How Soundset became the Twin Cities' biggest music fest

CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER , Vita.mn | Updated 5/22/2014

Two indie companies joined forces to create the annual hip-hop extravaganza.

Fans at Soundset
Jeff Wheeler

While it’s never mentioned by name, the Soundset festival appears to be the basis for a recurring “SNL” skit about a fake radio station, B108, with “the best and only hip-hop morning show in Shakopee, Minnesota.”

“There’s no way they pulled Shakopee out of thin air,” said co-promoter Gene Hollister of Rose Presents.

The festival — which returns to Shakopee for its seventh year Sunday — made the move to a roomy field outside the Canterbury Park horse track in 2009, after its inaugural outing in the Metrodome parking lot. That relocation to the exurbs was just one of many things about Soundset that probably shouldn’t have worked. But boy, is it working.

For at least two years running, Soundset has been the king of the Twin Cities’ outdoor summer fests. Its success attests to the generational shift that finds rap music as mainstream as apple pie, and to Minnesota’s growing reputation as an independent hip-hop mecca.

Last year’s record crowd of 28,000 was twice as big as the Basilica Block Party or Rock the Garden draws per day, and quite a few more than what concert behemoth Live Nation could drum up for the peak day of its $5 million River’s Edge Festival in St. Paul two summers ago.

There’s no giant corporation behind Soundset, though, just two independently owned Minneapolis companies from very different corners of the music business — one of whom happens to be the promoter behind Minnesota’s biggest festival, the enormous country campout, We Fest.

“This is a complete 180 from our other concerts, but thanks to our partnership, that doesn’t really matter,” said Rose Presents co-owner Randy Levy, a veteran of outdoor concerts since the 1970s.

The partners in question are the crew at Rhymesayers Entertainment, whose mini-empire includes the record label behind Atmosphere, Brother Ali and P.O.S., as well as Fifth Element record store in Uptown. Those dudes know hip-hop culture like Santa Claus knows toys.

Not Levy, though. He came into a recent meeting with the Rhymesayers guys eager to brag about his “favorite new hip-hop act,” whom he’d seen at a festival in Colorado.

“They fell out of their chair laughing when I told them who it was” — Arrested Development, of early-’90s MTV fame.

However, the Rhymesayers crew talks in near-reverential tones about Rose when it comes to explaining the festival’s success. “We focus on the talent, while they handle a lot of really vital stuff like insurance, police, the fire marshal, the portable toilets,” said Rhymesayers general manager Jason “J-Bird” Cook.

Getting public safety officials to agree on a rap festival might not have been easy were it not for Rose Presents’ track record for well-run concerts. Levy was quick to deny one potential misconception: “The crowds at Soundset are a lot more well-behaved than the crowds at We Fest.”

A longtime tour manager for Atmosphere, J-Bird was the one who dreamed up the Soundset festival after several summers aboard the punk-rocky Warped Tour as well as an event from his Chicago youth, Fresh Fest, which featured Grandmaster Flash, Run-DMC and the Fat Boys.

“That one changed my life,” he said. “That’s the kind of experience I’d like to see today’s kids have.”

The Soundset name was taken from warehouse parties Rhymesayers organized in the late 1990s. However, the crew’s near-perennial headliners, Slug and Ant of Atmosphere, weren’t so sure the name could stick.

“I thought it was a dumb-ass idea,” Ant confessed of the festival. Said Slug, “My thing about it was that old bumper sticker: ‘Scared money don’t make none.’ I like spending money on the next cool thing, but I really didn’t know if this would make any.”