Rhymesayers' CEO Siddiq Explains Branding Without Distribution, Chart Skepticism & Atmosphere's Success
For President's Day, DX spoke to the leader at RSE, who recalls his Midwest DIY approach leading to Top 5 chart appearances and helping pioneer a model since used by Mac Miller and Kendrick Lamar.
For the past 16 years, Rhymesayers Entertainment has stood tall as one of few true bastions of independent Hip Hop. The Minnesota-based record label has weathered a shrinking industry during a technology explosion while still continuing to churn out critically acclaimed albums by its stable of hit makers. And as the industry continues to evolve and physical retail options seem to disappear like Dough Boy at the end of Boyz In The Hood, Rhymesayers continues surf above a tidal wave of mediocrity - finding new, inventive ways to push product while increasing its relevancy.
In this interview with HipHopDX, Brent Sayers (b/k/a Siddiq), co-founder and CEO of Rhymesayers Entertainment, discusses the keys to his label’s longevity, the advantages and disadvantages of being based in the Midwest, how the major labels now mimic the independent business model, and what surprises him about Hip Hop.
HipHopDX: Rhymesayers Entertainment is approaching 16 years. How have you been able to stay successful in the midst of a rapidly consolidating industry and an explosion in technology for the past decade and a half?
Siddiq: For starters, 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 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. We were fortunate enough to kind of have that luxury to be thrust into it that way. I think a lot of our counterparts didn’t have that. They rode in on that wave of independent Hip Hop that was really hot around that time, or they were just latching on to that and maybe had a few records or a small little buzz going and the distributors were all open. For us, we definitely took the slow build approach to a sense that, while a lot of other indie labels at that time were either starting up and running distribution deals. We opted to maintain our own distribution ourselves. I think 2004 was when we got our first distribution deal. That’s actually because we licensed out a couple of projects. We did a couple of strategic licensing deals. But as far Rhymesayers [Entertainment] having an actual distribution deal, we didn’t do that until about 2004. I don’t think a lot of people really realize that at the time because of the numbers that we were doing. By taking that approach and always making sure that when we made a move, we were more prepared for that move. I think a lot of labels don’t do that, or didn’t do that at that time. Really, in a lot of ways, that’s the key.
The other thing is, we have a really solid crew. I’m talking about from the artists to the staff. I don’t believe there’s a lot of labels that work harder than us. We’re all truly invested in it. We started this thing out as a collective in the sense that early on, nobody really made any money off of it. So if we made $100 dollars on a show, we took that $100 dollars and threw it into the pot so we would have funds to record the next project. In some regards, we still have artists and staff that are all truly invested in the company; truly invested in us succeeding as a collective as opposed to having artists that are only thinking about themselves. We have a flagship artist who is just as concerned with the labels success and the other artists on the label’s success as he is about his own success.
DX: Before that 2004 distribution deal, were you sending out these projects on your own? How were you getting the albums into stores?
Siddiq: We had a warehouse out of Minneapolis and we would sell to all the indie distributors. We were selling direct to indie distributors, selling direct to one-stops, and selling direct to mom-and-pop shops. We weren’t really even getting into - except on a really small scale with the one-stops - we weren’t really even getting into the mass retailers until the Best Buys and the Targets.
DX: A lot of times you’ll hear stories from some of the major independent labels that are still around about trepidation incurred when trying to get their product into the major retailers. As the mom-and-pop stores that have gone to the wayside, the major retailers have become the primary option for consumers looking for physical product. How has Rhymesayers been able to maintain your relationship with the major retail when the mom-and-pops have gone away along with Circuit City?
Siddiq: In a sense of music retail, we’re in a declining industry at this point - in terms of physical retail. Of course that affects us. If people aren’t buying physical copies and stores are closing, retailers are going to look at the amount of physical real estate they’re reserving for physical music. When those things shrink, it obviously effects our business. But at the end of the day, it’s really an effect caused by the consumer buying less and less physical product. It’s always a challenge. In some regard it’s a challenge because we are independent. It’s a challenge because we are smaller. That’s not say there isn’t any value there, but you have to take it all in perspective. It’s not like Atmosphere has a problem getting into Best Buy. We don’t have a problem getting Atmosphere into Best Buy because they move units. If you sell units; if you build something up, it’s not as big of a challenge. That goes across the board for most. If you’re still finding [major retail access] a challenge it’s probably one of two things: you’re either not selling that many records and you won’t sell that many records, or you’re new and not on their radar to the degree that they can justify buying those records. The bottom line is, they’re a business. They want to make money. So if you can sell records, and they can quantify that in some way, best believe they’re going to buy records. They’re not sitting back going, “Man, we could sell a shit load of these records but we’re not going to buy them because you’re independent.” You have to really lay the ground work and build a foundation on anything, because when you do go back to those same retailers, they’re going to be open to bringing in product because it’s going to be there in front of their face. It is a challenge, but it is a challenge that makes sense.
