Sole - 7/7/2011
Sole is an emcee who's been putting out records for fifteen years. A little over a year ago, he left anticon., the seminal hip hop collective that he helped found. This year has seen the release of the mixtape Nuclear Winter Volume 2: Death Panel, and Hello Cruel World, his fourth album in collaboration with the Skyrider Band. He recently took the time to talk with us about everything from his new hometown to music journalism, philososphy, the new albums, and the music industry.
Scratched Vinyl: You’ve moved around quite a bit, but have recently ended up in Denver. What inspired this latest move?
Sole: It’s kind of like a combination of all the places I love in one. It’s a very pedestrian friendly city, so you can have a nice house and live downtown, and still be in the mix of everything, but not in this crazy traffic-oriented city. Before this, I was living in Barcelona, then I moved to Arizona. I lived around the woods for a long time, around Flagstaff and Sedona. I feel like Colorado is has the best of both worlds, as far as that stuff is concerned. Culture, young people, shows, modernity, and you know, I can go swimming in a reservoir, or go camping, and the air is really nice, and the climate. And it’s cheap! You can live for next to nothing here.
SV: So how do you feel your changing location has affected you as an artist, since location is often a key factor in forming an identity in hip hop?
Sole: I think it’s effected it in a lot of ways. For a while, I really envisioned myself as more of a poet. So traveling around and soaking up all of these different experiences, you’re understanding the world and different kinds of people. You know, when I was living in San Francisco, the Bay Area, it’s one perspective. You live in this crazy bubble, where you think the whole world is California. But the rest of the world isn’t like you. So it’s like, you know, for a while it felt like a false Utopia to me. It influenced my art in really bizarre ways. When I was living in the Bay, I hated rap music. All I listened to weird indie rock and hippie shit. Then all of a sudden I’m in the middle of the Coconino National Forest, discovering Lil B and Young Jeezy. Really, moving all around, on an emotional level, is exhausting. It’s part of my quest, but I’m done moving for a while. Well, especially now in Denver, I’m around a lot of musicians. So, I’m hanging out with a lot of musicians who inspire me in different ways. I think it’s more about the people you’re around than the place, really. It’s all in who you keep.
SV: You’ve been playing with the Skyrider band for a while now. How did you first hook up with them, and how has your sound developed with them?
Sole: Well, we met because of this rapper Bleubird. I had produced a bunch of tracks for him while I was in Spain. I gave him the files, and he gave them to Skyrider, and then they played instruments over it, and just took my noise and made it songs. I was really impressed, the way they worked. When I moved back to America, I would stay with them occasionally, and would go on tour with them. I don’t know, it just kind of happened. I had just moved back to America, I was trying to figure out what kind of record I wanted to make, and I was really bored with everything, and those guys came out, and we just worked on a record, and we had fun doing it, so we all decided that we would move to Flaggstaff for a while. So it was kind of a fluke thing. My intention was to make this Godspeed You! Black Emperor hip hop shit. And you know, over the years it evolved. Our taste evolved, and our music evolved, to a more refined mainstream rap perspective.
SV: That is one thing that hit me as I’m listening to the new album - it has a certain weird post-rock vibe to it, but there is also a mainstream rap sound to it. It’s an interesting mix.
Sole: Yeah, it reads like a fucking one-sheet, but it was a very organic evolution of the sound. I’ve been listening to nothing but gangsta rap for like seven years. And, it takes a while for me to absorb influences. And I think the thing I always liked about listening to Jeezy, Lil Wayne, and T.I., is that I could always understand what they’re saying, and they function really well with the song. You know, I’ve been touring the world, performing these songs, I’m rapping a thousand miles an hour, and unless you have the words memorized, you don’t understand what I’m talking about. So, what’s the point about talking about all this shit, what’s the point of putting any effort into lyrics, if no one can understand what I’m saying? So it took me a while to find a bridge. I think of rap as folk music. When you listen to a Dylan song, or a Woody Guthrie song, you can conclude what the point of the song is - what they’re talking about. I just wanted to hijack those styles to talk about anarchy, and to talk about the shit that’s important.
SV: How did the Nuclear Winter series come about? It’s interesting, because we’ve got mainstream samples and current event-based lyrics.
