Staring At The Sun: David Hansen reviews Soundset


Soundset Festival 2008 Metrodome parking lot Review by David Hansen Photos by B FRESH Photography

Too much of a good thing -- is it actually possible? 2008's Soundset festival, an 8-hour extravaganza of independent hip-hop presented by our own crown jewelers Rhymesayers Entertainment, tested the hypothesis Sunday afternoon, filling the Metrodome parking lot with dozens of MC's, scores of b-boys and b-girls, a handful of skaters, and thousands upon thousands of eager concert goers. Battered by unseasonable heat and threatened by a momentary squall of icy rain, energized by beats and rhymes ad infinitum and sweltered by four dollar waters and five dollar corn dogs, there was plenty to adore and abhor at Soundset 08.

Thousands of people braved weather conditions to check out Soundset. More photos by B FRESH Photography.

If one were to use headcount as the sole yardstick of its success, the afternoon was a smash hit-- with over 9,000 tickets moved in pre-sale and another 4,500 in walk-up sales, there can no longer be any doubt as to the booking and promotion resources of RSE. But is attendance the best measure? Even with its star-studded lineup, featuring local powerhouses like Brother Ali, P.O.S. and Atmosphere as well as coastal imports like Little Brother and Aesop Rock, even with day-long b-boy battles deejayed by Kid Cut Up, even with on-the-hour-every-hour skateboarding demos hosted by Third Lair, even with a cozier stage hosting local favorites like Kanser and Doomtree, a few hours spent wandering gave off a strange scent of stagnation. On paper, it all added up beautifully. In execution, the entire festival managed to be much less than the sum of its parts.

The day began with promise -- from gates' opening, the parking lot was quickly swarmed by early arrivals who drifted past the main stage to browse the myriad merch tents, watch Kid Cut Up spin some warm-up tracks, and get a head start on acquiring a handful of food and drink tickets. In the b-boy tent, preliminary demos were underway by quarter to twelve. At the Third Lair demo station, the big kids had yet to arrive, leaving the ramps and rails to youngsters like Logan, a ten year old with hesher hair and a waist high ollie.

As the performances got underway, it was the Fifth Element stage that kept a higher energy exchange between performer and spectator. While Los Nativos gave a stirring bilingual performance on the main stage (complete with traditional Mexican dancers, their headdresses festooned with magnificent plumage), The Usual Suspects and The Illuminous 3 played with energizing abandon and had no difficulty getting their crowd handsy and grinning. Psalm One was next on the big stage, and though her first songs were delivered with typical bravado, she seemed to lose gas by the tenth minute, her voice rasping and losing steam near the end of each line. All the while, the crowd and the heat began to intensify, and the lines began to lengthen at the corn dog stands. Under the increasing noonday sun, the price of the bottled water became all the more gruesomely unfair and enticing (the concession prices in general, particularly in light of the festival's $35 dollar ticket price, threatened to undermine Soundset's image as a grassroots, independent movement). Seattle natives Grayskul were an early standout, performing a twenty minute set that boomed with ominous synths -- they spit with passion and kept the crowd nodding in approval. At the b-boy tent, Kid Cut Up kept the battles fierce, while Saint Paul Slim and Big Quarters played sturdy back-to-back sets, commanding the Fifth Element stage and often departing from it to get up close and personal with their crowd.


By the time Musab took the main stage, there were already clusters of people napping in the shade and clamoring for the water fountains in the Metrodome concourses. With the heaviest hitters of the day still hours away and a trail of MC's already behind, problems began to reveal themselves. Wherever you sought to roam, there was no respite -- no quiet corner for overworked ears, no cool spot to catch a second wind, and though the performances by Rhymesayers favorites like Mac Lethal and I Self Devine were executed with trademark intensity, there were already people dozing near the fences, huddling in squats beneath umbrellas and finding places away from the multitudes in which to play hacky sack and carry on a conversation.

Musab. More photos by B FRESH Photography.

The crowds at both stages had become massive by 3:00, but it was a largely inanimate crowd, content to stand and head-nod with hands in pockets, a phenomenon to which local performers are accustomed, but which frustrates big name out-of-towners. Was it the heat? The mentally exhausting effect of four wall-to-wall hours of hip hop with no escape and no re-entry? The muting effects of a Midwest youth? Hard to say. But it resulted in the main stage performers making more and more frequent commands to “make some noise” and “put your hands up.” At a regular hip-hop show, these entreaties, properly timed and judiciously spaced, can have a rejuvenating effect on a crowd. At an 8 hour festival, they become wearying imperatives, and by the time Atmosphere took the stage for a gripping but low impact set, the hands on display were far limper than Slug and Ant deserved.

There were plenty of high points along the way-- Brother Ali perspired and pinked in the sun and got the loudest and most fevered ovations of the day; Doomtree capped things off at the Fifth Element Stage, coaxing shout-alongs and birdwing gestures right up to their final song; North Carolina natives Little Brother brought major market bounce and genuine glee to their performance; and Aesop Rock and Dilated Peoples performed to the night's biggest crowds, who didn't hesitate to bounce and wave fists on command.

But like planets in alignment, the sheer gluttony of the Soundset line-up resulted in the best and brightest stars of independent hip-hop eclipsing one another. Roaming from the main stage to the small stage to the b-boy tent and back, one was confronted by a scary intellectual and musical homogeneity, a trapping of hip-hop that, in the not too distant past, Rhymesayers once helped combat. As if the two stages were but echo surfaces for one another, Los Nativos cried “Revolution!” while The Usual Suspects chanted “Insurrection!” Trama and Musab shouted “Fuck the police” in unwitting unison. And between each song, the same stock material: “Make some noise!” “Lemme see those hands!” A surprising lack of diversity and ingenuity from artists that make their trade in lyrical luminosity, and from a label that means to push unexpected, surprising ideas on a genre that needs them badly.

Brain fatigue is the inherent risk of any festival, a risk that Doomtree appreciates -- they had the foresight to bring Roma De Luna and Gay Witch Abortion to their 2007 Blowout. Those left field additions alleviated the tiring effects of a multi-hour performance and kept the eyes and ears of their crowd fresh throughout. In a festival many times the length and breadth of a night at First Avenue, that sense of balance is all the more crucial. Given the huge bank of talent commanded by Rhymesayers, and the insatiable appetite for this expanding empire of industrious MC's and DJ's who work the more rugged path to stardom, numb to the glory is a pitiable thing to be in the final, sweaty hour. -- David Hansen