Memorial Day weekend is widely known for tradition. A time where black POW/MIA flags wave resiliently alongside Old Glory as clouds of charcoal rise from their grills. Where families reunite and toast to the first official weekend of summer with a couple of cold brews. For many Minnesotans, this weekend also holds a newer tradition where thousands of people put their plans on pause and congregate to Canterbury Park for their chance to celebrate the art and culture of Hip Hop in what has been dubbed “Soundset.”
Despite this year’s pestering precipitation, Rhymesayers Entertainment made good on their promise of “rain or shine” and succeeded in making this the biggest show in the revered festival’s official eight year history. By booking a great mix of Hip Hop’s most sensational and spirited performers, Soundset once again sold out of the nearly 30,000 tickets and captivated the attention from some of the most popular media outlets nationwide. Yet these facts pail in relation the overall experience that proves to be challenging to fully appreciate all of the sights and sounds that the ticket offers.
As hundreds of fans waited impatiently for their chance to pass under the blue and yellow banner, it was clear to see that it was a diverse mix of styles incorporating vibrant colors and accessories. Fans rocked their freshest snapbacks and chains with their third best shoes and transparent ponchos. Once the gates had opened, the vendor filled valley erupted with the cuts from the legendary DJ Stage One, blending classics such as Erykah Badu into Gang Starr from the main stage. It wasn’t long until renowned poet and Harvard Fellow Amir Sulaiman anointed the mic with his enduring poem “Come to the Hills.” As his words unlocked the hearts and minds of those taking their places at the front of the barricade, fans studied the times in the lineup booklets and planned out their day.
Strictly an hour after the first fans entered, the audience began their divide between the overlapping sets and attractions. Many gravitated towards the mammoth Main Stages, framed by the gigantic video monitors for fans to have their chance to witness the show regardless of their place on the grounds. Hosted by the poignant Hip Hop personality, Sway Calloway, the Main Stages catered to a list of commercially established artists such as Ludacris, Big Sean and Yelawolf alongside independent heavyweights like Dilated Peoples, B. Dolan and Aesop Rock. The raucous energy was infectious in the sprawling space before the stages as ladies were seated on top of shoulders and circle pits were formed during the Clockwork Indigo set, leaving the burly security team with more than their share of stress and assumed contact highs. As the chaos ensued, the VIP ticket holders watched from the comforts of their rain battered bleachers as they relaxed to some of their favorite artists.
While some grew bored with the main stage acts (or of the rain), many within the crowd splintered off to the roofed Fifth Element Stage to get their first look at the up incoming acts such as Vic Mensa, Vince Staples, SonReal and Freddie Gibbs. Despite the smaller space, this year’s lineup drew cults of dedicated fans, packed together to get buck at the drop of the bass and screaming at the use of double time cadence. This fan participation only invigorated many performers and encouraged many to stage dive into a sea of adoring hands without missing a bar. Of all the performers on St. Paul Slim’s stage, Hopsin remained most notable by “walking on water” to the center of the frenzied hordes and performing hunched over to keep from hitting his head on the metal ceiling.
With some of the most recognizable names of Hip Hop sharing the same stages, it did not stifle some of Minnesota’s finest MCs from turning heads and representing where they came from. Rhymesayers heir, deM atlaS returned to kick off the Main Stage with his eccentric showmanship that won over first time listeners and impassioned longtime supporters. The Fifth Element Stage showcased the all-stars of the Southside within Manny Phesto’s opening set, complete with an impromptu cypher session with Mike The Martyr and Alex Foley. Longtime staple of the Twin Cities Hip Hop scene, Set the Smith returned from the shadows to take it back to the roots while premiering new music from his upcoming EP. This year also celebrated the solo successes of Sean Anonymous and Freez as they tore up the Soundset stage for the first time away from their respected crews Wide Eyes and Illuminous 3 to prove why Minneapolis is a hotbed for live showmanship. Doomtree’s devious debutante Dessa captivated the Main Stage audience with her blend of punctual poetics and rich harmonies alongside Aby Wolf. The Soundset stalwarts Atmosphere stepped down from their usual closing headliner set for the second time in the festival’s history, yet their set alone could have stopped the whole show with Slug’s charismatic air guitar and the closing freestyle session with B. Dolan and deM atlaS. And only Brother Ali could have closed the Fifth Element stage by taking a crowd of hell raisers to church as he displayed the fiery facets of love amidst two of Hip Hop’s biggest names performing a little more than a football field away.
