Once Upon a Time in Minneapolis: 20 Years of Rhymesayers

Once Upon a Time in Minneapolis: 20 Years of Rhymesayers

Consequence of Sound

Killian Young, Contributing Writer

Two decades later, the Midwestern independent hip-hop label is still going strong.

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….

…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.”…

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