sleep on your floor just because I wanted to see Dallas. As a kid, I never went nowhere."

But they also drove there because it was part of the young label's ethos. "When we started, it was like, ‘Let’s do whatever show comes our way,’" Siddiq explained. "Who cares about the money? We were doing rock shows, punk shows, basement shows, raves, whatever shows we could get. We figured, if we get plugged in and do what we do, who cares what else is going on? We knew we could impress somebody."

Lesson #4: Do What Others Won't

After performing at home (and Dallas), they took this attitude to places where other MCs wouldn't. "Rappers wanted you to fly them around and put them in hotels," Slug said. "We were like, ‘F--k it. Let’s tour the rock circuit and play these sh-tty-ass clubs for no money and sleep on the promoter’s floor, but let's get our sh-t out there.'"

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That turned out to be an important move that continues to influence rappers today. "We were definitely some of the first to independently build a following out of touring because we didn't have radio or video support. We built those followings hand-to-hand by hitting small cities and going back to them twice a year...The touring market is so cluttered these days, but that wasn't being done when we started."

"I don’t know if we were the first rap group to really employ that," Slug added. "But I know we employed it harder and stronger and longer than anybody else I could think of."

Lesson #5: Connect With People On And Offline

Touring wasn't the only part of the label's early success.

"The internet was crucial, too" J-Bird explained. "The Rhymesayers message board was a place to go even if people didn’t know who Rhymesayers, as a label, was. It was one of the main rap message boards at the time and I think that helped. How else could you reach all these people to find out about Atmosphere without radio play, without being in record stores, without videos on MTV? That’s how they found out."

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Once they found out, listeners flocked to shows where they'd buy CDs directly from MCs at merch tables. Without a distribution deal, RSE relied on this for sales. And it worked. J-Bird says they sold 30-100 projects a night on tour, allowing them to create a one-on-one connection with supporters.

Lesson #6: Show That You Care

The crew eventually started personalizing albums to create a stronger bond with fans. Slug, for example, doodled and wrote messages on Sad Clown, Bad Dub CDs. Could you imagine if Kanye West drew you a one-of-a-kind College Dropout bear? Fans went nuts over it.

"That was a big part of what I think grew my connection with the audience," Slug said. "When people see that you’re there for them and that you actually give a f--k about what you’re presenting, they can find it in their hearts to forgive any of the flaws that you carry. It’s just like making a friend. You make friends because you connect on a certain level and you might be able to forgive your friend for having some funky-ass feet because you love him. He’s your boy. That’s the kind of connection that we strove to make."

These days, Slug still surprises fans. Like they did in the "Fortunate" music video above, Slug and Ant [both make up Atmosphere] greet fans who line up before shows. That's just part of the label's work history," says J-Bird. "I don't know if there's a lot of artists [like that]," he said. "They'll say hello to everybody, take pictures and shake hands. That's something we've always done. Everybody takes time to do those kind of things for the fans."

It's true. Dem Atlas personally drew a ton of cartoon faces on his 2014 DWNR CDs. Evidence and Alchemist wrote messages for fans in their Lord Steppington album last year, too.

Lesson #7: Make Your Wins Count

Despite their growing buzz in the late '90s and early aughts, no one outside of RSE knew exactly how well the label was doing. That's because Rhymesayers wasn't set up for Nielsen SoundScan, a sales tracking system, yet. "We didn’t even know what Soundscan was," Siddiq explained. But that changed in 2002 when Atmosphere dropped God Loves Ugly.

"That allowed us to have a real release date and to be Soundscanned," Siddiq added. "That put us on everybody’s radar. I think that record did 13,000 [units sold] or something that first week. For an independent out of nowhere, that no one really knew, it was a really good first week. That snowballed into every major label hitting us up."

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J-Bird remembers a particular night in Ann Arbor, Michigan when Warner Bros. reps approached RSE with a sales pitch. "They were super tan and definitely from Los Angeles," he said. "They were like, ‘Hey, you guys should sign with us.’ Man, that kind of stuff was happening all over."