At one point it was sort of challenge, Now, I think the challenge is that physical retail is dying. But I think that at a certain point - when the indie scene got sort of hot - those same retailers actually responded pretty well and actually started supporting the indie labels. I think it really goes back to a discussion nowadays about physical retail as a whole and the decline in physical retail is where the real retail challenges come in. As an established label, we have a little bit more luck, and they’re are also in our backyard. We can go visit them. We can build relationships with them. They’re in our backyard just like we’re in their backyard, so they know what we’re doing in a local sense. We have a really high profile here in Minnesota, so having Target and Best Buy based out of Minnesota is a benefit to us. It’s really more of discussion about the decline in physical retail.
DX: Rhymesayers has taken previously major-label artists in recent years and - not only given them a home - but put out some extremely compelling projects. Freeway and Evidence, for example. Is this a warning shot to major labels, in your opinion? Because all of the challenges you’ve just described, the majors are having the same problems.
Siddiq: I wouldn’t call it a warning shot, so much. I think the majors to a certain degree are like, “Fuck, man. Whatever.” [Laughs] I think the majors are looking for new ways to really make money. I think they see the writing on the wall that they can’t exist like this. They had to go through a shift where they really shifted their whole business model more to what we have been doing because of the changes in the industry. I think this has been a key to our overall longevity as well. The industry as a whole has made a shift to a business model that we’ve been doing since day one - if you look at us a a label who also plays the role of manager for our core group of artists. Not all of them. But our core group of artists. We’re manager. We’re heavily involved in booking. We’re handling the merchandise. Basically we’ve been doing the “360 deal” out of necessity. For anybody who was involved in the music industry 10, 15, 20 years ago on any level - you wouldn’t believe what the game was like then in comparison to today. It was like open ended check books. They were spending money hand over fist on almost anything. It was just an endless supply of money. When the industry shifted, they had to rethink their business model because you couldn’t spend money like that. Labels were notorious for basically cookie-cutter marketing. It was like, “We spend a million to $2 million on a project because that’s what we do. We’re going to do the same thing we did for the last success that we had because that’s what we do.” Now they’ve had to rethink they’re entire approach over the last 5 t o7 years and go back to developing artists. Let’s start looking at things like 360 deals; start looking at things like more strategic marketing and such. It’s not just about spending money. Those were all of the things we’ve been doing since day one because that’s what we had to do to succeed. Avenues like radio and TV weren’t open to us.
With that shift, it’s created a level playing field to some degree for the indie. There really isn’t that much divide between the two. When Atmosphere can land a Top 5 Billboard charting record [in When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold], there’s obviously been a shift in the industry. In a lot of ways, those things have leveled out. The downside is that it’s due to a decline in our industry. The upside is that it’s kind of created a level playing field where some of those things have opened up to us. And also those things have become less relevant. And the things that have become more relevant are pretty much open to anybody. I say that in the sense of of less of a warning shot, and more in the sense of taking advantage of opportunities that are now there and make sense. 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.
DX: Looking at the Billboard HipHop/R&B singles charts, for example. Every week in the Top 20, it’s extremely consolidated. It’s almost always only major label artists. If you look at the past 20 weeks, for example, the same artists show up multiple times within the Top 20 alone. Considering it’s a more level playing field, is there a reason more indie singles charting?
Siddiq: I guess I would respond to that and propose the question before I would answer, who do you feel should be on those singles charts instead of them or along with them that isn’t?
DX: Well, I’m thinking about it more broadly on the spectrum. Take Rostrum Records, for example. Mac Miller’s Blue Slide Park debuted as the #1 album in the country the first week it was released. It did 144,000 copies sold. “Donald Trump” [off his Best Day Ever] mixtape has reportedly sold just over 500,000 copies. But with a gold single, the fact that it didn’t chart above #80 [on the Billboard Hot 100], despite an increase in sales, feels like a bit of a disconnect. It feels like as far as singles are concerned, radio is still mostly reserved for the majors.
