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[Interview] J-Bird Talks Soundset's Beginning, Keeping It Hip Hop, Favorite Memories, and More

As Soundset prepares for their 10-year anniversary this Memorial Day weekend, I thought it would be important to shine a light on one of the many important people that make the festival possible. J-Bird is one of those people. His Twitter profile describes him as "Rhymesayers management. Soundset booker & producer. explorer. rap dad." but I'm sure he is much more than that. It's incredible what he has accomplished over the years and I am excited to see what he comes up with next. Get to know more about Soundset and his journey below.

UHH: In a previous interview, you mentioned Soundset started in the 90s at First Avenue. When and why did you decide to make it a festival?

J-Bird: It actually first started in a warehouse and then moved to First Avenue as Soundset Wednesdays. This was before I lived in Minnesota. When we decided to finally make it a festival, Jordon Daley came up with naming the festival after it’s origins and calling it Soundset once again bringing it back to the live element of Rhymesayers.

I always wanted to do a Hip Hop based music festival for as long as I could remember, but it just took years for the timing to work out to make it finally happen. For me it was from inspiration I felt from seeing the early Fresh Fest tours with RUN DMC mixed with the experiences of the Rocksteady Anniversaries in New York, Warped Tour and Lollapalooza in its touring stages. I had notes to try to do this going back to when I was in college; it just took until 2008 for it to happen. It was when I started to work with Rhymesayers that the idea developed into what would become Soundset.

Soundset is one of the only festivals I know of that showcases all elements of the hip hop culture. How were you able to build and keep that foundation?

It was always part of the idea. Hip Hop culture shaped my life and probably saved my life. Keeping it as the foundation of Soundset was always the mission. Each element incorporated into Soundset was always in the plan. This also goes back to Soundset Wednesdays.

We’re all fans of Hip Hop culture, so we keep running lists on who hasn’t played and who to book. We also partner with people like CROS-ONE who lives in the BBoy world and is key to making that piece of Soundset continue and grow. We work with Ironlak paint in helping with the live painting portion. I love to be able to book an artist like Jazzy Joyce for example and offer a platform for younger kids to see a pioneer DJ that they may have never heard of before. It’s always about expanding the show over generations of Hip Hop, but also adding a live history lesson too.

In the end, we all try to stay in tune with the culture and help maintain it in a live festival environment.

What has been your biggest obstacle over the past couple years?

One of the biggest challenges is putting together an all day ten-hour festival and everything that goes along with it and to continue to maintain a fair ticket price. It’s not just the cost of the day of the festival, but it’s months of time and people’s work leading into the festival. It’s security. It’s insurance. It’s travel cost. It’s talent cost. Etc. I feel we still keep a competitive ticket price in comparison to other festival experiences, but it’s not an easy task to maintain.

I love the diverse lineup Soundset has every year. Young/Old. Upcoming/Legends. How do you and your team pick the artists?

I think it starts with everyone loving the music first and foremost. Many of us are older and been involved with Hip Hop since our teens. It’s important to stay current, but it’s also important to give back and provide a platform for younger generations to be able to see the legends that started it all. I always wanted Soundset to be a festival that had Jazzy Jay, but also a Chance The Rapper perform. Having Crazy Legs from Rocksteady Crew, but also artists like Ice Cube and Nas to Flatbush Zombies and Tyler The Creator. Diversity is key.

Is there anyone particular that you want to book for the festival that you haven't?

We have tried to book some of these artists, but for one reason or another it has not worked out yet. I would say of the artists that never played, the short list would be: Wu-Tang Clan (although we have had Ghost, Raekwon and Method Man), ATCQ, Childish Gambino, Rakim, Kid Cudi, Jazzy Jeff, Run The Jewels ( El P played in 2009) , Public Enemy and NERD.

It's probably hard to pick but was there a specific moment over the years that you will never forget? (For me, it was 2010 when it rained most of the day and when Atmosphere came on and played "Sunshine" the rain stopped and the sky turned pink)

Here you go, straight off the dome…

2008 – The guest list getting turned in in alphabetical order by FIRST name and nobody catching it until the end of the day because we didn’t have radios. Little Brother playing with huge storms all around us. One huge gust of wind blew over tents, but the show went on and finished safely.

2009 – MF Doom riding up in a police car to the stage, then selling a pair of sneakers by the fence before going on stage. People thought it was an imposter, but it really was DOOM. Lastly, all the artists staying at the Canterbury Inn and kicking it the night before at the bar together in Shakopee while a cover band played 80s rock songs.

2010 – Method Man & Redman stage diving. Having a brand new artist named Wiz Khalifa play for the first time. And 45 King playing records in the BBoy tent

2011 – After three years of trying to book De La Soul, finally making it happen. And, having to drive to First Avenue to get a last minute drum kit for Big Boi’s set and making it back minutes before he went on stage.

2012 – Booking Kendrick Lamar live for the first time. Getting everyone out safely during Lupe’s set when we had to evacuate due to high winds and a storm. Some people stood there refusing to leave chanting, “rain or shine, rain or shine.” Crazy. Atmosphere still played a set at the after party at First Avenue since they did not get perform at Soundset.

2013 – Busta Rhymes not making it in due to mechanical plane issues in Vegas, but Prof filling in with like 30 minutes notice and killing the set. Kodak moment - getting a photo of my daughter with Snoop Dogg.

2014 – Wiz Khalifa getting arrested in Texas, but getting out of jail, hiring a private jet and making it just in time to hit the stage. Chance The Rapper’s performance and having to get some of the family members that drove up from Chicago for show and run them to the stage just in time to catch the set.

2015 – It raining non-stop the entire day and watching all the fans ride it out and not caring for ten hours. Then ending the night out with an unforgettable performance by J Cole while it still rained.

2016 – Bringing Soundset back to the Twin Cities and it being at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. The State Fairgrounds was one of the first venues I had to work for Rhymesayers. I stage managing everyday during the state fair for an all Hip Hop / Rap stage in the early 2000s. Soundset coming back to the Minnesota State Fairgrounds was full circle for me.

Any big plans for the 10 year anniversary that isn't mentioned on the website?

Just feeling good that we have been able to do this for ten years in Minnesota and continue to make it happen. The plan is to have a fun, be safe and have an amazing day with thousands of fans from all over the world.

What can fans expect from Soundset for years to come? Will it always be a one-day festival?

To continue what we do with Soundset and work to make it better each year. Bring together people for the love of Hip Hop and its music and allow them to experience and leave with the memories and discovery of new friends and appreciation for the culture.

Will it always be one day or will it someday also go to another city, that’s a secret we’ll all have to wait and see what happens next.

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Soundset: A Music Festival Hip-Hop Fans Can Only Dream Of

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