For 11 years, Minnesota has been home to what is now considered one of the premiere hip-hop festivals in the country. With local record label Rhymesayers Entertainment at the helm, Soundset has grown from a word-of-mouth block party to a marquee music festival over the years as it’s traveled from the old Metrodome parking lot to Canterbury Park to its current residence at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.
The festival has become known for a number of things during that time, from the rigid structure of its schedule, moving immediately from one set to the next, sometimes even going so far as to cut off a performer if he or she exceeds their time, to the infiltration of suburbanite tweens, who have increasingly dominated a significant chunk of Soundset’s growing audience, which reached 35,000 total in 2017. But perhaps what sticks out the most from the festival’s storied existence is its ability to curate a culturally and generationally diverse lineup of artists at both a national and local level. By doing so, Soundset has become a sounding board for local musicians, giving some of Minnesota’s preeminent talent an attainable shot at landing a coveted spot in the summer festival limelight.
Local ties are what helped launch Soundset into the summer festival mainstay it has become. And, according to deM atlaS, one of the Rhymesayers artists on this year’s bill, getting to perform alongside some of most recognized rappers in the world is arguably the best exposure an artist can get.
“I used to go to Soundset way before I was even rapping, so to go from that place to being a part of it and being affiliated with Rhymesayers is really exciting,” he says. “It’s like a badge of honor to get to perform in front of that many people on the same bill as some of our favorite artists.”
Soundset’s reach extends beyond the music it hosts. As a third-time performer at this year’s event and one of the original designers for the festival in 2008 (along with Adam R. Garcia, who currently designs Soundset’s materials), Mike 2600 says Soundset embodies the various facets of hip-hop culture, including everything from graffiti tagging to DJing.
“Since they’ve been adding such a wide range of artists representing so many different hip-hop subgenres over the years—plus adding in the live painting, lowrider cars, and skateboarding—they’ve really proven that this is much more than just a park jam.”
In many ways, it’s the inclusion of these different elements that has helped the festival appeal to different audiences within the often ambiguous “hip-hop” moniker. Soundset’s willingness to embrace the genre’s quirks, influence, and innovation has helped shape what the festival is today, which in turn has created one of the biggest stages a local artist could ask for right in their own backyard.
“It’s local, but in another sense it really isn’t local. It happens to be held here, but it’s a worldwide festival,” says Prof, another Rhymesayers veteran performing at this year’s event. “For us local, smaller rappers, it’s a chance to get a dose of a real bona fide, world-class event, and it just so happens that Rhymesayers made it from the ground up.”
Rhymesayers is now in the propitious position where they’re able to bring in some of the genre’s burgeoning young talent like Migos and undisputed legends like Erykah Badu alongside local favorites like Atmosphere and up-and-comers like DJ Rowsheen, who will be performing for the first time at this year’s festival.
“They’re really good at bringing in the new influencers and seeing who those people are going to be in a year, because the people who influence hip-hop changes,” says DJ Rowsheen. “[Soundset] solidifies Rhymesayers’ legacy and their influence on the local community, and it’s a way for them to give back to hip-hop as a whole and the culture of hip-hop.”
What’s universal for both artists and fans alike are the memories that stem from the festival year after year. Whether it’s Prof filling in on a cane and 30 minutes’ notice for Busta Rhymes in 2013 or deM atlaS smashing a guitar onstage in 2014, ask anyone and they’ll probably have a specific Soundset anecdote that sticks out to them.
Prof says that Soundset’s national prestige helps expose artists from the Twin Cities to hip-hop fans from around the country—and in some cases from around the world.
“As I tour I’ll be in, you know, Dallas and someone will say, ‘I didn’t know who you were, but I remember when you filled in for Busta Rhymes and you killed it,’” he says.
A festival like Soundset can turn fans into artists and artists into fans. For a more established artist like deM atlaS, Soundset provides an opportunity to see someone like Erykah Badu, who he’s been listening to since he was young. For newcomer DJ Rowsheen, many of her memories from Soundset stem from photos she took as a teenager with her favorite local artists like Slug, Ant, Dessa, and P.O.S—some of whom she’ll perform alongside at this year’s festival.
“There are all these photos of me with artists that I either know now or who are aware of me, and now I’m playing the same festival as them,” she says. “It’s pretty surreal remembering those moments, feeling like ‘Oh my god, it’s the coolest thing that I get to take a photo with this person.’ And now being a part of that festival is a huge highlight for me.”
From the artists performing on stage to the fans in the audience, it’s clear that Soundset has a resounding impact. And being a festival produced by Minnesota’s preeminent independent hip-hop label, the impact is felt a little deeper.
“This is something that our friends right here in Minneapolis make happen,” says Mike 2600. “And that makes it even more special for all of us who have been following Rhymesayers since the beginning.”
Soundset 2018 is happening from 11am–9:30pm on Sunday, May 27. Visit soundsetfestival.com for more details.