Sole: It’s fucking ridiculous. Two years ago, URB magazine asked me to do a podcast for them, and I decided not to make a mix for them with a bunch of people on it. As soon as they asked me to do that, I kept thinking of the song, “My President,” by Young Jeezy. I had heard like four verses of the songs, where everyone from Li’l Wayne to Jay-Z to Kanye all had their version of “My President.” And they were all non-critical, like, “Hey, we got a black president.” So I wanted to do this version of “My President” for this URB thing, that would be a sort of rebuttal. It was influenced by my favorite philosophers, Guy Debord and the Situationists from France. What they would do is this method called “detournement,” where they would take something and re-appropriate it for their own means. It’s very common now. They would use it for art, like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa, or whatever. So I thought it would be interesting to apply French philosophy to gangsta rap. So you know, I made for that. Then I made a song to “Every Day I’m Hustlin’,” because, you know, every day I’m hustlin’. Then I made a whole record of that stuff, and then was like, “Wow! I really love this music. This is where my interests are right now.” And I thought when I put that out, I’d lose all my fans. But instead, everybody loved it. They were like, “Oh, I’ve never heard anything like this.” And so then after we finished the Sole & Skyrider album, I was like, “I wanna make a song for Bradley Manning. This is fucking crazy. So then it was like, well, make Nuclear Winter Vol. 2. But on this one, you have to discuss current events as they happened to you. It was an exhaustive project but it was really fun. I’m glad it’s over.
SV: One of the songs that stood out on the mix was “The Long War,” in which during the intro you speak to Lupe Fiasco about the reception of his new album, and you call out Pitchfork writer Ian Cohen by name. Do you actually have beef with him? Does he really irk you?
Sole: No, no, I mean, honestly, the whole backlash against white rappers in the hipster media, it’s just kind of sad. Because these white journalists, they just go with the lowest common denominator, the most mainstream - you know, we all love T.I., we all love gangsta rap and coke rap and all that shit. I think it’s really weird...I have to choose my words carefully, because I don’t want to sound bitter. You know the media, they don’t fuck with white rappers. And it’s like, Lupe Fiasco, because he’s talking about social issues, it’s like the hipster media, and I use that term, you know, however the fuck...the hipster media wants music that is devoid of any social commentary. And it’s like all these people went to college - they see that there are no fucking jobs. They see that we’re in endless wars on all sides. And yet they continue to promote the most pensive, easy-to-eat music. I mean, like Lupe Fiasco to me is one of the best artists out there, who bridges difficult issues with pop music. You know, I feel like people should be holding him up, like yeah, he’s got five fucking bullshit R&B songs on the album, but he’s also got songs where he says more than anyone. And in that Ian Cohen review, he completely avoided all the songs that were good on that record and just hopped on the bad shit about that record. And to me, that’s just telling of how these writers, they don’t want people talking about shit. I don’t know how else to put it.
SV: Which is exactly why we started Scratched Vinyl. Other magazines will cover all sorts of different types of rock music, but then when it comes to hip hop, they just like someone like Lil Wayne. When it comes to interesting independent hip hop, they usually just ignore them.
Sole: It’s just really weird to me, because these people are tastemakers, man. And, the same people who build you up can be the same people who decide not to write about you. I don’t know. It’s really a difficult thing to talk about. There’s like there’s this self-hating white journalist, at least with hip hop, image I have in my head. They want to diminish what I’m doing as like white guilt or something. You know, they’re the ones with the white guilt wires all crossed up. Like I’m fucking talking about real shit. Even shit like B. Dolan or Mestizo, you know, there are so many exciting hip hop artists right now. In indie hip hop. But the media won’t fuck with any of them. You know, but Kreayshawn, “Gucci Gucci,” is hailed as an anti-consumerism anthem. Like they fall for this fake viral video shit. But they’re not supporting people who are really putting in the work. That being said, on this record, I’m getting more press than I have before. Like bloggers who haven’t supported me before changed their mind. You know, so that’s positive. But it’s still a fucking struggle.
SV: It’s like there’s not a space for white artists who are just using hip hop to express themselves, but aren’t claiming any sort of street cred or hard life backstory. They’re not like Eminem. They're just themselves.
Sole: Yeah, and then you’ve got Drake, who was on Degrassi. He’s not from New Orleans. And yet he can put on the accent and rap about whatever. It’s a game.
SV: The track right before “The Long War” is “D.O.I. (Death of Industry).” How do you feel about where you were and where you’re going in the music industry?
