Local Current Blog

Don’t take Soundset for granted

A Soundset crowd. Photo by Nate Ryan/MPR.

Let’s start this article with full disclosure. As someone who’s performed at and hosted Soundset a few times, put out albums jointly with Rhymesayers (RSE) and Soul Tools, and received support for the Twin Cities Celebration of Hip-Hop festival from RSE, my perspective is biased. Sorry, my friend, you aren’t going to get a disgruntled dissertation. I’ll also skip the obligatory jock ride and get down to the social implications of having 30,000 (mostly young) people show up yearly to party at a venue where middle-aged men spend most of summer playing Russian roulette with their life savings. But hey, life is a gamble. You either go big or go home—and in this the eighth year of the annual Soundset festival, RSE and Rose Presents went really big. Boasting acts like J. Cole, Big Sean, and Ludacris, this is no small feat. Here are some reasons why you shouldn’t take Soundset for granted.

Rhymesayers is 20 years old

At an age when most people are desperately trying to sneak into the club, Rhymesayers is running the party. The independent hip-hop record label was founded in 1995 by a group of friends in the Twin Cities and has since become an international force. With core acts Atmosphere, Eyedea, Brother Ali, and the Micronauts, RSE was able to capitalize on a self-built network of alternative hip-hop fans filling a void created by the mainstream music industry. Since then the crew has toured the globe many times over, built the successful shop Fifth Element, and developed the Soundset festival from a popular night at 7th Street Entry to the enormous event it is today. In addition, the label widened its audience by putting out projects by MF Doom, Freeway and Jake One, and now Dilated Peoples.

It’s not easy to get 30,000 hip-hop fans together

Let’s be honest. You’d be hard pressed to find a city that’s open to tens of thousands of young people getting together to listen to that loud racket. In addition you’d be even more hard pressed to find a suburban Midwest town that’s open to a small group of mostly African-American men from the inner city influencing thousands of their children. Isn’t progress beautiful?

Do your research

If you know every word by the rapper that put out his first mixtape two years ago but turn your nose up at the hip-hop legends, you are the problem. Nothing is more annoying than seeing and hearing a festival attendee ignoring and downplaying the artists that set the foundation for the event to even happen. The first thing Ice Cube put out wasn’t the Are We There Yet series. Go to the Internet and look up these people: DJ Jazzy Jay, Smif-n-Wessun, Supreme La Rock, DJ Stage One, and the Wake Up Show with Sway and King Tech. Look up and support hometown acts like Freez with DJ Willie Shu, Manny Phesto, Sean Anonymous, and SET THE SMITH. Also, don’t forget that this is hip-hop culture—not just a rap show. Check out the b-boy/girl tent, the DJs, and the graffiti wall; and spend a little money on an entrepreneurs’ goods. Be the solution, not the problem.

No free passes

Every year I get a hundred inquiries from hip-hop artists asking how they can get on Soundset as a performer. My speech pretty much always goes the same way: “Be dope and build a following.” Way too many people expect that Soundset will be the big shot to catapult their careers. When the announcement for the lineup comes out and they aren’t included there is a wave of the five stages of loss (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). The key to being included on the bill is pretty simple. Stay on your grind and create an audience that is interested in what you do. Don’t expect that an event that is run by people that had to fight their way into the spotlight for 20 years is going to reach out to you in your bedroom because you made an album. If it’s good and people are authentically buzzing about it, there’s a great chance you’ll be in the running. As a matter of fact, if you really want to be impressive, start your own festival.

Toki Wright is a hip-hop artist, entrepreneur, and educator based in the Twin Cities.