Lasting 10 years in anything music related, is an impressive feat–let alone doing so in Hip-Hop. I’ve always jokingly made the comparison of artists’ time in Hip-Hop to dog years. There’s been many occasions where I’ve looked up how long an artist has been in the game, expecting a long period of activity; only to be greeted with a shallow resume, lengthwise. So it’s no surprise that when the Soundset Festival, which takes place every year in Minnesota, announced it’s 10-Year-Anniversary show, many fans collectively said, “Damn, it’s been 10 years??”
Well, yes Mr. Backpack Rap fan, it has been 10-years since Rhymesayers frontmen Saddiq and J-Bird first started the niche festival. What started out at first, as a way to just finally have somewhere to play Hip-Hop shows in a non-culturally-diverse mid-west, has now turned into a genre staple that many fans — including me — fly in from all over the country to see. One reason for that, is the attention to detail by festival curators Bird and Saddiq. With a Rhymesayers backing, it would’ve been very easy for the duo to just put their own acts up every year, exclusively, but that was never in the cards for the team.
Although it’s safe to assume that their favorite artists probably roam in the Brother Ali, more lyrically-driven style of Hip-Hop, that never stopped them from creating diverse line ups. Past shows have included both Atmosphere and A$AP Rocky on the same stage, creating a lane for both hypebeasts and word-nerds to live in Hip-Hop holy matrimony. This year’s show is no different. Soundset favorites like Atmosphere, Talib Kweli and Brother Ali will be donning the stage while mainstream darlings Lil’ Uzi Vert, Travis Scott and Gucci Mane do the same. That’s not even mentioning acts like Mac Miller, Dave East and of course Lauryn Hill, who are also slated to perform — she’ll be there, I promise!! We caught up with the man behind the scenes, J-Bird, to talk everything Soundset. From their humble beginnings on First Ave, all the way to selling out the state fairgrounds — we cover it all. Check out the interview below.
RESPECT. Magazine: What pushed you guys to start Soundset as a local series?
J-Bird: I didn’t move to Minnesota until after the Soundset Wednesdays at First Avenue had already ended. In the late nineties I did get to experience it a few times and it embodied the live element side of Rhymesayers that still exist today. It was a platform for the culture and a place for local artists and national acts to have a place to play when there weren’t as many venue options for Hip Hop / Rap.
RESPECT.: Describe some of those early years and memories from before it became the festival it is today.
J-Bird: I can remember driving up from Chicago with a group I managed called Rubberoom. The biggest venue at this point the guys ever played was The Metro in Chicago and here was a premier venue in another city that was bigger and hosting a weekly Hip Hop night. I remember the backdrop being a painted Rhymesayers piece by Abuse. I remember Battle Cats breaking. There were DJs and there were freestyles. Local artists performed and artists from other cities performed. There was a strong sense of local community and I remember be so inspired by that sense of togetherness. It was unforgettable and the beginning seeds for me to move to Minneapolis and work with Rhymesayers.
RESPECT.: When did you realize that the previous venues weren’t enough, and the State Fairgrounds had to be the next destination?
J-Bird: Soundset began as a festival in 2008. It was at the Metrodome parking lot in downtown Minneapolis. We had over 12,000 people show up for a primarily local bill, along with Aesop Rock, Dilated Peoples and Little Brother. This was before Rhymesayers released Aesop and Dilated’s records. In 2009, the Minnesota Twins were scheduled to be home Memorial weekend, so we lost the venue. So, in our second year the only place that would allow us to do an all-day Hip Hop festival was a parking lot in Shakopee, MN at Canterbury Park. This was our home from 2009 – 2015, seven years. In 2010 to expand the capacity, we took it from the parking and brought it onto the grass lot below. In those seven years, we grew Soundset from 14,000 to two sell outs in a row of 30,000 in 2014 and 2015. Who would have ever thought one of the biggest Hip Hop festivals in the world would have a home in Shakopee, MN?
Eventually, we could not expand or grow any further in this location and plus they had plans to develop the land that was currently our site, so we had to move on. Props to Canterbury Park and the city of Shakopee for giving us a home for so long and supporting a ten-hour Hip Hop festival on their grounds. A lot of great memories out there, highway 169 will never be the same for me. We always wanted to go back into the cities, so in 2016 the Minnesota State fairgrounds offered us the venue on the Midway. They’ve been a great partner and ideal location due to parking, transportation and infrastructure that can handle a lot of people and offer room for us to grow. I honestly love working with everyone with the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, looking forward to this year being bigger and better than 2016.
RESPECT.: Your guys’ first show — and all of them in general — included a lot of friends and label artists like Atmosphere, Brother Ali, etc. Talk about pulling them all together and meshing them with mainstream superstars like Gucci Mane and Travis Scott, what kind of a crowd does a mixture like that bring? Was that formula something you always had in mind?
J-Bird: The goal of Soundset was always to be diverse. Show all the branches of the tree of Hip Hop, old, new, young – something for everybody. Rhymesayers is the foundation of Soundset, so there is always some of our artists each year. We’re a genre-based festival, so we curate all different styles of artists. It’s important to represent the culture from Pete Rock to Gucci Mane to Ms. Lauryn Hill to Brother Ali. Keeping a varied lineup brings in people from all over the world; it’s a wonderful mix of togetherness.
RESPECT.: How does it feel for this all to come full circle, and to still be in Minnesota, where it all started?
J-Bird: I’m not originally from Minnesota, but I have lived here for 17 years plus at this point. When I first started touring with Rhymesayers, one thing I experienced was there were people who came to the shows from Minnesota no matter where we’re at. In South Korea, of course someone is there from St. Paul. Cape Town, South Africa, someone from Minneapolis. Iceland, yes there was someone there from Duluth. People from Minnesota are proud to support their artists from the home turf. Artists in Minnesota support each other regardless of genre. Soundset has lived in its home of Minnesota for ten years now and although people come to the festival from 50 states and all over the world, Minnesota as a community continues to hold it down as the majority.
When I first moved here, many rap tours didn’t play the market. When I would speak to friends here about tours I saw in Chicago, they told me that show never came to Minneapolis. Nowadays, every rap tour pretty much plays Minneapolis and for many of the artists, it’s become one of the top touring markets for them.
You can purchase your tickets to Soundset here, taking place Memorial Day Weekend in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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