The Current Rewind: Soundset, Rhymesayers, and the power of going for it

The Current Rewind
You know great music when you hear it. But do you know where it came from? Host Andrea Swensson and the team bring you original reporting on Minnesota music, fording scenes and decades to put unsung stories on the map. (MPR Graphic)
Soundset: "We did it to say we did it"
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Hip-hop legends and XXL freshmen. Indie rap nerds and kids from the 'burbs. Skaters, DJs, and tornado sirens. These are the main ingredients for Soundset, a Minnesota-based hip-hop festival that draws more than 30,000 people every year. In this episode of The Current Rewind, we find out how Soundset grew from a warehouse rave to, at one point, the biggest hip-hop festival in the country. Rhymesayers bosses Siddiq, J-Bird, and Slug of Atmosphere discuss their Soundset triumphs and fears. Plus, stories from Lizzo, Psalm One, DJ Spinderella, and more.

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The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Culture Heritage Fund.

Transcript of Episode 1 — Soundset

[Tornado sirens ring out, then fade]

Eamon Coyne: The tornado sirens started going off, and they were being really cool about it. They didn't want anybody to panic.

Andrea Swensson: It was Sunday, May 27, 2012, and near Canterbury Park in the city of Shakopee, Minnesota was having, as we like to say, some weather.

Not that this stopped anyone here from going outside to see live music—in this case, it was the fifth annual Soundset, which by that point had established itself as a huge-deal hip-hop festival. Lupe Fiasco, Danny Brown, and Ghostface Killah & Raekwon from the Wu-Tang Clan were just a few of the top-billed performers that year.

[Trickling rain fades in]

Andrea Swensson: But the show came to a halt at 7:30 p.m., when Lupe Fiasco's performance was interrupted by a call for evacuation. Eamon Coyne, a Minnesota Public Radio broadcast engineer and amateur photographer, watched from the photo pit as the weather ramped up.

Eamon Coyne: And then being so close to the stage you start seeing the guys and gals working on the stage and taking down things so they don't blow away in the wind. You're like, "They're prepping for something." And then to have Brother Ali come out and be, "Get the hell out of here," basically.

And the security — I remember them looking at each other, and they're like we're just going to lower the barrier and let people go wherever they want. At that point the VIP area was just people running. It started hailing. You're covering your photo equipment, running for your car.

["Winging It" by Lazerbeak — an introspective, joyful instrumental — plays throughout]

Andrea Swensson: This is The Current Rewind, a new podcast putting music's unsung stories on the map. I'm Andrea Swensson, host of The Current's Local Show and author of "Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound." This season, we'll be investigating Minnesota music old and new — from Duluth to Cannon Falls, from vaudeville to the present.

[Music crescendos, then fades out]

Andrea Swensson: We Minnesotans like to think of ourselves as modest, but when we go big, we don't mess around. Soundset is as big as it gets. Founded by the team behind Rhymesayers Entertainment, which is Minnesota's biggest label and a globally respected source for independent hip-hop, the festival regularly sells tens of thousands of tickets.

But what is Soundset, anyway? Well, as its co-founder and producer J-Bird recently told us, it's a challenge.

J-Bird: You have all these different things going on all day, and do you have enough water? You can order a whole bunch of water, but then like last year you get 100 degrees and you're still running out of water even though you tripled the order in water. And then letting fans know where they can find the free water.

The day of show you always hope that everything is going to run smooth, but there are always a lot of things.

Andrea Swensson: As Rhymesayers' founder and president, Siddiq, told us, Soundset is homegrown.

Siddiq: When we started this, there really weren't any other hip-hop festivals outside of Rock the Bells and Paid Dues, which were similar in nature, but maybe not quite the same as what we did, but definitely similar in nature. And there certainly weren't any as big as what we grew Soundset into.

For that few-year stretch that Soundset was actually the largest hip-hop festival in the country, that should go down in history books, because there's absolutely no reason that the largest hip-hop festival in the country should be in Minnesota. Unfathomable. It wasn't like 70 percent of that crowd that made it that came from outside of Minnesota. So that was really built by Minnesota.

Andrea Swensson: Soundset is centered around rap music—but more broadly, it celebrates hip-hop culture.

J-Bird: You have a lot of younger kids coming to festivals, but we'll still book different groups from all eras of the genre, whether it's DJs and different older people that have been part of the B-boy, B-girl culture, the DJ culture, the rap culture, the graffiti culture. I think some of it is always looking at as giving back, like these early DJs played a big part in me wanting to be a DJ, so let's book Jazzy Joyce or Jazzy Jay or bring in Spinderella now.

