If you are a student at IPR, you know about Rhymesayers Entertainment. Kevin Beacham, Rhymesayers’ Marketing Specialist, teaches Hip Hop Essentials and can often be seen around campus. The Rhymesayers logo adorns the wall on the 3rd floor of our downtown campus, honoring them for their commitment to IPR and the music production scene in Minneapolis. It’s a commitment that’s demonstrated by the Rhymesayers Entertainment Scholarship, a scholarship that supports first-generation college students who demonstrate economic need.
But how much do you know about the founders of Rhymesayers? Or the philosophies that have made the label so successful? Rhymesayers entertainment and CEO Siddiq, along with every member of the team, are truly legends in the hip-hop and independent recording industry. They have succeeded by following some key concepts: a collective mentality, 360-degree marketing, self-sufficiency, and audience commitment.
Brent Sayers, better known as Siddiq, is the CEO of the Minneapolis Hip-Hop Label. Rhymesayers is a record label, a touring organizer, a merchandiser, and a retail store. The label was founded by Siddiq along with hip-hop artists Sean Michael Daley (Slug), Anthony Davis (ANT) and Musab Saad.
Rhymesayers was born out of a DYI hip-hop movement in the Twin Cities in the early nineties. At the time, there was a score of local “crews” or loose collectives of MCs, breakdancers, and other artists. The crews were loosely organized and lacked real leadership. One of those crews, Headshots, was comprised of current Rhymesayers artists Slug and ANT, along with I Self Devine of the Micronots, and Musab, among others.
At the time, Siddiq was a hip-hop promoter creating battle-of-the-band showcases for local hip-hop crews. Through his work promoting hip-hop, Siddiq was introduced to Headshots. Siddiq had an immediate respect for Slug’s talent and the two worked together to produce Headshot mixtapes. The true definition of a “mixtape” has shifted somewhat over the years, but at the time, a mixtape was a usually a hip-hop crew or artist rapping over either familiar or original beats. These tapes were truly independent, they were underground street albums that were recorded and distributed directly by the DJs or crews who created them.
Siddiq booked Headshots into coffee shops and minor gigs at rock shows and the group began to gain a significant following. It was at this time that Headshot began its metamorphosis into what is now Rhymesayers Entertainment, formally founding the company in 1995. In 1996, they released their first full-length album and in 1997, pushed by the success of albums by both Musab (under the name Beyond) and Atmosphere (fronted by Slug), Rhymesayers organized a hip-hop style warehouse rave that they named Soundset. Soundset has gone on to become one of the nation’s premier hip-hop festivals and in 2015 recorded an audience of 30,000, prompting a move to a bigger venue – the Minnesota State Fairgrounds – for the 2016 event.
In the years since Headshots morphed into Rhymesayers Entertainment, it has flourished. While other crews from that era were finding some success and earning deals from major distributors, they soon drifted out of existence. Saddiq points to a lack of understanding of the business as a whole.
“A lot of those people that ran off and got distribution deals hadn’t built a foundation,” He told Minneapolis / St. Paul Business Journal in 2013. “Our counterparts from that era were gone within a year or two.” Saddiq, the self-taught businessman, sometime producer, promoter, and merchandiser has become the CEO of an enterprise that is now Minnesota’s most notorious record label. It is known nationally as one of the most successful independent hip-hop labels. The label now manages over thirty acts.
Saddiq’s success can be attributed to several key philosophies, one of which is a collective, do-it-yourself mentality. In a 2012 interview with HipHopDX, he says:
“A lot of our [business model] was just built out of necessity. All of us were actually involved. I used to do production. Then I took that [leadership] shift as we got more serious and started to focus on the business side. Fortunately, it came out of need. Being from Minnesota, there’s not a huge industry here, although there are some notable artists. Just not in the Hip Hop genre. And there’s no [music] industry here. So, without kind of having those trails already blazed, we had to learn how to do everything on our own. In some sense, we attribute our longevity to the fact that we never had those things to lean on. It really forced us to go out and learn how to do things. We had to learn how to handle – to some regard – every facet of this business on our own. We gained a wealth of knowledge by actually doing it.”
As for the collective, it’s been a group effort from the start. Siddiq explains that even in the beginning, when an act would make a profit of $100, they’d put it right back into the company. None of the Rhymesayers artists were concerned with getting rich, they were focused on the survival of the collective and the success of the label. Even today, remarks Saddiq in the HipHopDX interview, “we have a flagship artist [Atmosphere/Slug] who is just as concerned with the label’s success and the other artists on the label’s success as he is about his own success.”
