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Label Spotlight: Mello Music Group

by Mosi Reeves

Label Spotlight: Mello Music Group

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Attention, indie rap fans: If you followed Stones Throw, Rhymesayers, Hieroglyphics Imperium and some of the great underground brands of the early 2000s, then welcome to your new favorite label.

Mello Music Group doesn't have an iconic rap star for a leader, unlike Rhymesayers' Atmosphere. Formed in 2007 in Tucson by University of Arizona graduate, DJ and English teacher Michael Tolle, the label has a reputation for being consistent. It releases somewhere between six and 12 projects a year, with most sticking to the kind of sampled, melodic boom-bap beats that define backpack rap in the new millennia. (However, the label has begun to expand its breadth with recent additions like L.A. avant-rapper Open Mike Eagle and Detroit oddball Quelle Chris.) Washington, D.C., producer Oddisee may be MMG's flagship artist: His group Diamond District authored the label's first standout release, 2009's In the Ruff, and his solo work arguably draws more coverage than anyone else on the roster.

MMG has released several quality albums in the past few years, including Oddisee's Odd Seasons, Apollo Brown's Clouds, O.C. & Apollo Brown's Trophies, and Open Mike Eagle's Dark Comedy. Its growing reputation has begun to attract rap veterans like influential producer Pete Rock, who issued his Petestrumentals this month, and the enigmatic Kool Keith, who will release his collaboration with producer L'Orange, Persona, in July.

However, times are different from a decade ago, when a new Definitive Jux release would generate stories in leading publications like The New York Times and Spin magazine. Music sites are mostly enthralled with rap that has mainstream potential, and MMG's thoughtful, well-made, but decidedly non-commercial work doesn't attract as much interest. Hopefully that will change in the years to come. But for now, Mello Music Group is one of the best-kept secrets in hip-hop.

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