I look at it like I'm leaving a trail of crumbs," says artist, label founder and Denver transplant Tim Holland about the dense, politically informed content of his lyrics. "I'm referencing books, authors, ideas, concepts and historical moments the same way that Boogie Down Productions, X Clan and Public Enemy did. Shouting out Shay's Rebellion, the Paris Commune or Emma Goldman is like leaving these crumbs so that people who want to can pick them up."
Holland credits the artists in Lyricist Lounge, Project Blowed and Living Legends, as well as New York City's Fat Beats record store, with the founding of underground hip-hop in the '90s. He deserves a share of the conversation himself via affiliations with Live Poets and especially Deep Puddle Dynamics, which included future Atmosphere co-founder Slug. With those groups and others, Holland helped usher in a new era of experimentalism in hip-hop.
He and longtime friend Pedestrian learned some tricks of the trade while living in Maine and taking trips to New York. During that time, Holland built connections in the music industry, which he used to help found the legendary avant-garde hip-hop imprint Anticon. Artists such as Why?, Sage Francis and Buck 65 have worked with the label.
Sole, with Pat the Bunny, Blind Man Deaf Boy, Jack's Smirking Revenge and Seizure Rights, 7 p.m. Friday, March 14, Seventh Circle Music Collective, $5-$10, SCMCdenver@gmail.com.
"A lot of people, the first hip-hop they ever liked was Anticon, because it wasn't that 'bitches and bling' shit," says Holland. "I put 'bitches and bling' in quotations because that's some half-racist weird shit white people say. When we made Deep Puddle Dynamics, we made all these rules: We don't talk about hip-hop. [Instead], it's conscious and conceptual, and [it's] social critiques and self-examination and all this stuff.
"At the time, that was super-radical, because even in hip-hop, if you weren't talking about violence or bitches or whatever, you were talking about how you're the greatest MC and you're going to serve everyone," he says. "We just wanted to opt out of all of that and do something different."
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Holland grew up in Portland, Maine, and got an early introduction to the world of music when he saw a movie that featured hip-hop on its soundtrack. That inspired him to seek out the Fat Boys, Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy while he was still in elementary school; by the time he was twelve or thirteen, he was making tapes with the aid of a friend's karaoke machine.
Shortly thereafter, a studio engineer in Boston who was dating Holland's cousin helped him get his first real recording made, passing it on to local radio station WMPG, where staff members took to the fledgling rapper. After that, Holland pushed his music in as many ways as he could, selling mixtapes and performing at the mall, playing regional shows and, finally, moving to San Francisco. There he used computer skills he'd developed in a special school program for at-risk youth in Maine to work in network administration while making his music.
It wasn't until 2000, however, that he released his first album as Sole, Bottle of Humans. "I was always in groups, and I've always liked collaborating," says Holland. "But my own rap career was never really my focus. I never wanted to put all the pressure on my music. I never thought I could, so I was content to do the label stuff and work a day job until there was so much demand that I didn't have to work anymore. Even Bottle of Humans — that wasn't even a real record. I was working on the Live Poets album, and that was just a bootleg I put out of songs I had lying around at the time."
No matter what he says, Holland's music has never felt like an afterthought. His solo career and his later post-rock collaboration with the Skyrider Band contain some of the most incisive criticism of the modern American political and cultural landscape out there. His rapid, seemingly stream-of-consciousness vocal delivery is always loaded with concepts and concise, vivid observations. "It's almost like I'm publishing these little essays," he says, "like I'm putting myself through college my whole life."
Exposed to the radical style of Public Enemy, Boogie Down and X Clan, Holland realized that the power of music is often at the root of activist consciousness.
"When you talk to activists, it's always music," he notes. "It's always a song — an Anti-Flag song or something — that got them to where they are. It's crazy to acknowledge that, but it's true: Music introduces ideas."
It was his desire to communicate clearly that sparked his renewed interest in mainstream hip-hop and a new interest in classic folk music.
"What's the point of me reading and researching and writing these lyrics if people can't understand them?" asks Holland. "I started going back and listening to Jay Z, Nas and 50 Cent and all this stuff. At the same time, I was introduced to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and for a decade, I've just been trying to think, 'How do you combine Woody Guthrie with Jay Z? How do you take that organizing-the-workers mentality and mix it with the rap aesthetic in a way that's not preachy or bludgeoning people over their heads and not sounding like a book report?' It took me a while to find that voice."
Holland tried his hand at a remix of Young Jeezy's "My President" and realized he had the ability to do mainstream hip-hop styles. He combined that with the inspiration he took from Lil Wayne's mixtape approach to releasing music and Lil B's reliance on YouTube. He felt reinvigorated, and his dark tone with the Skyrider Band took a turn for the brighter.
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Holland moved to Denver in 2009, partly because he had friends here, but also because he was attracted to the city. Places like Denver are where he sees much of the interesting art and culture of the next decade developing. After moving to town, he became involved in Occupy Denver, a movement that not only inspired him politically, but also helped him learn to trust people, to make friends who have no connection with any music scene and don't want anything from him professionally.
Last year was an especially fruitful one for Holland. He released four thought-provoking albums, including one by an experimental project called WHITENOISE with his wife, Yasamin. He also started The Solecast podcast, where he connects radical political thinkers with music and art.
Currently, Holland is crowd-sourcing his next album, Death Drive, a collaboration with DJ Pain One. He hopes to have it released by May.
"Being involved with activism has given me a whole new vocabulary," says Holland. "I've always been like a poet in an ivory tower, reading philosophy books. I'd never actually engaged in anything. When you see the way that you can effect change, and you see what a conflict with the state looks like...when you know these things and you've experienced it, it changes the way you talk about things. No one wants to be yelled at."