Originally posted to It’s Going Down
“Put the wig on!,” screams a Sole fan in Sacramento, referencing the getup worn by the performer in a video directed by SubMedia.Tv, entitled, “I Think I’m Emma Goldman.” The crowd represents an interesting mix of local hip-hop fans, old Sole devotees, and newer fans, already familiar with the front and center anarchist politics. Wanting to know more about how this cultural intervention was going, I caught up with Sole, the underground hip-hop artist who is touring with DJ Pain 1 (famed DJ and producer who has worked with everyone from Young Jeezy to Ludacris) on their #Def2Amerikka tour. Hitting venues across the West Coast and Midwest, the pair was promoting their new seminal album, Death Drive. Sole is fascinating because he’s an established MC that has underground cred that draws even mainstream accolades. What’s even more interesting is that he’s a hip-hop artist that came to anarchist ideas during his career. Talking candidly about radical politics, hip-hop, race, and touring, Sole also discussed the future of his career and new record label.
“…it wasn’t until I really got in the streets around Occupy did I understand what “anarchist practice” was…”
IGD: You started in the late 1990’s as part of Anticon, a collectively run hip-hop label. Since then you’ve released 8 albums and dozens of mix-tapes, played all over the world, and drawn praise from both the mainstream and the underground. Spin magazine described you as, “A cult-indie rap icon.” What led you to radical politics?
Sole: I was initially lead to reading stuff like Malcolm X and Black Panthers in middle school from listening to music by Public Enemy. For my early work, I kept my social commentary vague because I wasn’t well enough read up [or] researched on most topics to really speak on them without sounding like an idiot or some generic political rapper recycling bumper sticker quotes. After 9-11, I decided that I couldn’t be vague anymore and that I needed to understand why things were the way they were. I began reading Noam Chomsky, Zinn, Emma Goldman, and finally got really sucked into the Situationists, (mostly Guy Debord), as well as studying world history, critical theory, post-modernism and whatever other obsessions I’ve had over the years.
As a full-time musician I was really lucky to be able to spend a lot of my time on the road for the past 15 years just reading and trying to figure things out. I have always identified as some sort of vague Marxist slash Anarchist, but it wasn’t until I really got in the streets around Occupy did I understand what “anarchist practice” was. What real non-reformist organizing looked like; ideas of horizontalism, diversity of tactics, combating patriarchy and white supremacy, building power from below, etc. A lot of this stuff was how I already thought and felt, but didn’t really have the vocabulary for and had never seen in action.
“I’d explain how the, “DIY…Anarchist,” space we’re playing has a closer relationship to my music then some shitty bar and they’d get that, “Word, word.”‘
IGD: You recently toured with Pat the Bunny, who is a well known anarchist folk-punk performer. What was that like? You often draw underground hip-hop heads. Did they rub-up against folk-punkers or was it a good mix?
Sole: It was a good mix, it was an awesome tour. I was really moved by how much positive feedback I got in those spaces. The people who listen to my music are not typical hip-hop heads anyway, but it was generally positive and high energy. There were a few rap cats who pulled me aside and were like, “WTF is this place?,” and then I’d explain how the, “DIY Vegan Anarchist,” space we’re playing has a closer relationship to my music then some shitty bar and they’d get that, “Word, word.”
“…I didn’t have any radicals around to talk with, to learn from, and build with. I never thought I’d see a large scale social movement like Occupy…”
IGD: You described Occupy as having a big impact on you in Denver, Colorado. Can you talk about why?
Sole: I never knew any organizers or activists until Occupy. For many years I always believed in direct action and knew “non-violence” was a joke, but I didn’t have any radicals around to talk with, to learn from, and build with. I never thought I’d see a large scale social movement like Occupy in my life. If nothing else it served as a training exercise that created thousands of organizers all over the US. To me the most revolutionary thing to come out of that was to begin to crack away at the alienation in our society by getting people to share space (even though for some assemblies reinforced that alienation). Getting pissed off people together was the movements biggest threat and why the camps were violently attacked. They don’t wanna see people distributing free food and developing new modes of existence in plain sight.
Sole: I got so lucky with Coal. This director “Chris Acosta,” who does a lot of shit for major labels reached out and said he wanted to make a video, he told me his idea about having it be in a “Black Site,” so we brainstormed back and forth. My main thing was that I didn’t want it to play into some silly “Infowars-esque” paranoia about detention camps and wanted it to feel like I was just one of many people in this detention center that was going to end up in a mass grave, not some Che Guevera figure that was being singled out. Its not a linear narrative in the video; Chris just wanted to depict the kinds of things that are happening now in these legal black holes. Of course if you ask me the entire world is a legal black hole…
IGD: In songs like “Fire the Police,” “Don’t Riot,” “Coal,” and “I Think I’m Emma Goldman,” you combine hard hitting beats, excellent production from DJ Pain 1, and really radical lyrics. What has the response been from old fans to both the new music and lyrical direction?