Siddiq: It would've been very easy for us to evolve this thing into a Rolling Loud festival where we basically just book all of the top hyped-up younger acts and pack it in with all the kids. But the fact that we're still supporting graffiti culture, the fact that we're still supporting the B-boys and B-girls, the fact that we're still supporting the DJ, I think that's something that at least I find myself very proud of. Those decisions aren't made for money. We believe in these things, and they're part of what we know and part of a tradition that we want to carry on.

Andrea Swensson: Most of all, Soundset is a family reunion.

Slug: One of the things I look at the hardest, is to make sure that we are repping locally — putting people in positions to play in front of people, but not just that, but to sit at a table and eat backstage next to Redman.

Siddiq: Which has happened.

Slug: Exactly. Give me the opportunity to rub elbows and meet some of the people that maybe you grew up listening to, or maybe you see as your contemporaries. A lot of people bought tickets to be there, and I feel accountable to every one of those people that paid money out of their parents' pocket to show up. But I also feel an accountability to the people who are backstage to make sure that there is an experience that is designed for those people to feel like they're at the barbecue.

Andrea Swensson: Soundset has become a welcome stop on many a hip-hop veteran's itinerary. Spinderella, yes, the DJ for eighties legends Salt-N-Pepa, will be playing at Soundset 2019. She's also headlining First Avenue's official Soundset pre-party, which is an installment of the Klituation, an all-female and non-binary artists' show.

Spinderella: I've had my eye on Soundset for a few years. I actually have friends that have been there. DJ Mona Lisa was there recently. She's a good friend of mine. She was there last year, I think it was. The lineup that I had been watching from wherever I am, it's like, "This is crazy. Hopefully I'll get that call one day and I'm able to do it." And it just so happened that I did, and I was like, "Oh hell yeah, I'm in."

It was kind of like a package situation. We want you to do Soundset and we also have this party to jump it off, featuring some of the women that rock. I'm so open for that. I have a love for women on the decks. My heart is into that because it's still a boys' club, and to see the women kicking ass is, like, everything.

Andrea Swensson: Over the past 12 years, more than 400 artists have performed at Soundset. It's become more than the Twin Cities' homegrown hip-hop festival. It's one of the most successful events of its kind in the United States. But it could only have come from this one place.

Minnesota has had a long history with hip-hop. Rap crews started forming here in the early eighties, and several became neighborhood-popular. But for a long time, the only Twin Cities rappers known outside of Minnesota were Tony M, who rapped in Prince's New Power Generation in the early nineties, and Derrick "Delite" Stevens, who rhymed on Paula Abdul's "Opposites Attract" in 1989, performing as a cartoon character, MC Skat Kat. (Full disclosure: Derrick sits three cubes away from me at MPR, where he now works as a producer. And if you ask really nicely, he will still talk a little bit about his days as MC Skat Kat.)

But things began to change in the mid-nineties. First, a St. Paul rapper named DMG signed to Houston label Rap-a-Lot, and he released an album in 1993. Two years later, a group called Headshots, which featured eleven members, began making mixtapes together. Siddiq built his own studio to record them, and along with Sean Daley, better known as Slug of Atmosphere, he founded Rhymesayers Entertainment in 1995.

Andrea Swensson [to Siddiq]: Siddiq, I'm curious to know more about how you set up the label. What blueprint was there to follow for an independent hip-hop label in 1995?

Siddiq: There really wasn't. A lot of it was just us being naive, because there wasn't that. There weren't the resources as far as social media. The internet wasn't what it is today. We didn't really need to have a record label, but for us, we were like, "Okay, I guess we do. So let's make one." It was really just what we were doing with our spare time anyway. And then slowly but surely, we were able to build it into something.

And then also we brought J-Bird in to really help the touring side of things, and that kind of exploded that aspect of our business.

This festival has always been built on the backs — especially the earlier years — of the Rhymesayers name and the Rhymesayers artists.

Slug: A Brother Ali, a P.O.S— these are enigmas to me — people who you couldn't put them in a box. A lot of the artists here are like that. People are always asking me why, specifically that question, especially when I get into other communities or other areas, people are like, "Why is Minneapolis like that?"

I never really know what to say. I usually blame it on winter, or I blame it on where we are. We take in influence from so many different places that it creates kind of a gumbo of something you can't even tell what flavor that is. They're the first. Atmosphere was the first of its kind, then we made babies.

Andrea Swensson: In a 2012 interview with The Morning Show on The Current, Rhymesayers artist Brother Ali echoed this idea.

