“Artists are Part of the Working Class”: An Interview with Sole

Portland, Maine isn’t exactly a hip-hop mecca and Tim Holland isn’t the first image that comes to mind when we think of a rapper. Performing under the stage name Sole, this red headed vegan mixes dense, brooding beats with stream of consciousness rhymes that deconstruct hip-hop conventions. In his lyrics, he’s paid homage to Guy Debord and the Sugar Hill Gang. But Sole is more than a curiosity, a white rapper with avante garde bent.

Growing up in a working class family in de-industrializing Reagan-era Maine, his journey is also the story of hip-hop: a superfluous worker turning “play-labor” into a paycheck. By 1998, Sole’s creative, purposeful self-activity—his work—took from Portland to Oakland, where he co-founded Anticon, an independent record label that put music that some described as “the hip-hop equivalent of post-rock.”

In a label of outsiders, Sole’s music was the angriest and most political. In his various works, he’s reflected on alienation, and the predations of global capital, and permanent war. In 2010, Holland left Anticon and began to release his music on his own imprint, Black Canyon Records.

Since then, Sole took his politics from the recording studio and concert hall and into the street. He became active Occupy Denver and continues to work with radical movements. To this day he helps organize militant street actions, infrastructure projects and confrontational demonstrations against capitalism and the state.  Sole has contributed writings to Its Going Down, Revolution News, Daily Dot, and hosts a podcast called the Solecast he releases with radical media organization Unicorn Riot (where he also helps out with protest coverage and media).  He is often called in as a strategist for media and campaigns on homeless rights to environmental issues.  Sole is a true revolutionary, building and spreading power and revolutionary practice in Denver and beyond.

Brendan McQuade recently talked to Sole about his journey, his involvement in anti-capitalist movements, and the changing nature of his work.

What was it like growing up in Maine in the 1980s? Was there anything about you social position and family background that led you to hip-hop? What made you stick with it?

I grew up in a working class family. My mom ran a hair shop out of her house and my dad ran a welding shop. I grew up around working class people who were they own bosses. I saw all the ups and downs that came with owning your own labor. My father had a pretty serious heroin addiction and lost it all. We went from being pretty well off to pretty poor.

All that trauma shaped me as man. It led me to be really critical of everything. A lot of anti-authoritarianism probably begins with your relationship with your father. I was also really encouraged by mother. Her encouragement and just being around parents that were go-getters made me think that I could do whatever I wanted.

So even though there were no white rappers that were very popular when I was growing up, I thought I could do it. Growing up with a father who was an addict, it turned me off from drugs. While other kinds were off smoking weed, I was in off in my basement making Public Enemy rip-off songs.

It was Public Enemy that really clicked with me. Since I was always getting in trouble, the gangster shit clicked with my inner bad kid. A lot of that early so-called gangster rap was really subversive. It wasn’t so materialistic and nihilistic as hip-hop today. It also was so distinctly different than my experience, growing up in this fishing town, and it drew me into hip-hop.

You’re a white rapper but you don’t try to be Mac Miller or even Eminem. In your Nuclear Winter mix tapes, for example, you’ve remixed club jams into left polemics that you released as free downloads. How do you see your work both existing within hip-hop conventions, while also trying to deconstruct them and the wider commodity culture?

I had become popular for this super-dense, abstract, fast rapping, stream of consciousness rap. I felt like I wasn’t communicating effectively with my music. Around 2009, I was listening to gangster rap like Jay Z and Little Wayne. It’s powerful form of communication. I think Little Wayne makes really innovative music and is very effective communicator.

I wanted to flip that shit and use mainstream rap aesthetics to invert the meanings of the songs and put in an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist analysis in there. I took Mac Miller’s “Donald Trump”, which is a song that celebrates of capitalism, and did a détournement. I made into a song about capital and imperialism. For me, the role of rap music has always been to leave a trail of crumbs that can radicalize people and push them further. I never would have read Malcolm X or Huey P Newton if I hadn’t grown up listening to Ice Cube, Chuck D and KRS-One.

I wanted to do the same thing but for this moment. I wanted to take a style that we can dismiss as ignorant and superficial and use it get people thinking about Noam Chomsky or Emma Goldman, instead giving shout outs to people like Trump and Bill Gates.

When I was making Nuclear Winter, I saw my music as a rap as journalism. I saw it as making detournements that instantly responded that made a counter-narrative. It felt very important. As social media developed and there became a shadow world of media, the post-Occupy radical media, it felt less important to make those kinds of songs where I rap about global warming. No shit, global warming is fucked up. Now, I’m back to making some stuff that’s less in the moment. I’m trying to take a longer a view and place our moment in a deeper context so I’m not just pissing into the abyss and making stuff that’s only holds fleeting relevance. In the media and culture industries, everything is so temporary. That approach doesn’t feel subversive any more. 