Along with supporting deserving local scene, Soundset has also been known to draw some of the culture’s most illustrious pioneers and performers, shortening the pilgrimage for fans to experience the living legends while they’re still active. This year proved to be no exception by bringing in one of the greatest DJs to ever scratch and blend, DJ Jazzy Jay, as he showcased the skills taught to him directly from Afrika Bambaataa and highlighted in the iconic film Beat Street. Fans were also treated to the rude boy renegades Smif-N-Wessun as they celebrated the 20th anniversary of their esteemed classic Dah Shinin’ with their blend of bombastic chemistry and gritty rhymes. And with three months before the theatrical release of Straight Outta Compton, Ice Cube and WC reminded Shakopee why he is ‘Amerikkka’s Most Wanted’ to the key of indignant g-funk and essentially pulling a full time jack move on the sound system.
For many critics of modern Hip Hop concerts, the inevitable gripes concerning the lack of element has been known to derail trust with certain promoters and venues. However, Soundset continued to provide space for each to coexist and collaborate within the festivities. Nowhere was this more present than under the Essential Elements tent as it gave a platform to many underappreciated mediums. DIY diehards Big Quarters and H2 Radio DJ Kevin Beacham reemerged to celebrate the art of beats with the Last of the Record Buyers Production Showcase. This year’s showcase enlisted the talents of City of Dreams, Tek, Ecid and Slosylove, whose mind bending compositions where created through the exposed wires and circuits in his stripped down electronic home inventions. Alongside the fresh faces and beats from the notable sonic craftsmen, LRB welcomed back the Dirty Scientist, DJ Exile to boast his soulful chops and slaps before the mass of mesmerized spectators before his MPC and deck.The Essential Elements tent also brought out the breakers from across the country as crews and solo dancers twisted, spun, popped and locked their way to street wise supremacy.
As some staggered and slid down slippery hill, some slipped into their drivers seats of their own cars as part of the 8th Annual Soundset Custom Car Show. Arguably the most overlooked part of Soundset, many in attendance stumbled around the rows of candy coded custom cars, glistening from the back corner of the grounds. Envious onlookers gawked at the fantastical rides as owners competed in multiple categories such as American Muscle, Import Tuners, Sound Systems and even hydrolytic hopping.
Of course, no Soundset experience would be complete without stopping to gaze at the bubble lettered beauties of the graffiti walls. Many pause their day of partying to appreciate the aerosol accentuated monoliths, vibrant among the grey clouds above. And while the wooden slope became slick with rain, the Skate Familia’s popular skate ramp greeted a few four wheeled daredevils as they tested the limits of gravity to the conflicting bass of the three stages.
After an impressionable intro by Sway, J. Cole lived up to be “this generation’s 2pac” as closed out the soggy evening with a full band. Complete with fan favorites off of his humbling and haunting album 2014 Forest Hills Drive, the Roc Nation flagship MC/producer’s set instilled a genuine sense of honesty before the weathered audience. As thousands of waterlogged wanders made the climb up to their vehicles, knowing that this would be the last Soundset they would see on this sodden turf, moods proved to be high spirited as the sounds of countless personal highlights echoed through the exits. With some off to First Avenue for the Official After party and others setting their sights on sleep, Soundset continued to exceed expectations and inspired a sense of hometown pride throughout the state. While news spread that Soundset would take over the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in 2016, the tradition continues to evolve with the community that helped nurture Rhymesayers to rise into the independent juggernaut responsible for the greatest Hip Hop festival in the world. The question now is how will next year’s festival bring to the families and friends that come out for their Hip Hop holiday? For those who have witnessed the power of the DIY work ethic of the past 20 years, they know it will be one to remember.
Soundset Hip Hop Festival will be held at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds on Sunday, May 29th, 2016. Be the first to know about important announcements and updates with their website, Facebook & Twitter pages. And to see more of our photos, check out our instagram here.