Brother Ali: All of the hip-hop momentum that we have in this part of the country is due to Atmosphere. And that includes me, it includes P.O.S and Doomtree, it includes everybody that really makes great strides out of here. Prof and a lot of other people.

Andrea Swensson: The result is a kind of hip-hop homecoming—first held outside the Metrodome, the former Minnesota Twins and Vikings stadium; then at the Canterbury Park racetrack in suburban Shakopee, Minnesota; and now at the State Fairgrounds just outside St. Paul. It remains rooted locally but welcomes fans of all sorts of hip-hop, from obscure up-and-comers to the biggest pop stars.

The first time Rhymesayers used the name "Soundset" was actually for a party in 1997 at a warehouse in South Minneapolis.

Andrea Swensson [to Siddiq]: I'm really curious to know more about the first ever Soundset, which was upstairs at El Nuevo Rodeo, right?

Siddiq: Yeah, 1997. In the nineties around there every weekend there was a rave, and we would go to them from time to time, and then every once in a while we'd get booked to come do a weird hip-hop set in the middle of this rave. Somewhere in the midst of all that we were like why don't we do our own? Why not a hip-hop one? There wasn't anything like that, and I believe Sean knew the girls that were living there, and he was like, "I think we can get this warehouse." So it was Soundset '97 and it was pretty much like roughly 20 groups, probably a dozen DJs, dancers. We had artists come in and graffiti all the walls.

Slug: We only needed 500 people to fill the space.

Unicus: What I remember is walking up the stairs.

Andrea Swensson: This is Harry Philibert, better known as Unicus, who performed with rap group Kanser at the first Soundset party.

Unicus: I just walked in, and pretty much everybody from the hip-hop scene was just hanging around. I'm pretty sure there was a lot of blunts in the air.

Slug: It was an entrance that was on Lake Street. When you got upstairs, it was three separate entertainment rooms, and so we put a different set-up in each room so that you could move from room to room instead of it just being one stage. It was three stages. It was 8 to 8 — 12 hours.

Unicus: After the warehouse party they brought it to First Avenue; Mainstage Wednesday, like, packed. A bunch of young kids just running around, like, everybody's breakdancing on the stage.

Siddiq: When we started, First Avenue wasn't even letting hip-hop groups play there at that time because of problems that had happened prior to that. And so there was this kind of this drought for people really embracing and supporting hip-hop.

With the success of a lot of our Entry shows and just the relationship we were building with First Avenue, I can't remember if we approached them or they approached us. But somewhere in there the talk of doing a weekly night came up. So henceforth we brought back Soundset. That was Soundset Wednesdays, and we did that for a summer.

I think the first one was like 1,700 people or something even before they shrunk. I think we just started to build up really good momentum in the city by that time, and so it was basically a DJ-oriented dance night, but then in the middle of the night we'd raise the screen and the Rhymesayers collective would do a collective set.

Slug: We'd also have a cameo from another group, so groups like Kanser were able to rock the main stage - different groups that I don't think had touched the main stage yet were given these chances to do showcase sets — 15-minute sets — and then Atmosphere would do a 15-minute set, or Musab or whatever, but we would keep it kind of different every Wednesday so that it had the feeling of it being a showcase on a dance night.

Andrea Swensson: As The Current's Sean McPherson remembers, his band Heiruspecs were set to draw a crowd across the Mississippi one Wednesday night.

Sean McPherson: A promoter wanted to do a listening party, and they asked Heiruspecs to be the live entertainment, and so this was at the Front, which is on Fourth Street in Northeast. We were like, "This is going to be pretty big." Didn't take a lot to fill the Front — probably 125 people — and then we were like, "We're all set." And then they're like, "Rhymesayers is launching Soundset at First Ave," and it was the same night. So the grand majority of my friends were like, "I got to go to this First Ave dance. Sorry, I got to go do this other thing."

Andrea Swensson: Soundset Wednesdays weren't just drawing locals to First Avenue. J-Bird traveled all the way from Illinois.

J-Bird: I was doing a radio show with Kevin in Evanston at WNUR, and Kevin and Jay Pratt came back from New York, and they're like you got to hear this group Atmosphere from Minneapolis. It just happened to be that Atmosphere was playing, I think, with J-Live in the Entry. So we drove up for that show, and then we stayed on Siddiq's couches, and then we started to build about stuff like, "How do we connect the dots for what we're doing in Chicago and what they were doing up here?"