Siddiq: It’s sales based, so it shouldn’t be. I’ve seen funny things with charts before. Especially when it comes to singles and the Rap charts. We’ve had situations where Atmosphere sold more units, but they charted them lower than other artists on Rap charts. I have seen some funny things with charts. I believe the albums chart is a better gauge than the singles chart or some of the genre specific charts because, my experience with that, is that I have gone through some funny things with those charts. But I think the albums chart is a very good indicator of that leveling of the playing field that I’m talking about - where you have Mac Miller with a #1 record. Where you have an Atmosphere with a Top 5 record. I feel like the album records is truly indicative of the leveling of the playing field.
DX: You described Minnesota as void of industry when you guys started Rhymesayers and forcing you to learn the ins and outs of the industry on your own. Is there an advantage to not being based in New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles?
Siddiq: I think it was for us. I think there’s advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that it really created the situation for us to really be self-sufficient which, in the long term, has meant more to our longevity that anything else - next to the people that are actually involved in it. We didn’t know that at the time. But that was definitely something that was created by us being here and not in some major market. Realistically, if we had created part of the buzz as we did in a major market, we probably would’ve been sucked into a major label and went that route. That’s the advantage. The disadvantage is that you’re off everybody’s radar. It takes maybe a little bit longer to develop those things. There’s some disadvantages there financially. There’s disadvantages from a business standpoint in really attracting high caliber people. We dealt with that. It’s hard to attract someone to move to Minnesota to work for Rhymesayers. But if we were based in New York or L.A., we probably would’ve had the pick of the litter as far as staff goes. That’s something that’s been challenging for us. It definitely has its advantages. It definitely helps us stand out in the sense that we’re a big fish in a small pond. Whereas if we were in New York; if we were in L.A., we might’ve been just another fish in a big pond.
I think Minnesota in general kind of developed who we are which in turn has been a positive to who we are as an artist and who we are as business people. You meet a lot artists on the coasts - I’m generalizing, obviously - that have this greater entitlement when they come from a place like New York or a place like L.A. For us, coming out of Minnesota, we literally did not feel entitled to shit. If we got the smallest crumb of anything, we were so grateful for that and that gratitude shows in the sense of how serious we took it. I think that sometimes when you’re in those major markets, you get really spoiled by everything around you. At least it’s not the same. It’s not the same environment. That goes from things that directly effected us to just scene-wise in general. We opened our record store because there wasn’t one here. We started bringing national artists out to Minnesota because they wouldn’t come here. Even in that sense, it opened opportunities for us that wouldn’t have been the same opportunity in a major market. But we had to work harder in that sense to make those strides and make those achievements. Those things would’ve been just there and natural in a major market. We had to blaze trails and shit, which in the long term has been to our benefit. But that’s not to say that there isn’t an easier path to get to where we got.
DX: Thinking about labels like No Limit and Cash Money, who sold 50,000 copies, 100,000 copies - however many they sold - out of the trunk, then became a part of major’s umbrella. Did you guys ever come close to making those type of deals?
Siddiq: Yeah. Obviously all the majors came calling for Atmosphere once we got on everybody’s radar. Who knows, maybe we would’ve developed something if we’d went that way. We truly make independent music. Sometimes there is a difference. Sometimes there’s not a difference. But sometimes there is. I won’t say all of our stuff is that way, but some of it is. Atmosphere being one of them. I believe their real path in this is an independent one. They never really wanted to chase after a major deal. We entertained them all to see if anything felt right. We never really on some “fuck it” just to be like, “fuck it.” It was more so like, “Fuck that. It’s going to be how we want it to be.” If we ever do something with a major, it’s going to be on our terms - not because you’re throwing a deal our way. So we ran the line with all the bigwigs and all the majors and nothing felt right. Nothing felt like they understood what we’re doing, what we did, and what we’re trying to do. Later on, we did a deal with ILG [the Independent Label Group] under Warner [Music]. And that was a situation that we looked at as something that was possibly right for us. It gave us a lot of tools at our disposal. We didn’t have to use any of them, but at least we had that opportunity. So if we had any bigger records, we could get that additional sales support. We could get that additional marketing and promotional support. We could get some radio support. I don’t know if it completely materialized like we envisioned it - or maybe like they envisioned it - but we did it because it was something that gave us leverage as opposed to limiting us. I think that’s always been our position. Let’s work and develop something so when we do sit down at that table with the majors, we’re looking eye to eye and we’re not in a position where we need anything and we can look at what’s there that can help us continue with what we’re doing and further what we want to do. That’s kind of what’s kept us away and what’s led us to do other things.
DX: I think Atmosphere is a really interesting example. Ant doesn’t sample very often, if ever.
Siddiq: Not much anymore, yeah.
DX: Was that more of a creative decision or business decision?
