Music note: Chasing the clouds away at Soundset ’08


Soundset, the event that hearkens back to the earliest days of Rhymesayers Entertainment (RSE), was resurrected this past weekend in the Metrodome parking lot—this time as a celebration for what has become one of the most important and well-respected independent hip-hop labels in America. This year’s Soundset showed the world of hip-hop that Minnesota, and the Midwest, can put on a festival rivaling anything on any coast.

The first Soundsets were held not long after the first release of the Headshots cassette series in 1993, the first releases of what would a few years later become RSE. First held at what’s now El Nuevo Rodeo on Lake Street, they soon moved the event (under the same name) to First Avenue as a weekly dance night that featured breakdancers and RSE artists, eventually drawing crowds of 1,700 or more. That era didn’t last long, though: First Ave pulled its support after a fight broke out at one of the events.

On Sunday, any past problems with Soundset were lost to history. Drawing over 10,000 people, it was an event unlike anything the Twin Cities hip-hop community had ever seen. There were three stages in all, as well as a custom car display and skate demonstrations by 3rd Lair. (Even rapper P.O.S.’s kid took a turn.) Nearly of all of the artists on RSE’s roster performed on the main stage along with artists from the broader Midwest and beyond—including Seattle’s Grayskul and Milwaukee’s Kid Cut Up, as well as LA’s Dilated Peoples, Aesop Rock (from New York by way of the Bay area), and North Carolina’s Little Brother. The smaller Fifth Element stage featured 18 acts from the Twin Cities, from established stars and legends like DJ Stage One, Kanser, Slim, Carnage, and Doomtree to artists on the verge of something big like Maria Isa, M.anifest, Muja Messiah, Big Quarters, Träma, and the Usual Suspects. Finally, there was a tent for DJs and a B-Boy competition. Amazingly, the festival was on time throughout the day (big ups to hosts Toki Wright and for keeping things moving), and—in a departure from most indoor hip-hop shows—the sound was excellent, with the MCs words clearly audible.

Brother Ali even gave a little love to KG, both by wearing a #21 Timberwolves jersey and by saying, “Kevin Garnett, you need a ring, motherfucker.”

Fans were treated to new material throughout the day, from I Self Devine’s forthcoming record Sounds of Low Class America to Big Quarters’ Lake Street Browns, their much-anticipated follow up to the breakout album Cost of Living, as well as Coming to America, the Ghanaian-born MC M.anifest’s follow-up to Manifestations. Brother Ali’s finale “Ear to Ear” was prefaced with a brand new rap about the last year of his life—including his first headlining tour, BK-One’s wife breaking her back after the I-35W bridge collapsed, and the birth of his first daughter not too long ago. (He even gave a little love to KG, both by wearing a #21 Timberwolves jersey and by saying, “Kevin Garnett, you need a ring, motherfucker.”)

Some of the better-known artists from outside the Twin Cities have long been friends with RSE. Definitive Jux and Stones Throw—home to Aesop Rock and J.Rocc, respectively—are two respected labels. Both Babu (the DJ for Dilated Peoples) and J.Rocc performed DJ sets, with Babu stringing together a phenomenally bumpin’ set of hip-hop classics. J.Rocc manipulated, effortlessly and effectively, some of the most important breaks in rap history—including a phenomenal manipulation of the “Apache” break. J.Rocc’s taken over the “Funky President” moniker, and it’s easy to tell why. Both J.Rocc and Babu, however, paid tribute to J Dilla, the Detroit producer many consider to be the best who ever lived.

Aesop Rock performed songs from his latest album None Shall Pass with Rob Sonic and DJ Big Wiz—yet his characteristic pinched, nasal quality was noticeably absent. Perhaps this was because he had lost his friend and Definitive Jux labelmate CamuTao only a few hours beforehand to cancer. Aesop dedicated 10 seconds of sonic chaos to him, making sure that he’d hear it wherever he is now.

To roaring crowd approval, one rapper instructed, “Middle fingers up at the clouds right now!”

It was during Little Brother’s set that the weather looked like it was going to take a turn for the worse, with threats of storms and tornados. For a short time, it looked like what happened in Hugo and Coon Rapids was going to happen by the Metrodome. The winds picked up, blowing slip mats off turntables and even making needles skip, necessitating a “do-over” for Muja Messiah. Soon, we were officially at an outdoor hip-hop festival during a tornado warning. The rain threatened with a few drops, but ultimately passed without much fuss. The Dilated Peoples song “Chase the Clouds Away,” with its line “I musta chased the dark clouds away,” seemed truer than ever. As Evidence instructed later to roaring crowd approval, “Middle fingers up at the clouds right now!”

One criticism of Soundset, though, is that there weren’t a whole lot of women performers. The only female performers were Chicago RSE artist Psalm One and, on the other stage, Doomtree’s Dessa and the self-proclaimed “Sota-Rican” Maria Isa. Also, it was the “B-Boy Tent” and they had only a “B-Boy” competition. It continually surprises me that in a city home to a globally-recognized and revered celebration of women in hip-hop (the B-Girl Be) that their presence isn’t more prominent at events like this.

Atmosphere, the group most responsible for RSE’s success, headlined the festival. Slug, who with his soul patch and ponytail is looking more like Ant every day, showed his usual playful disdain for the audience (“What are you looking at?”) while doing a nice mix of Atmosphere classics like “Shrapnel” and “Guns and Cigarettes” and the ever-necessary “God Loves Ugly,” to material off his latest When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold. The finale was the best part, though, with Slug taking advantage of all the artists present at the festival and performing “Crewed Up” off this winter’s Strictly Leakage free-download release. Featuring DJ Stage One, St. Paul Slim, Muja, Ali, Toki, and Blueprint (with Abstract Rude taking YZ’s place), the performance was a magnanimous gesture of sharing the stage with friends, a sign that not only Rhymesayers, but also the Twin Cities hip-hop scene generally, might have its greatest years ahead of it.

Justin Schell is a freelance writer and a grad student at the University of Minnesota’s Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program. He’s working on a dissertation on Twin Cities immigrant and diasporic hip-hop and plays the washboard tie with The Gated Community.

Also in the Daily Planet:
Justin Schell on Atmosphere
Justin Schell’s interview with Slug
Lydia Howell on the B-Girl Be