Portland, Maine, doesn't quite carry the street cred of, say, Compton. But Sole, who came of age as a rapper in the beatific Eastern state, isn't worried about the geographical connotations of his home town. The battle scars he received in this burg, which he describes as "cold and unforgiving," helped build his character as far back as eighth grade, when he cut his first demo, "David Duke Get the Dick," over a Cypress Hill beat.
"When I was making music at age fourteen, I used to get jumped by the black kids, and the white kids hated me, too," says the rapper, born Tim Holland, who battled the black kids at school while rocking Karl Kani gear from head to toe. "I was the only 'wigger' in Portland, Maine, in 1992. I wanted to be a rapper, and I figured as a white kid in hip-hop, I'd never be taken seriously."
Sole's early experiences as an outsider prepared him for the more turbulent times in his career. He learned to stay true to his vision -- even if he wasn't totally embraced by classmates or, later, the hip-hop community -- and eventually eschewed the major-label route to form his own label, Anticon. But there were a few false steps along the way. At fifteen, he and his parents flew to Miami to shop his demo; he almost signed with Entertainment Resources International, a management company associated with Jermaine Dupri's So So Def label, which is responsible for artists like Kris Kross and Da Brat.
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The deal eventually fell through ("I almost got signed to them in 1993," Sole says. "It never happened, thank God"), and he returned home, where he started his own label, 45 Below, in 1996. The move paired him with a group called the Live Poets, which featured artists including Alias, Pedestrian, DJ Mayo and Moodswing9, and the imprint released a number of moderately successful twelve-inches through the Internet. But when Sole and the Live Poets moved to the Bay Area in the late '90s, their plans for an indie label and artists' collective began to take shape. Sole says Deep Puddle Dymanics: The Taste of Rain...Why Kneel, a compilation of independent hip-hop artists from non-traditional rap centers like Minneapolis (Slug) and Cincinnati (Doseone), helped cement the vision for Anticon.
"[Deep Puddle Dynamics] was the thing that brought us all together when we realized we wanted to start Anticon," Sole says. "We found it necessary to start it because we needed the freedom to make music on our own terms, without outside interference, and we didn't want people to own our music. Model-wise, I think Anticon just really played on the whole hip-hop, crew-record label thing -- labels like Death Row, Boot Camp Click, Wu-Tang."
Anticon currently counts Doseone, Alias, Pedestrian, Oddnosdam, Moodswing9, Sage Francis and Jel among its affiliates and enjoys a status as one of the more active, and controversial, labels in indie hip-hop. From the beginning, the collective played up the literary and political angle that influenced its artistic pursuits.
"It's a bunch of poets and musicians behind the music that are concerned with a lot of social issues, and that's what we talk about. We make music to vent, to find truth and sum up things as best as we can," Sole says, adding that, in contrast to the divisiveness that seems prevalent in hip-hop today, he wants Anticon to "inspire people to be themselves, to encourage kindness and show by example what people can accomplish on their own if they work together instead of buying in and being a slave."
The experimental prog rap that appeared on 1999's boldly titled EP Anticon: Hip-Hop Music for the Advanced Listener made Anticon well known outside of its immediate environs. With the release, the crew made its rep with both Internet rap heads and artsy poet types, though some decried the implied elitism of the title.
"We were being very sarcastic," Sole admits. "However, the music was very advanced for its time. If we were to pussyfoot around, then we wouldn't have gotten anywhere. A title like that sticks in your head; that's the point. We didn't have any money for marketing; we had to rely on the effect of smacking people in the face for attention."
Advanced Listener wasn't so much a smack in the face as an introduction to the Anticon aesthetic. The label's anti-mainstream attitude encourages widely ranging interpretations of its work as well as its name: "We take any words, put 'em together, and however you say it defines it. Anti-con, conformity, anti-iconography. It also means anti-icon -- the little guy strikes back -- and it means 'asshole' in French, and 'fighting music tribe' in Latin."
In short, you wouldn't use "bling bling" -- a term now officially recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary -- to describe the Anti artists' forward-thinking lyrics and progressive beats. Yet not everyone is willing to accept the Anticon crew as harbingers of the future of hip-hop. The members have found as many detractors as fans. At a recent in-store performance at Denver's Twist & Shout, Murs from the Living Legends berated crew members by questioning their sexual orientation and claiming that they were "scared of black people." Sole's beefs with other lords of the underground, including rapper El-P, have also been well publicized.
As a pre-emptive strike against those who slam them, the Anticon fellows published a "top-secret missionary training booklet" that lists popular reasons why people hate the group: "It's not hip-hop," "They're a bunch of white boys," "It's pseudo-intellectual and pretentious," and so on. But ever since the early days, when he suffered beat-downs for his style of rap, Sole has avoided preconceived notions of what defines rap: "Hip-hop is a big form of music, and this is my interpretation of it, so I'm basically saying, 'Get off my dick.'"
That confidence comes through on Sole's new album, Selling Live Water, a defiant screed that is part autobiography and part political tome influenced by thinkers like Noam Chomsky and historian Howard Zinn. Sole's name-dropping of famous leftist academics and popular magazines like Adbusters in his liner notes and lyrics show an evolution from his origins as a battle rapper. The beats sound at times both claustrophobic and atmospheric -- like a Pink Floyd sausage sliced through a hip-hop meat grinder.
"It's just an evolution in what I'm doing," Sole says. "I think this new album is more to my roots. I was trying to make a classic hip-hop record with the new writing techniques I'd learned. The difference is that I'm a lot more mature, I know what I'm doing and talking about, and I don't feel the need to make apologies for it. Selling Live Water is an attempt at sizing up the world as I see it in a more complete manner than making vague self-absorbed rants like my last record, Bottle of Humans."
Tracks like "Plutonium" sound like word-salad collages culled from news headlines. The inspiration for that song arose from an ABC news report that said that "every human being alive today has plutonium in them because of when the Challenger exploded." Sole uses the refrain "It must be the plutonium in me" to bounce off lines like "If this was the '20s, I'd be a socialist in a Colorado coal mine" -- a reference to Zinn's The 20th Century: A People's History, which in one section documents Colorado's brutal labor history. "I had no idea about this labor struggle before reading the book. I just wanted to throw a few factoids in there. The song is not a book report, but I wanted to tell people to read the book in my liner notes.
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"People like Zinn and Noam Chomsky have done all this research," he continues. "They articulate what so many people suspect but don't have the facts to back up. I've been able to put together a much stronger worldview by studying them, and I didn't have to waste $100,000 on college."
Some find Sole's edutainment value contrived, but a look through his lyric booklets suggests that he is "publishing poetry books as records and music art," as he contends. In fact, the rapid-fire lyrics read like dadaist art poems or cut-up political manifestos, fashioned in the style of punk groups like the Minutemen. Elsewhere, the tone ranges from Dylan-esque ("Teepee on a Highway Blues") to confrontational: On the opening cut, "Da Baddest Poet," he addresses those who have dissed him on record as well as in the press: "MCs don't want beef/They wanna shake my hand/Then make a dis song about me."
"This is how I wanted to address the multitudes of people talking shit," he says. "It's all part of the fashion show: 'Dis Anticon -- they're fags. You're tough if you dis Anticon.'"
"I enjoy pushing people's buttons," he adds. "Music is sacred to me. Groups like Public Enemy changed my life by standing for something in their music. When I grew up, I wanted to affect people in a way that is empowering to them. I'm surely not here to reinforce stereotypes -- misogyny, the male ego and all the other nonsense that has run amok in hip-hop these days. That's not hip-hop; that's a Nike commercial."