How Rhymesayers set up the Soundset Festival

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

"They laid the groundwork for people who weren't artists," he explains. "Back in the day, you go to a show, 70 percent of the audience was rappers. You were either a DJ or a rapper, you made beats or graffiti, or a breakdancer, or you were fucking somebody who was. That's why you were at the show."

Rhymesayers eventually opened their own music storefront on Hennepin Avenue, Fifth Element, and cemented the careers of local acts Atmosphere, Brother Ali, and Eyedea & Abilities. The idea of showcasing all of the progress the label had made with a festival had been floating around for a few years prior. J-Bird recalls the initial planning stages of their first try at a full-scale hip-hop festival. It was Slug's brother, Jordon Daley, who recommended bringing back the Soundset name.

"It totally made sense," J-Bird says. "It was the live aspect of Rhymesayers when it first started. This is the next level."

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).

The hot concrete of the Metrodome parking lot in downtown Minneapolis hosted Soundset 2008. An icy cloudburst, waves of exhausting heat, and budget-breaking $4 bottles of water undeniably gave some of the 13,000-plus paid guests pause. But solid showings by Rhymesayers acts, the ready-to-explode Doomtree, Aesop Rock, Dilated Peoples, Little Brother, and more combined for a winning eight hours of entertainment — which just needed a little tweaking.

The inaugural Soundset proved an exhausting time for headliner Atmosphere as well. It was the initial hometown show in support of When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold. On the heels of a sold-out West Coast tour and a New York trip to appear on Late Night With Conan O'Brien earlier that week, Slug was pretty beat by the time he got to the site.

"I was stuck on stupid," he says. "When I showed up at the festival site the day before, I was like, 'Whoa, this is going to be a big deal.' It was a wakeup call. The main stage at the Cabooze — that's what I thought Soundset was going to be like. The day of the actual show, it was a trip. They all came."

By the 2011 installment of Soundset, the headliners had expanded well beyond the artists immediately in the Rhymesayers' Rolodex. Coveted artists from all corners, like Big Boi, De La Soul, Slaughterhouse, and Mac Miller graced the stage — names worthy of any festival in the land. It was the third year staging the event at Shakopee's Canterbury Park — and second at the newly created Festival Field — and these inroads for the now nine-hour show pushed attendance numbers to a new high of 22,500. With performances staged alongside a full-fledged custom car show and exhibitions for skateboarding, break dancing, and turntablism, the event has become "the Great Minnesota Hip-Hop Get-Together."

"When you look at the first bill, all those artists were friends with us," Slug says. "Not only has it expanded locally for the audience, but it has expanded in the sense of where we can draw artists from. It doesn't all have to be from the indie-rap 12-inch world. It can be now from all over the map. This is not just a Rhymesayers thing anymore, it belongs to everybody. (Oh my God, that sounded hippie.)"

Still, for all of the national attention brought in by an increasing crop of hot acts like Curren$y and Rhymesayers signee Grieves, the locals proved that the theater of a festival could still be their own. Slug co-signed for scene newcomer MaLLy by wearing his T-shirt during Atmosphere's performance, Brother Ali had a notebook on hand to debut new material, Dessa battled through microphone issues to command Doomtree's set, and Face Candy, led by Kristoff Krane, Carnage, and a wealth of guests, remembered their fallen comrade Micheal "Eyedea" Larsen with an emotional tribute.

The planning stages and lineup brainstorming for Soundset 2012 began in earnest last October, and J-Bird says that most of the acts were firmed up by the second week of December. For the first time, there will be two main stages, which should improve the flow of the performances. Along with Atmosphere is the politically explosive Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco, who has darted in and out of the mainstream since appearing on Kanye West's "Touch the Sky" and garnered respect and Grammy nods for his work up through last year's Lasers. Wu-Tang Clan luminaries Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, and buzzed-about talents like Kendrick Lamar, Big K.R.I.T., Action Bronson, and Danny Brown pop out of an already impressive crop of local and familiar talent, including fresh Rhymesayers signee Aesop Rock, P.O.S., Astronautalis, newcomer Tomorrow Genius, and dozens more.

This year's Soundset is as big as the festival has ever been, and Slug is ready to celebrate.

"I'm going last after Lupe Fiasco," he says. "Anywhere else I'd go before Lupe, but it's my party. How long before I'm not allowed to do that? If we keep outdoing ourselves, who am I going to be playing after next year? Kanye?"

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