May 29, 2012

Concert Review: Soundset 2012

Founded in 1995 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Rhymesayers Entertainment has risen to the top of the heap of independent hip hop labels.  Over the years it has grown from releasing albums solely by its founders, to becoming the home base for most of the surprisingly fertile Minnesota hip hop scene, and finally to being the label home for albums by indie hip hop greats regardless of hometown.  In fact, since its founding, Atmosphere, MF Doom, Brother Ali, Aesop Rock, and P.O.S have all called Rhymesayers home.

Despite this success, Rhymesayers continues to expand as it follows its mission to put its “dreams, passions, and destinies in their own hands.”  One of those dreams is to continue growing hip hop in the Twin Cities area, so in 2008 Rhymesayers founded the Soundset hip hop festival.  Held on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, Soundset started in the Metrodome parking lot, but has since moved to Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minnesota.

More important then the location switch, however, the last five years have seen Soundset grow beyond showcasing solely artists on the Rhymesayers label to bringing both titans and the next generation of hip hop to the upper Midwest.  2012 was no exception as Ghostface Killah & Raekwon and Lupe Fiasco joined Atmosphere as scheduled headliners while Action Bronson, Kendrick Lamar, and Danny Brown played earlier in the day with Rhymesayers’ own I Self Devine and Evidence.

The festival grounds opened at 11:00 a.m. giving concertgoers an hour prior to the first performance in which to explore the non-music part of the day.  Traditionally, hip hop is comprised of four separate pillars: DJing, MCing, graffiti, and breaking, and Soundset provides an opportunity to enjoy all four pillars and then some.  From the time the gates opened, DJs provided a soundtrack to B-Boy/B-Girl competitions, four graffiti artists demonstrated their craft on a specially prepared wall, and MCs were of course front and center.  Beyond these cornerstones of hip hop, however, Soundset also featured skate boarding exhibitions and a custom car competition.

On the whole, the festival was excellent.  Turnout was high (estimated at about 20,000), food options were varied (I even saw a vegan/gluten free both), and the music was top notch.  Brother Ali acted as the host for the day and used the opportunity to perform a few songs, including two off his forthcoming album, and otherwise did a good, if repetitive, job of running the show.  The only real negatives were: 1) Astronautalis playing on a side stage at the same time as the headliners were on the main stages, causing many, including myself, to have to miss him; and 2) 90+ degree weather for most of the day until right before Atmosphere’s closing set when a storm blew in and a tornado was spotted about 20 minutes from the grounds.  Initially it was announced Atmosphere would play anyway, but the organizers quickly reversed that decision and made the right call to evacuate the area.  There have been too many tragedies in the last year at concert festivals, and even though the weather blew through pretty quickly, no other decision could have been made.

As for the specific performances:

Leading off was local Rhymesayers signee, I Self Devine, a/k/a Chaka Mkali.  I Self was joined by two hype men in addition to his DJ, and did his absolute best to get the festival off to a rolling start.  As is always the case at festivals, though, the lead off slot was incredibly difficult.  The crowd was still filing in, and what crowd had already arrived wasn’t into the music yet.  Nonetheless, I Self and crew were tight and did a good job bringing his conscious rap message of being the change you seek to the audience.  Accordingly, I Self Devine gets a C.

Next up was Queens, New York’s Action Bronson, fresh off an Instagram controversy.  Not surprisingly, the firestorm around that picture was not mentioned, and Bronson played a straightforward set backed by his DJ.  Initially, the set was excellent.  Bronson was into it and playing to the crowd, even joking that his weight (320 lbs) was not ideal for the heat.  Unfortunately, the crowd as a whole didn’t seem familiar with him, with even “Barry Horowitz” not getting much of a reaction, and the energy was a one-way street.  Then after Bronson’s initial burst, it appeared that the heat (or the voice issues he mentioned having on Saturday) must really have been getting to him.  He slowed down and was substantially less engaged, ending on a slightly lackluster note.  Based on the first half of the performance, Action Bronson gets a B-.

Prof is not an MC of which I would say I’m a fan.  He has a shtick, calling himself a “Gampo” (“A versatile noun/verb used to characterize the ridiculous and outrageous.”), and doesn’t really say much of anything with his music.  Basically he has always seemed to me to be nothing more than a gimmick.  After seeing him perform with DJ Fundo, however, I think I may just be too old to ‘get’ him.  Prof came out and put on a great festival show.  His energy was in the red for the entire performance and the crowd matched him throughout.  Then at the end of the show he showed what a hustler he is by announcing he was giving away free copies of his album at his merch booth.  Clearly, Prof knows how to promote himself and is earning his following (he recently sold out the First Avenue Mainroom), so while I may be too old to like the music, I respect the artist.  Prof gets a B.

Detroit’s own Danny Brown (he of the crazy hair), took the stage next, and again the crowd seemed to not be completely clued in to him yet.  Nonetheless, backed by a DJ, Danny Brown brought everything he had and in his case that is a lot. With his high pitched, nasally flow, he provided a great change of pace to the rest of the bill, and his talent for rhyme was obvious and very impressive.  “Monopoly” was an obvious highlight, but the set was strong throughout, earning Danny Brown a B.