Slug: I always like to think about pre-2000 as being where we built and expanded our confidence. The internet was just kind of getting started for a lot of the youth, and so we were starting to make our way through the cyber world. We were cyber cafe favorites. And then by the time Soundset happened in 2008, the first "outdoor" festival that we threw, that was the beginning of the next era, which is where we basically solidified ourselves not just as a local business or a record label, but as a full on entertainment one-stop. At that point we had the store, we got the online presence, now we have this festival.

Andrea Swensson [to Siddiq]: I would love to hear more about that first festival coming together. You're going to the Metrodome, you're going to put on this large-scale event and book all these acts.

Siddiq: It sat on the back burner for years. It was like a conversation had every year for a while, and it kept getting put on the back burner, because for us to take on some of those things, especially while we were doing so many other things — I think that's part of why we didn't really explore these things after the Soundset Wednesdays. Never even really explored it much after '97. It takes a lot of time, and these were totally new things for us. So the opportunity eventually came back around to partner up with somebody, and then that made it kind of a reality.

Andrea Swensson [to Siddiq]: Is that Rose Presents that you're talking about partnering with?

Siddiq: Yeah.

J-Bird: I think it was just Randy Levy's persistence with us. It was just the timing that everything happened. It was like pretty much nonstop touring all the time, so it was like, "Hey, how can we find the time to do this?" And Randy Levy is like, "I can get you guys in the parking lot at the Metrodome," because they did Warped Tour. So they had the relationship to do that and then they could take care of different permits and different things where we could just focus on the artists, the curation, the marketing, and it finally came together.

Slug: The first festival in 2008 was kind of a backpacker wet dream.

Andrea Swensson: In addition to a car show, skate demo, DJs, and breakdancers, that 2008 lineup included Atmosphere, Dilated Peoples, Aesop Rock, Brother Ali, Eyedea & Abilities, Beat Junkies, P.O.S, and Musab.

Slug: It was us and all our homies, basically. From there, though, we saw there are demographics in this city that love this culture that don't necessarily have a reason to come to Soundset because they don't care about the backpack rap, so how do we make sure that we're not just speaking to one demographic? How do we take that and open that up to much more stuff?

Psalm One: I played the main stage in 2008. I was still a kid. I was still such a noob. So I was f—ing freaked out.

Andrea Swensson: Rapper Psalm One, who moved to Minneapolis from Chicago and released The Death of Frequent Flyer on Rhymesayers in 2006, remembers sharing the stage with her labelmates.

Psalm One: There were many special guests, but it was really just like the whole Rhymesayers roster. Everybody on the label was on that one.

I had fans out there. You can tell like if you have pockets of fans versus the whole crowd goes nuts, and I had pockets of fans, and it was so cool to see people going ape in the crowd.

Andrea Swensson: MPR's engineer and, if you recall, 2012 tornado-watch survivor Eamon Coyne was there that first year.

Eamon Coyne: By the end of the night it is packed. I have gotten very sunburned, probably a little dehydrated — things like that. As you get more under your belt, you're like, "Alright, I need to wear a hat." You don't mind looking like a total fool up there because it gets hot and it's a long day.

Siddiq: I think that's the main thing that sticks out to me, is just that and the crazy weather.

Andrea Swensson [to Siddiq]: It was really hot, right?

Siddiq: It was really hot, and then there was a crazy storm that literally was all around us and took out — what was going on at the time on either Boom Island or — something was going on the same day over there, and we looked up and the winds kicked in and it was blowing stuff off the stage and it just went kind of super dark, and then it went right around us — cupped around us — and we got reports that it took out a bunch of tents and stuff over just a little further out. It was pretty crazy.

J-Bird: There were tornadoes touching down around, but not near us. It was like it all came — got really dark when Little Brother was playing, and it was one big gust of wind that blew over some stuff, and then that was it.

Siddiq: But literally tornadoes were touching down in the city not far away from us. I think that was our first sign.

Slug: We had no idea that we were going to come back next year and do it again and again.

Andrea Swensson: But when the heatstroke wore off, there was no question that there would be another Soundset, because the first one did really, really well.

Siddiq: By that point, Atmosphere was selling out multiple First Avenue shows. So we kind of knew we could do 7,000 people, 8,000 people, but our expectations weren't crazy. We weren't really like, "Oh, this is going to be huge." That first year we were like, "Whoa." It definitely exceeded our expectations.

Slug: Did over 12,000 without the guest list.

Andrea Swensson: It just couldn't be in the Metrodome parking lot.

