Top HipHop Uproxx
For much of hip-hop’s 50-year history, lots of attention has (rightly or wrongly) been lavished on three main regions: “The East Coast” (mostly consisting of New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia), “The West Coast” (really, just LA, although the Bay Area has had moments of mainstream notoriety), and “The South” (everything from Texas to Florida, encompassing a dozen different sounds and styles). Meanwhile, since the mid-1990s, there has been an underground scene sizzling in Minnesota, just outside the national focus.
At the forefront of this culture-bending, often future-facing movement has been the Minneapolis/St. Paul-based label Rhymesayers. While multiple sources say it was founded in 1995, there’s some confusion among its own founders about when it came to be. But whenever Sean Daley, aka Slug, Anthony Davis, aka Ant (both collectively known as Atmosphere), Musab Saad (Sab The Artist), and Brent Sayers (Siddiq) officially formed Rhymesayers, they opened the door for a new paradigm in hip-hop, pioneered a novel approach to the creation and distribution of rap music, and became one of hip-hop’s longest-lasting emblems of the power of the independent label.
The impact that Rhymesayers has had on the landscape of hip-hop music and culture as a whole is often underappreciated but cannot be understated. While Siddiq and Slug, who graciously granted an interview to Uproxx to discuss their role in the past 50 years of hip-hop history, are both reluctant to posit any opinions about their importance to hip-hop, any Hip-Hop 50 celebration would be remiss to overlook their contributions. The label has been home to pillars of the indie rap scene, from Aesop Rock to MF DOOM, while producing and distributing projects from artists that pushed the boundaries of what hip-hop could be, in addition to producing the hip-hop-centric Soundset Festival, the first and longest-running of its kind.
And while Rhymesayers artists don’t often receive the same level of recognition as Golden Age pioneers like Gang Starr, NWA, Public Enemy, or Rakim & Eric B., you’d be hard-pressed to find a hardcore hip-hop head who doesn’t count at least one of the label’s artists as an influence. In this interview, Slug and Siddiq detail Rhymesayers’ rise to underground legend status, reminisce on their favorite moments in hip-hop history, and reflect on just what constitutes the forgotten sound of hip-hop’s fourth region: The Mighty Midwest.
We’re doing this on the 50-year anniversary of the official birth of hip-hop and Rhymesayers Entertainment has been a huge part of that. So Siddiq, Slug, if you could encapsulate what was Rhymesayers impact on the first 50 years of hip-hop evolution in a sentence, what would that be?
Slug: That is not fair. I’m not allowed to answer that question. Anybody that’s ever talked to me knows how I’m going to respond to a question like that. I’m going to downplay.
I’m here to be empathic. I’m here to relate in a sense of being able to observe, take it and understand it, but I know better than to give myself the agency to really speak on it. My reality is mine, and so I don’t know what our impact is on this culture that we are celebrating. I know what maybe my impact is on a specific branch of the tree if we want to talk about an impact I’ve had on a segment of MCs, or a segment of people who are attempting to do what I do.
I would say the impact I’ve had on a small portion of other advocates who have attempted to do what I do would be just I’m another one of those faces that tried to prove that you could do this yourself. That you could do it too.
Siddiq: I totally feel the same way. I mean, I think that has always kind of been part of our MO. I’ve always seen us as kind of like the working man’s addition to hip-hop in the sense of we’ve never felt entitled. I would never try to define any role I may or may not have had an impact on hip-hop because it’s had such an impact on me. I’m such a student and steward of what raised me that I can’t even wrap my head around that.
So if other people see that, if other people can glean that out of anything we’ve done, I think that’s amazing, but I don’t think I ever could. As much as I love the “you could do this too” as a sentence, it’s like I want to add all the caveats to that that I came upon because when we came up you couldn’t just do it and you had to go through some shit to be able to do it.
So yeah, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around me defining any impact we have or we have had. But I hope that we do. I hope that we have, but it’s hard for me to define that.
I would like to get your guys’ impressions of what’s changed for the better in hip-hop in the time you guys have been doing it. What’s changed for the worse? What you would like to see continue to change or evolve in the next 50 years of hip-hop?
Slug: I’m going to be one of those old heads that goes out on a limb and says, that it’s better now. When I say that, I’m not saying the quality. I remember beyond the sound, what was it about this music specifically, but also the personality and the culture of this. What was it that pulled me in and made me a true believer? And that was because, to make it humorous, it scared old white people.
It challenged the status quo. It challenged what was going on on a bunch of different levels.
And as far as I can tell, it still does that. And that’s its job. And so I don’t want to say that’s its job because I’m not here to call out anything, but I’m saying, to me, that’s a big part of what I want to see the youth have access to.
