The outdoor festival can be a strange setting for rap music, an art form that demands connecting with the performer and their words and feels suited to the intimacy of a smaller venue. Rap is often more showy in terms of skill and stage presence than in giant spectacle, which can be harder to glean from half a football field away surrounded by 20,000 people. But the beauty of Soundset is that it is not only driven by a label familiar with the artist side of a festival, but also by true music fans.
Entering Canterbury Park meant something entirely unique to each individual fan, and concertgoers could decide if they wanted the outdoor festival feel or something more low-key. While big name acts like Big Boi of Outkast or De La Soul held down the heavily-populated main stage area, the Fifth Element stage provided a more close-knit feel with rappers performing nearly an arms-length away. As newcomer and internet star Mac Miller played to a swarm of fans to my right, I was able to catch seasoned veteran 2Mex of Los Angeles showcase his remarkable and hard-won talent as he brought a bit of Project Blowed to Shakopee. While 19-year-old Mac Miller's brand of carefree frat-rap appealed to the big crowd, the smaller gathering around me was equally enthused by the ridiculously quick and freestyle-inspired rhymes the legendary member of Of Mexican Descent and Visionairies was laying down.
Photo by Ben Clark
Earlier Fifth Element stage performers tended to be of a similar cut as 2Mex, in terms of time spent in the game, respect from the underground community, and their sometimes brutal aggressiveness. Another interesting side-to-side comparison was Curren$y, an up-and-comer out of New Orleans, and Mr. Gene Poole, one of the architects of the Twin Cities scene since his early work with the Headshots tapes. "If you've ever paid your cable bill, you've seen this video," Curren$y noted before launching into his hit "King Kong." The New Orleans rapper has certainly been grinding to get to the status where he can say that, but his onstage presence felt so casual (and blazed) that the performance lacked an appropriate energy. Meanwhile, Mr. Gene Poole is on the small stage, threatening to smack the shit out of the soundman if he doesn't turn his microphone up. The man's sheer intensity made even the minor technical difficulties that began his set seem like a riot was going to break out, and once the music got going his energy doubled. He paced back and forth, spitting violent lyrics over distorted and chaotic beats, all of which reminded me of the caustic beginnings of our hardcore underground scene that birthed the headliners.
Everyone on the Fifth Element stage had something to prove, be it 2Mex and Mr. Gene Poole solidifying their OG status, or up-and-comers MaLLy and Longshot sinking their teeth into their biggest shows yet. MaLLy felt right at home at Soundset, commanding attention and earning his co-sign from Slug, who wore MaLLy's t-shirt during Atmosphere's performance. Local Chicago transplant Longshot followed soon after, displaying an impressive lyrical prowess with an edgy and hungry voice that worked remarkably well with the bouncy beats. Unless you count the fans that danced onstage during Big Boi's set, Longshot also showed the most onstage support for the largely-absent ladies, bringing on both Desdamona and fellow Chicago rapper Psalm One, who tore the stage apart and deserved her own slot.
When Desdamona started her own set, it was a sad reminder of the lack of female performers. Her performance was stellar and just as punchy as the show of hyper-masculinity many other rappers had, and was one of my personal highlights.
Photo by Ben Clark
Photo by Ben Clark
A surprise hit was Edan, who always felt too throwback on record for me, but was really impressive live. His old-school aesthetic came off as futurist in its performance, and tricky moves like cutting records with one hand and rapping into an echo pedal with another absolutely wowed me. These tricks would not have played on the main stage, but those on the bigger platform mostly performed at a caliber befitting their place.
Big Boi put on a killer performance that ran through both his latest solo material and a slew of Outkast hits extending back to 1994's Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. Host Toki Wright proclaimed Big Boi one of the "most underrated MCs of all time," but he stepped out from the shadow of his partner André 3000 with a spitfire set that managed to swing imperceptibly between the laid-back grooves of songs like "Elevators (Me And You)" to the uptempo stomp of songs like "B.O.B." The screens which usually displayed the stage performance was unfortunately replaced with the music video for whatever song he played, which was a cool reminder of the epic visuals of his videos but really just made me want a better look at what was currently happening.
The main stage at this year's Soundset was a mix of familiar local heavyweights and a few big-name national acts like the aforementioned Big Boi and hip-hop icons De La Soul. Though the predominantly young suburban crowd that flooded the grass in front of the main stage seemed more familiar with the work of party boy Mac Miller, De La Soul still managed to get the audience moving for their lengthy, jubilant set.
"We've been doing this too long for people to stand and stare at us like they're watching TV," joked Mase, even going so far as to force the photographers in the pit to put down their cameras and put their hands in the air as they played. The group also gave several shout-outs to their fans who "have been with them since 3 Feet High and Rising," but a cursory scan of the audience seemed to show that most of the crowd hadn't been born when De La issued their 1989 debut. Still, the youngsters went with the flow and the crew sounded as fresh as ever.
De La Soul
Photo by Denis Jeong Plaster
Doomtree bounded through their set with their trademark nonstop energy, playing with the precision that only comes from touring as a pack out on the road. That polish even bled into some of the MCs newer tracks, including a new song by P.O.S. that featured the chorus "My whole crew is on some shit" and an uncharacteristically upbeat and bombastic new track by Cecil Otter. The clear crowd favorite during Doomtree's set was Dessa, one of the only women to ever rock the festival's main stage and one of only two females on the entire bill this year, and she provided one of the highlights of the early evening with her soulful performance of "Dixon's Girl."
Photo by Denis Jeong Plaster
Big Boi was sandwiched between the two largest acts on Rhymesayers' roster, Brother Ali and Atmosphere. Ali took the opportunity to focus on new material, busting out a notebook at one point to perform a brand-new song. Atmosphere, on the other hand, relied on mostly older material, deferring to crowd favorites like "Guns and Cigarettes," "Shoulda Known," and "Sunshine" while skimping on tracks from their new album The Family Sign.
Soundset is Rhymesayers' bag and Slug is the label's most visible kingpin, so it's understandable that Atmosphere remain the de facto headliner of the event, but it's hard not to get the impression that the group is a little too comfortable in that headlining slot. This year was my third time attending Soundset and, subsequently, my third time watching Atmosphere play almost the exact same set list at the same point in the night, and while that sense of familiarity and "victory lap" vibe is completely appropriate for an outdoor summer festival, this time around it left me wanting a little more from the group that I hope is still capable of mixing things up from time to time.