Sean McPherson: I remember J-Bird just being pretty shocked when the Twins schedule comes out and there's a Twins game when Soundset 2 is supposed to happen at the Metrodome. The presales for year two had already outstripped the paids for year one. So they kind of knew they were onto something really big.

Andrea Swensson: After the Metrodome, the team booked Canterbury Park, a racetrack about 25 miles from the Twin Cities metro.

J-Bird: After the Metrodome we tried really hard to figure out a way to keep it in the city, and we just kept getting doors shut. That's why they were — they gave us open arms to go out there and do it, and then we stayed out there for a while.

Siddiq: Rest in peace Mary Pat for those that know Mary Pat out at Canterbury. I always talk about the relationship we had with them because it was such a good relationship in my opinion. But there's so few places that could do those kind of numbers.

Siddiq: The second edition of Soundset, and the first at Canterbury Park, took place on May 24, 2009. Several artists made repeat appearances, including headliner Atmosphere, but most of the line-up differed substantially from the first edition.

J-Bird: You could book Travis Scott one year, and then everyone's going to want Travis Scott back every year. But we try to really flip it to where it's different. There's some repeats, but when you look at it in comparison to a lot of festivals, there's not as much repeating of artists. El-P is there with Run the Jewels, but he played in 2009.

Andrea Swensson: Sean McPherson also performed in 2009.

Sean McPherson: Especially when they had two stages, Rhymesayers was really strategic about going, "This age group goes to this stage; this age group and this interest group goes to that stage."

Heiruspecs at that point still had a healthy younger following, like I would say, probably, [a] seventeen-to-twenty-five-year-old fan base was at the center of it. We had just sold out the [First Avenue] Mainroom in December of 2008, so we were like a larger band than we are now. They put us up against Pharcyde playing at the bigger stage, and we were like, "That sucks," because we toured with Tre Hardson and we knew Tre and would be excited to see him. But it was strategic from Rhymesayers' point of view, because they were like, "The young kids are going to be like, 'Who's Pharcyde? We care about Heiruspecs,' and the older heads are going to go, 'We're going to Pharcyde.' "

Andrea Swensson: One of the day's standout performances came from Eyedea & Abilities, the MC-DJ duo who were one of Rhymesayers' most popular acts. They played the first three Soundsets, before Eyedea passed away in October 2010.

Eamon Coyne: I have pictures of him just rolling around on the stage, giving it his all. I have a shot of him that his mom actually commented on after he passed. It's just a white T-shirt where he wrote, 'I freestyle life.'"

He could just rhyme, which was really cool to see, but for me it always felt slightly unpredictable. You just never quite knew, as a fan, what he was going to do. And he would see the artists — not just Rhymesayers — people like on the side of the stage watching him.

Some people just have that thing where you're just drawn to them for some reason. I'm not from Minnesota, so when I moved here I started finding Rhymesayers, and then I saw him probably at Soundset for the first time live, and just being kind of blown away by both of them.

Andrea Swensson: In 2010, another up-and-coming Minneapolis MC, Dessa from the Doomtree crew, made it up to the Soundset main stage as a solo artist—which she'll also do in 2019.

Dessa: I remember being excited to be on a big stage, being thrilled to be opposite those acts. And also, to be frank with you, sharpening my teeth as a festival performer, because playing a fest is really different than playing a club.

It's just kind of a frenetic energy at a festival. There's food, noise, laughing friends, multiple stages, merch. Gotta get like shoes good for jumping and get your cardio in to make sure your breath control holds out.

Andrea Swensson: The other headliners in 2010 included Method Man & Redman, the Hieroglyphics, and Wiz Khalifa—who's listed between Eyedea & Abilities and L.A. underground hero Busdriver on the poster. He played Soundset just five months before releasing his big hit "Black and Yellow."

["Winging It" by Lazerbeak plays, then fades]

Andrea Swensson: Just as Soundset has consistently booked artists before they blow up, it has attracted hip-hop legends to Minnesota. In 2011, De La Soul co-headlined the festival. J-Bird was watching another artist during their set.

J-Bird: I can still see Mac Miller on the side of the stage when De La was performing — just rapping every single word. When he passed away that was the first image that popped in my head.

Andrea Swensson: At the time, Sean McPherson had no idea who Miller was.

Sean McPherson: I had the arrogance of a late-20s person where I thought my friends were the biggest thing on earth, and I remember Doomtree had a pretty healthy crowd playing some set at Soundset, and then I was like, "Up next is Mac Miller," and I was like, "I guess everybody is going to go buy hot dogs. Who the hell is Mac Miller?" And then you just see this complete — Doomtree is and was killing it turnout-wise — but you see this cascade of people down to see Mac Miller.

