Sole Survivor: An Interview with Sole
Underground emcee and producer Sole has had a noteworthy career. Hailing from Maine, he started out slinging battle raps and mix tapes on the West Coast. He eventually became a founding member of the Bay Area indy hip hop label and art collective Anticon. Rejecting corporate label offers, he chose instead to remain true to his independent nature. His rhymes are frequently opinionated and politically motivated, advocating marginalized ideas like veganism and socialism, armed with clever quips and a sardonic sense of humor.
Perhaps most impressive, Sole's raps seem to more or less reflect his actual lifestyle, something increasingly rare in rap these days. Despite the challenges of signing with an independent label, Sole's career has been quite successful. He has toured on several continents, and recorded tracks with well known underground artists such as Slug, Sage Francis, and the Anticon crew. At this stage in his musical journey we find Sole in an interesting place, having returned from traveling in Europe and recently released the intricately sampled, not-so-subtly titled instrumental album “POLI-SCI.187” under the alias Mansbestfriend. He is also exploring a fresh style with his forthcoming album, a new project playing with a live band.
TG: I've always been interested in the name of your record label, "Anticon". I've heard it expressed alternately as "Anti-contradiction" or as "Anti-icon." What does it mean to you?
S: Its just a word Pedestrian came up with. Initially we liked it because it was both corporate sounding and to me, it meant "Anti-conformity." All the other plays on the phrase made it more interesting to us as well. As I started reading more about social movements the term "Ant icon" took on a new meaning. But more then anything it means, "We built this city on rock and roll."
It's relatively unusual for an emcee to make an album using primarily live instrumentation. Why did you choose to make your new album with a live band rather than the traditional turntablism that is intrinsic to hip hop music?
Well, I have been making beats with samplers and records for 15 years now. I got tired of playing live over instrumentals and having to get musicians to tour with me who had no role in making the music. I want, from now on, to build music from the ground up and take it on the road and put on the most impressive shows we can, with more people on stage. If I like the people I'm working with, the better the show is, or at least the more fun it is for me. And to keep doing this I gotta make it fun for everyone involved. When I met the Skyrider guys and heard what they were doing it made perfect sense to start a band with them. Our music doesn't sound live or jam bandy, like "Sole with a band." We're in the studio making rap songs.
In your "propaganda video" for the Sole and The Skyrider Band self-titled album, you describe the record by saying, "It's more personal, it's more about my own experiences. I think it's more mature and grounded. It's not, ya know, 'Pump your fists, let's burn down the malls.' It's more like 'Shit man, what the fuck are we gonna do?'" Can you elaborate on what you mean by that, and how your perspective for making this record was different from how you approached your previous work? What aesthetic were you aiming for?
On Bottle of Humans I had never read anything except Animal Farm, Nietzsche, and The Autobiography of Malcom X. I didn't care about politics, the news, or any of it, I just assumed everything was bullshit. Then around the time of Selling Live Water I was just really starting to develop a more historic view of the world, like many other people after 9-11, I felt that I could no longer be ignorant about the origins of the world we live in. So I began reading lots of stuff: Emma Goldman, Harper's magazine, Guy Debord, Marx, Vonnegut, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, etc... trying to piece together the world as it was – not how it was presented to me. I was always cynical, but I felt at this point I needed facts to back my assumptions.
On Live From Rome I had become obsessed with politics, history, society, etc., and felt that my music had to be a sort of agit prop. I didn't want my lyrics too obtuse or hidden by over-complicated music, so I stripped the music down to put the focus on what I was saying. Critics were repulsed that I would do such a thing, put the content before the music, so the record was largely ignored or treated like, "Somebody tell Sole that we know we're in a bullshit war, but we'd rather write about the new (fill in the blank with some hipster bullshit)." My music has never lent itself to an easy, 30 second blurb, so people have chosen to write about and support stuff that is more pre-packaged, and easy to digest...
So that leads me to this new project. The stuff that we talked about, the stuff that I thought about in exile in Spain, and living in the mountains of Arizona, staring into space, going on long hikes with my dogs.... My priorities changed, I realized all I really wanted out of life was to laugh a lot, eat good food, hang out with my wife and friends, be challenged, and be around beautiful stuff. I stopped caring about being in a city, being surrounded with people who want to feel important. I just want to have a garden. In Europe I learned not to rush to and fro like a crazed American, to stop, smell the grass, take a walk, have your thoughts, chill, read, sip some wine, feel the sun on your face. And that's what this new album is about. When I talk about politics, or society, or history, its a sub plot to my own thoughts.... like "Ooh the sunflowers just bloomed, four U.S. troops died in a suicide bombing, the dog shit on the carpet, we're gonna invade Iran, honey is the tofu ready?"
I don't trust anyone else to bring me water when I'm dying of thirst. I don't expect the government to change. I don't expect people to wake up, not in this lifetime. And I don't expect a revolution (and if one popped off, the rednecks would probably win...). So this is the viewpoint of my new album: "Sure be a vegan, but don't lecture me in your suede shoes." Or, "I only protest on Saturdays, I'm an accountant Monday through Friday." Or "How many times are you gonna give the same diatribe. This isn't coffee talk conversation. People are dying..."
In recent years, some Anticon artists have moved away from hip hop and towards a vibe more reminiscent of indy rock, with live instruments and sung rather than spoken vocals. Anticon artists like Dose and Passage come to mind. Other well known artists like Cage and Eyedea started as rappers but are now fronting bands as lead singers. What do you think about this shift? Is there a natural overlap happening between the hip hop and indy music scenes?
I don't know what motivates others. I know for myself it made more sense to have musicians on stage, because a fake DJ with a CD player isn't gonna get me excited, and I have to do this every night. I also use musicians cause I'm not much of a showman: I don't jump around, I don't ask the crowd to yell things. I don't put on much of an act at all. I just wanna do my songs and have the sound be great. People came to see music, so thats what I want to give them.
