Photography by Joe Runge
For the first time in its seven years, Soundset sold out. Not because 2 Chainz and Wiz Khalifa (the latter fresh out of jail after a possession arrest in El Paso) were on the bill, although there will always be whispers throughout this crowd about what is and isn’t “real hip-hop.“ Rather, the Shakopee, Minn. all-hip-hop fest reached capacity, selling around 30,000 tickets. By three in the afternoon on Sunday, when a kinetic Chance the Rapper took the main stage after a hoarse introduction from Sway Calloway, the ocean of festivalgoers was obviously more vast than any to previously flood Canterbury Park.
It was a nice day for a festival, partly sunny and peaking in the low 80s — thrilling for us Minnesotans who didn’t crawl out of our igloo until a month ago. The draw, though, wasn’t the opportunity to spend 10 hours in the sun, it was the music — a gamut of sounds including 2 Chainz’s trap boom, Nas’s Illmatic thud, and Wiz Khalifa’s melody-oriented weed-rap. Doubtless some of the old-head attendees alive for Cypress Hill’s self-titled debut (1991) and Illmatic (‘94) were less than enthusiastic about 2 Chainz’s primitive hooks, but the fest had its universal moments, too — the seismic sound of Tity Boi, for instance, was a physical equalizer for fans of loud music.
Other aesthetic joys came from the occasionally hilarious stage banter and crowd interaction, the most memorable example of which was Earl Sweatshirt’s immortally filthy command for the audience to yell, “I’mma fuck the freckles off your face, bitch” (as inspired by his Doris cut “Molasses”). Elsewhere, the emergence of live instrumentation, whether we’re talking about Shad playing guitar and rapping at once or, most effectively, Chance the Rapper’s band during Acid Rap songs like “Everybody’s Something” and “Smoke Again”, brought a liveliness to each stage.
As explosive as Nas’ Stillmatic cut “One Mic” is, the Queensbridge native’s assertion that “[a]ll I need is one mic, one beat, one stage” seemed misleading by the time he performed the song during his 5:45 p.m. CST slot. If nothing else, Soundset made clear that hip-hop — still a social music after all these years, all these decades — is best experienced as a total of many elements. Here are our 10 favorite sets from this year’s installment.
Senior Staff Writer
Best “They’re Still Around?” Set
If you’ve seen a Cypress Hill set in the past decade, you’ve seen their Soundset performance, give or take alterations in set order. This isn’t necessarily a value judgment, but rather an acknowledgement that you’re going to hear a lot of turntable scratching, spirited renditions of “Hits from the Bong” and “Insane in the Brain”, and a lot of references to the old school. And that’s what the stalwart West Coast performers delivered.
It’s been over 20 years since Black Sunday dropped, and though the crew have been prolific since (eight LPs, with another due later this year), most of their iconic material was released before much of Soundset’s 2014 crowd was born. While the reception wasn’t quite as spirited for their set as others throughout the day, they pushed on regardless, bringing a set with lots of bass, a plethora of turntable work, and consistent reminders throughout that Cypress Hill do indeed enjoy marijuana, just in case you forgot.
And for all Cypress Hill’s attempts to cross over into every conceivable genre over the years (and there have been a lot of them, from their stint as WWE entrance music musicians to their recent collaborations with Rusko and Deadmau5), their Soundset performance cut aside all the grabs at continued relevance and simply highlighted a trio that’s still going strong when so many of their contemporaries left the game long ago. –Dominick Mayer
Most Familial (and Familiar) Performance
Soundset 2013, which closed with Snoop Dogg, marked the first year that Atmosphere didn’t conclude the fest. The Minneapolis duo’s set, though, exuded the personal, natural warmth that made prior Soundset appearances damn near spiritual. They just dropped Southsiders, their eighth album, but ultimately it was their indie-rap classics — “Trying to Find a Balance” and “Sunshine” among them — that cut deepest. Slug is 41 now, but he still has a youthfulness about him; as someone half his age, it’s tough to decide if he’s more brotherly or fatherly. Either way, there was a unique closeness as he unfurled narratives of working-class strife, splicing his verses with references to Soundset where possible. And thankfully, that hook from Southsiders‘ “Kanye West“ (“Throw your hands in the air like you really do care”) sounded much more reasonable with half of Minnesota’s population gathered together, relearning how meaningful Slug and Ant have been to so many people. –Michael Madden
Best Pimp-Rap Takeover
I didn’t see Roc Marciano’s set in its entirety, but what I did see — a 15-minute stretch of unmistakably New York slick-talk — was marked by pinpoint MCing. The Long Island native’s beats, too, some of them self-produced, were refreshing with their relatively discrete drums and warm mids, a combo that was especially luxuriant during the Alchemist-produced “Flash Gordon” (the one with the “hey, baby” sample). As a rule, the Fifth Element stage featured hard-spitting MCs who’ve made a reputation with verses rather than hooks. More so than Jonwayne, Roc may have been the most workmanlike of all the stage’s performers. –Michael Madden
