Local Current Blog

Soundset 2012: A series of rap trials make for an unforgettable fifth anniversary

Credit: Nate Ryan/MPR

See also: Photo slideshow of Soundset 2012

With gates opening at 11 a.m. and the afterparty winding down around 2:30 the next morning, this year’s Soundset kept hip-hop fans on their feet for a whopping 15 hours and required fans to endure extreme heat and severe weather. But those who stuck it out for the entire run were treated to some incredible moments befitting of the booming festival’s fifth year anniversary celebration.

One of this year’s finest achievements was just how many high-quality hometown acts were assembled and mixed in with national acts. Prof came blasting out of the gates early in the afternoon with a main stage set that had the crowd bouncing in unison in a mesmerizing display; The Tribe and Big Cats! delivered a strong set start to finish on the Fifth Element stage and debuted material off their forthcoming Space, which drops July 10; and Villa Rosa were engaging and danceable, with Maria Isa’s voice shooting out like a beacon and demanding attention above the noise bleed from the louder main stage. Between acts on the Fifth Element stage, MaLLy slipped in a few of his own songs and proved to be a charismatic host.

Villa Rosa; photo by Nate Ryan

Other afternoon highlights included back-to-back sets from a few Seattle artists — duos Grives and Budo and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis — with the latter act drawing one of the most animated reactions from the sprawling crowd and eventually diving in to surf around himself. I went in expecting big things out of Big K.R.I.T’s set, but after two high-energy songs it looked like someone had unplugged the power cord that was charging the audience, and I ultimately found his set to be uninspiring. 

Macklemore takes on the crowd; photo by Ben Clark

Between main stage acts (which were presented on two identical neighboring stages, effectively eliminating change-over time between sets), Brother Ali would bring out a horn section to debut some of the bouyant and sociopolitical tracks off his Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, which he announced would come out on August 21, and which he will cull from this Thursday night as he plays with his full backing band at the Entry.

Brother Ali; photo by Nate Ryan

It’s hard to say if it’s only because I managed to jam myself up against the front railing for P.O.S.’s set, but my Soundset experience peaked when the rapper came out with Plain Ole Bill to play a smart mix of crowd favorites and blazing tracks from his new We Don’t Even Live Here, which he revealed will be out September 18. The punk influence of his earlier work has been shed in favor of gigantic, rattling bass beats on the new tracks, and almost all of the new songs featured lyrics about protest, upheaval, and a rejection of materialism. In one song he declared “We don’t need nothing at all – except for maybe more of us,” while in another he scoffed at the idea of the Occupy movement and instructed everyone to “occupy bedsheets/occupy everything differently,” and at least three different tunes included the phrase “f*** your stuff” in a defiant disregard for physical possessions. Both Mike Mictlan and Astronautalis were brought out to make guest appearances on new tracks.

P.O.S.; photo by Nate Ryan

Through it all, P.O.S. remained charismatic despite the sweltering heat, at one point laughing at the challenging circumstances and telling the crowd to “make some noise if you’re gonna barf.” Astronautalis, too, seemed to be testing the limits of his abilities when he played his own set, sputtering and gasping for air between verses as his face grew progressively redder. The heat only seemed to push Astronautalis to play even harder, though, and his set managed to draw the largest crowd of the day over on that side stage, who cheered him on and participated readily in his trademark crowd-influenced freestyle.

Astronautalis; photo by Nate Ryan

As Astronautalis wrapped up his set and Lupe Fiasco neared the end of his time on the main stage, things shifted quickly. The blue, cloudless sky that loomed overhead all day long had changed into a swirling, ominous mass of grey clouds in a matter of minutes, and before anyone had a minute to wonder aloud whether it was going to rain a city official stepped up to the microphone and informed all 20,000-plus concertgoers that a tornado warning was in effect (which was actually false; it was a severe thunderstorm warning and that misstep led to some unecessary panic) and we were to evacuate as quickly as possible. As soon as the crowd started to scramble a few swift gusts of wind blasted across the field and threatened to knock over some of the tents, and within seven to eight minutes the entire grounds had mostly emptied and mobs of kids started running toward their cars en masse. The parking lots were all at least a quarter to half mile away from the festival grounds, and it made for an unsettling mass sprint as sheets of rain and small hail (about chickpea-sized) started falling and tornado sirens blared overhead.

Photo by Nate Ryan

By the time I reached my own car the storm had mostly passed and the rain had slowed to a sprinkle, but because of another incoming lightning storm the festival officially called off Atmosphere’s headlining set and sent everyone home.

After a brief layover at home for dry clothes, I made my way down to First Avenue for the Soundset afterparty, and was wondering whether Slug might make an appearance and perform a few songs. Instead, he opted to bring out Ant, guitarist Nate Collis, and keyboard player Erick Anderson for a full hour-long Atmosphere set, and seemed to pull out the same set list they had planned for their slot.

This would have been my fourth consecutive year watching Atmosphere headline, and I have to say that in the past few years Soundset has become my least favorite place to watch Slug perform. Each year he seems to rely on a very similar set list and each year the presentation of his songs becomes more and more flat. I have no idea what this year would have been like had they performed at the fest, but the relocation to First Avenue and the frenzied reaction from that significantly smaller yet more amplified crowd injected Atmosphere with a much-needed shot of adrenaline. Slug was in great form, funny and tight, and Ant looked like he was having the time of his life at the back of the stage. Brother Ali came out for a riotous rendition of “Cats Van Bags,” and the group pulled out old tracks like “Shoes,” “Scapegoat,” and “God’s Bathroom Floor” to much appreciation from the room.

Atmosphere at First Ave; photo by Ben Clark

After Atmosphere finished their set, Slug apologized for taking up so much time and gave the stage back to the Get Cryphy DJs, who kept the room full as hosts MaLLy and Brother Ali rapped along to classic rap tracks and riled up the crowd. Ali ended up performing again, this time to a backing track laid down by the DJs, and then brought out acts from the Fifth Element stage like Dumbtron and Soulcrate for quick turns at the mic. Slug re-emerged with Aesop Rock and Evidence for their collaborative track, “Late for the Sky,” and P.O.S. closed the night down with another powerful rendition of new song “F*** Your Stuff.”

Evidence and Aesop Rock with the Get Cryphy DJs; photo by Ben Clark

Phew. Like I said, the whole experience lasted about 15 hours so I didn’t mention everything I saw here, just what I felt were the highlights. For more coverage of this year’s Soundset, check out our photo slideshow.