Your music was political long before you became actively involved in movements. How did you get interested in radical politics? When you first started making music, what did you think about inserting politics into your craft? Did you have explicit reason for politicizing your music? Has your involvement in Occupy and other movements changed the way you think about music?

I never liked political hip-hop. I was thought it was boring. I always kept my commentary really vague. But then I was in New York on 9-11 when the planes hit and it snapped me out of it. I realized that I couldn’t hide behind my ignorance. I had to educate myself. I was lucky because I was doing music for living and I had all the free time in the world to educate myself.

The first thing I picked up was Noam Chomsky’s book on 9-11. When I saw the trade towers fall, I knew it was blowback but I didn’t have the broad historical sense to really express it. I went from Chomsky to Marx to Emma Goldman and Howard Zinn. I spent a lot of time in that period on those four in particular. It was basic radical history and philosophy 101 but that was my path and shaped my work. For instance, I wrote the song “Plutonium” after reading about striking coal miners in Colorado in the People’s History of the United States.

A little later, I discovered Guy Debord. That focused me as an artist and poet because it’s essentially an art movement that goes beyond art. They created art that actively intervened in the world. They tried to broaden the approach to revolution. It spoke to me in an aesthetic way. Having grown up at the beginning of the internet and seeing the way that images ruled our lives, the analysis in Society of Spectacle really resonated. I spent years thinking about the situationists and took a lot out of them.

Moving forward, when things started with Occupy Denver, I was well positioned to help out. I had an analysis that allowed me to blur all my experiences as an artist, running a label, and doing PR with activism. We were able to be pretty effective in our creative interventions.

Can you elaborate on this a bit more? How were you able to turn your experience being an entrepreneur in the entrainment business for political work?

Well, when I first showed up to Occupy, there was no press team. No one new how to write a press release. None one knew how to write a communique. We started a press committee. One of the first things, I wrote was an open letter to Governor Hickenlooper. He had told us we had to leave so I was primary author of this rebuttal to him. I realized that all I could use this fiery rhetoric that I’d been putting in poetry and all these thoughts about repurposing commodified images for politics.

Over the years, my thinking has developed. When we first started, we saw success in getting the Denver Post to write about us or getting our protest footage on RT or Al Jazeera. Now, we’ve created our own infrastructures. We don’t need to rely on corporate media. We produced our own media ourselves. It took a while to arrive at this point. It’s kinda of like with the music industry. Anytime you send people to a corporate platform, it’s the corporations that benefit the most. That’s why the podcast that I do comes out with Unicorn Riot, which is horizontally run collective that grew out of some of these alternative media projects.

We understand the power of an image but we’re also aware of the limitations of this kind of stuff. The spectacle is just the spectacle in the end. It’s easy to get people to click likes and share but it’s a lot harder to mobilize people. It often feels like we’re too good at that shit and need to a better job at bringing out the revolution in the streets and building alternative infrastructures that can really project power.

I’d like to shift the focus a bit and talk a little about experience as a worker in a changing music industry. Anticon seems like the story of the creative class: a group of mobile, creative would-be professionals and artists came together in a self-directed entrepreneurial project. What made this effort work? Why do you feel its run its course?

I’m part of a real tiny group of people, who around the turn of the century where way ahead of the curve in using the internet to spread my music and connecting people. Actually, Anticon records came from this idealistic beautiful place: a bunch of people making crazy outsider art, weirdo experimental hip hop from all across North America. A group of us eventually came together to set up a label in the Bay Area. Before there was money, when it was just a bunch of people making music, it was fucking awesome. I know people are going to go back and look at our 40 or so albums that we made and see that we were ahead of our time.

When we formed it as a collective, we used a standard corporate model put together by an industry lawyer. Which in my opinion, was a big mistake, but I certainly didn’t know any better. Looking back, we could have set up a consensus model and guaranteed more meaningful control over how business was run and how resources were being used. If I was doing it again, I would have pushed for the artist to share the labor that makes a label run. Everyone does their shift in the mailroom and learns how to do PR, that kind of thing.

A lot of the artists had the idea that they wanted to be artists and not worry about everything. I get it. I respect that orientation. The amount of time a spend I fighting Facebook algorithms certainly feels very different that making music, but, for me, it certainly beats a day job.

We had a lot of initial success. It was a unique moment. We got in at the end of when vinyl and CD were still really big. An independent record could sell 30,000 copies to a record store, barely sending out promos. When the label was founded I had hoped that it would be infrastructure that could sustain us for our entire lives but it eventually became clear that that that was not going to be the case.  That was one of the hardest and saddest realizations of my life.

