Soundset 2014 Re-Cap

Despite what we may hear on the news, hip hop is an inclusive culture. In an interview with Greenroom during the week leading up to Soundset ’14, Slug expressed a certain joy in the way the festival he headlines every year (except for last) has evolved to encompass nearly every corner of the ever-growing genre of rap. This year, more than ever before, had a lineup that truly offered something, or many things, for every kind of hip hop fan.

 For the old heads, there were icons like Nas, DJ Q-Bert, and Cypress Hill. For the fans of trap music and current radio, there were acts like 2Chainz, and Wiz Khalifa. For the forward thinkers, who may or may not have been on psychedelic drugs there was Ab-Soul, Chance The Rapper, EarlWolf, and Flatbush Zombies. For the crate-diggers there was Jonwayne, Roc Marciano, and Rapsody & 9th Wonder. For the cargo shorts and septum piercings there was G-Eazy and Grieves. And let’s not forget the best talent from Minneapolis was also present, such as Lizzo, Dem Atlas, Allan Kingdom, Psymun & K. Raydio, and of course Atmosphere.

 For those who’d rather not enjoy rappers based on how they compare to other rappers, it was all there to be discovered.  Although Soundset isn’t the only music festival to showcase the breadth of the genre under one banner, it may now be able to claim the title of ‘most successful.’

Last year, the usual powerhouse festival series Rock The Bells had to cancel two East Coast dates, due to low ticket sales.  Earlier this month, Murs, who performed at the official Soundset pre-party, announced this year’s Paid Dues would be cancelled due to financial challenges within Guerilla Union, the company behind both events. At the same time, Soundset pulled the seemingly impossible, and sold out of 30,000 pre-sale tickets. As far as one-day rap festivals go, Soundset is in a rare air.

 The success of the Soundset festival can be attributed to a variety of reasons, but the most visible of those was made clear to me upon entering the grounds on Sunday.  Soundset has a definite and reliable audience base made up mostly of young teenagers from the surrounding suburbs looking for a place to wile out and kick off their summer. It’s a fact that had me feeling almost like a chaperone as I walked through the gates of Canterbury for the sixth consecutive time (seventh if you count 2008’s edition at the ‘dome).

Any cynicism that I felt after seeing several “Wake Up Drunk, Go To Sleep Fucked Up” t-shirts and a young lady with “PROF” written across her forehead in big sharpie letters was quickly overwhelmed by the pure joy that should naturally come with having a very well-curated, all-day outdoor festival entirely dedicated to hip hop, in the middle of Minnesota. 

Dem Atlas, the newest signee to Rhymesayers had the responsibility of opening up the main stage. I was curious to see how the twenty-year old from St. Paul would handle one of the larger crowds of his still-budding career, and he didn’t disappoint. Despite a somewhat awkward guitar-smashing act that was followed by a Howard Dean-esque yelp, he conducted himself with more composure than he had at smaller club gigs where I had seen him earlier this year. He balanced his seemingly boundless energy with an increased precision on the mic while his la-di-da-di-da SlimKid3 flow and penchant for sing-along songs trumped the relative unfamiliarity the crowd may have had with him.

After Dem Atlas, Sway Calloway took to the stage to introduce himself as the day’s host.  From the world famous Wake Up Show with King Tech on KMEL to his work on MTV to his current Sirius satellite radio gig, being able to chop it up with Sway has been somewhat of a rite of passage in the hip hop arena for years. Not a second after I thought that, the first young bro who appeared to be suffering from the dangerous combination of hot sun, loud beats, and smuggled booze, was carried out of the crowd in front of me. This kind of thing is, in it’s own way, a Soundset rite of passage.

Never have contemporary R&B and Hip Hop sounded as similar as they do today. Singers rap, rappers sing, and the same producers make beats for all of them. That’s why it made perfect sense for Psymun & K. Raydio to be the first “non-hip hop” act to play Soundset. Sporting a new, significantly trimmed-down hairstyle, K. Raydio breezed through songs from her and Psymun’s album LucidDreamingSkylines, with an admirable cool.

 Feeling like I should assume the formal position of “media person,” by this time I had sent out three tweets and an instagram. Then I saw my phone’s fading battery charge and figured finding my friends at the end of the day may be a more noble cause than helping Soundset trend.

Less generation-defining than Kendrick Lamar, and less volatile than Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul is the clever, conspiracy  theory minded wordsmith of the Black Hippy crew. The one-time keystyle rapper would soon release his major label debut  on TDE/Interscope. He was reserved, calmly yet confidently rapping through his now two-year old project, Control System.  In a moment of serendipity, what appeared to be a camera drone flew over the crowd while Soulo was performing “Christopher DRONEr,” a cut from his forthcoming album, These Days. You can’t make that shit up.