Siddiq: Both. It’s both. I don’t know how old you are, but I’m 40 [years old] plus. Look at all the producers that we came up on that were just amazing that you don’t hear shit from nowadays. I don’t believe it’s because they’re not trying or that they’re out there doing it or that they’re not still good producers. But, what I would say is part of it is sampling is limiting. I grew up on that, so I will always love it and when it’s great, it’s great. That is the problem with moving away from sampling. Sometimes you might start from that sample and then you take it into either having in replayed or letting it just be an idea that developed into original music. Sometimes there is when you really see how fucking dope sampling can be, when you can’t recreate that shit or you can’t recreate that feeling. So I think there’s an artistic sense that wants to push the envelope. There’s an artistic sense that I want to continue to develop and if I only have sampling in my repertoire, that’s limiting. I have sampling. I have some session play work. I have replays. I have all these other tools - it just broadens your ability to create. So that to me is the creative side and reason.
From the business side, yeah man, fuck, we’ve been hit a decent amount of times for sampling clearances. Some of them have been pretty fucking hefty for an independent label. That can be a huge fucking hit to an independent artist or an independent label. That might’ve been your profit for the fucking year. That can fucking truly damaging to your business or to that artist. If you’re solely sampling, it’s literally impossible to clear every sample. You can’t do it. Financially, you can’t do it as an independent artist or an independent label. With that said, you’re obviously not clearing certain things. If you’re not clearing certain things, you can’t go out and exploit those things, which is another huge new revenue stream for the independent artist and the independent record label - being able to license your music. If it’s not cleared, you can’t go out and license your music because you’re probably going to get caught and you’re probably going to get hit with a lawsuit over it. From a business standpoint, it makes sense and it’s definitely appealing to move away from sampled music because of those things.
I personally am a fan of utilizing sampling or utilizing session players where you’re then sampling back in. I just come from that school. I just love for it to sound like sampled music, even it’s not. It just all depends.
DX: I’m 30 years old, and I think of album’s like Fear Of A Black Planet or Hank Shockley and it’s just like the Vermeer of sampling. It’s unfortunate that that creative outlet has become targeted. I think major labels have added an additional revenue stream by going after sampling.
Siddiq: Oh sure. It’s increased so much. It’s increased a lot. There are a lot things that people wouldn’t even think twice over before that they’re now going after. It definitely does. It’s somewhat the majors. It’s also the publishers and some artists that ain’t making no money so they’re like “Shit, I’m going after anybody that’s fucking touching my shit,” because they’re not making any money anywhere. It’s everybody. I agree. It’s fucked up. It’s fucked up in general because the master side is actually the bigger issue. Which is fucked up because it’s not even the side that’s going to most artists. It’s definitely unfortunate, but it is what it is right now. It would be great if there was some standard usage fee that’s attributed to someone when sampling. But it gets dicey too when you’re talking about the difference because when you’re talking about a Public Enemy who’s really truly creating new art out of bits and pieces of other art versus talking about maybe [Diddy], who might just fucking be rocking over a complete instrumental of another song. To me, there’s two different worlds that would justify two different scenarios in that sense.
DX: My favorite Rhymesayers release is Brother Ali’s The Undisputed Truth. And my favorite song is Atmosphere’s “Guns And Cigarettes.”
Siddiq: That’s a dope joint.
DX: I know that you’re probably in the most impartial position, but is there a project, or through a process a project that you guys released that stands out more or resonates more with you personally?
Siddiq: Man, yeah, you know I don’t know I could really just say just one because there’s so many. In a lot of ways, I’m so invested in it that they’re all really like your kids. It’d be like asking me which one of my kids do I love more. [Laughs] I love them all the same, just differently. There’s different dynamics to all of them. They’re all good. They’ve all been a blessing. I don’t think I could isolate one and say it’s my favorite.
DX: Do you have one that was particularly tough to release or one that the process of going through that album sticks out. No favorites.
Siddiq: That’s fucking every one of them. [Laughs] That’s just the fucking nature of it. It’s like every fucking one is a challenge. [Brother Ali's] The Undisputed Truth is a really good one, though. I’ll speak on that since you brought it up as one of your favorites. We had such an amazing campaign and push with that record, but that record was supposed to come out the year prior [to its actual release in 2007]. We got to this place in it where we felt it was missing a couple of things, or a couple things came in late and we ended up pushing it back. It was tough because [Brother Ali] was on a long cycle. Honestly, very similar to the upcoming Ali record where that record was supposed to come out last year. It was kind of very similar to Undisputed Truth in a sense that it wasn’t ready and everything was connecting, but it was connecting too late and it would short-change our project. It would short change the campaign. It would short change what we can really build out of the release. So we pulled it back, very similarly to Undisputed Truth. How it all then came together was just so amazing at that time.
