Thursday, June 22, 2017

"I DON'T RAP IN BUMPERSTICKERS:" Insurgent Rap Music Emcee sole Speaks On First Album, Bottle of Humans' Kickstarter-funded Vinyl Re-issue (The Witzard Interview)


"After being out of print for almost two decades, I am finally re-issuing my debut album, Bottle of Humans on double-vinyl. In 1998, I moved to California to start a record label with my friends and dedicate my life to music. I was a stranger in a strange land. I didn’t understand it then, but this was a magical period of human and musical history... it was the early era of The Internet and digital recording. Record stores were still a thing. We sat in rooms and made music together. We recorded onto tape. We wrote rhymes on paper. We broke all the rules. These were the early days of what some might later call "Art Rap," "Alternative Hip-Hop," or "Experimental Hip-Hop." Bottle of Humans was my first solo contribution to it.

This album wasn’t meant to be an "album" at all; it was an evolving collection of songs I burned onto a CD-R that I strangely titled "Bottle of Humans." I would burn CD-R's at my corporate job, when my boss wasn’t looking, make covers on the copiers, and then, sell the CD's to Amoeba Music and around at shows. There were at least three different versions of this record that circulated during the course of its early life. In 1999, it was pressed briefly to vinyl, but it was quickly taken out of print because the distributor ripped me off. It never appeared on vinyl again. Now, for the first time in almost two decades, I am proud to re-release Bottle of Humans on double-vinyl with a digital collection of rare and unreleased tracks that didn’t appear on the final CD version. Through this pre-order I am also making available the original lyric pages on which I wrote these songs. Own a piece of this history."


- sole's Kickstarter description



I. Why did you decide to Kickstart (pun intended!) a crowd-funding campaign to properly re-issue Bottle of Humans now, nearly 20 years after its initial release?

People have been wanting Bottle of Humans on vinyl for years; that and Selling Live Water are my top-selling albums, so although my music keeps evolving, I like to celebrate that early stuff... when I listen to it now, I can hear all these influences (Aceyalone, Saafir, Saul Williams, DJ Shadow, etc.) but it's still very much its own thing. That record, in particular, in my opinion, stands in its own as a testament of those particular times, Prog-Rock beats with prose over them that barely rhymed... there is something magical about making art when you are just bumbling in the dark... literally reading poetry for the first time and discovering The Beatles lol. I have toyed with the idea of re-releasing Bottle of Humans for many years, but every time I ran the numbers, it didn't make financial sense for me to invest $4,000 into a 20-year-old record. I was very weary about using Kickstarter for this, but after considering it for years, it became clear that the only way this record will come back to life is if people who give a sh*t wanted to pre-order it. At this point, it's over halfway funded in the first week, which is amazing. I'm not trying to go crazy with it, just trying to cover costs and if it goes way over the top, I might push [to] do a little more to promote it in the Fall/Winter. From a financial perspective, it makes sense sometimes to use Kickstarter for pre-orders because they actually take a smaller cut than Bandcamp.


II. How do the three 1999-2003 Anticon CD-R versions differ of Bottle of Humans and how are they comparable or different from your upcoming Bottle of Humans Vinyl Re-issue?

When Bottle of Humans first appeared as a thing, it was literally just what people today would call a "mixtape." I needed something to sell when I was playing shows, so I collected all my songs that weren't on anything. When I moved to The Bay [Area,] it was with the intention of making an album with my long-time collaborator and producer, at the time, Moodswing9. For whatever reason, our creative relationship started to diverge in The Bay and so, that album never happened. One version of Bottle of Humans was for Scribble Jam; back then, it actually made financial sense to press up a couple hundred CD's for a music event because you'd sell them all and cover expenses. That was what the culture of Indie Rap was like when albums/CD's/vinyl/tape were the primary way people experienced music. The next version of Bottle of Humans must have been for a tour or something and then, the one after that was a 90-minute retail version. Each had a few different songs that didn't appear on the next one. Eventually, Odd Nosdam made a shortened retail version around 2000 that after all is said and done, flowed the best. That's the version I want to put out on vinyl.


III. You recently described Bottle of Humans as "an evolving collection of songs [you] burned onto a CD-R [and] strangely titled "Bottle of Humans'" that was never really meant to be an album at all... How was each CD-R version different and are all of the contained songs now presented here?