Anticon has been criticized by some for its unorthodoxy amidst the world of mainstream hip hop, sometimes labeled as “backpacker rap” or “emo rap”. What is your response to that? With bold releases like the classic “Music for the Advancement of Hip Hop” compilation, what has been your intention to define yourself in a notoriously vicious and insular genre?
I like to stir up the hornets' nest. I live off that kind of shit. I don't really enjoy the threat of violence, but sometimes one must endure such things. Anyone who calls Anticon backpacker rap knows nothing about hip hop history, backpacker rap was a word used to talk about NY indy hip hop in '92-'99, before people began worshiping it on a wide scale. Stuff like DITC, the Stretch and Bobbito show. The stuff I grew up on. That's backpacker rap, Black Moon and Lord Finesse. Emo rap? We put that term out there as a joke, but it's another vacuous term that means nothing and is used by idiots to describe something they can't understand.
Anticon is a strange animal roving the music world. It's difficult to pin down. As the website states, "Because the artistic influences and interests of every soul in Anticon are as scattered and diverse as the hometowns from which they come – the northeast, the midwest, and California – Anticon has been obsessively filed and re-filed in a vast cross-section of musical categories. None of these tags, however – the language of right wing genre police, radio charts, record stores, and magazines – are worth repeating here. Suffice it to say it is 2004, and we find ourselves in the half-twenties of strange lives, in the middle of a unfathomable world, and we are grateful for company: future friends, listeners, and artists alike." I know I'm pushing my luck here... but if you had to describe what Anticon is about in a few sentences, how would you do that?
Anticon is a record label based around the dreams and aspirations of a handful of artists. It's idealism tested out in the real world. First it was a crew/cult then as we grew older, we moved away from that and re-established as a record label. From the beginning, the goal was to put out music that wouldn't otherwise have a home, and now that that machine is built it is what sustains us. It is an ever fluid thing from year to year, which we tweak as we learn lessons in the real world and watch the music industry implode on itself. Now more then ever its about art, and about the art that we are making. Everything we release must have social relevance, and be music that is in some way challenging.
Who are some of your lyrical and musical influences in the realm of hip hop music and beyond?
In hip hop: Buckshot Shorty, Masta Ace, Lord Finesse, KRS One, Organized Konfusion, OC, Nas, Freestyle Fellowship and the whole Project Blowed, Jay Z, Young Jeezy, Lil Wayne. In literature: Lord Byron, Kerouac, Vonnegut, Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman, Galway Kinnell, Francois Dylon, Guy Debord, Don Delillo. In music: Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Pavement, Godspeed, A Silver Mount Zion, Guided by Voices, Neutral Milk Hotel, Silver Jews.
Early in your career, around the time of "Learning to Walk," something of a feud developed between you and Def Jam rapper E-LP. This resulted in two diss tracks: your track "Dear Elpee" and his response, "Linda Trip." Are you and he still on unfriendly terms these days, or did you work it out somewhere along the line?
If I was dying on the side of the road, I'd bet EL-P would give me a lift. We're not best friends, but we have resolved our feud.
Your last LP bares the tongue-in-cheek title Live From Rome. What did you mean by that?
I meant that America had become the new Roman Empire, and you don't need to be in a coliseum to address a few hundred thousand people anymore, you could be sitting in your studio in Oakland, or Idaho. It doesn't much matter. We're all connected, and no one is listening.
Your lyrics discuss themes that are often bleak yet realistic critiques of modern society. As a person who recognizes the corruption in our stylized consumption-culture, what gives you hope for the future?
My dogs. Moving north to where there will still be rainfall. Stockpiling ammunition. Saving up non-hybrid seeds. Learning how to forge things from metal like cans, pots, and whatnot. Learning to build structures. Stuff like that. Having kids and filling their minds up with crazy shit and letting them loose on the world. Going swimming in every clean lake in the world. Becoming a great poker player. Having a decent collection of books. And fires in general.
For me, lyrically, it was a stretch to really consider my personal life. That's not to say I'm not engaged in a struggle. I wage my war with words, but I don't have any illusions about what I'm doing. I relate to people like Bertolt Brecht, who saw their art as a device to engage in that struggle. I'm a social critic and an artist, and that's about it. Have I thought maybe someday I'll run for senator or mayor? Yeah. Would I lend support to an NGO I vibed with? Yes. I'd do anything I could to make the world a happier/safer place. But in the same breath, I want to live and be happy and enjoy my time here. That's not to say I want to be one of these fools who zones out watching sports or reality TV shows and takes a vacation in the Bahamas.... I want to live a life of depth, one that satisfies me. You can talk about saving the world till you're blue in the face, but if you never learn to cook Indian food or drive through Mexico, you ain't worth the carbon you consume.
One aspect of rap I find interesting is that there is ultimately no greater critic of lyrical style than the audience and the emcee themselves. There are no standards or guidelines set in stone. I heard that on your message board, Soleone.org, you mentioned that if your music for the new album wasn't satisfying for you, you were going to reconsider your career. Do you think of yourself as your own worst critic? Considering the blunt triteness of a lot of contemporary raps, what standards do you hold yourself to?
I hold myself to the standards of my favorite writers these days – Don Delillo, or Guy Debord. Sometimes I'll read some romantic poetry from Britain and get inspired to write rhyming couplets. At the same time though I want my thoughts to be clear and come across like some of my favorite rappers, Lil Wayne or Jay Z. I don't think I'm my own worst critic, because after all these years there are still people who love to take their little shots....
The track "The Shipwreckers" is available on the Anticon site.Tweet