On an unseasonably warm January night in Minneapolis, as a wintry mix falls innocuously to the ground, Atmosphere heats up First Avenue with a blistering, career-spanning set. Now comprising producer Ant, MC Slug, and DJ Plain Ole Bill, the iconic Twin Cities hip-hop crew commands the attention of the room, as they’ve done countless nights before.
“As far as the history of First Avenue,” says Nate Kranz, the downtown venue’s general manager, “they’re right at the top of the legendary Minneapolis groups.”
Founded in Minneapolis in 1995, Atmosphere’s independent hip-hop label, Rhymesayers Entertainment, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Tonight, Atmosphere headlines the House That Prince Built to honor another major milestone for Minneapolis music: The Current, the area’s alternative radio station, is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
The first track the station played? Atmosphere’s “Say Shh”, which “has really become an anthem locally,” according to Jim McGuinn, The Current’s program director who booked the show.
Atmosphere kicks off the set with “Say Shh”, and the crowd goes wild as Slug meanders through the opening bars: “I wanted to make a song about where I’m from, you know?/ Big up my hometown, my territory, my state.”
Minneapolis probably isn’t the first city that comes to mind when you think about rap. Slug remembers hearing Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” in his dad’s car, and the first record he bought was Run-D.M.C.’s “30 Days”. The go-to local radio program for Slug and his friends was the “Hip-Hop Shop” hosted by Travitron, aka Travis Lee. The next year, I.R.M. Crew released the city’s first single that was available nationwide, according to Justin Schell in Hip Hop in America: A Regional Guide.
Like rap’s seminal moment in the Bronx, the Twin Cities’ fluid scene brought together rappers, DJs, b-boys, and graffiti artists. (Slug tells me he was “a lot more into graffiti” than rapping or break dancing.) From McRae Park to King Park to the YMCA on Blaisdell, teens could get together at hip-hop parties for a couple bucks. Breaking crews would battle each other, and MCs would go head to head. In retrospect, Slug sees these events as giving kids “something productive and positive to do with their time on a Friday night so that they weren’t running the streets at 14 years old.”
If Travitron and I.R.M. Crew are the forefathers of Twin Cities hip-hop, the Rhymesayers guys are the golden children who put Minneapolis rap on the map. After the Micranots — another crew that “had the whole place on lockdown” — left for Atlanta, there was a void in the community. Slug (Sean Daley), Ant (Anthony Davis), Beyond (Musab Saad), and Siddiq (Brent Sayers), alongside Gene Poole, Abstract Pack, Black Hohl, and Phull Surkle, became the Headshots crew, taking inspiration from the likes of Wu-Tang Clan and Hieroglyphics. Slug emphasizes that at the time, Headshots’ formation wasn’t a conscious attempt to get a stranglehold on the city’s hip-hop scene; rather, “We created a family out of some strength-in-numbers-type shit.” In a similarly spontaneous way, Slug, Ant, Beyond, and Siddiq founded Rhymesayers in 1995.
“When we created the label, it wasn’t something that we thought we would do forever,” Slug says. “We were taking baby steps toward something that we knew wasn’t destructive.”
Rhymesayers’ first release was Beyond’s Comparison, and the label would later compile tracks from Atmosphere into Headshots: SE7EN. At the time, Slug also worked at Minneapolis’ iconic record store Electric Fetus. In person, the Fetus is an impressive sight. The store stretches the length of the block and features just about any record from any genre you can imagine. Working at the shop helped Slug discover music outside of hip-hop, according to Jon Jon Scott, who staffed the counter at the time. These diverse influences manifested themselves on Atmosphere’s early songs, with samples ranging from the Bee Gees’ “Walking Back to Waterloo” (on “Scapegoat”) to Kraftwerk’s “Musique Non Stop” (on “Saves the Day”). Bob Fuchs, the Music Department Manager, remembers “the underground buzz was massive right away” when Atmosphere’s debut album, Overcast!, dropped in 1997.
Rhymesayers now has its own home base at Fifth Element, which carries merch, records, and books. Local artists can also sell their music there, and the store occasionally hosts open-mic nights for aspiring MCs.
“Slug has always been really helpful,” Scott says. “He does a lot to help the Minneapolis scene, giving a big light that wouldn’t be there otherwise.”
When I talk to Slug, he’s on a coffee run, grabbing almond milk lattes for himself and Ant before heading to the studio. Somebody recognizes him in line, and the MC goes beyond the cursory hello and chats with the guy about school and the weather. When Slug speaks with me, he straddles the line between humility and humorous self-deprecation exactly the way he does when he raps. He tells me not to “martyr” events at Fifth Element as charitable ways for Rhymesayers to give back to the community.