Sole: Its very mixed but mostly positive. my music was initially popularized for doing, “Rapid fire stream of consciousness spoken word over prog rock beats…” During that time period, I became very interested in mainstream rap and folk music; it became very vacuous to pour my heart out on stage with songs so dense that literally no one could understand what I was talking about. So, I began experimenting with different forms but gravitating towards more “pop” stuff, taking club beats and use them for radical ends. All of a sudden, when it was clear what I was talking about in my music, I started getting comments like, ” Bro if you don’t like this country my cousin died for, GTFO.” Sometimes I can reason with those people, often times all I can do is offer them refunds on their old CDs. One of my favorite things about running my own DIY music operation is that I can see the same names on packages going out to the same people for over a decade, so I know a lot of old fans are still riding with me.
In general, it’s really inspiring to me when I meet people on the road who were introduced to folks like Debord or Emma Goldman or Simulator or whatever through my music. Or they heard some shit on my podcast that gave them some new perspective. I’ve been leaving this trail of breadcrumbs and its nice to know I’m not totally pissing into a vacuum.
“Hip-hop is a black art, white supremacy reigns, so what can I do to undermine it even though I have benefited from it?”
IGD: You’re a white hip-hop artist that talks a lot about race. What’s that like? Do you end up having a lot of conversations with fans about the racial issues that you bring up in your music?
Sole: Being a white rapper since the early 90s has been a really mixed bag of confusing race politics; I think it gives me a different perspective. Hip-hop is a black art, white supremacy reigns, so what can I do to undermine it even though I have benefited from it? I do end up having a lot of discussions about race, and in today’s hip-hop environment there just isn’t a deep enough in depth discussion about race – or any type of politics at all really. Early Sole quotes like, “The white man’s the fucking devil,” I’m sure helped weed out some fucked up white people in the beginning of my career, but people still say and think some stupid shit. I’ve gotten into a lot of intense discussions both online and at shows with people, sometimes it goes badly and I alienate them but I’d like to think I’ve helped civilize more of my white brethren then I’ve alienated.
My supporters are not typical white rap fans though, for the most part they get it. In my field I can never stop thinking about race. As a white rapper I gotta own my shit; my bloody heritage.
“I visited their library; things were split up into 4 sections: “confusion,” “allies,” “enemies,” and “what we believe.”‘
IGD: You played in France in the small town of Tarnac, made famous as being the epicenter of various radical projects and home to those facing persecution as ‘the Tarnac 9‘ for supposedly writing The Coming Insurrection. What was that like?
Sole: That was fucking surreal. I began reading Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee stuff a few years ago and I always loved the poetry of it and its general tone and approach. But, when I went to Tarnac and just started meeting people; touring their farms, seeing the town hall and cabins they are building in the forest, seeing how they moved into a half abandoned town and basically took it over, the books began to make way more sense to me.
With this wave of gentrification and all that’s happening, everywhere I could see a project like that being a good idea in the States. I visited their library: things were split up into 4 sections: “confusion,” “allies,” “enemies,” and “what we believe.” I love the image I have of people debating on where books would go; to really have to stake out a position on every book, that’s how serious these folks are. I was mostly moved by how unpretentious and cool everyone was. I hope to go back and spend more time soon. It’s not like when you go there there are black and red flags hanging from the lamp posts and smoldering cop cars in the streets, from the outside it looks like any French town.
The show was awesome, it was really cool because there was a 50/50 split between locally born folks and political folks who moved there. There was just a great energy in the air. To Our Friends is a book about building infrastructure, (among other things), so it was nice to see what it looked like for folks in Tarnac. They sent me home with green tomato chutney, which was really good and such an awesome use of green tomatoes, that I plan on doing next year.
“The idea is to have a label based around radical politics but to put out the kind of music I like…”
IGD: You just started a new record label. What are you planning to do with it?
Sole: I’m taking the Black Box Tapes record label project very slow, because running a business like this is really stressful and starting a label in 2015 is not a good idea. The idea is to have a label based around radical politics, but to put out the kind of music I like: semi-experimental electronic music, rap music, and whatever else I’m into. To begin with, I’m mostly working with friends and slowly building up infrastructure, keeping costs low so that artists make more money then the label does and take it from there.
I’ve learned a lot in my years as an artist and hopefully it will be of use to others. I want to do more to infuse other forms of music with social movements and try to figure out ways of collaborating with other groups doing cool shit.
IGD: What can fans expect from Sole in the future?
Sole: I have a project coming out in the fall called “mansbestfriend7” which is a self-produced record that is essentially an epic poem about police brutality and global warming. Me and DJ Pain 1 are about halfway done with our new album which will drop in Spring 2016. I’m about to start working on a new WHITENOISE album w/ my wife Yasamin. But who knows? I may have some non-music/art ideas up my sleeves, but talk is cheap, so we’ll see what happens.
IGD: Anything else you’d like to say?
Sole: Much love to you for the awesome work ya’ll are doing and thanks for coming out to my show! Also check out my podcast, the Solecast!