Each CD had a slightly different version and the final [Odd] Nosdam version is like a "Best of..." That's the one that is coming out on vinyl. All the other songs (about 40 minutes-worth of music, that I know of) are really good as well, but for the sake of an album sometimes you have to "kill your babies," as they say in film. So, for everyone who was helping fund Bottle of Humans, I wanted them to have access to all the music, once and for all. The extra 40 minutes will be made available as a digital download. I could have put it all on like triple or quadruple-vinyl, but that's just over the top and unnecessary.


IV. Would you care to briefly talk about the various Bottle of Humans album cover designs, some of which were notoriously scanned on copiers at your then-corporate job and sold at Amoeba Music? How did you go about choosing which cover to use for the upcoming vinyl re-issue?

I was working at a consulting firm mainly called Arthur D. Little. They were, at the time, the second or third largest consulting firm in The States. This was at the height of the first Dot-com bubble. I was making like $25 an hour with no college degree and I'd finish all my work in a few hours; the rest of the day, I'd spend promoting my music on message boards. I had a few desktops with CD-burners under my desk, which at the time, were pretty rare. I would just burn CD's at work and then, take them out and sell them at shows. As a 20-year-old kid from Maine, taking the train every day from Oakland into The Embarcadero District, it was all very surreal to me and I felt like I could do that forever. A few jobs later, I realized I'd rather just make music than work at a job like that. After all is said and done with the various album covers, I ended up going with the classic one Why? made because it's the one people associate the most with it and I like the colors and overall design.


V. What exactly was WHY? founder Yoni Wolf's involvement in Bottle of Humans? It appears as though he raps on later editions on "Center City" and designed the third 2003 Anticon edition's "revitalized" cover artwork (used on the upcoming vinyl re-issue, as well,) correct?

Yup, that's his involvement. It's a solo album, so I wasn't working too closely with anyone, in particular. I was working with everyone who was in the mood to work on music, at any given time! Always loved WHY? and his approach. Such a good dude and amazing artist. I am using his art for the final vinyl version.


VI. Bottle of Humans was briefly pressed on vinyl back in 1999, but you've said "it was quickly taken out of print because the distributor ripped [you] off;" would you care to further detail this rather unfortunate chain of events or would you rather not get into it?

Sure. We were working with TRC Distribution. They also distributed a number of other big labels back then and similar stories emerged. We sound-scanned like 30,000 units with our first few releases and they tried to pay us a tiny, tiny fraction of what the numbers said we were owed. So, I had the choice to hire a lawyer and go full on Pyrrhic victory with them or hire a lawyer to litigate and secure the release of our masters to us. That's how companies like that functioned back in the day. You could rip someone off for thousands of dollars and because they couldn't afford the legal fees of fighting back, the people who owned the means of distribution always won. For me, I knew that owning the masters was always the most important thing. So, although taking that loss was huge, that record has been a steady stream of income for my entire life because I got the masters back. First, from TRC then, later from Anticon.


VII. Anticon's 2003 re-issue says, "All songs recorded in The Pedestrian's bedroom, The Treefort, and sole's old bedroom," but what exactly were the recording processes behind Bottle of Humans like?

Really not much different than today. The biggest differences between then and now is that I was living in a 2.5 bedroom house with 10 people. There were always people around, sometimes people in three different rooms working on their projects. Back then, we were using [Alesis Digital Audio Tape] (ADAT) and 8-tracks to record on, not computers, so it would always be easier to have someone in the studio recording you/coaching you and running the machines. Also, when I'd work with producers, we'd sit in the studio with their samplers and put the song together and re-sequence stuff based on writing. Sometimes, they'd just leave the samplers playing and I'd write right there. It was pretty organic and old school. These days, when I make music, it's something I record to a demo alone in my studio on a computer on a beat a producer lays out. I send them my stuff and they remix and re-sequence the music around that. So, it's very different now with technology. It's kind of crazy to think that early analogue material necessitated more collaboration in-person. Never thought about that before.


VIII. How would you say you've grown and progressed as a rapper, producer, and overall human being since the initial 1999 release of Bottle of Humans?