As Slug puts it, “We were doing shit because it was fucking fun!”
Over at Fifth Element, incense wafts through the air, and Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo & Youth bumps on the speakers. An entire display is dedicated exclusively to Rhymesayers. What began as a way for Atmosphere to distribute its music has expanded into a roster that boasts over 25 artists, including MF DOOM, Aesop Rock, and Toki Wright. Rhymesayers transcended being a conduit for Atmosphere when the label released albums in the early ’00s from their next big stars: Eyedea & Abilities and Brother Ali.
Slug first met Eyedea (Mikey Larsen) through Abstract Pack. Back then, he was primarily known as a break dancer in a crew called the Battle Cats. Sess (Herbert Ford Foster IV), an Abstract Pack rapper, took Eyedea under his wing. Slug admits that when Eyedea emerged, he objected to how closely he resembled Sess. But when Sess died in a car accident in 1997, he lived on through Eyedea.
Soon, Eyedea became a revered rapper in his own right, winning Scribble Jam’s 1999 MC battle. On top of his reputation as an amazing freestyler, many in the Minneapolis hip-hop community describe Eyedea as genuinely avant-garde in creating music. Incidentally, while defending his crown at Scribble Jam 2000, Eyedea was defeated by labelmate Brother Ali (Ali Newman).
In that MC battle, Ali strikes an imposing figure next to Eyedea. Ali, who is albino and legally blind, self-produced and self-released his Rites of Passage cassette, which caught Slug’s attention. Although Slug says “the myth surrounding him was that he was an aggressive, mean dude,” the two rappers clicked. Ali’s path with Rhymesayers exemplifies how the label allows its artists to develop on their own terms. The MC’s fiercely political style has ruffled some feathers over the years — “Uncle Sam Goddamn” on The Undisputed Truth reportedly got him kicked off a tour opening for Gym Class Heroes because the sponsor was Verizon. But the label stood by him.
A huge graffiti mural adorns the back wall of Fifth Element with a simple message scrawled in the upper-right corner: “Be in peace … Dream.” For Rhymesayers, dreams of how big the label could get keep growing. And those dreams are built on the rock-solid foundation of Atmosphere’s relentless touring.
“You always gotta remember that there’s somebody in the audience who is at their very first concert,” Slug says. “You can’t just give them a show that is you running through the fucking motions. Because for somebody out there, this is not just how they’re gonna view you, but this is how they’re gonna see attending concerts.”
Dan Monick, a photographer who chronicled his time with the label in his book Seven Years with Atmosphere & Rhymesayers, remembers first crossing paths with Slug at First Avenue. From then on, Monick was the go-to guy for Rhymesayers’ photography as they blazed trails through Middle America.
Monick’s photography is intertwined with Atmosphere’s discography, from the covers of God Loves Ugly to the Lucy Ford EPs. Monick remembers those early shoots were always unstructured, allowing him to capture the crew in their element. The photographer says he knew Atmosphere made it big during the Lucy Ford tour. Heading outside from the sound check for a show at First Avenue, Monick saw a line around the block.
“I go and pick up Sean and we drive down there,” Monick says. “We were boogying to this back door because he was kind of tripping out.”
In 2003, Atmosphere signed on for worldwide distribution with punk heavyweight Epitaph, historically home to bands like Bad Religion and the Offspring. While Rhymesayers has always prioritized independence, inking the deal helped extend Atmosphere’s reach. That year, Seven’s Travels became their first record to crack the Billboard Top 100. The group’s highest-charting release, 2008’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, reached #5 on the Billboard Top 100. This is another achievement Slug downplays — he says the record had weak competition.
A 2004 SPIN feature dubbed Atmosphere’s brand of vulnerable lyricism “emo rap,” a term that Slug says doesn’t really bother him anymore. As far as being considered a “white rapper,” he says he’s recently started to reconsider the role of his multiracial identity — which includes black, white, and Native American roots — and his music.
“If you’re passing due to white privilege, then you’re white in a societal way,” Slug says. “Now, does that build a different set of issues inside somebody who knows they’re not white, but they know that they’re passing as white? Yeah, sure. Who the fuck am I to sit here and act like I can speak for black people? I can’t even speak for white people. I can’t speak for nobody. And I felt weird about that. So I took my racial makeup and just stuck it in the back corner for a long time.”