I missed Grieves & Budo while exploring the custom car show and checking out the graffiti wall, so no grade there.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were up next out of Seattle and frankly shocked me with their show.  Macklemore is an MC that I’ve always respected for the stands he takes with his lyrics, but I haven’t spent enough time with his work to really get to know him.  That’s going change.  Macklemore & Ryan Lewis took the stage with a trumpeter, violinist, cellist, and back up singer, and they all had a ton of energy.  Climbing speaker stacks, dancing, crowd surfing, each member of the band gave it everything they had and left the crowd with no option other than to do the same.  The music was pretty damn good too, but then again I’m an unapologetic sucker for live brass or strings at any hip hop or rock show.  Much to my surprise going into the day, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis get a B+.

Up next was Evidence.  Evidence is a Los Angeles native and member of Dilated Peoples who released his sophomore album on Rhymesayers in September 2011.  His performance was good.  He’s incredibly talented and has something to say.  That said, the set wasn’t memorable, at least to this reviewer.  Accordingly, while I recommend checking out his work if you’re unfamiliar, this show on the whole was just average and Evidence therefore gets a C.

Out of Mississippi, Big K.R.I.T. is one of the next big things in hip hop, and his performance demonstrated why, while also showing why he isn’t quite there yet.  Backed by DJ and one vocalist, the Def Jam signee, who produces much of his own work, showed off his top-notch lyrics and flow while acting as a commanding stage presence.  Towards the end of his set, however, K.R.I.T. hinted at what is likely his best known track, “Country Shit”, and got a big reaction from the crowd.  Then he confusingly didn’t play it.  This failure to read the crowd and give them what they want drops Big K.R.I.T.’s grade some to a B+.

Kendrick Lamar is another of the next big things, but he has more work to do onstage than K.R.I.T.  Lamar has the pedigree: member of the Black Hippy collective, from Compton, and… oh yeah, Dr. Dre associate, but it takes more than that to put on a good set in a festival situation.  Commanding a stage in front of 20,000 people with just a DJ behind you is incredibly difficult to do, and Lamar has growing to do on that front.  It was almost painful listening to him attempt to interact with the crowd, and sometimes he couldn’t even be heard.  The hardcore rapper is surprisingly soft spoken.  Lamar’s rhymes are freakin’ strong, though, and “A.D.H.D.” is a good enough track that it almost makes up for the set’s deficiencies.  But not quite.  Kendrick Lamar gets a C+.

P.O.S is a local favorite and member of the equally adored Doomtree collective.  He’s put out three top-notch albums, and if his performance at Soundset is any indication his fourth (due in September) is going to absolutely bang.  Backed by his DJ and joined briefly by Astronautalis and Doomtree cohort Mike Mictlan, P.O.S ripped through his most popular tracks while also previewing several tracks off the new album, all the while ruling the festival grounds.  A complaint I’ve had of P.O.S live shows in the past is that he stops and starts songs seemingly randomly keeping the audience from fully immersing themselves in the performance.  That was kept at a minimum at Soundset, and P.O.S therefore gets a B+.

Moving back to an artist from New York, Aesop Rock with Rob Sonic & DJ Big Wiz showed the professionals they are.  There were no gimmicks and no games, just a fantastic hip hop show by guys who do nothing but put on fantastic hip hop shows.  Like P.O.S, Aesop Rock previewed tracks from his forthcoming album, due July 10, 2012, and hit the high points from his discography while showing off the lyricism that has long made him a darling of indie hip hop.  It was an absolute pleasure to watch and gets Aesop Rock an A-.

There are times when you can tell an artist is performing for a paycheck, and their heart isn’t really in it.  There are also times when that doesn’t make a bit of difference.  Ghostface Killah & Raekwon falls into both categories.  The hip hop legends earned their position in the history of the genre with the rest of the Wu Tang Clan through their originality, lyrics, and flow, and the talent on display at Soundset showed exactly why.  Even without giving it everything they had, Ghost and Rae showed they were far and away the most talented MCs on the bill, as well as the best at holding an audience.  The only drawback was bringing up audience members to perform the Method Man and Ol’ Dirty Bastard verses from “Protect the Neck” thereby grinding the performance to a screeching halt and taking much of the pleasure out of hearing that classic track.  Nonetheless Ghostface Killah & Raekwon get an A-.

The last performance of the day ended up belonging to Lupe Fiasco.  As much as I wanted to see Atmosphere, the tornado allowed Soundset to save the absolute best for last.  Taking the stage with a full rock band and dressed in a Bob Marley t-shirt and bolo tie, Fiasco was a whirling dervish as he rocketed through his greatest hits.  It was an inspiring performance that absolutely brought the house down as the dark clouds rolled in.  There wasn’t a better way to end the day.  Lupe Fiasco gets an A.

Filed under Concert Review, Hip Hop, Indie, Rap