On a human level, I've changed so much it's staggering. First and foremost, it's clear now that during those years, I was carrying a lot of trauma from my childhood; although, my mother always supported the f**k out of me, my father (may he rest in peace) was a pretty abusive person that f**ked me up in countless ways. Over the years, I forgave him and processed certain things my own way, but all that sh*t made me a pretty difficult person to deal with. Although, I was radicalized by reading about Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, my music back then was very much focused on vague social commentary and creative writing exercises. When I quit my job and did music full-time, I had so much free time to myself, I mostly spent it reading and trying to learn about history, philosophy etc. and that journey has never ended for me. Also, in my free time, I would spend a lot of time just messing around making beats because I had the means to do so. That was something I did just for fun for a while, until I started producing my own music. So, I went from not being a producer to being a producer. I never learned to play instruments, I always kept my production styles dirty and in homage to the early period of just making beats on samplers on tape.


As a rapper, in many ways, I have come full-circle. The music that was my favorite sh*t in the 90's was Public Enemy and early Gangsta Rap, stuff like Spice 1, N.W.A. and Ice Cube. There was a direct linkage from stuff like Boogie Down Productions to early Gangsta Rap. They all spoke on what it was like to live in the ruins and the sacrifice zones of the United States. Through lots of touring and playing shows in Europe, I became very frustrated with how when I performed my material, people would just cheer, even if they had no idea what I was saying. Back in that early stuff, I didn't enunciate very clearly. It was almost like a secret language for the initiated (kind of like Punk music, I guess.)

When I was living in Barcelona from 2004-2006, I reflected on this a lot, I researched a lot of old Folk stuff and became obsessed with how Folk artists were able to speak to the times in such a clear way and I wanted to do that to my music. To do it, I would have to change my approach entirely. I would have to find an engaging way to make music to speak clearly... so, I started really studying people like Jay-Z, Nas, and 50 Cent. It wasn't until the Southern stuff really exploded that I found my voice. I saw echos of early Anticon in everyone from Lil' Wayne to Lil B and even today in people like [Lil] Uzi Vert. So, I saw that as my window to intervene in the moment. I am a student of all this sh*t, so I thought to myself, what would Woodie Guthrie be doing today? I think he'd be rapping over hard-a$$ beats. So, that's what I am doing today. As an artist, I think its really boring to go back and make the same sh*t over and over again and I think it's really uninspiring to forever live in the cloak of old material. All my favorite artists change and I love them for it. For me, the circle on that old life has closed; I am no longer working with Anticon, I am no longer a a 20-year-old kid trying to decode Nietzche quotes, but I want to honor that old music and that period for the profound impact it had on me and for the contribution it was to the world of music in general. As a DIY artist, if I don't tell my story and rep for my back catalog, no one will!


IX. I remember you saying that around the time of Bottle of Humans, you were first getting into production work and making your own beats; did you hand-craft any of the beats on the album? And if not, who was responsible for the production work and how did you go about finding them?

No, I didn't produce any of the music on this album. The producers I worked with were mostly Controller7, Alias, DJ Mayonnaise, Odd Nosdam, and Jel. DJ Mayonnaise, and Alias were both from Maine and moved out to The Bay when me and Pedestrian did in 1998. Other artists we met through tape trades; people like Jel and through Jel, doseone and through doseone, WHY? and Odd Nosdam. All of them re-located to The Bay at the same time with the same dream. I met Controller7 when I was listening to the music that was distributed at the first house I lived in San Francisco, an underground tape [distributor] called Atak Distribution. That's how I met all those people, most of them formed the core of Anticon.


X. Are you currently working on any new music, Nuclear Winter remix collections, or anything of that nature? If so, when might we ultimately, expect to see said new material released?

I am working on a new mansbestfriend-y kind of record called Communique. It'll probably come out in the Fall. I am also halfway through the new sole & DJ Pain 1 record, but we are taking our time with that. I feel like the stuff we have been making could really reach a bigger audience, so I'm interested to see what we can do with that record to make some bigger things happen. As far as Nuclear Winter, it's hard to work on that stuff these days because all the music is stolen, so I can't sell it. I might make another one in the Fall, but we'll see how far I get on these other projects. It's hard to make music in the Summer; my brain shuts down in the heat and I just wanna stare into my backyard and watch life spring into being. One of my biggest creative projects right now that I am working on is my podcast, The Solecast. I am also working on a book about Hip-Hop and radical politics for a radical book publisher that I have a crazy amount of respect for; so, between these albums, I'll be trying to wrap that up, as well.


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