That year, Atmosphere ventured out with the punks and the rockers for their first Warped Tour, performing for a predominantly white audience. Slug asked local rapper P.O.S (Stefon Alexander) to come along.
“Slug told me, ‘Go ahead, sell merch. But bring out some music because people fall off Warped Tour all the time, and if I try, I can probably end up with a couple sets,’” P.O.S says. “And then I ended up playing, like, every show.”
With his first record, Ipecac Neat, under his belt, P.O.S remembers he “learned everything” about performing on Warped Tour, where he would hustle to draw people into his tent. It’s a common thread among Rhymesayers artists: Touring with Atmosphere makes for a powerful experience, seeing firsthand how the label reached cities like Boise or Madison, places between the hip-hop epicenters of LA and New York.
“It’s hard for kids in Minnesota to identify with East Coast/West Coast rapper lingo and beefs,” says Chris Riemenschneider, a music critic at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “The things these guys are rapping about, it hits home with these kids.”
If anybody could create a successful hip-hop festival, it’d be Rhymesayers. As rap festivals like Rock the Bells and Paid Dues have folded, Rhymesayers’ Soundset has thrived. The event takes its name from a similar showcase the Rhymesayers crew hosted when the label was first founded.
“It was a big pain in the ass with very little payoff,” Slug says of that first rap party. “But it let people know: Dudes from Rhymesayers are trying to take shit to the next level.”
Last year, the event sold out, with an estimated 30,000 attendees. The first incarnation took place at the Metrodome’s parking lot in Minneapolis. The festival has since moved about 25 miles southwest to Canterbury Park in Shakopee. While the event attracts major performers like Nas and Snoop Dogg, Atmosphere always headlines. The moment Slug is most proud of is when Wiz Khalifa came through despite being arrested for pot possession the morning of Soundset. Khalifa commissioned a private jet and went directly from the airport to the stage.
Despite its all-star guest performers, the festival essentially doubles as a showcase for Rhymesayers’ established and emerging talent. When Busta Rhymes was a no-show in 2013, a Rhymesayers artist, Prof (aka Jake Anderson), grabbed the vacant spot – and the spotlight.
“Prof stepped in with 45 minutes’ notice and played a set during one of the peak points of the afternoon,” says The Current’s Andrea Swensson. “He won probably thousands of fans that day.”
P.O.S earned new fans through grinding on tour as well. He hit the road again as a solo performer on Warped Tour in 2009 following the release of Never Better. On sun-baked summer days in parking lots and sprawling outdoor venues across America, P.O.S would hop off the Hurley Stage and wade into the crowd. While Plain Ole Bill spun beats from the stage, P.O.S would rap among his fans, a man of the people. After his set, he’d work his own merch tent, signing CDs and shooting the shit with anyone who stopped by. He befriended the guys from Motion City Soundtrack and Innerpartysystem, who gave him the beat for “Get Down” on his latest record, We Don’t Even Live Here.
Full of ferocious drum hits, harsh electronic beats, and P.O.S’ most in-your-face lyrics yet, WDELH showcases his diverse influences; he called upon Justin Vernon and Motion City Soundtrack’s Justin Pierre for guest spots. P.O.S chalks up the features to Minneapolis being a “very, very collaborative city,” as well as the friendships he’s made over the years. For a kid who was into punk and metal – “weirdo shit” — P.O.S’ dreams started small and didn’t explicitly involve hip-hop. He just wanted to play First Avenue.
Last December, P.O.S performed a week’s worth of shows at First Avenue with Doomtree, and proceeds went to local charities. For P.O.S, it means the world to give back to the community that has supported him. In 2012, he collapsed, suffering from chronic kidney disease. He needed a transplant and eventually received a donation from a childhood friend. The Doomtree crew set a $25,000 fundraising goal to offset medical expenses. The campaign raised over $40,000.
“I can’t even really think about it without making me want to cry,” P.O.S says.
Difficult times forge the strongest bonds in the hip-hop scene. In October 2010, Eyedea accidentally overdosed and passed away. From across the country, an outpouring of grief flowed through Minneapolis. Slug hosted a memorial show at First Avenue. At Soundset the next year, Eyedea’s mother led the crowd in honoring her son. A collective cheer of “Eyedea!” rippled through the massive gathering, as fans released balloons with handwritten messages into the sky. In Eyedea’s native St. Paul, Cherokee Park now has a park bench dedicated in his honor, complete with a plaque that memorializes his lyrics: “Heaven isn’t some place that we go to when we die/ It’s that split second in life when you actually feel alive.”
deM atlaS — one of Rhymesayers’ most recent signings — actually first met Slug at Eyedea’s memorial. Prof, the newest signing, and deM joined Rhymesayers within one month of each other, yet couldn’t be more different. The former is an MC who adopted a party-rap persona and gained a sizable following before joining Rhymesayers; the latter is an up-and-coming talent who signed just a few years out of high school.
