Q&A: Sole & The Skyrider Band

Sole & The Skyrider Band: Hello Cruel WorldSole & The Skyrider BandHello, Cruel World (Fake Four Inc., 7/19/11)

Sole & The Skyrider Band: “Hello, Cruel World”

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Citing differences in vision for his label and a desire to release music independently, Tim Holland split in 2010 with the Anticon collective that he helped to found. Now, with his faithful Skyrider Band at his side, Holland has released his first official release as Sole since the departure, and it’s another bold chapter in a bold career.

Skyrider, which has been the force behind Sole’s sonic development over the past few years, now sets a surprisingly mainstream and orchestral backdrop for Holland’s rhymes, which have slowed and become more decipherable — but no less potent in criticism. As he explains below, Holland wanted Hello, Cruel World to sound more like a “big rap album,” and it accomplishes the feat with club beats, vocoder-inspired choruses, and a posse of collaborators (Sage Francis, Xiu Xiu, Lil B, and many more). But the musical backdrop also is more cerebral and beautiful, thanks in part to the talents of band member and film-score composer William Ryan Fritch (a.k.a. Vieo Abiungo).

Holland also is keeping busy with DIY videos and his Nuclear Winter mixtape series, which employs the Situationist détournement technique of “turning expressions of the capitalist system against itself.” In this case, it’s taking hits by Lil Wayne, Rihanna, and the like and dropping politically current themes on them. Here Holland explains this mixtape concept while discussing the state of the world and the Sun Tzu-inspired direction of his new album.

Now three albums into recording with Skyrider, how do you feel that your sound has evolved since joining forces?

It’s pretty crazy, really. When we started out, all I wanted was to be a hip-hop version of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and somehow along the way, we listened to way too much Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne in the car. The rest is history, I guess! For a while, The Skyrider Band was living in LA and working a lot with Telephone Jim Jesus, and Skyrider really came into its own on the production tip.

A member of Skyrider (William Ryan Fritch) has experience scoring films. How much did he influence the orchestral accents of Hello, Cruel World?

Ryan has always been way too talented for his own good. On our past work, we weren’t experienced enough with how to make the band aesthetic work for a hip-hop album, and I feel like through all of Ryan’s work with real composers, doing film scores, working with Asthmatic Kitty, and branching out on his own, he has a really solid grasp of what to add to Skyrider’s beats to take them over the top. The big surprise on this album is his vocal contribution; he’s able to layer my off-key singing with his beautiful crooning and really make stuff sound great.

Hello, Cruel World has a much more radio-friendly sound and even features Melodyne software (similar to vocoder software) in many choruses. Was there any deliberate decision to target a broader audience to get your messages across?

Yes, there was. In Sun Tzu’s Art of War, he says you can’t keep attacking using the same method; in order to succeed, you have to surprise your opponents. I had listened to gangster rap so much that its influence and aesthetic had taken over what I did, and coincidentally, that is what the hip-hop people are listening to right now. It wasn’t so much an opportunistic move as it was a natural evolution. So we thought it would be an interesting gamble to try to make an album that would be an SSRB take on Jay-Z or TI — a big rap album. What I like about those albums is that they all collaborate with their homies and put each other on. After years of mainly writing music alone, it was really fun to try to collaborate with some of my favorite artists. Usually, when people use these styles, they try to be ironic, but we take rap music very seriously.

How much did this album’s direction have an impact on your departure from Anticon?

Well, a lot of people think that I left Anticon to make this kind of music, and that’s ridiculous. I’ve certainly had a lot to prove since I left Anticon. When I moved to Denver, I was tired of being broke, so I took a day job at Denver Open Media, pulled my catalog from Anticon (because I felt I had nothing to lose), and then, for fun, I made Nuclear Winter. And something about the new approach kind of bridged what I needed from rap — my Public Enemy Pete Seeger roots and my love for the new rap aesthetics that had come about. I just found it as a platform to be myself. On Anticon, I always felt this need to temper everything that I said, because it would reflect poorly on all the people around me. If I can’t be this crazy, belligerent dude, I almost have nothing to say.

And as soon as I left Anticon, all of a sudden I had a safe financial cushion, because I was getting all the royalties, and from there, I felt more confident and less desperate, so I could just do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. On top of that, I’m kind of a businessman at heart, and instead of having this frustrating back-and-forth with the business side of Anticon, I was able to take matters into my own hands and benefit directly from all of my labor, which makes a huge difference. It’s easy to feel empowered when you don’t have to do desperate things for money. I was liberated, and so I just started following every whim. And when you create something and release it the same day, you get a lot of instant gratification and inspiration. Through this freedom, I was able to re-envision what kind of rapper I wanted to be, or what I think a rapper should be in 2011. My mom always said, “When you jump off a cliff, a net appears.” Life is all about taking risks; if you never take risks, you never get anywhere.

Your delivery seems calmer, clearer, and slower on this album. Was this deliberate? What changed for you?

