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Lord Byron and Lil Wayne saved Sole. The 30-year-old rapper—who co-founded the young, gifted and white post-hip-hop collective Anticon—was over it. "I almost quit rapping," he admits. "I was like, 'Should I move on to [writing] books and get a degree?'"
Since it came into being a decade ago, Anticon has existed as a kind of parallel universe of hip-hop: white, bling-free, conscious, sometimes more electronic than soulful, but always interesting, as much like Warp as Def Jux.
Back in '98, Sole was just Tim Holland, a 17-year-old high school kid in Maine with a taste for Beat poets and other alt-lit to match his white-suburban fascination with rap. He was also a computer prodigy, so when he and fellow poetry-slam rapper Brendon Whitney (Alias) decided to move to Oakland and found their own hip-hop label, Holland took a 50k IT gig to finance the venture.
The press had a field day when the first Anticon group photos appeared: a bunch of Caucasian geeks in their thrift-store best, mugging like the Gamers Club in the back of any suburban high-school yearbook. And this when Eminem was hitting. "When people can't figure it out, you get this sort of backhanded criticism, like, 'Wacky white-boy backpacker-hop,'" Sole says, sighing. "Because it's not an easy story. It's a lot easier to tell the Joanna Newsom story," he jokes.
Anticon music, however, is no joke, even if at times it seems so. Unflinchingly indulgent and challenging, its artists vary wildly and tend to reinvent themselves with every record. "It's like a No Limit or Matador, where it's reached a level of respect," Sole muses. "But Alias sounds different every record depending on who he's working with; it could be a girl or a horn player. And SJ Esau is more like the Decemberists."
And Sole's own stuff? "It's not 'beatnik-apocalyptic-jazz,'" he says sarcastically, aping the kind of alt-press hyphenates with which he's been tagged over the years.
Previous Sole efforts have been all over the place, his flow often not even bothering to rhyme. "There was a time when I thought rhyming was really constrictive."
This is when the LL (Lord Byron and Lil Wayne) saved his Cool J. "When I was living in Spain, I'd read Byron all the time, and his rhyming was just ridiculous, like seven syllables," he says. "It's not like I traced rap back to Romantic poets, but I started thinking of rhyme as something more than just clever." That's when Lil Wayne came in. "He did this one mixtape thing, The Drought 2: It's, like, him rapping for two hours. He uses his New Orleans drawl to make shit rhyme that you never think would."
Of 2007's Sole and the Skyrider Band, his collaboration with Florida soundscape trio Skyrider, Sole says, "This was supposed to be my pop record," though from the lonely violins, high-plains melodica and street-person tirades (most of which do rhyme), it's anything but. "Somewhere along the line, it got pretty dark," he concedes. No shit.
Take "Nothing Is Free": "You can't feel new, nothing is free/You can't clean every toilet in the city/You can't be 30 and still making hip-hop/You can't kill God with a slingshot."
"The writing, to me, isn't very cerebral. I'll have six beats going at once and write four lines for each of them, just jumping back and forth," he says. "I don't write every day. What I do is kind of repress everything and just think and read and come up with an internal philosophy, something I can use to sort of reconcile myself to the world."
He's found a perfect backdrop/trampoline with Skyrider. "I'm really into gaudy, orchestral shit—drawn-out strings, brooding guitars," Sole says. "We just kept trying to make everything as full as it was melodic. I guess I'm just a dark person. . . . It all goes back to Beth Gibbons," he jokes, noting his infatuation with Portishead back in the day.
To lighten up a bit, he plans on moving to SoCal after this tour.
"I want a garden that doesn't die every year. Where I live now [rural Sedona, Arizona], it's just like a cultural void. I mean, for fun, people go shooting," he says. "I'm a little hungry right now for tons of shit going on."
Sole & the Skyrider Band perform with Telephone Jim Jesus at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 865-3802; www.theglasshouse.us. Thurs., Jan. 17, 7 p.m. $12.