Andrea Swensson: Psalm One met Miller after that performance.

Psalm One: Rest in peace Mac Miller. Me and him talked for an hour. That was his first festival. He was telling me how scared he was. I was like, "You're going to be great." He was quite a bit younger class than me, so it's like I was familiar with his music, but meeting him, I was like, "This is a cool-ass person," and he went out there and killed it, and then he came back and wasn't nervous anymore.

There's usually a partition or whatever between the VIP area and like there's some fans on the other side, and they get glimpses of their favorite artists, and girls were going crazy for him. I'm going, "See, what were you even worried about? They're going nuts for you."

Andrea Swensson: Maybe the peak of Soundset's clairvoyance came in 2012. That year's co-host was Brother Ali, who had performed each of the first four years. When he appeared on The Morning Show on The Current that May, he was excited about a handful of artists on the cusp of blowing up.

Brother Ali: For me, particularly, I can't wait to see Kendrick Lamar. Everybody pretty much agrees that he's the future of what hip-hop can be. Kid out of Compton, lot of different ways of using his voice, and really encapsulates what his generation is about. He calls this generation the Reagan Babies, the Crack Babies, they, you know, they were born and raised during the crack era. Really, really highly artistic young dude. Man, I'm very excited that we have him.

I really feel that Kendrick Lamar and Big K.R.I.T. and Action Bronson and Macklemore are all kind of at that space where they're bubbling. And it looks like they have a really great potential to be something enormous, really soon.

Slug: We've also always been a little lucky in being able to acquire acts right before they break. We had Kendrick [Lamar] right before he broke. We had J. Cole right before he broke — Logic, Macklemore, all these artists, which showed me that this was a show people wanted to play before it was about money.

Andrea Swensson: Although it takes a lot of cash to host an event like this, the Soundset team's motivations are rooted in much more than money, too. When I interviewed the trio of men behind this festival, I found it interesting that they all seemed to embody this quintessential Midwestern work ethic: They're always focusing on making that next cool thing, and from my perspective, seemed too close to the work to reflect on the magnitude of what they've built.

Siddiq: And in '97 we weren't — even that wasn't some idea like, let's do this annual thing. We were just like no, let's just do this crazy thing, and it worked and was successful, but I don't even remember us ever even contemplating doing it again.

Slug: No. It was a horrible idea. It was a bad idea. But mainly, we did it to say we did it. We didn't see money in it. We didn't see any other reason other than to just put another notch on the wall, like here's another thing that we accomplished. We'd never heard of anybody doing this, so we did it to say we did it.

Siddiq: If there's anything, that's probably the ongoing blueprint that we've always had or plan that we've always carried throughout the years. We've always been about doing things that haven't been done just for the sake of doing them.

Slug: It's a horrible business model.

Andrea Swensson [to Slug]: It seems to be working out okay though.

Slug: We're really good at the imagery. We got that part covered.

Andrea Swensson: Speaking of being quintessential Minnesotans, let's talk a little more about the weather.

Psalm One: I feel like they should put weather on the bill, because it's going to come.

Andrea Swensson: The near-tornados of 2008 and 2012 weren't the only intense conditions that performers and crowds have had to battle through. Here in Minnesota, summer temperatures can skyrocket to 100 degrees, with the intense humidity making it feel stifling. Given how many younger fans flock to the all-ages festival, I was curious how the three men behind Soundset feel about shouldering the responsibility for keeping their audiences safe. Slug had a really strong reaction to this question.

Slug: This is my least favorite question that you've ever asked me. Not because it's a bad question. It's a great question, but the reason is as Soundset has gotten larger and as I've gotten older my insecurities about safety have blossomed into these gigantic anxieties, and that is my least favorite thing about Soundset — is where my imagination can go as far as in regard to kids being unsafe.

I definitely dread the idea of anything happening to somebody's child. The problem it poses for me is when I'm on site I become the same kind of safety officer that I am when I'm at my house with my own children. "Get down from there, Merse!" It is a real thing for me. I don't know how to let that go.

Andrea Swensson [to Slug]: You want another tough question or do you want a softball?

Slug: I only want tough questions.

Andrea Swensson [to Slug]: Soundset has not been without its critics, and one of the biggest criticisms you've received is that there's a lack of women on the lineups, which I have seen you be very open and receptive to and respond to publicly, but tell me more about how your approach to including women has changed over the years.