Well, through touring, I would always hear the same thing: “Dude, you have such great lyrics, but no one can understand anything you are saying.” So I started to really open myself up to criticism from the people I respect, and what really seemed like the most important thing was to have people understand my lyrics. I’m this bedroom scholar who places more emphasis on content than anything. When I would listen to a Jay-Z song or a Kanye song, I’d always be so impressed by how smart they sounded, simply because their character would come across, and their lyrics would grab me.

With the early Anticon stuff, we had created our own sub-genre of rap, and at a point, I felt my music was so self-referential — so far left-field — that it was no longer relevant to the new generation of rap fans. Most of the philosophers that I respect think that political art should be in “popular form”; it has to be relate-able if you want people to get something out of it. I don’t want to preach to the choir. I spend all this time on lyrics so that I can have a conversation with the world about the horrors that we live with. If I can get 17-year-old kids reading Slavoj Žižek or listening to Democracy Now, I feel like I’ve succeeded.

“We Will Not Be Moved” seemingly addresses the Western indifference to many of the world’s atrocities. How can this be overcome, and what do you feel is most enabling this indifference?

Well, this is a huge question. Since I’m a musician, of course, the first thing that comes to mind is the media — its glorification of banal music and trivialization of music with a political slant. I think artists should be held accountable for what they say and the impact that it has. I know firsthand — after I watched Boyz n the Hood, my friends and I started a gang and got into all kinds of trouble. For people to act like what they talk about in music is just “entertainment” is a cop-out, and rap is such a powerful format that it should be used as such.

Outside of music, I feel like the left’s inability to defeat the Fox News-es of the world is a huge obstacle. Watching Obama and the democrats just bow down to the right and have no conviction whatsoever is so disheartening. I really believe we need to support the kind of leftism in America that isn’t afraid to quote Emma Goldman or Noam Chomsky, that isn’t afraid to make bold statements that are true and shout down the interests that are keeping people down. I blame the video-game industry. I blame Hollywood. I blame journalists who trivialize music with a political slant. I blame the public-education system. I blame the uneducated having kids. I blame the FCC for media consolidation. I blame the FCC for not banning outlets like Fox News that broadcast straight lies all day. I blame myself for not being more effective at what I do. We all share the blame.

For those unfamiliar, can you explain the détournement technique of your Nuclear Winter series? What type of statement is it to make an apolitical song into a political one?

It has kind of become a bad habit for me; every time I hear a rap song, I want to change its meaning now, and there just aren’t enough hours in the day! “Détournement” is an art form pioneered by the Situationists in the ’60s. The idea is that they would take a piece of art and hijack it for their own means. Sometimes the end result would be a “correction” to an original; sometimes it would be completely ambivalent. I choose the “ambivalent” approach, because after all is said and done, I love the originals.

The idea came about through the hip-hop-mixtape aesthetic. I loved hearing rappers redo each other’s songs with different slants. I thought it would be cool to hijack them for my anarchistic purposes, because I want to rap on those beats, and because it’s an interesting experiment for me.  It’s also kind of like learning to draw well by tracing. Every time I fuck with another rapper’s style, I add my own voice to it, and it makes me a better rapper.

Israel is rumored to be planning a strike on Iran in September. Between this and America’s proxy war on Iran, do you think that we’ll be sucked into yet another war in the Middle East (before the others end)?

I don’t like to make predictions, because we never really know what’s gonna happen. Events move so quickly right now that anything can happen. Israel is always rumored to attack Iran. We’re already waging covert wars in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan…why not in Iran? Personally, I don’t think this can happen. With all the Shia empowerment that has happened in the Middle East over the past year, this would literally, officially start World War III, and that wouldn’t be good for America or Israel.

One of your recurring themes is to be mindful of wasteful time and “who you’re serving.” How can the world’s backroom machinations be better related to everyday life in America?

People need to understand that our way of life functions on violence, most of it outsourced. The goods we wear, our computers, the chips in our phones are all brought to us by oppressing children in Africa and China. They literally had to install nets on the side of the buildings at Foxconn (where all the iPhones, Intel devices, etc. are built) because Chinese workers were jumping out the windows. If it weren’t for violent dictators that we support, oil would be prohibitively expensive. When global-warming effects hit, it’s mostly in places like Somalia or Bangladesh or Polynesia. We are completely removed from the impact we have on the rest of the world. I mean, a little curiosity on behalf of the population would help, but beyond that, people should consider the fact that wages in America have gone down, while mega-corporations have consolidated the wealth and just hoarded it.

It’s difficult for me to understand why people don’t understand this better. I think that America should become more protectionist and punish corporations that send jobs overseas, so that it is cheaper to hire Americans. I’m not one of these people that says to end capitalism, but people should familiarize themselves with social movements of the past, and how the struggle we find ourselves in today is the same that workers have faced throughout history. And by studying history, we can learn how to stand up for ourselves and take our lives back. Actually, I kind of stole some of these ideas from the End:Civ documentary. They could watch that here, or they could listen to Democracy Now every day when they’re washing dishes / cooking, like I do.

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