Meet JBird, the man behind Minnesota's biggest hip-hop festival

Soundset is on its 10th year and JBird is growing more

As Soundset is about to embark on their 10th anniversary having acts such as Travis Scott, Gucci Mane and Mac Miller headline, we decided it was time to meet the man behind Minnesota’s biggest festival and RhymeSayers, the independent hip hop record label based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In this interview we talk with JBird about planning of the festival, true meaning of Soundset, how he chooses the highly stacked lineup and even how you could get onto the lineup, read below!

  1. Describe the beginning stages of Rhymesayers.

I entered the Rhymesayers picture in the late nineties crashing on Siddiq’s couch in South Minneapolis. We would drive up from Chicago for shows at First Avenue. Kevin Beacham was there too. This was my unofficial, but I’m down period. When I moved to Minneapolis in the early 2000s, it was just the store, Fifth Element, and a small back room that was our entire Rhymesayers office. It really was an exciting grassroots artist-collective operation.

Everyone was really in it together. A what ever it takes work ethic and attitude. We would all work shifts in the store. At inventory time, every one was there all night including the artists. For example, when we released the Eyedea & Abilities album First Born, we all packed CDs in diapers to mail out. Tours were booked through the Rhymesayers message board. You know, the times of an AOL email address and driving to Cincinnati for Scribble Jam.

In the early years, Rhymesayers had no physical distribution, so the fan base was built on the road.  The live show aspect was important to the growth of the artists and Rhymesayers as an organization. We toured the Rhymesayers distribution around North America; hand-to-hand and store-to-store selling music and merchandise. We always branded the artist along with the label. This built our mailing list and our touring base. By the time, Rhymesayers had distribution for Atmosphere’s, God Loves Ugly, the cities were primed to be sellouts. Seems like yesterday, but this was 15 years this June.

  1. What was the initial inspiration for creating Rhymesayers?

I was not there in the very beginning stages, but my inspiration for joining the Rhymesayers crew stemmed from believing in the artists as people and the music they were creating. Overcast!, Beyond and the Headshots tapes were the early influences to me musically, but the live show is what truly inspired me. Being on the road with Slug and Eyedea & Abilities in the early days and experiencing people’s positive reactions to them as people and their music sealed it for me. It felt right and I wanted to contribute whatever I could to help take it worldwide. The core crew of Rhymesayers was there when I arrived in Minneapolis, but I just wanted to do whatever I could to help build it and take it to as many people as possible.

  1. At what point did working for Rhymesayers turn into a full time job for you?

The minute I arrived in Minneapolis it was full-time. I lived on Garfield and 22nd Street and pretty much stayed between my apartment and the store on Hennepin. It was all day everyday Rhymesayers. At this time, it was just Siddiq and myself in the office. So we were marketing, sales, distribution, publicity, customer service, mail order, merchandising, manufacturing touring and so on. Soon after Kevin and Skye came on board, then we had a four man crew, but I spent much of 2000-2004 on the road.

Book a tour, go on tour and build it on the road fan to fan then come home and do it all over again. There are no minutes or hours, I never kept track. It was always do whatever needed to be done, no matter how long it took or the sacrifice to get it done. Seventeen years later, it still feels the same – in a good way.

  1. Are you satisfied with how much progress of Rhymesayers has made since it started?

When the 20 year anniversary happened a few years ago, I had a moment to sit back and really and take it all in. The years really flew by and watching the archive footage, looking at the old photos, fliers and tour books honestly made me realize how much had really happened. I was there for over fifteen years of Rhymesayers and here I was standing in the Target Center celebrating 20 years of being an independent label with fans, family and all the artists from over the years. I looked around at the crowd young and old and could really feel the positive energy around me.  This was a gratifying moment that I will never forget.

  1. Do you feel there’s plenty of room for improvement?

There’s always room for improvement and growth. You always have to adapt and roll with the changes. Every artist, song, album and tour is a new challenge and opportunity. Show and prove always.

  1. How many years has Soundset been going on?

As a festival, this is our tenth year. The first Soundset as a festival was in 2008 at the Metrodome Parking Lot downtown Minneapolis. That place doesn’t even exist anymore. It was roughly 12,000 people that year. Atmosphere and Doomtree closed the stages.

