“If there were a charity called ‘Human Beings,’ that’s where we would contribute everything we do,” muses DiViNCi, one-fourth of the Orlando hip-hop clan Sol.iLLaquists of Sound.
A clan, in this case, is more than a figurative description for the two couples that make up the group—a self-proclaimed family of artists that share both an address and a life-guiding ethos. Their music is inseparable from their message, and the message, he insists, is a simple one: “Being aware and responsible for your own power as a human. That power to make change doesn’t often get used, and even more so than that, it gets delegated to things outside of ourselves because of fear.” Even over the phone, DiViNCi radiates a mellow gravitas that simultaneously puts you at ease while challenging you to hold your own ideals under the interrogation lamp. Yes, this is “conscious” underground Hip-hop. But the Sol.iLLaquists of Sound (or Solilla, for short) are not your typical underground hip-hop crew by any stretch.
Their newest release, As if We Existed, is a concentrated and unrelenting polemic against the bullies and briar patches of modern existence. Lyricist and MC Swamburger inveighs against the hypocrisies of our times with acrobatic tongue-twisters, while his female counterpart (and life partner) Alexandrah Sarton fires off equally pointed rhymes in a voice steeped with mellifluous soul. Poetess Tonya Combs provides backup vocal support, introducing the album with a serenely spoken “Pledge of Resonance.” Throughout its twelve tracks, social ills ranging from urban alcoholism and dogmatic religion to careless and insipid Hip-hop slide beneath Solilla’s cultural microscope. The combined effect is like an intervention for the soul, hosted by your own nagging conscience.
Musically, it is also startlingly dynamic, with elements as disparate as drum ’n’ bass breakbeats and chamber strings fused in seemingly natural harmony. Here, producer and MPC-maestro DiViNCi reveals his prodigious skill for both midi production and interpersonal mediation. As the sole instrumental voice of the band, it is up to him to create music that expresses each member’s distinct tastes. Luckily, this is a role he feels especially well suited for: “It’s very convenient that I’m the producer because, it’s funny, but growing up I was always very much a mediator type. I always was very open-minded about lots of different things.” From knowing his bandmates so intimately, DiViNCi can confidently compose music that all the Sol.iLLaquists will relate to. “The other members … definitely have their signature stuff that they get into, and I tend to get into all of it. So that works out really well for all of us, because I’m the one that has to interpret our stuff into a particular sound.”
The Sol.iLLaquists of Sound hail from all over the nation, culled from such arbitrary locales as Lake Geneva, WI (Alexandrah) and Womelsdorf, PA (DiViNCi) but it was in Orlando that their fates would ultimately align. Swamburger left his hometown of Chicago for sunny Florida when his father’s job relocated. Once transplanted, he soon earned a name for himself as an up-and-coming MC in Orlando’s underground scene. DiViNCi migrated south to attend the music production school at Full Sail, and it was through an instructor there that he was introduced to Swamburger. The two kindred spirits hit it off immediately and forged a friendship based initially on their shared love of hip-hop. Then things started happening. Swam landed a deal doing the intro rap for the ’02 edition of EA Sports’ John Madden Football. He used the Madden money as a community endowment of sorts, opening a colorful shop in downtown Orlando called Culture Mart.
It was here that he started what became known as the “Sunday meetings,” an informal gathering of musicians, artists, and community members. DiViNCi recalls these days with more than a tinge of nostalgia: “[The meetings] were a weekly effort to get people together and concentrate on what moves we could make as a people—to unify the culture of Orlando, start doing what we love for a living, better ourselves in any way.” By the time the meetings had run their course, the casual forum had expanded considerably in scope and attendance. “It grew to a point where there were older people there, there were kids there … We even had a guy come in and teach us tai chi!” Music was always a heavy theme, but social activism soon played a large part. On one occasion, a throng of inspired fans marched en masse to a venue to show support for a pioneering local DJ whose club night was flagging. Swamburger paid everyone’s admission.
Most portentous for the future Sol.iLLaquists, however, were the impromptu jam sessions that would invariably follow the Sunday colloquia. Held in a tiny loft space called the Bodhisattva Social Club, Swamburger and DiViNCi would freestyle for hours on end—the “MC-ist” versus the “MPC-ist”—and people would regularly pack the joint. It was at one of these sessions that Tonya Combs made her appearance, quickly becoming a core member of the Culture Mart community.
The culminating act in the saga occurred in August of 2002 when a group of Sunday habitués embarked upon a pilgrimage to Chicago. Here they would reunite with Alexandrah Sarton, whom Swamburger had met in college, and who had recently paid a visit to Orlando herself to record an album with her old collaborator and friend. She and Swam had a musical history before, but the inclusion of DiViNCi to the mix must have been too perfect to ignore. Less than a week after her guests had departed, Alexandrah quit her sundry jobs, piled her belongings and cat in the car, and drove down to Florida to join them.
