Ben Grenrock has an ant on his shirt.
It doesn’t look much like a factory, but that’s what they called it.
Down beige carpeted steps, a wood paneled basement floored in the same fuzzy tope. Homey. An unpretentious, Midwestern flavor of hygge. Even in photos, it’s clear The Factory is warm enough to fend off the worst of a Minneapolis winter. Its walls bulge with vinyl, giving the impression of an ongoing insulation project—the magpie-nest flux of a consummate crate-digger. This is the hallowed underground on which the Twin Cities’ underground hip-hop scene sprouted into national legend: the basement below the home of Anthony Davis.
Two decades of beat-making ago, the prolific output of Davis, better known as Ant, had already earned his cozy home-studio its industrial moniker. In the mid-’90s The Factory’s foreman furnished an expansive cadre of Twin Cities MCs with boom-bap beats on which to cut their teeth. They were the Headshots crew, a sprawling collective that steadily accumulated cred via local shows and a series of Factory-forged mixtapes. After Headshots fragmented, four of its previous members founded Rhymesayers Entertainment in 1995. And the rest, as they say, is history.
But before Rhymesayers had its own record store, before it became a national platform for artists as geographically distant as Empire City legend MF DOOM and Angelino rapper/producer Evidence, the fledgling label dropped its first album, Comparison, in 1996. Featuring a young MC, known then as Beyond (later as Musab), rapping over Ant’s instrumentals, Comparison polished the raw talent evident across the Headshots tapes into something far sleeker and professional, weaving an honest and powerful affect into the transcendent simplicity of Ant’s beats. A year after Comparison, Rhymesayers released Overcast!, the Ant-produced debut of rappers Slug and Spawn—a Headshots staple who’d recently truncated the name of their group from Urban Atmosphere to simply, Atmosphere.
Ant’s partnership with Slug and his integration into Atmosphere would go on to cement Rhymesayers as one of the preeminent underground hip-hop outfits of the ’00s. But between these two seminal releases, a record was recorded in The Factory that set the stage for Rhymesayers’ upcoming success, allowing Ant to locate and to perfect the trademark sound he would so deftly deploy on Overcast! and on subsequent early Rhymesayers releases. Four rappers, seventeen songs, and one producer united in late 1996 to form The Dynospectrum.
Commemorating the group’s eventual release of their self-titled LP in 1998, Rhymesayers has remastered The Dynospectrum, pressed it to vinyl for the first time, and packaged it with bonus tracks and instrumentals for a 20th anniversary edition. While this vinyl reissue will almost certainly serve the same purpose cassette and digital copies of the album have for two decades as collector’s item and time capsule, its crisper sound and unlikely resurgence into the zeitgeist present an opportunity to look back at the lasting impact of this cult classic.
Though Atmosphere’s Overcast! dropped first, The Dynospectrum was the second album recorded at The Factory. Slug and Beyond recruited rappers I Self Devine and Swift The 90 Degree Angle to form a sort of supergroup of talented MCs, relatively unknown outside of their immediate circles. Each donned a Dyno-specific moniker for the project: Slug became Sep Seven, Beyond was General Woundwort, I Self Devine picked Pat Juba, and Swift The 90 Degree Angle dropped his unwieldy mouthful of syllables in favor of Mr. Gene Poole (he’s since stuck with the more ergonomic name). Ant, followed suit, crediting himself as Solomon Grundy—the name of an ancient DC Comic’s supervillian and the title of a morbid 19th century nursery rhyme.
For the rappers, these code names coincided with, or possibly facilitated, a personal detachment in the lyrics that span The Dynospectrum. The quartet of MCs furnish the record with consistently solid verses—their intricate wordplay feeling at once playful and intense, flippant and driven, vicious and joyful. Yet unlike on these rappers’ contemporaneous solo albums, the lyrics of on The Dynospectrum are less a plumbing of their internal selves or a vehicle for their experience-molded worldviews to surface than technical displays of proficiency. But, though technically sound as ever, the contributions of Davis/Ant/Grundy are something more, shaping the record’s mood and contextualizing its content.
While on Comparison, Overcast!, and the increasingly popular Atmosphere records that would follow, it was typically the MC using Ant’s music as a space in which to evert their most visceral and effecting sensibilities, their words dictating the tone of a given track for the listener. On The Dynospectrum that paradigm is flipped. Here, it’s Ant using the quartet’s verses as the foundation for him to explore, and to fully realize the first consistent iteration of his sound and in doing so, he becomes The Dynospectrum’s emotional touchstone, building it a frozen heart throbbing with the heightened, singular pathos of a comic book character, and with the eerie unease of a children’s nursery rhyme about death.
At face value, the structural recipe for this sound is simple enough. Building on an aesthetic he’d deployed on Comparison’s track, “Vinyl, Cassettes, CD’s,” Ant would create a boom-bap pattern (or refurbish a drum break) with neck-snapping drum tones. He’d then place a melody comprised of a handful of hair-raising notes (almost always sampled) over it like a treacherous patina of ice. With the exception of aptly titled, “Brief Interlude,” this is the formula for every song on the record. But perusing the blueprints for Ant’s beats does little to explain what makes them so special, how, perhaps by some mysterious mechanism tucked away in The Factory, he manages to imbue these utilitarian collections of sounds with an inarticulable “something else,”—an infusion of pure pathos resonating somewhere between kick and snare.
It’s this eldritch addition that makes The Dynospectrum sound like a paranoia-inducing trek through a foreboding, frozen warehouse district. The album is all snow-laden roofing and stick-to-your-tongue steel, its beats as barren as January branches and as sturdy and enduring, too.
From the dead leaf flutters of “You Can Lose Your Mind” to the sound of rain that haunts the sampled chords from the Mystic Moods Orchestra’s “A Dream,” that lock closer “Armor,” in a perpetual deluge, The Dynospectrum presents a complete and unbroken aesthetic. Exemplified by the two songs built out of Les McCann samples, “Introspectrum,” and “Decompression Chamber,” the power in the simple approach that would come to define Ant’s early career is reminiscent of an abandoned zen garden, winter-wilted and tagged-up with Minneapolis graff.
The dark austerity Ant captures on the album became the formula for Overcast!’s most iconic tracks: “Scapegoat,” “WND,” “The Outernet.” Ant reigned in the creep-factor a little on Overcast!, balancing it with tracks that allowed Slug’s extroverted personality to shine (a more upbeat sound that eventually became a new period in Ant’s evolution); but it’s there, providing Spawn with the ideal substrate for his most raw and powerful performances (“Complications,” “Caved In”).
Early strains of the ineffable chemistry Slug and Ant would grow to share are present on The Dynospecturm. The tone of the rapper’s voice, his phrasing and inflection, match the pathos of Ant’s beats in an innate symbiosis. But there is no contest as to who The Dynospectrum’s stand out performer is.
There’s more than a little irony in the fact that on a label called Rhymesayers, the glue that binds together many of the early records that made its name is an artist who never says a rhyme. Like the label itself, Ant’s music is a conduit—a catalyst for the lyrical dynamism that has become Rhymesayers’ calling card, and the foremost sculptor of its sonic personality. It’s easy to forget that. Blinded by the dazzling personalities and scintillating talent of the rappers he’s worked with over the past twenty years, it’s easy to miss the unassuming artisan secreted away in his Factory, diligently soldering samples into songs. But The Dynospectrum is unequivocally his show, and if for no other reason than that, it deserves another listen.