Lesson #8: Know Your Worth

While most people would jump at those opportunities, Rhymesayers laughed at the majors. "The Interscope one was the funniest because we got in there and we met with Jimmy Iovine," Siddiq explained. "It was the last day of our trip and they literally were like, ‘No, we’ll change your flight. We’re gonna stay in this room until we work out a deal.’ We were like, ‘Huh? Nah. Why don’t you send us the deal? We’ll go over it with our lawyer and get back to you next week.’ That seemed to make sense to us, but I think they were really shook.

"For us, we had already won," Siddiq clarified. "We were succeeding. We were all eatin'. We were all living well. We were doing it 100 percent ourselves and everything was working."

Rhymesayers didn't sign with any major that year, despite the persistent calls. Why? "It didn’t seem like they really got it," Siddiq explained. "It seemed like, at that moment in time, they were trying to cherry-pick Atmosphere. I don’t think they got the big picture of Rhymesayers. In a sense, we probably could have done something that they’ve done more recently with TDE, but things like that back then weren’t commonplace for a major label."

Lesson #9: Be Impactful

After rejecting the majors in 2002, Rhymesayers continued to thrive. Acts like Eyedea & Abilities, Brother Ali and P.O.S. carried Atmosphere and Musab's torch with personal, relatable rhymes. This helped them gain a strong following without any major hits. How?

Beth Saravo/Rhymesayers Entertainment

"A good pop song makes you dance and there’s a great one every year, but not many of them last 20 years," Slug explained. "Michael Jackson’s got a handful of them. They lasted 20 f--kin' years. That’s an amazing thing. It’s really hard to do that, to live that long with a dance song. [Most other pop songs] often get replaced by the next thing, the next dance song, but in my world, these don’t get replaced.

"It’s kind of like, instead of creating the Mona Lisa, we create family portraits," he continued. "There can only be one Mona Lisa and motherf--kers have been trying to compete with the Mona Lisa forever, but I would rather look at a family portrait than a Mona Lisa, truth be told. At the end of the day, those family portraits will impact your life a lot more than the Mona Lisa will."

Lesson #10: Find Your Voice

Slug wasn't the only one to employ that style and soon, it became part of the label's identity. "Our artists evolved into understanding that they couldn’t just rap about rapping," Siddiq explained. "They had to find their own voice and put their perspectives and personalities into the music. When that started to happen, people really started to respond to that."

Fans have been moved by the roster's songs about love, hope and death. "When Sean does ‘Yesterday’ [a 2008 track about his deceased father], you can see people in the front row really singing along, really feeling it," J-Bird said. "I’ve seen grown men cry to Slug at the merch table about how music's saved them.

"We get e-mails from people who are going through really f—ked up sh-t," he continued. "There’s suicide notes, there’s ‘My boyfriend was strung out on drugs,’ there’s ‘My parents got divorced.’ Through all these hard times, the music helped them get through it."

Those themes have continued to drive RSE's work. Atmosphere's 2011 album was titled The Family Sign and 2014's Southsiders featured songs like "Flicker," about the late Eyedea, who died in 2010. Ali's latest album features "All You Need," a song about his son and ex-wife. Evidence’s latest solo effort features “I Don't Need Love,” a song dealing with his mother’s passing. Family portraits are clearly still important to these artists.

Lesson #11: Trust Your Gut

Last month, Slug had an idea before hitting the stage at Tyler, The Creator's Camp Flog Gnaw festival. "Everybody’s getting turnt the f--k up," he said. "Everybody’s on some rah-rah sh-t. How ‘bout we go up there and do what we do?"

"YG killed it," he added. "Mac Miller? Killed it! These dudes are killin’ it. They’re doin' the hits. We don’t really have any 'real hits.' We have Atmosphere hits, but I was like, 'Let’s do ‘Little Man.’ Let’s do ‘Angelface.’ Let’s do ‘Guarantees.’ Let’s do album cuts instead of the singles. And it totally worked!"

