A new Atmosphere for local music label

Last update: October 03, 2005 – 11:00 PM

It wasn't the national distribution deal, or the Best Buy and Target ads, or even their building expansion that did it.

It was a new parking lot paved behind their sunny new offices in Uptown last Tuesday that made staffers at Minneapolis' Rhymesayers Entertainment realize their hip-hop label really was on the up and up.

"I've got a parking space, [so] we're official now," tour and marketing manager Jason (J-Bird) Cook half-joked before today's release of Atmosphere's album, the biggest in the company's history.

But Rhymesayers' biggest accomplishment might actually be the space it has attained on Best Buy and Target shelves, and in their national ads.

In a rare case of local music-business synergy, the Twin Cities-based chains are stocking and promoting today's Atmosphere release, a CD aptly titled "You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having." The chains are getting help from another local company, Navarre Corp., a CD and DVD distributor with national reach.

It's the first time a local independent record label -- whose job is to cultivate talent and issue albums -- has dealt directly with major retailers on this scale. And that's just one of many signs that Rhymesayers, which started 10 years ago as a cassette operation, is building name-brand recognition on par with indie labels such as Sub Pop (which launched Nirvana) or Epitaph (the Offspring).

"I think we're just seeing the start for Rhymesayers," said Bob Freese, general manager at Navarre in New Hope. "Two years from now, this is going to be an amazing success story."

The Twin Cities has a history of nationally renowned indie labels, including Soma, which helped make the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" a national hit in the 1960s, and the influential '80s-'90s rock labels Twin/Tone and Amphetamine Reptile.

Rhymesayers might already have surpassed its hometown predecessors. Atmosphere's last CD, "Seven's Travels," sold about 154,000 copies, according to Nielsen/SoundScan.

That number "was unheard of in our heyday," said Twin/Tone Records co-founder Peter Jesperson. "The indie movement had only just begun."

Best Buy featured the Atmosphere CD in its weekly color insert distributed Sunday in newspapers across the country. Target also has taken out print ads promoting the album.

"I think it has to be an advantage to have champions of local music within those organizations," Jesperson said, pointing to Target commercials using music by local acts the Suicide Commandos and Suburbs.

Rhymesayers is hardly just a local phenomenon, though. The Twin Cities is the label's No. 3 market behind Los Angeles and New York.

Freese said Navarre's distribution and promotion will be heavy around the country, and it also will include stores such as Borders and Tower Records. Some stores are even looking at displays featuring other local acts on the label.

"Rhymesayers has already done a lot of the legwork themselves over the past 10 years, mainly through touring but also their own advertising and marketing," Freese said. "That's why companies are willing and eager to deal with them."

Best Buy senior buyer Nate Jarpe concurred: "Their albums have sold progressively better. There's every reason to believe they'll get even bigger." The local connection "wouldn't mean a thing if they didn't have a certain sales threshold, which they've passed."

Atmosphere and many other Rhymesayers acts specialize in a unique brand of hip-hop -- often referred to as indie-rap -- that appeals more to modern-rock radio and punk-rock clubs than it does to "urban music" outlets. Hardly clean-cut, the music nonetheless has a strong following among suburban teens who don't identify with a lot of mainstream rap's ghetto talk and violent images.

"Best Buy and Target are where a lot of our fans buy records," Cook said.

Growing pains

He and the rest of the Rhymesayers crew hesitate to align themselves too heavily with major chain retailers for two reasons: One is that they have built their fan base largely through independent stores. The other is that they are in the indie-retail business themselves.

Rhymesayers' core crew -- four full-time staffers and about a dozen artists -- also owns and operates the Fifth Element record store at 2411 Hennepin Av. S. Until a few weeks ago, the label's office was located in a cramped back room with one phone.

Last week, that old office was filled with a few thousand new Atmosphere T-shirts. A staircase leads up to a new second-story headquarters, where founder Brent (Siddiq) Sayers and Cook have their own offices with sliding glass doors. Meetings can be held in a conference room or a two-story patio overlooking Hennepin Avenue.

Inside Cook's office are posters from past Atmosphere tours, plus two giant maps of the United States and the world. Stuck in the office instead of on the road, he looked at the world map and said, "That's next."

"We already did the Big Day Out [a major tour in Australia], and now we're hearing from China, Brazil, Europe," he said, sounding more like he was complaining than hyping.

First a parking lot, then the world.

Chris Riemenschneider is atchrisr@startribune.com.