Slug: I feel like there was a lot of space where that's something that kind of went over our heads for a long time in general. I'll speak solely on behalf of myself. I needed to be reminded, or maybe reminded is the wrong word. I needed to be shook and shown that that's something I'd been overlooking.

There's a bumper sticker or a tweet or something that I read one time that said, "You judge yourself on your intentions, but you judge everybody else on their actions." That opened my mind up a lot more than it probably should've.

And if anybody out there does have a complaint, If you want to talk to me I'm super accessible. I run the Twitter. Hit me up. I respond to everybody.

Andrea Swensson: Psalm One didn't have an easy experience as a woman signed to Rhymesayers, which she has addressed in interviews. Since whistleblowing the label for their lack of gender equity in 2015, she says she has noticed more women booked at Soundset.

Psalm One: I think they have to do it now. People started to recognize that they weren't reaching out to the amazing female presence in music in the Twin Cities. Some of the best female artists are from here. I'm from Chicago. I'm biased — so many great female rappers just from Da Brat to Shawnna to Noname now, to moi.

Me being the lone female and saying something when I did, I was out on that ledge by myself. So several years later seeing them reaching out, I feel like I had a major part in that, and I'll die on that hill. I'm glad to see them reaching out to more women because I had a hell of a time getting them to even listen to me ever.

Much respect to Rhymesayers and everything they've done and do for the community, but I had a crappy time. But it's part of my story, so I can sit here proud to say that seeing their work in the community — bravo, guys. Keep doing it. And don't do it because you feel like you have to. Do it because you know there's some dope females out here. Some people called it career suicide, but to those people I said "bye Felicia."

Andrea Swensson: One of the more recent acts to emerge on the Soundset stage is Lizzo. She started attending the festival as a fan — when I interviewed her in 2014, she told me she literally lost her job so she could attend Soundset in 2012. Over the course of the next few years, she would go from a fan to releasing her debut album, Lizzobangers, to becoming a repeat performer on the Soundset lineup.

She appeared on The Current's Morning Show with Jill Riley and Steve Seel, shortly after performing there for the first time.

Lizzo: Soundset was amazing. I had so much fun, I got to share it with all my friends and my family—well, my mom. And you know, Grrrl Party's family, so I just had a blast. I feel like the weather was perfect. I got to run around and ask people questions in the crowd.

Steve Steel: What do you mean, asking people questions?

Lizzo: Well, I got this mic and this camera, and I just ran around and started asking people questions. Like, rap questions. "What's your favorite album? Why are you here? Why are you wearing that shirt?"

Jill Riley: Were you part of the Soundset documentary crew or what? [all laugh]

Lizzo: No, I was just bored. [laughs]

Andrea Swensson: So I mentioned previously that Soundset has been held at three different locations. In 2016, the festival expanded to the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.

J-Bird: I think we were out at Shakopee at Canterbury for seven years, and it was first on the parking lot, and then we moved to the grass, and I believe the last three years we pretty much capped out. We couldn't grow. And then there was also talks of Canterbury doing stuff with the land. It was like a mutual decision to move out.

And we wanted to get back into the Twin Cities. It was always a challenge to get people out there. We had to do all these shuttle buses from Mall of America if they didn't have a car — a lot of that was pre-Uber and pre-Lyft, but it was always a challenge to get people from here, there.

Slug: When we made the shift to the State Fairgrounds, I was excited about that because once again, here was our opportunity to reach a demographic that wasn't being reached in Shakopee, which is the I-don't-have-a-car demographic. This was a bus ride, a bike ride for some people, and I felt like — all due respect to Highway 13 and everything out that way — Valley Fair, I see you — but this opened it up for the people that were just like, "I can't make a trip out to Shakopee to do this."

J-Bird: And the State Fair — the location is such a good location because there's so many places to grow with it, but it's also — it allows us to do stuff with Metro Transit for free rides. It allows us to shuttle people in on their bus routes, to get people in and out really easy, and you have this whole infrastructure there, and an organization in the city that's used to dealing with hundreds of thousands of people a day. So you have all this parking, all these things that we outgrew in Shakopee that we have there with this new venue, which has been really good.

Andrea Swensson: The next year, 2017, saw another major change. For the first time, Soundset's habitual headliner wasn't on top of the bill.

Sean McPherson: I just went through to see at what point did an artist actually get listed above Atmosphere in the playbill, and it looks to me like that only starts with 2017 — Travis Scott.

Andrea Swensson [to Slug]: [In] 2017 you moved to your own stage, Atmosphere & Friends. What made you want to move off the mainstage and create your own little side vibe?

