Every day is like a vacation for San Francisco rhymer Sole, a man who has broken free from rap's major-label rat race and staked his claim in the underground. But indie route or otherwise, Sole's working harder than ever.
"I make music till my back is sore at night," says Sole from Belgium, answering questions via e-mail. "I am constantly taking things in for my music. That's what I enjoy. Right now I'm on a two-month, 55-date world tour. That's five days off in two months. After the first week, my body was numb. By week two, the world became a bizarre TV show. By the time I get to America, I will be a skeleton and a mic."
Those spitting bones will represent Anticon, a tight-knit collective of eight like-minded white guys and their "co-worker cousins," rare rap citizens still high from Yo!MTV Raps and committed to pushing hip-hop's envelope. An underground sensation since 1998, the crew has issued milestone recordings of themselves, as well as Sage Francis, Buck 65, and Deep Puddle Dynamics. With its blend of esoteric beats and heady, unorthodox rhymes, Anticon established itself as one of hip-hop's most progressive crews, pushing the bounds of the form like few others.
The label launched its no-capital-letters legacy (presumably because capital letters are for The Man) with the anthology anticon: music for the advancement of hiphop. The presumptuous (and accurate) title ruffled feathers in every hip-hop subdivision from gangsta disciples to the backpacks-and-headphones nation, permanently placing Anticon on numerous dis lists, even as the outfit helped put indie rap on the map.
"The people involved with indie hip-hop are only there because they don't get signed," Sole explains, completely disavowing the scene that counts him as a member. "It's not like 2 percent of the artists in indie hip-hop stand for shit nowadays. It's just: Pass the mic, say HOOA-OOOA, try to fuck a girl after the show, freestyle some nonsense, sing a buncha songs that aren't true. The only people with success are the ones with lots of money to pay publicists and pay for beats. That's not music -- that's a fuckin' camera commercial."
The rapper's pointed jabs at the biz aren't just salty speculation. Now 25, Sole once made his own run at the mainstream. As a teenager in his native Maine, he recorded his first demo in 1992 and shopped it to Entertainment Resources International, the management company responsible for Kris Kross and Da Brat. "He wanted DJ Premier beats," explains Sole's bio. "But all they could offer him were Jermaine Dupri's remixes." 'Nuff said.
Disillusioned with the music industry by age 15, Sole and some of his future Anticon co-conspirators -- Moodswing9, Alias, and DJ Mayo -- decided to go the indie route, working at McDonald's to finance Sole's early records. Pushing the discs on the non-corporate circuit, Sole encountered scaled-down versions of the same corrupt power structures that made the majors so unnavigable. Around the same time, he was discovering kindred spirits around the country, including Doseone and future Anticon maestro Jel. Soon after, Sole moved to San Francisco, where Anticon was born as a posse, a label, and a way of life.
"Anticon, to me, is just an example of the things people can accomplish if they stick together, believe in themselves, and go for their dreams," Sole explains. "People told us our music couldn't make it, it was too weird, blah, blah, blah. Instead of trying to cater our music to any given market, we did what we wanted and spoke what we believed."
Once in 'Frisco, the blossoming battle rhymer spent his days wearing a tie and fixing computers to finance his art. Trading his time for other people's money in the city's swelling dot-com bubble, Sole witnessed the soul-sucking effects of the nine-to-five lifestyle. Eventually, he quit his $52K job and lived in a warehouse for a year. Sole's time spent in the white-collar world still haunts his lyrics: In "Tokyo," he borrows a line from Watership Down: "Run rabbit, 'cause when they catch you, they'll kill you."
His working-stiff experience led to the establishment of two Anticon themes: self-empowerment and the struggle for an authentic existence. That subversive subtext makes Sole's new selling live water the latest chapter in a tradition of dissent literature, from Norman Mailer's prescient 1957 essay "The White Negro" to the consumer-age manifesto Fight Club.
A downbeat-but-def thinkpiece, the LP cycles through sad-piano loops, smoked-out sitars, wilting keyboards, creaking guitars, and a smattering of drum & bass. Avoiding conventional flow, Sole flips from spoken-word recitations to double-time bounce, addressing the war on terrorism, aiming a dis song at himself, and flashing back to a mushroom trip gone bad. The new disc is a stark contrast to 2000's bottle of humans, a rap high-water mark alternately world-weary and hilarious. Selling live water sounds like the work of a morose B-boy on the edge, but that's not the Sole who's granting the interview today.
"It's an attempt at transcribing all my beliefs during that point in time, and it was all very serious things I was realizing about myself and the world," he explains. "I'm a much different person than when I started to record the album. I'm very mellow and happy now. I like to just sit in my house, make songs, and cook good food -- enjoy what I'm doing."
For now, though, it's life on the road. Backed by a cello, Sole works his own drum machine. The crowds are feeling it. And he's feeling the crowds.
"There are all these really interesting anarchist types who understood what we were about from the beginning," he says of his travels abroad, where Sole (and indie hip-hop in general) is particularly well-received. "They don't see it as an alt-rap fashion show in Europe. They respect Anticon for the music we make and the integrity behind the way we handle our business and art."
Indeed, if Anticon played by the rules, Sole would be in an office right now.
"It's hilarious," he says. "You don't have to be a fucking slave. You can control your destiny. There is no need to waste all day in a cubicle doing meaningless shit. That's not living. That's waiting to die."
Run, rabbit, run.