Up in the air: How Minneapolis became a flyover city for major rap artists

It was 1998, the Smokin Grooves Tour was in its second year, and a group of friends and I were geeked out about going to the show. Public Enemy, Gang Starr, Wyclef Jean, Cypress Hill and others were booked, but everyone was waiting and most excited for Busta Rhymes, known for his killer live shows full of energy and stage outfits that would make Liberace blush.

Word got around that Wyclef Jean wasn't going to make our stop on the tour, so we were already pre-prepared for that disappointment. But not this. As we entered the Target Center, ushers were handing out little red coupons that apologized for Busta's absence; he couldn't make it because he was filming a music video. So, instead of getting to experience the roar of a dungeon dragon, we get to chomp on a free pretzel via a red coupon.

Yeah, that totally makes up for it.

Almost a year later, the Hard Knock Life Tour circled the country, hitting such hip-hop hotbeds like Albuquerque, NM, but skipping out on Minneapolis. The sold-out 52-city tour -- which featured Jay-Z, DMX, Method Man and Redman and Ja Rule  -- was then the biggest selling hip-hop tour of all time. It even spawned a behind the scenes movie titled "Backstage", so at least we here in gold country got to enjoy the tour via DVD (and, thankfully, got to fast forward the Ja Rule parts).

Jay-Z groovin out on stage 690 miles away in Detroit.
Jay-Z groovin out on stage 690 miles away in Detroit.
Photo by Dan Dryden

 "Basically, Minneapolis is a B-list city," says Tim Wilson, owner of Urban Lights Music and former promoter with After 5 Entertainment and FGE. "No artist makes money on records anymore, they all make the big money on the road. So if an artist can go to Atlanta and make $75K and do great, why would they waste time on Minneapolis when they are getting pitched $20K with no guarantee to get paid?"

The buzz and demand is not big enough and we can't handle the major acts. We like to think we are equal to other major markets, but the truth is this city is an overpriced appetizer. Artists would rather perform two sold out shows in Chicago than risk a stop in Minneapolis. 

Another reason? Minneapolis has a bad history with its local promoters and shows. Too many small time promoters, with little money or hustle, mixed with little fan fare and support. It's no secret that it sometimes takes two or three promoters just to book one show, and that causes problems. Inflated guest lists, overcrowded backstages and unequal cuts end badly. 

The new scam is to charge local acts up to $2,500 a pop to open for a major label artist. Sure, the promoter got his costs cut in half before the door opens, but the downfall of pay-to-play is you have a showcase full of questionable local talent and 30 minutes of a headlining act. The audiences are not dumb, they see this and don't want to come back. Ticket sales fall, the buzz is gone, and no one goes to shows anymore.
Big Boi performing for SoundSet in 2011
Big Boi performing for SoundSet in 2011
Photo by Denis Jeong Platser

The worst case is local drug money being laundered by booking big-name acts and collecting the clean money on the back end. Booking agents saw this going unchecked and stopped putting Minneapolis on destination lists. Obviously, they don't want to be involved.

The city has a black eye and a bloody lip. 

But it's true that hip-hop as a whole is taking a beating on the road. According to Billboard, the highest grossing hip-hop tour ever was this past summer's "I Am Still Music Tour", which headlined Lil' Wayne, Rick Ross and featured the likes of Keri Hilson and Lloyd. Even with its $47 million purse, it didn't even crack the top 10 biggest gains for 2011 tours. The top spot was held by U2. Wayne's tour didn't touch Minnesota until they added a second leg. We couldn't even get front-end love, but he did attend some Lynx games. 

The good thing is that it's not all bad -- we still have Black and White Entertainment, Ray Seville and First Avenue, who can always be counted on for quality shows for the patrons and guarantees money in-hand for the artist. We might get Yelawolf and Method Man, but don't expect Drake anytime soon, who is asking at least $150K a show and getting it in major cities.

Slug rocks 14,000 plus at Soundset in 2011.
Slug rocks 14,000 plus at Soundset in 2011.
Photo by Rhymesayers

On the up-side: We here at home have nursed our own local brand of hip-hop. Springing up a successful indie scene that has produced labels like Rhymesayers and Doomtree, building themselves a worldwide audience by using the simple formula of touring all the other forgotten cow towns spanning the globe. Rick Ross can have Houston, we'd rather rock Sioux Falls.

And in the ashes of Smokin' Groves, Minneapolis is now home to one of the biggest summer hip-hop showcases in the country, Soundset Festival. Headliners such as Big Boi, De La Soul, The Pharcyde, Freeway, and Wiz Khalifa have all experienced the big love of a Minnesota audience at Soundset in the past four years. It's become a yearly destination for many young Midwesterners, bringing in much-needed dollars and tourism into the city.

To those hip-hop acts that do take risk and come to play for their Minneapolis fans, we at Gimme Noise would like to say a big "thank you". Ultimately, it's the cold shoulder from the Jay-Zs and Busta Rhymes of the rap world that we developed our own self-sustaining community. We overcame boredom and did our own thing, to the point we're now getting recognized for it. But we've still got that big stack of red coupons ready, and we baked extra pretzels for the future. Just think of that next time you see Drake flying over above.

Slideshow: Soundset 2011
Slideshow: Wu-Tang Clan at Epic
Slideshow: Yelawolf at First Avenue
Slideshow: Method Man at First Avenue

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