Slug says this was, like many of his professional decisions over the years, done "off instinct." They took a risk and it worked.

"The ‘Guarantees’ thing was really huge," he added. "Here’s a song that, it don’t even have no drums, on this huge ass stage, with 20,000 people, at least, looking at us and they f--kin' let us play that sh-t. People sang along."

Lesson #12: Do You

By trusting his gut and going against what other acts were doing at Flog Gnaw, Atmosphere did what Rhymesayers have done since the beginning. Remember their early punk rock shows and raves? It didn't matter what other bands were doing at those gigs; RSE MCs did what they wanted. That attitude spilled over into their albums.

"I’ve never jumped on trends with the music that I make," Slug said. "I’ve always kept it in the frame of what my life is. I’ve always kept it inside of my truth so I’ve never had to defend my sh-t. If you don’t like it, that’s okay. If you do, thank you. But other than that, I’ve never tried to trick nobody into liking my sh-t. I’ve never jumped on a trend to be part of the hot movement."

"We’re gonna do what feels right," he added. "We’re not gonna base it on what our heroes said on record. If I based everything that my heroes said on records, I wouldn’t even be here right now. They had me scared of the industry. The way my favorite rappers told it, the industry was there to enslave me. I learned my own way that the industry can’t enslave me because I won’t let them."

Lesson #13: Create Opportunities

If you ask Slug what he's most proud of today, he doesn't talk about any accolades, awards or record sales. He talks about family.

"There was a time when I employed both of my siblings," he said. "I’ve been able to create jobs for friends and I’m not just talking about rappers. I’m talking about non-rapping jobs, behind-the-scenes jobs. That’s huge to me."

Rhymesayers Entertainment

He's not just thinking about his literal family, though. He’s also thinking about his label mates. Peep how he beams when discussing Brother Ali's "life success," for example.

"He was destined for greatness one way or another because of who he is on the inside," Slug said. "To know that he looks at me as one of the good things in his life that was part of his path to where he’s going, that fills me with warmth."

Like Slug, these relationships remain important to Siddiq. Remember, this started as a journey between friends and, in many ways, it's still that. "I genuinely love the cats I work with," he said. "That's some real sh-t. I would do anything for them and I would trust them with anything."

Lesson #14: Diversify

Rhymesayers is best known for music, but they maintain some of that success because of their work outside of rap.

"We always wanted to do music out of love and find some other way to make money," Siddiq said. "We’ve never wanted to be guided by making money from our art."

So, they've started investing in companies like Peri Duo, a phone battery/speaker case maker. They've got real estate endeavors, starting with a record store that sits below their label headquarters in Minnesota. And they've also got Soundset, their aforementioned annual festival. The fest, which has sold out of 30,000 tickets each year for the past two, is an important extension for the company.

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"We were like, 'Let’s curate Soundset to showcase our artists and bring people to Minneapolis that kids never get to see," Bird explained. "That was part of branching out to reinvest into Rhymesayers and also to expand the brand."

Don't worry. This doesn't mean their focus is going away from their bread and butter. "Most of the things we do, we try to keep them related to music because we’ve built a strong following and loyal fan base," Siddiq added. "So, the more we can diversify into things that somehow serve that fan base, the better."

Lesson #15: Keep Lookin' Forward

The label's going to celebrate their 20th anniversary with a huge show in Minnesota Friday, Dec. 4. It'll be an important day for the label, one that Slug knows is rare.

"Rather than people waiting until I’m dead to appreciate it, people are appreciating me now and that’s a very fortunate thing for art," he explained. "Millions of people make art and, truth be told, not too many get to experience what I’m experiencing, so I know I’m very fortunate to be here."

But the label isn't satisfied just looking back or being in the moment. They're also looking forward.

"I’m excited to see where the next 20 go," Siddiq said. "To me, its just another day and another year, so I’m thinking about 2016 right now. I’m ready to be done with this 20th year so we could start working on the 21st."