Slug: I wasn't coming back. I had announced onstage prior to that this was the last Soundset. And what I really meant is this was my last Soundset. After ten years I felt like okay, what an accomplishment. I'm not still currently stealing 45 minutes of stage time from somebody else. Everybody here at Soundset has seen me. There's nothing — I got to come out and cut off some fingers just to impress you at this point. What am I going to do that I haven't done? I can't go out there on a raft. Prof does that. What am I supposed to do?

So I was like let me retire my jersey and then just host a stage or something. I'll still play a role, but let me just not have to come out here and run the Atmosphere set again. So then they started putting together Soundset for the next year and I started to feel left out. It was a weird feeling. I called Anthony. I was like, "Are you feeling weird?" He was like, "Yeah, I'm feeling weird, too." I'm like, "We got to do something."

So I called these guys and was just like, "How's the lineup coming?" And they're like, "We're struggling, we're trying to figure out — " I was like, "Hey, I got an idea. How about you let me take over the Fifth Element Stage?" I had the time of my life.

To be honest — I didn't want to say this, but I'm going to say it. I was not enjoying Soundset anymore. It was a job. And I felt like I was showing up to work, and I had work anxiety. I was worried about people getting hurt, I was worried about everybody feeling like they got their money's worth. I was worried about all of these different things, and was like, "How do I have fun at this again?"

So when they allowed me to move over and do the Atmosphere and Friends stage, it just allowed me to exhale, it allowed Anthony to exhale. My set last year at the Atmosphere and Friends stage was the funnest Minneapolis set that I've played in so long. It felt great because I knew Wu-Tang was over there playing, so I was like look, if you are here with me right now it's because you really want to be.

Andrea Swensson: At the 2017 Soundset, Unicus witnessed an original Atmosphere reunion.

Unicus: Spawn got up onstage. It was awesome to see that brother onstage. When they used to be Urban Atmosphere, he was the other half of Atmosphere, and he's on the first CD, so he's a vital part of this hip-hop scene. I think for the people that had been on that journey with Atmosphere, they know, but there are certain people that get left out sometimes. So him coming out on that stage, that was a good statement.

Andrea Swensson: Whoever ends up performing at future Soundsets, the festival seems secure.

Andrea Swensson [to Siddiq]: You've been joking about this, saying that it's the final Soundset, but what would it actually take to make Soundset end?

Siddiq: At the end of the day there's a host of realities that could probably, but I think the only one that really matters is when we feel that it no longer serves the purpose that we set out to do with it. That's it. That's how everything we do is. If tomorrow we feel that our label has done everything it needed to do and don't need to do it anymore, we'll stop. We didn't start this business to start a business, and I don't foresee ending this business because of business.

At the end of the day we're all kids that came up on this culture and have been fully immersed in it for our entire lives. And so just even sitting down and talking for a second with somebody like Marley Marl or Diamond D. There probably a bunch of people that are probably like, "Who?" But for someone who's spent their entire life immersed in this hip-hop culture.

Slug: Call it what it is. You're a rap nerd.

Siddiq: Whatever. You can call it whatever you want. It has been a part of my life since I was a child, so to have those experiences is really cool.

J-Bird: It's always a really great feeling, even when you have bumps, and things don't work out great, that feeling of everybody, and just being together, from all different sides of it; from the front gates to people in security to the stage crew.

Siddiq: People always will be like, "Are you excited? Soundset weekend!" I'm like no, I'll be excited Monday morning when it's completely done, it went smooth, everybody's safe, there's no problems. That's when I get excited.

["Winging It" by Lazerbeak]

Andrea Swensson: The Current Rewind is produced by Cecilia Johnson. Michaelangelo Matos is our writer, Marisa Gonzalez Morseth is our research assistant, and Brett Baldwin is our managing producer. Our theme music is "Winging It" by Lazerbeak from the album Luther. Michael DeMark mastered this episode. Thanks to our guests: J-Bird, Siddiq, and Slug from Rhymesayers Entertainment, as well as Eamon Coyne, Spinderella, Unicus, Sean McPherson, Psalm One, and Dessa. Shout-out to Kanser member Zach Combs for his book "Headspin, Headshots & History," and to Peter Scholtes for his oral history of Minnesota hip-hop, published by City Pages in 2005.

If you enjoyed listening to this episode of The Current Rewind, we would love to hear from you. Leave us a rating on iTunes, subscribe to the podcast so you don't miss upcoming episodes, and tell your friend about this cool new thing that The Current is doing.

Go to to find transcripts and bonus materials.

The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. It is a production of Minnesota Public Radio's The Current.

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