How Rhymesayers set up the Soundset Festival

Minnesota's biggest annual hip-hop showcase enters its fifth year

How Rhymesayers set up the Soundset Festival
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At about 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 29, Jason "J-Bird" Cook had a serious problem. The fourth running of the yearly Soundset hip-hop festival was in full swing at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, and Outkast legend Big Boi, one of the day's headlining acts, had requested a drum kit for his performance. None were on site.

Once it was determined that Big Boi's people really wanted it and were staying pretty adamant about it, J-Bird, a VP with local hip-hop label Rhymesayers, transformed into the guy who makes magic happen at Soundset year after year. "Hey man, who has a drum kit close to here?" he asked everyone nearby. It turned out that First Avenue — in downtown Minneapolis 23 miles away — was the closest spot that had a backline drum kit available.

With an eager niece and nephew who wanted to go for a ride, he jumped into his Honda Element, drove up Highway 169, and got off in the city. When he arrived at the back driveway, a new challenge presented itself: The drum kit was bigger than he'd thought. But with some creative seating of the kids, all of the equipment just barely squeezed into the car.

The Rhymesayers crew: Brent "Siddiq" Sayers, Jason "J-Bird" Cook, Kevin Beacham, Leif Brostrom, Skye Rossi, Jake Schaefer, and Phil Espinoza
Erik Hess
The Rhymesayers crew: Brent "Siddiq" Sayers, Jason "J-Bird" Cook, Kevin Beacham, Leif Brostrom, Skye Rossi, Jake Schaefer, and Phil Espinoza


• General admission tickets $46
• VIP tickets sold out
• 11 a.m. Sunday, May 27
• Canterbury Park Festival Field, Shakopee

Nine hours of music will be spread over two main stages and the Fifth Element stage. The day's events also include a B-boy/B-girl DJ tent, live painting exhibit, skate demo area, the Soundset custom car show, and the Last of the Record Buyers live production showcase.

The Official Soundset 2012 Afterparty. 18+, $10-$15, 10 p.m. Sunday, May 27, at First Avenue, Minneapolis. Hosted by Brother Ali and MaLLy and featuring surprise performances by Soundset artists. Beats by Get Cryphy DJs (Plain Ole Bill, DJ Fundo, Jimmy 2 Times, and Last Word).

Fifteen minutes before Big Boi was set to hit the stage, J-Bird pulled up. For spectators, this would be a set featuring hits spanning back to the Atlanta rapper's 1994 debut with Outkast. City Pages reviewer Jack Spencer labeled it "killer."

"Extra lengths, man," J-Bird says on a recent call from his Minneapolis home. This statement is delivered without a hint of regret or disgust. If anything, he's wilding out all over again with the thrill of last May. "You try to keep it mellow. Everyone wants an answer. 'I need a table,' 'I was supposed to have a merch tent,' 'My shipment didn't come in,' 'There's a problem at will call,' 'I wasn't on the guest list,' 'Oh, I need a drum kit' [laughs], 'Oh, I need a bottle of Patron.' It's Sunday, and we're in Minnesota. You know?"

J-Bird and his crew make sure Soundset runs smoothly from three days of prep before the event through an afterparty that ends at 3 a.m. Monday. He believes the festival's emphasis on keeping performers comfortable beyond just paying a fee for their services — providing airfare, lodging, an extra day's stay, flexible merchandise options, and the occasional drum kit — is one of the main reasons that Soundset is thriving leading into its fifth year as a hip-hop festival.

"If you go into a festival and people treat you right, that affects the whole vibe."

Regarding his close call with Big Boi, he can laugh about it now.

"Everyone was happy, so it worked out," J-Bird says. "The only downside was that there were a couple groups in that time frame that I wanted to see that I missed."

More than a decade before Soundset officially launched as the largest hip-hop festival Minnesota has ever seen, the moniker was already making the rounds in smaller, tighter circles around the Twin Cities. Rhymesayers co-founders Brent "Siddiq" Sayers and Atmosphere mouthpiece Sean "Slug" Daley have vivid recollections of the initial Soundset in the summer of 1997, which came two years after they solidified the label with Atmosphere producer Anthony "Ant" Davis, and fellow rapper Musab "Sab the Artist" S'ad.

The event was at a warehouse space on Lake Street just east of Hiawatha Avenue. In those days, the burgeoning local underground hip-hop scene — which has often been labeled "backpacker" or "conscious rap" by the music press — had much overlap with the Twin Cities' rave crowd, which was blowing up at the time.

"We were like, 'Shit, why don't we have a hip-hop rave?'" label CEO Siddiq recalls. "We were already doing sets at random raves, so we decided to do an all hip-hop one. Things started at like 7 or 8 o'clock and ended at like 7 or 8 o'clock in the morning."

It was packed, and the blueprint for what current Soundset festivals embody was already in place. A couple dozen local hip-hop acts performed, and a dozen DJs filled in the gaps. There were some freestyle cyphers, but for the most part, these were cohesive sets.

"It might as well have been a rave in terms of when, where, and what time," Slug says, recalling an early flyer he created for the event by scrawling across a picture of a boombox with "some grafitti-looking shit that said 'Soundset.'"

As for the Soundset name itself, it's unclear who came up with it, but everyone knew it was a perfect fit from the start.

"It's got this feel of 1984 in the Bronx," Slug explains. "Those two words together have a ring to it. We're just accustomed to hearing those words attached to things that are cool. Visually, this is obviously hip hop. This is not a rave."

The attention garnered by the initial Soundset party quickly turned Rhymesayers' regular parties at the 7th St. Entry into weekly Soundset showcases at First Avenue's mainroom, which were formatted as hip-hop dance nights with breaks for performers. Slug credits the venue for being key to moving the Rhymesayers regulars "from 200 to 2,000 people."

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