They’re all very different. [Slug] is really brilliant when it comes to that shit. He really is good when it comes to plotting out what he wants to do, what this album’s gonna be and really following through with that. Ali is always running behind. Working with [MF] DOOM is always a fucking...I mean, man. Working with DOOM, you never know where things are going to land, where things are going to be, and what kind of things you’re going to go through. [Laughs] But that’s my guy, you know. It’s always interesting working with DOOM. Every release always has its own little nuances or challenges but still come together perfectly. Not so much, one more than another. It’s the nature of what we do. I say it all the time: never look at anything like it’s going to be perfect, because nothing ever is. To me, our strength as a label and how it relates to our artists and what we put out is how we deal with those challenges. It’s how we respond to things that go wrong. It’s how we respond to the challenges of what we do. Those are the signs of our greatness because nothing ever happens how you plan it. You’ve got to always be able to evolve with whatever is going on.
DX: I know you guys just completed your first European tour as a label.
Siddiq: Yeah. The Rhymesayers branded tour. Yep.
DX: How was that?
Siddiq: Fucking amazing. All but one show was sold out. And the one that wasn’t sold out was still damn near capacity at a rather large venue. It was amazing. The response was great. It couldn’tve went any better. We’re going to probably try to do that on an annual basis.
DX: Touring seems like it’s fundamental to the independent business model.
Siddiq: It’s always been ours. Coming out of Minnesota, nobody fucking knew who we were. The internet and social media was not as developed today as it was 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.
DX: You mentioned you’re 40-plus. That’s pretty much the bulk of Hip Hop’s existence. With everything you’ve seen and everything you’ve accomplished; with all the artists that you’ve worked with and all of the records you’ve released, what still surprises you about Hip Hop?
Siddiq: I’d probably say its resilience. Man, for me, I’m really inspired to be able to be involved and doing this and taking it from a kid who was influenced by Hip Hop who then figured out a way to be involved in it, and then figure out a way to take that involvement and then turn it into a career that spans over 20 years. To look at what Hip Hop is today, to me, it bothers the fuck out of me when people say Hip Hop is dead, or shit is not as good as it was. I’m like, “Man, you’re just fucking old and bitter or something.” I don’t look or expect to connect with Hip Hop the same way I did in the 1980s. It would be a very rare circumstance where I’m going to connect to these kids the same way that Rakim, KRS-One, Public Enemy, fucking [A Tribe Called Quest], De La [Soul] - all these models of the golden era for me connected to me. Those groups will probably never connect with these kids today the same way they connected to us. But I’m fine with that. I don’t think it should. It wouldn’t make any sense if it did. So to me, I have a real appreciation for this younger generation of Hip Hop artists. They’re us, in a lot of ways. When I’m looking at a fucking Wiz Khalifa; when I’m looking at Mac Miller; I look at Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg [Entertainment] - to me, they’re no different than us. So when I look at that, I’m inspired by that shit. It’s great to be in it this long and relevant but still be inspired by other shit that’s new. That’s a beautiful thing.
I’m happy with where Hip Hop is at. There’s more opportunity than ever. There’s a beautiful independent sense and scene in our industry - more than probably at any other time in the sense of also being successful. I feel like this is the first new wave of Hip Hop that we’ve had in a while. You actually have Hip Hop acts today that have fans that are just interested in their shit. Not that they’re not Hip Hop fans, but you’re not going to sit down and talk to them about the last 20 years of Hip Hop. You might not even talk to them about the last ten years of Hip Hop. I was talking to some cat the other day - and it was just amazing - the first record that he bought was in 2000. [Laughs] That was the first fucking Hip Hop record that he bought. In 2000! So there’s a little bit more responsibility on those of us that are older to make sure that that history and that legacy lives on. But we have to be open and appreciated and interested in what these new voices and new artists are doing. We have to respect and appreciate that so that there is that two way thing and is never a thing that butts heads. We have our annual [Soundset] festival, and it’s the shit to see that when we bring a Yelawolf or a Wiz Khalifa or a Mac Miller. To see them standing on the side of the stage watching a Hieroglyphics or a De La Soul and mouthing all the words to the songs and shit, that is the shit to me. That to me is proof that we have a healthy scene; that we have an appreciation for the founders of this shit but also a relevant, young, talented new scene. The fact that it’s as vibrant as it is inspiring to me. To me, it’s all good.