A peek behind Soundset 2013

Canterbury Park becomes the Dogg track
courtesy of the artist

Atmosphere and Snoop Dogg have contrasting aesthetics — indie, introspective Midwest stories from the former, and weeded-out G-funk from the latter — but they both fit within the elastic boundaries of Soundset. The sixth running of Rhymesayers Entertainment's summer kick-off rap festival in Shakopee is a sign that "mainstream" and "underground" are less separate than ever.

"My era, people would identify themselves by music and what they listened to. Sometimes you'd be totally genre-based," says Rhymesayers' own J-Bird, one of the main organizing forces behind Soundset. "Now, with the digital age, people listen to everything."

A label that for many symbolizes "emo rap" can now comfortably host acts like Three 6 Mafia's Juicy J, Schoolboy Q, and Sean Price — rappers who are anything but. This is the place to hear Mac Miller's ode to materialism "Donald Trump" in the same afternoon as P.O.S.'s "Fuck Your Stuff," as well as pump fists to Brother Ali's working-class struggle anthem "Work Everyday" and Juicy J's strip-club antics in "Bandz a Make Her Dance."

A spot on Soundset is a nod of respect. Tech N9ne, for example, is someone Soundset has tried to book for years, and was one of the first acts confirmed for 2013. "We knew we wanted him to be part of it," J-Bird says of the bizarre hardcore rapper, "with what he's accomplished independently, as an artist, businessman, and label."

The hat tip is also extended to local artists: Each year, a number of Minnesota-based rappers play the Fifth Element stage, picked based on who's buzzing in the Twin Cities. This year, the side stage will house up-and-comers like Haphduzn, Meta, Major G, and Greg Grease.

"I immediately started plotting on my best way to make a mark," says Grease of his upcoming performance. "It's a blessing," says Major G. "This is a huge step for me, but nothing is promised and I wanna out-work and -perform everyone at this year's festival." Now with two main stages to allow for quicker changeovers, the artists have the opportunity to think bigger for their acts.

Glancing back at the lineup from the first Soundset in 2008, held in the Metrodome parking lot, the festival has certainly evolved. The big names were Little Brother and Dilated Peoples, powerful figures in conscious rap, but still similar to the Rhymesayers artists that rounded out the bill. As Soundset's audience grew, which justified the move to Canterbury Park, the usual suspects began to mingle with a wider range of sounds.

"You don't wanna do the same thing every year," says J-Bird. "Having all these different mixtures of people, it gives a whole different energy to the show." Indeed, Aesop Rock and A$AP Ferg, together at last.

Every year, the organizers determine what to improve at a post-Soundset meeting. While the lack of women onstage has been a problem — Psalm One and the Chalice are this year's token female artists — the team has mostly made great strides each year. Snoop Dogg — who recently re-christened himself "Snoop Lion" to reflect his shift toward reggae — may just be the biggest name the festival's had yet.

"You want bigger talent, it costs more. That's been the challenge: How do you make it better but maintain a fair, low ticket price?" says J-Bird. "We fight for that, we really work hard to do that. Hopefully everybody walks away having a great experience. But it doesn't get easier [laughs]."

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