Once all the members were in one place, the union of the group took on a meaning of its own. Only one word seems to do their unique relationship justice. “It was really apparent that we were a family, you know, before anything,” DiViNCi asserts. “And that’s the way we like to present ourselves, because we make a choice to be a family together before being musicians.”
This informal proclamation met with an unexpected referendum in July of ‘04 when, after mounting complaints from neighbors on the appearance of their lawn, the group faced eviction. Under Edgewood city law, an antiquated statute still on the books ordains that no more than three unrelated adults may share a residence. Despite an impassioned and eloquent appeal by the newly formed family, the code enforcement board reluctantly ordered them to vacate their home. They were granted a slight reprieve in the form of a two-month extension. As if on cue, Hurricane Charlie arrived a scant three weeks later and transformed their contested domicile into a condemned disaster area. The Sol.iLLaquists did the only thing that made sense: They went on tour.
With only the clothes on their backs and the gear in their trunk, the four set up a series of last-minute shows on the way to the one gig they already had booked (and couldn’t afford to miss): a charity concert organized by Hip-hop demiurge Sage Francis. The gig was as make-or-break as can be conceived, and the Sol.iLLaquists stole the show. Sage took the upstaging with the ultimate humility, inviting the group to join him on his upcoming tour as both opening act and his backing band. From February through March of 2005, they played forty shows across the US and Canada as part of Francis’ “Healthy Distrust” tour. Solilla’s incendiary performances blew audiences away in city after city, and Francis soon had them out with him on a second tour that fall.
It is as a live act that the Sol.iLLaquists truly shine, as DiViNCi explains: “There’s so much more that you can give at a show than you can on a record. There’s so much more that plays into the experience. You get to, for one, have a lot more of your senses tuned into what’s going on—being able to, you know, touch a person next to you and feel them freaking the fuck out.” If anyone can ruminate on freaking out during a performance, it is authoritatively DiViNCi. With all the schizoid brilliance of Jimi Hendrix at his most unhinged, the goateed, wispy-maned square pusher convulses in time to the beats he pounds from his dueling Akai drum machines. Rapid-fire solos are played, note trigger by note trigger, with any combination of his fingers, elbows, or entire face glancing off the pads. As a unified force, with Alexandrah and Swamburger sauntering confidently down the stage while unleashing crisscrossing vocal salvos, and with the poised and radiant Combs adding to the lyrical fracas, their shows have been said to bring audiences to tears.
Francis did the Sol.iLLaquists one more significant favor when, at a Boston show, he introduced them to Epitaph Records' president, Andy Kaulkin. At first, the band was apprehensive. “Really, we weren’t too interested in signing with anyone, as we felt that the industry had nothing to offer us that we weren’t already giving ourselves,” DiViNCi recalls. They ran into Kaulkin periodically along the tour and kept up correspondence— along with their defenses. But once the awkwardness and formality subsided, the group began to feel a necessary kinship forming with the Epitaph people. “We really took a liking to not only the way they did things, but most of all, to the people that worked there. We related with them,” he acknowledges. “To make a long story short, we signed a three-album deal.”
The band chose the Anti- imprint of Epitaph (home to such indie heavyweights as Tom Waits and the late Elliot Smith) where they felt the roster’s diversity suited their eclectic sound. When questioned about the artistic control they might have given up, DiViNCi speaks frankly: “We’re not really relinquishing shit … They make suggestions here and there.” The relationship between entities is one of mutual respect, with the label leaving Solilla’s creative autonomy in their own capable hands. “Really man, I invite more criticism from them … because they’re a label, they know what they’re doing. And I know that we’ll never compromise what we’re doing, so they can say what they want all day. It’s up to us at the end of the day.”
With As if We Existed seeing international distribution, and with two more albums guaranteed, one might expect the Sol.iLLaquists to relax a bit. One who expects this will also be tragically unfamiliar with the very nature of the group. “We find ourselves doing even more work now that we’re signed than before,” says DiViNCi. Laughing, he mentions a friendly competition they are engaged in, to try and outsell the label through their own grassroots efforts. “We get really amped about that kind of shit … like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna show this label we don’t fuck around!’”
This is, of course, spoken with a conviction that is at once lighthearted and profoundly intense. “It’s just like, we sort of get motivated by proving to people that we can do things, you know, that we can make things happen,” he explains. “We’ve overcome some crazy shit to get to where we are, and we love proving the potential of people. So anytime we make an accomplishment, we’re not just making an accomplishment for us … we’re making an accomplishment for the human race.”
This article first appeared in Southeast Performer Magazine.Tweet