In the summer of 2013, deM atlaS (the capitalized letters in the name are a shout-out to Minneapolis) opened for Rhymesayers artist Grieves at the Triple Rock. The rapper born Joshua Evans remembers making cookies at a friend’s house when an email from Siddiq arrived. For deM, who fell in love with Atmosphere after hearing Overcast!, “my stomach just went up to my heart” when the Rhymesayers’ CEO scheduled a meeting at Fifth Element. Then Atmosphere tweeted at him.
Not bad for a kid who in high school fronted the Argonauts, a band that played everything from acid rock to Rage Against the Machine covers. deM says rapping didn’t come easily for him at first: “I’d get really frustrated because I couldn’t think of anything to say. I was just trying to rhyme words.”
deM went from self-releasing his Charle Brwn EP — which facetiously name-drops Atmosphere’s “Sunshine” on opening track “A Happy Sad” — to actually being on the Rhymesayers roster in a little over nine months.
“Everybody in Minnesota knows this song … but I’m gonna twist it around and make it my own and be a sarcastic ass about it,” deM says about referencing the Atmosphere classic. “I was in my mom’s basement when I recorded that song.”
For deM, the whirlwind year and a half since signing has included playing First Avenue, rapping at Soundset, performing at Camp Flog Gnaw, and headlining his own show at 7th St Entry. deM has just woken up when we talk, and his low-key inflection stands in stark contrast to his reputation as a dynamite live rapper. Studying Slug and Prof helped him learn confidence and improve his kinetic performances.
“It’s like guiding a ship,” deM explains. “If the captain is hesitant, and he’s sweating and flitting his eyes nervously, passengers are gonna get suspicious, and they’re probably gonna want to jump the boat.”
For his first Rhymesayers release, the DWNR EP, deM wanted to make sure his release was “100 percent genuine.” At Siddiq’s suggestion, he drew unique art for a thousand copies of the record.
“We were at the office till like midnight,” deM says of working late on Halloween. “I always imagined the plans, getting trashed, or just doing some stupid shit with friends. But I stayed my ass at Fifth Element packing those DWNR CDs ’cause we had to go on tour tomorrow.”
His current dream is simple: “It’s just to make it happen. And making it happens is me finding a way to support my family through music.”
He also compares his drive for empathetic hip-hop to grunge (Nirvana is his favorite band) surpassing “the immaculate glamor and misogyny” of hair metal in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “People were fed up, so when grunge came out, it was a breath of fresh air. I see the same thing happening with hip-hop right now. I see trap music as hair metal. Some of it’s good, but most of it’s garbage. And the message is garbage. So what I’m trying to have is songs that make you feel good.”
Then deM says something that perhaps best encapsulates the Rhymesayers ethos: “I can scream if I want to. As long as it’s genuine, I can say whatever I want, and I won’t ever let myself down.”
Back at First Avenue, Atmosphere closes the set with “Guarantees” as Slug raps over the mournful, minimalist beat. The house lights remain dim, and the crowd cheers loudly for an encore. After a brief break, the trio returns to the stage. Slug unleashes a frantic freestyle, and it’s like the old days again when the Rhymesayers crew would spit free-form verses together. Atmosphere finishes the encore with “Flicker”, their Southsiders elegy for Eyedea. Slug asks the fans to raise a light as he slowly waves his arm back and forth, and a sea of cell phone flashlights and lighters glows back at him.
When I ask what advice he’d give his younger self, Slug unequivocally responds, “I would have told myself not to drink so much. I would have told myself, ‘Keep your eyeball on what’s important, and quit fucking partying so much.’ You start to buy into the fact that you need some drama in your life to help keep your blood hot … And it’s all bullshit. You’re just making excuses for being a poor decision-maker.”
Through everything – “life, love, stress, and setbacks,” as he raps on “Yesterday” — the MC doesn’t want a victory lap for Rhymesayers.
“For the label, I think the biggest challenge today is to not pat itself on the fucking back,” Slug says. “I’m very careful not to be the guy that’s going, ‘Look what we did! We made it 20 years!’ Because I feel like I’m not done.
“I wanna do even better than what we’ve done in the past,” Slug adds. “Rather than celebrate my successes, I’d rather plan on the future.”