Rhymesayers Entertainment is one of the biggest independent labels in America right now. Founded in 1995 by Anthony Davis, Sean Daley, Brent Sayers and Musab Saad— four young men more used to performing in local venues (including one of the first ever coffee shop/hip-hop performances,) than running a record company.
RSE went on to become one of the hottest labels in rap music. The current roster of notable names includes Far Out Magazine favourite: Brother Ali, along with Aesop Rock, Dilated Peoples, Grieves, Sa-Roc and perhaps the most iconic artists on the label: founders Slug (Daley) and Ant (Davis) as Atmosphere, who have recently surpassed one billion online streams. Their habit of selling out venues such as open-air amphitheater: Red Rocks, has only been slowed temporarily by Covid-19. However, the label has taken a deep breath and is ready to continue again.
I sat down with Felt excited about the prospect of being in front of bonafide legends. The duo, consisting of Slug and lyrical powerhouse Murs, from West Coat supergroup Living Legends and Strange Music fame, have joined forces once again to drop an unexpected fourth album: Felt 4 U. It has been 11 years since we last heard these guys on wax together and there were certainly worries that they may be regurgitating the same old stuff.
“We have both evolved in our worlds from who we were 20 years ago to now,” Slug confirms, putting me at ease. “We’ve also evolved not just as a friendship, but as humans. We are still on a similar trajectory, our life experiences have been on a similar trajectory, so it’s easy to relate to each other.”
Murs continues: “We talk just as much when we aren’t working on an album. A lot of people I only talk to when we are working on something together. Sean and I, we check in on each other regardless. We maintain a friendship by maintaining a friendship and not making it a business arrangement.”
Speaking of long-term friendships, label co-founder Ant also makes an appearance on the record, appearing prominently on the album cover and producing all of the album’s 12 tracks. Slug admits that after over a decade of trying to get the project off the ground, some of the original producers went their separate ways leaving only one man left who was up to the job. “We didn’t have much of a choice, well, we did. People were sending us stuff over the past ten years, but our schedules were so conflicting, and it just never happened. So, finally when our schedules freed up, I think Ant was the only producer left that cared about us.”
Ant is used to producing beats for Rhymesayers Entertainment artists, but it is within his own take on the Gangsta-G Funk vibes that he feels most at home. Murs explains the progression of that sound rather succinctly: “Two words describe what Felt is to us: ‘Punk Smooth’. Through Felt 1 to 4, you can hear that in the sound. I think Ant is the ultimate producer for that sound.”
Slug agrees and describes the origins of the instantly recognisable beats “On the Redman track ‘Tonight’s Da Night’, female rapper Hurricane G, says: ‘Redman, man, what the f*ck, man?! / Get the f*ck off that… punk smooth shit, man! / Get with that rough shit, man’ It stuck with us.”
“Felt 4 U definitely has a west coast vibe. It’s a little more Gangsta, that’s Ant’s thing. He doesn’t get to do much of that style with Atmosphere. So, with this album he had the opportunity to unleash a lot of that.” Murs concurs, “Ant brought out my Dr. Dre mode.”
Coming fresh out of album mode, (Slug had just finished Whatever, while Murs had just completed his latest album ‘The Iliad is Dead and the Odyssey is Over’) both of their families were enjoying taking time out, but not Felt. Shunning the recreational break for the studio and Felt 4, they put in the hard work, day in and day out. If something didn’t feel right, they worked at it until it did. Slug describes the process, “When we hit a space or we felt it wasn’t right, we would just rework it. It was interesting, usually when I work there are loads of leftovers, but working with Murs, there aren’t any. We work it out until we like it.”
Murs adds his own thoughts “The music we created was so f*ckin’ good, we didn’t wanna waste it. We tread lightly on that one until we got it right. We have various songs that could not be on the album, but not because they were bad, it was kinda like cutting off a finger.”
Both rappers appear to have a tireless work ethic that transcends the realms of music. They are pioneers of inclusivity and have given a voice to those that may not be heard, including those in the BIPOC and LBGTQIA community. They are prominent with their platform and continue to address issues in the Minneapolis area.
With so much legend already behind them, why would one both to keep coming back: “I just love my job,” states Slug simply. “I just genuinely love what I do.’ Murs agrees and tells us he has never stopped loving his lyrical artform. He pauses for a moment before admitting he could be addicted to working: ‘I don’t know if it’s a compulsion at this point.”
It seems his dedication to work is in his genes: “I have a family that work hard. My grandfather worked until he was 89. My mom still gets up at 05:30 every day to go to the family business: a dry-cleaners.” He quietly ponders his mortality, “Maybe I don’t wanna die, so I keep working, I just really love doing what I do and can still see room for improvement.’ He then adds ‘If I wasn’t inspired by the younger generation I wouldn’t still rap, I wouldn’t love rap. It’s a youth culture. I’m young because of it.”
In January this year, Rhymesayers Entertainment announced that their one-day hip-hop music festival, Soundset, will not be making a return. The festival was the largest of its kind in the world and has attracted over 400 artists since its humble beginnings in a parking lot in Minneapolis-Saint Paul. Recent line-ups include legendary artists like Lil Wayne, Run The Jewels, the Wu-Tang Clan and Tech N9ne. But is this really the end for the festival that brought in over 30,000 fans each year or can we expect a surprise return?
Slug doesn’t hold back: “Oh, I hope not. The thing about Soundset was this: it reached a level where it became less fun and more work. It started to become about math and money and a lot of things that weren’t part of my original relationship to it. It became a thing that I was no longer looking forward to, I was dreading every year for a number of reasons. It lost its purpose, not just for me, but in general.”