Most Vigorous Stage-ercising
Though we’re still waiting on the follow-up to 2011’s King Gampo, Prof’s restless stage presence is such that he won’t need to release another album to keep his loyal Minnesota audience happy. I wish every performer would’ve worn a pedometer, just so we’d have official calories-burned tallies and know for certain that Prof embarrassed the rest of the lineup. The Minneapolis resident wouldn’t stop expressing his graciousness for Sunday’s crowd — in fact, he was so happy (so to speak) that he promised he’d fuck every last one of us, male or female, if there was a convenient way to do so. He may not be able to move up on Soundset’s ladder until he releases that follow-up, but his slot on Sunday was deserved. –Michael Madden
Most Personable Ex-GameStop Employee
Jonwayne’s charm isn’t that surprising considering the proliferation of nerddom in pop culture. The SoCal Stones Throw prospect is a burly, bearded dude who looks like he drums in a stoner-metal band; as it turns out, he used to work at GameStop. That underdog fate, though, has only spurred his drive to develop a commanding but inviting sound. On Sunday, he spit his syllables so clearly that, when he wandered through the crowd toward the end of his set, it was tempting to think he was lip-syncing. He ventured to his drum machine from time to time to pound out a few patterns, but mostly, it was his words and delivery that turned puzzled looks into intent, open-minded listening. –Michael Madden
Best Set for Grinding
“Soundfest!” That’s how 2 Chainz’s set started, courtesy of the onetime Tity Boi’s hype man. For nearly an hour in the middle of a hot, dusty day, the vibe of Soundset distinctly changed. As part of a festival that’s historically catered to the innovators and flag-bearers of “real hip-hop,” 2 Chainz is a hard, distinct swerve into the realm of Top 40 rap. And a very specific kind at that, the kind that gets clubs excitedly singing about what it is that they desire for their birthday, particularly a female of sizable ass.
With easily the hypest crowd of the day at his beck and call, 2 Chainz worked through most of his biggest hits. Here’s the rub: those happened to be other people’s hits, most of the time. Throughout his 45-minute set, 2 Chainz would deliver his portions of “Fuckin’ Problems”, Juicy J’s “Bandz a Make Her Dance”, and “All Gold Everything”, in addition to the collaborative efforts of “Birthday Song” and “No Lie”, the latter of which saw 2 Chainz sort of just yelling his name over Drake’s vocals for a while. Because this was a set built to please as many people as possible, there was also the quasi-dubstep of “Riot” and the venue-anachronistic, nonsensical hilarity of “I Luv Dem Strippers”.
But here’s the thing: Soundset needed 2 Chainz. If it’s to be a festival representing everything hot in hip-hop today alongside the past, 2 Chainz has spent most of the past two years as one of the regular faces of hip-hop on the radio. The semantic argument over the pros and cons of this set aside for another time, he’s every bit as important to the game right now as any other beloved major player. And if you don’t believe me, check YouTube in a few days for some footage of his set. It might just be for the sake of turning up, time will tell. But people are all kinds of into 2 Chainz in a very real way. –Dominick Mayer
Highest Number of “Real Hip-Hop” Call-and-Responses
Nas, at this point in his tenure as one of hip-hop’s elder statesmen, is the kind of rapper that aspiring young heads feel obligated to speak about in reverent tones, regardless of whether or not they’re actually into him. But that’s a damned good reason. Despite the oppressive recent glut of nostalgia-based festival tour packages, which prove only that everything in the world has an anniversary if you’re willing to split hairs enough, this year marks two decades since Illmatic created an incredibly unfair standard against which all other debut albums (in any genre) have been and will continue to be compared.
It’s only appropriate, then, that a portion of Nas’ set saw him performing that seminal record in its entirety. Or at least close to it. Some bits were truncated, and “Life’s a Bitch” just isn’t quite the same without AZ. But it was still Illmatic (this is where the obvious pun would go, but we don’t talk about Stillmatic in polite company), and Nasty Nas seemed far more engaged than a lot of other reunion or throwback acts in recent years. It also helps that most of this material has never really left Nas’ setlists, and so even the mildly cheesy “It’s a…MINNESOTA state of mind” shoutouts worked. From the opening DJ set acknowledging Nas’ many legendary contemporaries, living and dead, to the continual use of that one airhorn that’s hard to illustrate in print but you’ve totally heard at some point or another, this set was a pure immersion in the era that birthed Nas’ masterpiece.