Partly due to this philosophy, Rhymesayers was the model for the 360 degree deal, a commonplace strategy in the current market. Danny Goldberg, President of Gold Village Entertainment, explains the 360 deal in a piece for NPR Music News: A 360-degree deal, he says, “is not something that has a precise definition. But in general, what it means is usually a deal with a record company in which the record company also participates in the income of all of the other aspects of the artist’s work, such as songwriting and merchandise, in addition to making money off the records.”
Rhymesayers has been working this way from their inception. They did it, Siddiq says, out of necessity. “We did it because it was something that gave us leverage as opposed to limiting us. I think that’s always been our position. Realistically, in my opinion, we can do just as good of a job as a Def Jam [Records] can do for a release in today’s market.”
Saddiq and Rhymesayers can also attribute their success as a company on their commitment to touring and staying connected to their fans. “Coming out of Minnesota, nobody… knew who we were. The internet and social media was not as developed… at that time. When we got out on the road, that was when we really got to start connecting with fans; really start building that allegiance with people that were into what we were doing. Our foundation will always be built around touring – along with developing artists and maintaining artist visibility with their fans.”
Siddiq and the Rhymesayers artists are fiercely proud of their hometown. This northern midwest loyalty has resonated with fans from Minnesota and other non-east/west coast cities. “It’s hard for kids in Minnesota to identify with East Coast/West Coast rapper lingo and beefs,” comments Minneapolis Star and tribune music critic Chris Riemenschneider, in an article in Consequence of Sound. “The things these [Rhymesayers] guys are rapping about, it hits home with these kids.”
This love of Minnesota and the midwest can is demonstrated in Atmosphere’s 2003 release, “Say Shh, ” a song that has become Minnesota hip-hop’s unofficial anthem.
I wanted to make a song about where I’m from
Big up my home town, my territory, my state
But I couldn’t figure out much to brag about
Prince lives here, we got 10,000 lakes
But wait the women are beautiful, to me they are
And we’re not infested with pretentious movie stars
And it hit me man, Minnesota is dope
If only simply for not what we have but what we don’t
It’s all fair, it ain’t out there, it’s in there
It’s in the mirror, behind the breast under the hair
Follow the dream doesn’t mean leave the love
Roam if you must, but come home when you’ve seen enough
Although Rhymesayers is a relatively small label, headquartered above a storefront in a smallish northern city, their reach is demonstrably global. In 2003, Saddiq and the artists of Rhymesayers expanded the reach of Atmosphere by signing on for worldwide distribution with Epitaph, a major distributor more closely tied with punk heavyweights like Bad Religion and Offspring. Despite the indie’s history of fierce independence, it was clear that it was time for Atmosphere to speak to a global audience. The shift in philosophy was perfectly timed. Atmosphere entered Billboard’s top 100 that year and in 2004, were branded “emo rap” in a SPIN feature article. In 2007, Rhymesayers entered into an agreement with Alternative Distribution Alliance, a division of Warner Bros., where the reach of all thirty-plus artists continues to grow.
In his article “Global Leadership, IQ, and Global Quotient,” Dr. Geoffrey VanderPal, a recognized expert in leadership and business, calls a successful global leader one who can, “develop their ability to rapidly react to changes and manage complex interpersonal relationships in order to reach excellence amid ambiguity driven by cultural differences in values, patterns, attitudes and behaviors.” Siddiq along with the rest of the founders of Rhymesayers have consistently demonstrated that ability.
And although Brent “Siddiq” Sayers is not yet a leader in the global business market, he is a young man with vision who is only beginning to develop his potential. He is a leader who understands how to work collaboratively with his colleagues. His ability to analyze and act on his vision is clear when studying the moves he – and his crew – made to form a successful independent label in the middle of Minnesota while others floundered.
Siddiq is a visionary, poorly disguised as an aging music hipster. His quotes are riddled with slang and profanity, but the message resonates. His recognition of industry trends and commitment to his philosophies have brought Rhymesayers from a loose collection of breakdancers and “spitters” to a powerhouse in hip-hop circles. But the misplaced hipster veneer serves him well, and he comes off as credible in both the Minneapolis St. Paul business journal and the fan site HipHopDX, which both quote the same source interview in very different articles.
In the early nineties, when everyone was looking west and east to land that career-making deal, Siddiq, Slug, ANT, and Musab looked at Minneapolis and clearly saw what was missing. But when they created Rhymesayers Entertainment, they were able to do so in a way that filled a void while preserving the existing community.
Because, as Slug wrote, “Minnesota is dope, if only simply for not what we have, but what we don’t”
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