Rhymesayers celebrated an astounding two decades of existence as a staunchly independent hip-hop label at Target Center Friday night — proudly showcasing,through a wide range of strong performances, their roots, their steadfastness, and their growth. There were a few notable absences from the label’s history — like Psalm One, Freeway (who was billed but never performed), and Gene Poole — but the massive bill still touted roughly 30 acts, clocking in at just over six and a half hours of rap. It felt triumphant and gigantic, but the heart that drove members of the small Headshots crew to build a scene from scratch felt intact throughout.
The work ethic was present immediately with P.O.S’s firebrand opening performance — slated promptly at 5:30 so he would have enough time to fly to Chicago for a second show with his other crew later that night. Afterwards, Toki Wright, Boom Bap Project, and Grayskul each ran through quick sets, with different mindsets for appropriate time management: Toki pieced together multiple snippets of his many stylistic territories, while Boom Bap Project and Grayskul (who, hailing from Seattle, represented some of the first non-local acts Rhymesayers signed) opted to play a handful of their hits in their entirety.
Representing some of the earliest roots of Rhymesayers, Los Nativos played their multilingual music alongside their families, who danced and waved flags in traditional Aztec regalia, before transitioning into a set from deM atlaS, one of the label’s most recent signees. His vibrant energy combined dual impulses of overwhelmed joy and anxious aggression, culminating in the expressive sing-along “Watabout,” which ratcheted up crowd involvement just in time for Mr. Dibbs’ chaotic DJ performance.
Simultaneously technical and danceable, the Cincinnati turntablist legend swung wildly among genres, throwing together rap and electro breaks with Black Sabbath and Pantera riffs to create a spastic but cohesive set. The huge sound set the stage for the mighty I Self Devine, whose Los Angeles and Atlanta influences have been vital to the shaping of the Rhymesayers sound. His set was all revolutionary fury, stringing together his most explosive and political material (including “Officer Down,” which he proudly dedicated to the local Black Lives Matter protestors who occupied the 4th Precinct) for a set that was among the night’s highlights.
Grieves followed and connected with the audience with relatable open-book material, as the standing crowd began to grow and push forward. Soul Position’s no-frills raps made it easy to forget the venue’s size as Blueprint drew listeners in with a stripped-down performance over RJD2’s driving beats, but there did seem to be a hint of irony in transitioning from a set that included “No Gimmicks” sharply into a barrage of inflatable animals and confetti, and the stage suddenly being flanked by wacky waving inflatable arm-flailing tube men.
The chaos is a staple of Prof’s set, which was far from gimmicky but definitely played to the audience’s desire to go insane. Dressed in a George Mikan basketball jersey from the player’s days as a Minneapolis Laker, Prof simultaneously paid homage to his city, the venue, and the notion of changing the rules of the game. The most turned-up and party-focused of the Rhymesayers family — and possibly the most technically gifted in terms of vocal abilities and stage performance — newest signee Prof hit the stage like a tornado, and the crowd was at their most animated.
They stayed excited as the first artist to release an album with Rhymesayers, Musab, hit the stage, playing material from that infamous initial Rhymesayers record Comparison, from when he went under the name Beyond. He also brought out Abstract Rude to perform some of their shared material, and some of his own solo material. After a breaking session from dancers the Battlecats (set to BK-One’s excellent breakdancing mix), DJ Abilities played an expressive set dedicated to his and Eyedea’s body of work that helped defined the core Rhymesayers sound.
Afterwards, the show featured a pair of acts took stage that grew in other locales and label situations but recently found their way to Rhymesayers, representing the clout the label now holds: Aesop Rock and Dilated Peoples. Aesop Rock played a set that included three of his Rhymesayers projects, beginning with a two-song stint with Kimya Dawson (the only woman vocalist to touch the stage) as the Uncluded and weaving between his solo material and his Hail Mary Mallon work with Rob Sonic, while Dilated Peoples rocked some new and classic material that connected with the many heads present.
Brother Ali, who mostly played host throughout the night, had a particularly powerful set, in part due to the exhilarating presence of dancers Iman & Khadijah and their crew S.H.E. (She who Holds Everything), and in part due to the poignancy of his political material in the current climate of Minneapolis’s Black Lives Matter protests. After playing the strong indictment of the American war machine “Uncle Same Goddamn,” Ali tweaked the lyrics to reflect the lost lives of Jamar Clark, Tamir Rice, Terrance Franklin, and Renisha Bride. Choking up as he listed their names (to a largely white audience), he launched into the chilling a capella “Dear Black Son,” spoken with a sort of shaken urgency that led into the powerful Jake-One-backed “Mourning In America.” Ending with the upbeat self-love anthem “Forest Whitiker,” he played an affecting whirlwind set.
Finally, Atmosphere took the stage, opening with “Scapegoat” before reaching back even further into their discography by bringing out former member Spawn. The reunion brought huge cheers from the crowd, as the group performed material from 1997’s Overcast! Later, Murs joined Slug to run through some Felt material. Slug was in rare form as he ran through a set mostly composed of older material, clearly awe-struck by the moment. “Flicker” (from 2014’s Southsiders) was possibly the set’s highpoint, as he asked the audience to raise their cellphone flashlights and honor the memory of Eyedea, who was certainly present in spirit. It was a powerful moment in a set that was the best Atmosphere performance I’ve ever seen. The whole crew touched the stage for the closer “Trying To Find A Balance,” celebrating what’s been an impressive and awe-inspiring 20 years.
Jack Spencer is a music writer based in the Twin Cities.
I Self Devine