As I walked away from the main stage towards the 5th Element stage I overheard a guy in the crowd talking to his friends. “Are y’all trying to go see Allan Kingdom? He’s kinda  Chance-y!” I was amused, but also didn’t think he was totally off-base. Allan displayed a frenetic, yet commanding energy, and he bounded around stage rapping as well as I’d ever heard him. He was backed by DJ and co-manager Jonathan Kalosco, and advised the crowd to be on the lookout for his Future Memoirs EP, co-produced by his other manager Plain Pat.

“People who don’t know who I am are probably like ‘damn they’re getting it right now,’” said Chance The Rapper, midway through his set that proved to be one of the day’s most enjoyable. At times I’m wary of rappers backed by live bands, but The Social Experiment or “sOX” made Chance’s sound bigger, brighter and fuller than I imagine two turntables ever could. From Nico Segal’s trumpet on “Smoke Again” to Peter Cottontale’s organ on “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” the full band experience gave another kind of life to the set.  Chance’s combination of overwhelming charisma, showmanship, pure technical rapping ability and just plain good-ass songs had the crowd at it’s most passionate--or maybe I’m just remembering it that way. After the set, handing out a magazine with him on the cover was like shooting fish in a barrel. All biases aside, it was one of the best live shows I’ve seen all year.

In what seems to be a live-show four years in the making, Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler The Creator of the enigmatic, cultish LA collective Odd Future finally get to yell into microphones in front of thousands of people together. Unsurprisingly, Tyler told an underage girl showing her breasts that her dad probably is ashamed of her and called people in the VIP “faggots” among other things, more than disgusting our local newspaper’s music writer in the process. Earl exclaimed sarcastically for people to, “Give it up for real hip hop,” in what was a set that felt facetious the entire time they weren’t rapping.  While they may be thought of in some circles as nothing but talentless shock-value clowns with a crazed following, a bro in the crowd summed it up perfectly, “I knew about Yonkers but these dudes are fucking technicians!”  As their set concluded I saw what appeared to be a father and son with matching OF shirts and beanies walking towards the exit like they had just gotten their fifty five dollars worth.

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It was at this time of the day where the combination of heat, residual smoke, walking, hunger and standing in crowds with thousands of humans began to take it’s toll. I’m not the seventeen-year-old that can rely solely on excitement to get me through an event as exhausting as this so I sought refuge in the well-cushioned VIP area for a seat and a pair of jerk chicken thighs. After the artist formerly known as Tity Boi finished his set--during which he demonstrated just how many hits he’s had (or been featured on) in the last few years, and took the anti-Tyler approach by complementing a woman’s “G-Cups”--it was the time of the day I had been waiting for all along. I got an anxious knot in my stomach as DJ Green Lantern took the stage.

The man that proclaimed hip hop was “dead” back in 2006 hit the stage in a Soundset tee shirt and a Yankee fitted, markedly joyous as he looked out at 30,000 people celebrating what he once thought was just “a hobby in his project lobby.” In a purposefully nostalgic set, Nas performed his twenty-year-old debut, holy grail album Illmatic from front to back then through hits like “The Message,” “If I Ruled The World,” and “Nas Is Like.” What he may lack now in youthful, rebellious edge--I mean, his last album was about being a wealthy, content, post-divorce forty-year old Dad after all--he made up for with an effortless grown man delivery, and that voice. By the time he closed with his caged-beast of a rap ballad “One Mic,” I had nearly lost my own. I’ve rapped along to a lot of rap in my life, but I doubt I’ll ever be as a happy as I was rapping along to my favorite rapper performing his best material with genuine passion in my home state. And I’m alright with that.

At one point, he commented that most of the crowd was probably one year old when it was released in 1994. He was underestimating his own and, by extension, his genre’s longevity. Many of the faces staring back at him, some of whom even knew the words to the songs, weren’t even alive  when the record dropped.

 Though Slug did have to fan the flames of some righteously indignant “real hip hop” heads after this year’s lineup was posted, he was confident that the majority of Soundset attendees aren’t wearing “horse blinders” anymore. That new open-minded sentiment was reflected in the day’s performances and the crowd’s response. The rejection of stereotypical rapper tropes was a common thread amongst the artists, including the ones that divide rappers based on region, content, style or level of popularity. Chance The Rapper posed hugging Rapsody. Ab-Soul joined both Chance and EarlWolf at their rowdiest moments on stage. To cap it off, the most maligned rapper by festival-goers  in the weeks approaching Soundset,  2Chainz posted a picture on his instagram with B-Real of Cypress Hill and Nas asking “who said I ain’t hip hop?”