Made from Scratch
Chuck D. once said, "Move as a team, never move alone." And it's true, at least in hip-hop culture. Rap fans are obsessed with crews, and when a major star's career is jumping off, his whole camp usually gets to go along for the ride. How else do you explain the career of Memphis Bleek, a somewhat mediocre rapper who, thanks to his friendship with Jay-Z, has released four albums, two of them gold-certified?
The world of independent hip-hop is no different. In this outpost, heads argue over the merits of record labels the same way everyone else charts the rise and fall of Def Jam and Cash Money. Two years ago the hot imprint was Definitive Jux. Now it's Rhymesayers Entertainment.
Some might question whether or not Rhymesayers is the best indie rap label today. Certainly a case can be made for Stones Throw, which recently issued Quasimoto's (by way of Madlib) beguiling The Further Adventures of Lord Quas. Quannum Projects, home of Lyrics Born and the Lifesavas, gets a few votes too. Then there's Definitive Jux: Though not as prominent as it once was, it can still be counted on for solid fare such as the Perceptionists' Black Dialogue and C-Rayz Walz's The Year of the Beast.
Like Definitive Jux, which was originally centered on the production genius of Brooklyn MC/producer El-P, Rhymesayers was a modest venture formed by Sean "Slug" Daley and Brent "Siddiq" Sayers in 1993. Years later Rhymesayers would gain renown as the label of Atmosphere, a group featuring Slug and producer Ant that popularized "emo rap" (a term Slug doesn't like). But for its first two years, the label simply served as a way station for Headshots to distribute their mix tapes around the Minneapolis, Minnesota area.
"Headshots was just a loose collective of fuckin' MCs that liked to smoke weed with each other and rip up shows," says Slug. "We didn't know it was going to snowball." The first full-fledged Rhymesayers release was in 1996 with crew member Beyond's Comparison. Most of the Headshots crew members had day jobs -- Slug remembers driving trucks, cleaning offices, and working the cash register at fast-food restaurants -- and funded the label through money from shows and tape sales. The only full-time employee was Siddiq, who left his job as a buyer for Best Buy to manage the fledgling business.
In 1997 Rhymesayers issued Atmosphere's first album, Overcast. The group then took to the road for sprawling, haphazard tours, visiting small towns in unlikely Midwest locales such as Ohio and Colorado. With the exception of West Coast underground collective Living Legends, no other rap group at the time, major or indie, was conducting such extensive trips. "We put it down for the whole travel aspect of it," says Slug. "For this side of the independent game, no one was fucking with us as far as how much we were down to get in the van and just go for no money." Atmosphere's adventures, which resembled the busking journeys punk rock bands undertook in the Eighties, earned it a loosely organized but dedicated following.
Three years later Atmosphere released the Ford One and Ford Two EPs, which finally brought the crew to national attention. These discs were an aesthetic breakthrough for Slug as a confessional rapper, one just as prone to ruminate over his life and loves (particularly the titular Lucy; the Ford One discs were eventually re-released in 2001 as The Lucy Ford EPs) as kick B-boy-styled battle rhymes. In 2002 Atmosphere's God Loves Ugly sold more than 100,000 copies, becoming the first underground rap album to reach "indie gold" (a feat regularly achieved by rock bands such as Bright Eyes and Death Cab for Cutie) since Blackalicious's Blazing Arrow in 2000.
Rhymesayers's fortunes soared as Slug ascended to indie godhead status, which has incidentally overshadowed the label's growing viability. More than the house that Slug built, Rhymesayers has issued strong efforts from Eyedea and Abilities (2001's First Born), Soul Position's (a collaboration between acclaimed producer RJD2 and hyphenate Blueprint) 2003 album Eight Million Stories, Semi Official's The Anti-Album, and Mr. Dibbs's scratchedelic The 30th Song. All of these releases further illustrated a credo of raw, classically minded hip-hop made from solid, sample-driven beats and dexterous, vocabulary-rich rhymes.
The growth of Rhymesayers from a local yokel outpost to a widely admired label has been a decade-plus achievement. Today its roster ranges from Minneapolis prospect Brother Ali and Chicago rapper Psalm One to Seattle trio Boom Bap Project and Atlanta duo the Micronots. Barring a onetime deal with Epitaph to release Atmosphere's Seven's Travels, it doesn't depend on a major label, instead using the Minneapolis-based entertainment company Navarre Corporation to distribute its records. With the exception of MF Doom, the legendary metal-faced MC from New York City who has received notices in the pages of The New Yorker, none of those artists is particularly well-known. But contrary to popular opinion, Atmosphere is only partly responsible for Rhymesayers' rise. It has quietly gathered its reputation through one quality album at a time, marking it as a label people can trust.
Blueprint is an MC and producer from Columbus, Ohio, who has his own small record label called Weightless Recordings, issuing albums by his Greenhouse Effect crew. But when it came time to put out his first full-fledged solo effort, 1988, he turned to Rhymesayers. "When you run your own label, and you're an artist on that label, it's really hard to push yourself," admits Blueprint. He explains he needed someone objective to help him, and "I'd rather put it into the hands of somebody I know I can trust, an artist that does something similar to what I do."
Like most of Rhymesayers's releases, 1988 has slowly caught the ears of hip-hop fans since its release this past March. It is gradually making its way into the reviews of magazines such as Spin, URB, and XLR8R, rolling along on a strong word-of-mouth campaign. In time it may be another example of why Rhymesayers is surprisingly successful: no expensive marketing campaigns, no major-label financing or distribution, just the continued support of hip-hop fans who like listening to good music.
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