Sole: I started off as a insurgent artist. Fighting against the entertainment industry. I got a little comfortable with anticon., it didn’t last too long, but now I’m back to fighting my own guerilla war. You know, everything flows in cycles. I never really enjoyed being the middleman. I never really enjoyed being responsible for other people, being responsible for the success of a record that’s not my own. And that’s why anticon. became a collective, as opposed to being my record label. I’m actually really excited about where I’m at right now. I feel like I’m fully in control, I’ve learned so much in the last ten years, in this crazy time in music. People don’t know how to promote a record. They don’t know how to reach people, or how to use all these various networking tools, how to make everything fit into each other. The technological aspect of promoting music has always come very naturally for me. Do you know who Brian Cox is? The string theory guy on the Discovery Channel. He was recently talking about the future, and he was saying how in the future, to work, we’ll need masons, we’ll need gardeners, we’ll need cooks. But what we’re not going to need is middlemen. Brokers, people who produce very little, just connect people. With advent of Priceline, travel agents are out of business. With the advent of iTunes, record stores go out of business. So the future of the music industry is very weird. It’s like what we’re seeing now is major labels trying to put management people with like Odd Future or Kreayshawn and kind of, for a while, people are going to fall for these fake viral things that appear out of nowhere, when really they’re made by people who are pulling strings. I kind of see that being the model for like the next few years. I see a lot of artists with no labels popping up. I draw an incredible amount of inspiration from Lil B’s hustle. His whole model - he runs like fucking Spam-bots on Twitter, and making an album like every month and releasing it for free. Just hustling’. Working and working. He doesn’t sit around and wait six months for his album to come out. He doesn’t wait for a premier on Pitchfork - he just goes. It’s such a great model of like making your own videos, having your own internal engine. A little working class perspective. Like the way I live my life, is pretty fucking simple. I just wake up, work on music, log into my social networks every few hours, write my little updates for the day, go back to work. It’s a pretty nice life. I don’t have to tour all the time. There are a bunch of artists who are struggling right now. If they would just take their catalogs back, they’d be living very well right now. But a lot of artists just don’t want to do the hard work. And that’s why there’s this whole infrastructure in place. I mean, I’d rather do that extra work than get a second job.
SV: You mentioned Lil B, who is featured on Hello Cruel World. How did you first meet?
Sole: I made this video where I was burning IRS papers in my garden set to a Lil B track. And then I tweeted it at him. And then he retweeted it and we just started talking. This was like a year ago, before he was really big. We started talking about doing a track. I sent it to him, he liked it, and we did it. It was cool, man. He’s definitely one of my favorite artists.
SV: What’s your take on his “I’m Gay” campaign?
Sole: First of all, I think the album is his best album. The whole “I’m gay” shit? Frankly, I wish he hadn’t called it I’m Happy. I wish he would have stuck to his guns. That’s part of why I love Lil B. He’s able to take people’s criticisms of him and say, “Yeah, you’re right. I’m a bitch.” I should call my next album I’m Black.
SV: Hello Cruel World is your first album since you split with anticon. Can you tell us why the split happened?
Sole: Yeah. As far as the artists, who I started the label with, I’m cool with those people. I love those people. It just came to a certain point where it wasn’t working for me any more. I felt the like the label was something that I no longer recognize, on a business and artistic level. For years and years, I struggled and fought for the vision me and Pedestrian had when we started the label. And it would just ruin my day. And it was reflected in my music. My music during that period suffered. So when I moved to Denver, I had a day job, and I found myself getting no support from people. And I was like, you know what? Fuck this. I’ll just pull my catalog, and if that’s the end of my career, then so be it.
SV: Obviously, you’re still cool with Pedestrian, since he wrote “Home Aint Shit” on the new album. Are we ever going to see another Pedestrian album?
Sole: I know him and Walter Gross are working on a project right now. I think he’s more into doing sermons. That’s what he’s doing more than anything now. So he and this dude Walter Gross are doing this experimental noise thing, where he incorporates a lot of folk music. I know they’re working on something, but I don’t know what it’s going to be. I know he was working on an album where he was writing songs for other people. As far as I knew, he got a lot of people, but I don’t know if it actually happened.
SV: You’re doing a small tour to support the album. Are there going to be any further tours later in the year?
Sole: Yeah, we’re looking at hitting the Midwest and East Coast right now. In September we’re going to Europe. And then we’ll see after that. Whatever people want.
SV: Finally, if there are three artists you could work with that you haven’t worked with before, who would they be?
Sole: I would say Young Jeezy, Lupe Fiasco, Efrim from Silver Mt Zion, Bob Dylan, or Willie Nelson. That’s going to be the next Sole & Skyrider album.
To find Sole and the Skyrider Band on tour, visit http://www.soleone.org.