Our own labor confronted us as estrangement, as alienation. Like the spectacle, it had become bigger than us.  It had become abstract. It got to a point where it was no longer meeting my needs. I wasn’t making money. I didn’t feel supported. I decided to move on because the situation was killing me emotionally and creatively.

This experience is cautionary tale to anyone who wants to start a collective, look at the business models out there and how people have done these sorts of things in the past, make sure everyone wants the same things and understands what they are getting into, otherwise things can get crazy down the line.

When you left Anticon you stated that “Technology is working its magic, and instead of being a passenger on its ship, I have decided to plot a new course for myself.” What’s that new course where has it taken you?

I don’t want to be one of those artists that grinds it out all day. I could pay a publicist $2,000 bucks a month to work my album and never make that money back. The first thing I did was pull back my catalogue from Anticon. My income went up 500 to 1000 percent. I went from totally desperate to alright. My rent is paid by iTunes. I’m chillin’.

At this point, I could start working a lot smarter. I could tour less. I spent more time at home, more time reading. I got into organizing. It freed me up to try new things. I owned my labor. I didn’t need all these middle men to reach my supporters. I built up a big email list and went back to the real DIY shit that got me started.

Of course, from that moment in 2009 to 2016, it’s changed a lot. The internet is monetized in a new and dramatic ways. Back in 2009, Facebook was pre-IPO, twitter as well, and streaming had not yet taken over. In the past six years, the major corporations have seized the all backchannel means of production. It’s not about Tower Records but owning the places where people spend the most time online. Major labels cut these side deals with places like Spotify and Amazon to re-center major labor art in the narrative.

Whereas in 2009, you had groups like Odd Future, Little B, and some other young artists doing really innovative work and getting it out by going direct with people. I was pretty revolutionary moment in hip-hop but major corporations have closed out a lot of those opportunities. Those backchannels aren’t backchannels anymore. Capital owns them.

As an artist and activist, how see the balance of autonomy and precarity in the so-called “gig economy”

It’s harder today than it was before. There’s less money to made off album sales so artists that are really trying to make it have to spend a lot of time on the road. Not everyone has the demand to spend that time on the road so it makes it a lot more difficult to for artists to learn a living. There used to be a lot more infrastructure in place that you could discover things through.

There’s been this incredible churn. When I was a kid, I used to read Source magazine to find out about the best hip-hop. When I was starting out, internet filesharing and college radio was huge for us. For a while, the blogosphere was the place where people were discovering new music. Social media has mostly wiped that out but it’s just aggregation. There’s actually less and less platforms.

What’s happing to artists is the same narrative as Uber and Airbnb. Capital is everywhere. To make it, you need to turn your car into a cab and your house into hotel. It’s precarious labor. A lot of people don’t like to think of it in these terms but artists are part of the working class. There’s this conception that artists live these simple blessed lives. We’re not these free-floating creative bohemians.

Patronage is coming back. To do their work, artists and other creative workers now have to seek patrons. For instance, The Intercept is made possible by a multimillion dollar donation. This what it takes to get serious investigative journalism done. It’s the same story with Democracy Now or even NPR. In music, people like Amanda Palmer have used crowd-sourcing to liberate themselves from corporate bosses and debt. Historically, a lot of great works of were created by patronage. Today, we seeing a different kind with crowding-sourcing. People are thinking about the kind of world they want and the kind of art they want to see in the world. It’s become a political choice to support art.

You’re crowd-sourcing your new album. It dwells on the question of precarity and takes on these questions.

Originally, I wanted to call the album Generation Fucked but that’s a very a more empowering title. We ended up calling Nihilismo to highlight the fact that late-stage capitalism is producing all this despair and meaninglessness.

The main that I’m thinking about constantly is the global precariat. Everything that’s happened after Tahrir Square is the story of the precariat class. It’s extreme precariousness. We are born into a world where there is no hope. No jobs. No hope of advancement. It’s debt, killer cops and environmental destruction. The horizons don’t look good. You can do everything you’re supposed to do and get nowhere. Go get your degree and you’re reward is 100k of debt and job washing dishes or, even worse, lost to the epidemic of opioids and pain killers.

One of things that has saved me from that despair is getting involved in social struggles and learning, and feeling and seeing what it means to build power where you live. We don’t have to accept this situation. That’s what makes the moment really exciting. When I was growing up people, were not fighting back like they are today.

Are we fighting back so we can have better leaders or a better society? I think we all agree we have a better society. That’s why a put forward the politics I do. I might feel anxious about the future and what I’m going to be doing when I’m 50, but I’ll figure it out. It’s an exciting time.

Brendan McQuade is an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Southern Maine and author of Pacifying the Homeland.