Siddiq: Yeah, I would agree. I mean, thankfully, I’ve never felt like I’ve fallen into the old-head category of just being angry at the kids. I’m very in tune with what’s going on, but I also am very connected to the Golden Era. That it was all imagination. It was all creation. There was nothing, there was no blueprint to it so everything was inventive and that was the beauty about its birth. I look at it today and I go, “Man, I don’t know that there’s ever been a more free time as someone doing this form of art in the sense of its creative energy.”
For a while, there was a box. It’s like if you wanted to be a part of hip-hop it’s like you kind of had to exist in this box. If you were outside of that box you were seen as something outside of that box. The boxes are gone. People may still want to try and debate it, but the reality is the boxes are gone. It’s a beautiful thing because, to me, it brings us back to that beginning point in some ways where you’re still here 50 years later being able to be completely innovative, and creative, and birthing new things.
How important is it to you guys to be kind of the beacon of not just independent, do-it-yourself rap, but also of those places in hip-hop that aren’t necessarily close to media centers? (This is my polite way of saying “what up with Midwestern hip-hop?”
Siddiq: In some ways our success and our existence really couldn’t have been fathomed. I mean… in some ways maybe it could because that was the spread and the impact of hip-hop. It was everywhere. There wasn’t a corner that shit didn’t seep into when we were kids, whether that was through what Breakin’ was doing, whether it was through the art form of rap, or graffiti, or whatever. These things spread across every facet of the country, the world really.
I look at the success we’ve had and I think there’s something indicative to being from a place like Minnesota, being from the Midwest, where you don’t have anything, especially not within hip-hop going on and coming out of here. You don’t have the industry per se, even though we obviously have huge musical history out of our state, whether we’re talking Flyte Tyme, or Prince, or Bob Dylan.
I think I’ve always seen it as something that allowed us to do it from a place that was authentic because we didn’t have to follow something, for one. And then two, I think also allowed us to uniquely stand out. I think being able to show that to the world and spread that across the country, I think that does then kind of relate back to that statement that Sean made earlier, “You could do this too.”
Slug: I was listening to Siddiq talk. I got to thinking about how there was a time when everybody, including myself, we all rapped like we were from New York, we had East Coast accents. Then some of us started to rap like we were from L.A. We started to kind of parrot what Freestyle Fellowship was doing, then or whatever Dre was doing.
And then down South happened. Atlanta had a sound, New Orleans got a sound, France, Paris, they were rapping in French. In Australia, they started rapping in their own accents. And as time goes on, every pocket, every scene, did finally break free from those chains of New York and Los Angeles and they started to find their own space.
This city’s no different. It did as well. I would say the main difference is that when it started to find its sound we were in the middle of that at the time. There were still plenty of groups here that sounded like they were from the South, and there were still plenty of people rapping here that sounded like they, I mean they had a New York “R.”
But you started to see a scene, a sound develop here because a couple of groups became more popular, other groups started listening, and it just does that natural thing. But I think the difference is none of the groups here ever fully, the sound never fully broke. You do see elements of the Minneapolis sound in some artists that got really big from around the country.
Over the past 50 years, we’ve all got favorite memories of what hip-hop has done for us on a professional and personal level. If you guys don’t mind sharing a couple of those, I would really love it. I would really appreciate it.
Slug: Me, it gave me identity. And that’s not to say I wouldn’t have had identity. Living in South Minneapolis and having access to this music, getting into graffiti, and socializing with other people into that stuff, gave me, I think, perspective and access to parts of my own imagination and parts of my own creativity. And I was into the Fat Boys as much as I was into Peter Gabriel “Sledgehammer.” It was all fun music when you’re nine. But as I got older, it gave me this space to go to escape from all the bullshit and get together with other people who were also escaping from all the bullshit to find ways to be creative.
Siddiq: I think the first was when I first heard “The Message,” walked down to the corner record store, bought the 12-inch, put it on, and I was like, “What the fuck is this?” I felt like I was visualizing New York in the early 1980s, and I saw everything Melle Mel was talking about. I wasn’t hearing it, I was seeing it. And I was just like… It blew my mind.
And then the other one is just completely random, but I just will never be able to get it out of my mind. I think it was Rock Steady anniversary. I don’t remember the exact year. We had went out to New York and we were just handing out CDs and stuff and MOP was playing the after-party. Okay, I… And I’m trying to remember the damn venue. It was like a second-story venue. You had to go upstairs in New York.
Just think MOP at the height of “Ante Up” in New York. It felt like we were going to fall through the floor. And like I said, it was the second floor of the venue, and you just felt the floor doing this [wobbles his hand], and I’m just… “This just don’t feel safe.” But I’ve never… Just the energy? I’d never be able to explain the energy I witnessed in that moment, in that room, to its justice. I’ll never be able to explain it and make somebody feel what I felt.
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