Hip Hop Phantasmagoria

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Minneapolis and St. Paul, despite their cold climates and reputation for Minnesota Nice, is the home of a large and influential hip-hop music scene. Since 2008, a year’s worth of local hip hop culture culminates in Soundset, a day-long festival organized by record label Rhymesayers Entertainment that exposes underground acts and brings superstars to the Twin Cities. Droves of stoned 14-year-old suburbanites (sporting squinty eyes, hooded sweatshirts, and braces), skateboarders, hip-hopsters (sporting flat-billed caps and overpriced beers), graffiti writers, photographers (sporting press passes and caffeine pills), car enthusiasts, and aspiring artists (sporting demos and new shoes) pack the festival. The Soundset 2011 lineup in particular was a lush cross-section of the genre and the community, truly a “state of the art” festival.

No matter what type of hip hop you enjoy–from glitzy East Coast to dirty South to ultra-chill tropicalia–there’s a little something for everyone at Soundset. The West Coast duo Zion I & the Grouch interwove themes of healing and heroics between threads of reggaeton flow and dubsteppy beats. Looptroop Rockers came all the way from Sweden for Soundset (imagine the Beastie Boys with Viking beards) and, more than any other artist at the festival, critiqued geopolitics–especially northern European conservatism. 2Mex, an L.A.-based emcee, managed to twist Weezer’s “Say it Ain’t So” into blistering break-up confessional. Budo & Grieves rocked an actual bass guitar and an actual vintage synthesizer (surprisingly rare for a hip-hop festival, apparently), lending old-timey grooves to the young duo’s clever rhymes. Up-and-coming Minneapolis rapper MaLLy spat playful intellectualism at lightspeed, whereas Southern rapper Curren$y and his Jets crew spouted home-cooked swagger. Old-school hip-hop crews Dilated Peoples and De La Soul played classics from their 20-year back catalogs. And of course, who could forget the really big names: Doomtree, Brother Ali, Outkast member Big Boi, and Atmosphere.

(Check out photography from the entire concert at the Rhymesayers Flickr stream.)

Perhaps the best example of the festival’s variety was embodied by Slaughterhouse, a supergroup with members who cut their teeth in Detroit, Brooklyn, Long Beach, and Jersey City. The group took some time out of their machine-gunning, bass-bombing set (they’re called Slaughterhouse for a reason) to pay homage to the music scenes that spawned them–their DJ spun subgenre-defining cuts from Naughty by Nature, Eminem, and the late Nate Dogg.

Soundset 2011 was among other things a memorial; more than a few of hip hop’s big names and influences have died over the past year. In March, Nate Dogg lost a long battle with strokes and heart complications. Less than a week ago Gil-Scott Heron, the spoken-word poet who brought us “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” died, which may be due in part to an HIV infection. Every tenth person, it seemed, was sporting an “R.EYE.P” t-shirt honoring Minneapolis rawk-sympathetic rapper Micheal “Eyedea” Larsen, who died last October. It was strange watching Larsen’s former cohort DJ Abilities spin alone. The day’s overcast skies seemed fitting.

My favorite performance of the festival came from a veteran of underground hip-hop: Blueprint. Artistry and legitimacy are the biggest concerns on Blueprint’s recent release, Adventures in Counter-Culture, where the rapper explores what he sees as the stagnation and celebritization of hip-hop. The Ohio-based emcee expresses his sentiments best on “Radio-Inactive,” a relentless, sci-fi-beat laden jam from the new album:

I made this in my basement, when you wasn’t even there
To express my feelings, not to be played on the air
So am I wrong or secure if I really don’t care
If this ever turns into something that anybody hears
Man I’m an artist, these other dudes shook
I write my album on my sidekick, no paper, no notebooks
Then rhyme for five minutes straight with no breaks and no hooksNo punch-lines, no similes, so I’m easy to overlook

Most of the artists at Soundset closed their performances with bangers, hits or golden oldies with teeth-rattling bass and memorable hooks. But not Blueprint. He closed his set with the sung track “So Alive,” a short hopeful piece about the bittersweetness of life.

Image courtesy of Rhymesayers Entertainment.

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