With an expansive catalogue that spans decades and blends genres, Rhymesayers’ artists have constantly moved the listener both physically and emotionally. The music engages the consumer with head-bobbing beats, lyrical self-awareness, shock twists and extended metaphors. But there is one song in particular that stands out for Slug.
“I have a song called ‘Became,’ that is one of my favourite story exercises that I have ever written. So, every time I approach writing a story, I want to write something that’s gonna make me feel how that one did.” He shares a similar passion for his songwriting as he has love for his children, “I love all of my verses in all of my songs, they are like my kids: because they also frustrate me and annoy me, sometimes they piss on the toilet seat, you know. I got love for all of them, but I can’t say ‘this is my favourite, what sort of dickhead would I be if I had a favourite child?”
Two other RSE artists received some negative attention recently, amidst allegations of misconduct and misogyny. Rhymesayers Entertainment made the decision to drop them with immediate effect and in a statement made soon after, it promised to “vet it’s new artists and any associated personnel” to “create a written standard for artists behaviour and cut ties with artists that are unwilling to adhere to those standards’ the label also addressed the issue of abuse towards women, stating that ‘it is not acceptable and in line with our values.” The welcomed response was not necessarily something the duo were heavily involved in.
“A lot of people don’t realise this, but I don’t play as large a hand in the organisation as people seem to think,” Slug reveals. “I think that perhaps because I was one of the founders and I have a huge Rhymesayers tattoo across my chest, people think I’m actually in the boardroom and casting votes. I’m not a suit, I’m an artist. I tend to fall back from that type of stuff. People will come to me and say ‘this is what we are going to do, do you have an opinion on this?’ because obviously I’m still an investor, but I trust the people there making the decisions and I try not to get too involved in it. There are conflicts of interest there because it’s possible I could be a little biased or I could play favourites towards Atmosphere, so with that I fall back.”
‘Cancel culture’ continues to find easy prey in the music industry but Slug sees it as necessary, “I see the landscape shifting in general via social media, via people having the ability to speak out. I think we’re gonna go through some growth spurts here. Sometimes some of those growth spurts might have some growing pains attached to them, but I think we are evolving into something progressive for everybody. Finding equity for everybody’s voice so they can find justice.
“So, I can’t say that I’m upset or that this was a bad thing for us. This is just part of the growth of the overall community. Me as a human, as a person, as an individual, is someone who speaks out against oppression of every sort. So, I have to be real with these types of situations and the people who are speaking out, even if it’s affecting friends of mine or people that I know, or even myself for that matter.”
He concludes: “I can’t really stand in the way of it or say anything negative about it. We all have to do our best to navigate these times and work with each other, to obtain or achieve the positive outcome that I think we all want to see happen.”
Naturally as the Black Lives Matter movement continued to swirl around the group’s home and the epicentre for a lot of the uprising, Slug was open and honest about his views. “In that particular uprising and excuse me if I’m repeating myself. I’ve spoken to a few people about this and don’t want to fall into giving you a clichéd answer,” he explains. “This has been coming for a really long time. Some of us have been part of this uprising or this revolution for a very long time.”
Slug is intent on providing a much-needed history lesson and reality check: “This is nothing new, it’s just that right now, much like the other issue we have just addressed, we are going through growth spurts. This one is much bigger; it has spread through the media. George Floyd is by no means the first black man that has been murdered by the police. But this one, because of the set-up for all of us right now and the growth that we have been experiencing, feels different.”
Of course, seeing the images on a screen and living within the walls of it all are two very different things. “Now, as somebody who lives in Minneapolis, I’ve never before experienced first-hand what I’ve experienced here: seeing the uprising and seeing the remains of it all. I was in that neighbourhood yesterday, it’s gonna be a long time before those buildings are torn down and restored.”
The destruction and uncomfortable viewing won’t deter Rhymesayers though, “Our role and position stay the same as it’s always been in regard to that. The majority of the label, as well as the majority of the artists that are affiliated with the label have always been outspoken about systems of oppression and standing up for people who don’t have the voice to stand up for themselves. But now that everybody is starting to obtain that voice, it’s our duty to help spread that information, but really, it’s no different to how it’s always been, it’s just now it has been localised around us.”
When the riots began the immediacy of the need for change became even more apparent and the feeling of making history was inescapable: “Instead of me reading about these things, reading about the L.A Riots and the riots in the 60s and the things before that, now I’m living in it and seeing it first-hand.”
Like most things, the pictures you see and the things you feel are very different: “It definitely makes it more real, but also, it’s not what I expected,” confides Slug. “In my head I romanticised it, this is not the romantic version of the revolution that I was expecting, you know. This is weirder than I could have imagined. It’s surreal but not in a fantasy way, I mean like it’s business as usual around here. I never thought about that part when I thought about the revolution, I never thought about what it was like to make dinner for your kids during the revolution, I never thought about having to bathe my 2-year-old son in the middle of a revolution.
“In my head the revolution was rocks and guns and words.”
Back to business and it seems the hopes of a UK and European tour are resting on the very same establishments. “If your government will let me in, I’ll definitely come. I’ll go anywhere.”
“America leads the world in ignorance, and I think at some point, you guys are gonna stop Americans from showing up. I’m sure there’s gonna be some laws stopping us.” Like everybody else, with outdoor events off the table, Rhyemsayers are taking care of their own house and getting things in order “I think right now, with Soundset being gone, our focus is to do everything we can to nurture the artists that we are working with, to help them put out the best music of their lives.”
Research Contributor: Beau Laughridge