  1. How long does it usually take for you and your team to plan Soundset?

It honestly never stops. The week after the festival happens, we review everything, the good, the bad, what worked and what can be better. Then it’s on to the next year almost immediately. It really is a working plan in motion that never stops.

  1. When choosing the lineup, what do you guys take into consideration?

It’s a Rhymesayers festival, so there’s always Rhymesayers’ artists that perform each year. We then review who has played before, how long ago and try to minimize the repeat performers. There must always be a strong Minnesota local artist presence too. The lineup has to be diverse, spanning the years of Hip Hop. It has to be well-rounded both new and old including something for everybody. It’s not just the act, but how good is their live performance.

Then it’s reviewing all our internal lists, seeing who has new music out, building with agents and managers to develop the first draft priority list. There is always a conscious thought to keeping the lineup balanced. It’s a challenge when you’re a one day genre-based festival to stay fresh and not have too many of the same artists play every year. What the lineup starts out to be and what it ends up as is always different. It really is a puzzle to try to create the best show possible each year and stay within budget.

  1. What would you say Soundset is all about in your own opinion?

It’s presenting Hip Hop culture in a live festival setting for people of all ages and giving them a diverse collection of DJs, MCs, painters and B-Boys & B-Girls. It’s about giving the best show with music and culture as a foundation to bring people together as a community. It’s about bringing all these pieces together in one day and everyone leaving with the wholeness of a well-balanced experience of Hip Hop culture. We try to offer something for everybody to enjoy and hopefully they’ll leave also discovering something new.

10. What’s your day like on Soundset from when you wake up until you go to bed?

I’m on site by 7am. Review the weather report first. I then run through a briefing of any pending issues and review the entire site for last minute fixes or changes; quality control and details across the board of the entire site. Check in with all the managers of each area. Review each stage. Meet with security and check the gates and perimeter. Check with our artist liaison team to make sure everything is on track. Follow up with the box offices at both gates, will call, guest list and VIP. Make sure everything is 100% ready for gates to open. Try to resolve any problems before gates open. It’s about the details and reviewing everything top to bottom.

At 11:00am, get everyone through the gates, safe, smooth and as fast as possible to start the day off right. Then the entire day is multi tasking to do whatever I can to make sure the experience is safe and the best it can be for the fans, artists and crew. Troubleshooting is a leading component in daily operations. But you hope it’s minimal. It really becomes a day of doing whatever needs to be done, wherever it needs to be done and however it needs to be done. I try to catch as much music between challenges the day offers. Toward the end of the show, make sure the exit plan is reviewed so people can leave safely and depart on a positive-happy note. Then do it all over again at the First Avenue after party. Then hopefully have a few drinks, hang with our hard-working crew and artists and have some fun before getting a few hours of sleep. It’s not always easy, but I honestly love what I do.

11. After Soundset what are your plans for the rest of the year?

Releasing new music on Rhymesayers and working on tours for our artists around the world. Excited for what’s coming this year. This will be a big year for us with multiple album releases; Grieves, Prof and Evidence. The new Brother Ali album just came out a few weeks ago and he’s on tour with Sa-Roc until June. We’re doing an all Rhymesayers lineup for the 50th Anniversary of Summerfest in Milwaukee in July. Atmosphere is doing an exclusive tour of California in August. Then we’ll start booking Soundset 2018. I actually already have an artist list started for next year.

12. In the next five (5) years what do you expect Soundset to be like? 

Stay true to what we do and continue to make it better in the future. Still bringing people together and creating memories based around Hip Hop culture and its music. Introducing new and younger people to the live festival experience. Hopefully, we can continue to grow the festival and improve Soundset to make it “Bigger and Deffer”.

13. What advice would you give to some of the local artists trying to get on next years lineup?

Continue to make great music and build your fan base. Establish a local following that is yours and have a great live show to back it up. If you make noise and its good noise, we’ll hear it and want you to be part of Soundset. Make us come to you. It always starts with the music and your live show and how we can both compliment each other and work together at the right time.