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.
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."
"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 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?"