And because Pusha T dropped out of Soundset not long before, Nas’ set was long enough to go beyond Illmatic. The classics gave way to a perfectly pitched set of well-known choice cuts from the rest of his career, from “Street Dreams” to “Hate Me Now” to “One Mic”, and even worked in his bars from Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque”, a nice gesture for those aware enough of his work to catch it. His easygoing manner onstage pushed the set past its shakier moments, such as a shoehorned shoutout to President Obama that didn’t get anything close to the intended reaction. It wasn’t the flashiest set, or necessarily the best, but it was Nas playing Illmatic. And if the rotating social media board adjacent to the stage was any indication, the young and party-ready crowd absolutely understood the gravity of that. –Dominick Mayer
Best Undead Performance
Flatbush Zombies’ live set — configured in order to spotlight each member equally, even though certain songs only have verses from one or two Zombies — was a manic spectacle full of “fuck you” chants (“Bliss”) and lighter-raising weed odes (“Palm Trees”). Compared to other Soundset weirdos like EarlWolf, the guttural-voiced Meechy Darko, the Ke$ha-voiced Zombie Juice, and rapper-producer Erick Ark Elliott aren’t exactly polarizing. Rather, they’re unambiguously goofy; it’s immediately clear they’re looking to have as much fun as possible. Though they played the Fifth Element stage, these undead Brooklynites made the case that they should’ve been in consideration for the main stage. –Michael Madden
Best Counterpoint to “Chiraq”
Chance the Rapper
As come-ups go, it’s hard to think of one in recent memory that’s been more meteoric than that of Chance the Rapper, the Chicago MC who went from a high school suspension to Acid Rap in just about two years. And like another young, scrappy MC from Chicago whose own come-up just saw its tenth anniversary, Chance has been killing it right out of the gate. Despite his early timeslot, which prompted him to apologetically tell the crowd “They only gave us a TV show’s worth of time for this,” Chance ripped through some of Acid Rap’s choicest cuts with a full band in tow and enough energy for a set three times the length.
The beauty of Chance’s live show is twofold. For one, his everyman persona shines on a stage; he’s the charming stoner who can walk into a room and become everyone’s best friend. His addled missives weren’t lost on the eager crowd, who replied to his incantation that “I hope you all high on drugs right now” in the emphatic affirmative. But Chance is more than just a YOLO-baiting gimmick, and his live renditions of “Juice” and “Cocoa Butter Kisses” showed off the second half of that aforementioned beauty. His blissed-out, horn-infused samples come to vivid life onstage, ramping up the theatrics without getting ridiculous about it. The massive crescendos on a track previously as chilled-out as “Pusha Man” work perfectly, adding to the songs while losing none of their basic charms. And for a musician whose appeal largely lies in his relatable, aw-shucks brand of bravado, Chance the Rapper cuts a commanding figure, moving from pure fire to laconic slow jams with perfect fluidity. –Dominick Mayer
Most Pearls Clutched
It takes a special kind of cult of personality for a rapper like Tyler, the Creator to walk onstage and greet the crowd with a “How’re you assholes?” and be met with rapturous approval. That’s the key to the bizarre ongoing saga of OFWGKTA: people either just get it or spend a hell of a lot of time contemplating it, and it’s the former that’re having the most fun. Though Odd Future’s two most recognizable faces had trouble at times getting the whole crowd into their brutal, hyper-referential universe, that didn’t really even matter.
Tyler and Earl Sweatshirt ended up taking over both of Soundset’s main stages at points throughout the set, and if that weren’t commanding enough, five minutes spent in the immediate vicinity would be more than enough to sell the uninitiated, or maybe rouse them into flight. (The tandem’s ire certainly extended to Cypress Hill’s roadies, who started soundchecking at a rather disrespectful volume about halfway through the set.) In general, the set captured everything that makes these twin prodigies so controversial, and yet so fascinating. “Yonkers” and “Drop” and the tandem track “Orange Juice” all carried the signature OF snarl in abundance, getting somehow grittier and harder than the already vicious studio versions.
Earl demanded that the crowd “make security work for that paycheck.” A handful of people nearby left when Earlwolf busted out the deeply disturbing Tyler track “Tron Cat”, their faces failing to hide their shock. And when they left, a battalion of strangely dressed true believers came out covered in sweat and ecstatic. That’s OF for you. –Dominick Mayer