All weapons are chemical weapons, says rapper Sole

September 17, 2013
Sole on stage
Sole on stage. Photo: Lansy of Secret Lab Limited.

September 17, 2013

As US president Barack Obama ramped up his rhetoric about Syria's chemical weapons on September 17, US rapper Sole released his latest album, which reflects on his country's chemical weapons attack on the Iraqi city of Fallujah. Green Left's Mat Ward spoke to the prolific political emcee, who started releasing records in 1994, when he was just 16.

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Your song "Fallujah" on your new album Whitenoise is, in your words, "a sonic look back on what has been dubbed the most violent and brutal moment of the Iraq Occupation". The most potent anti-war film I have seen is Iraq's Deadly Legacy, a documentary about children deformed by the use of chemical weapons, most likely depleted uranium, in the attack on Fallujah in 2004. It keeps popping into my mind whenever Obama talks about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, especially when he called the attack in Syria “the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century". Tell us about your feelings about all the hypocritical talk of chemical weapons use in Syria, in the context of your song about Fallujah.

I’ll never forget how I felt when I saw Blackwater merc's [mercenaries from contractor Blackwater] hung from that bridge. Them dudes get like US$1000 an hour to drive around killing civilians while mostly poor, volunteer soldiers are over there after being lied to, risking their lives for a fucking college education. It's fucked. That said, in the context of Fallujah, if we gear up for war with Syria and talk about "what is a chemical": white phosphorous is a chemical weapon, it burns and deforms bodies; depleted uranium is a chemical; pepper spray used on 100,000 Occupy protesters is a chemical weapon. But let's be honest, every weapon is a chemical weapon - gunpowder is a chemical. The empire skirts international law because it can, but uses it to enforce its will on the world. As [intellectual Noam] Chomsky recently pointed out, the "threat of force" is also a violation of international law. America doesn't give a fuck about international law or chemical weapons, we just wanna run the world and that’s becoming more and more difficult as we are becoming more and more irrelevant.

Video: I Think I'm Noam Chomsky. soleonedotorg.

"Fallujah" is also a great, hypnotic, very catchy and accessible dance track which is almost incongruous given the subject matter. It's also pretty different for you, don't you think?

Yeah, I was wary of using that to be the first single because I didn’t want people to think I was going dance, but I made the beat and I liked it! I like the idea of turning what happened in Fallujah into a club song - it’s so wrong. I want people to remember things. We already forgot about Libya. We forget about these terrible events like Fallujah. By immortalising them like this, maybe people will look back years from now, "Why did sole name a song Fallujah?" I enjoyed reading about al-Sadr and his life and the struggle of the Mahdi Army to stand up against the United States. Even soldiers I talked to who were in Fallujah had a lot of respect for them - and that moment was a watershed moment. Those were inhumane tactics. They burned that city to the ground to prove a point - and we lost a lot in the process.

You are a big fan of books - tell us about the best book you've read this year.

I guess this year it's a three-way tie between Introduction to Civil War by Tiqqun, which is basically an update on Society of the Spectacle, and to me is some of the best Communist writing I’ve come across. It's poetic and beautiful and offers a really cool critique about how power is built from an atomic level and bubbles up into becoming these massive inhumane institutions that destroy authentic life. Number two is Australian author McKenzie Wark's Telesthesia, which is another post-situationist update, essentially on alienation and how viewing/experiencing things from a distance through technology is having a crazy impact on society. Number three is Ian M Banks' The Culture series. It's a sci-fi space epic about trans-humanism and post-scarcity anarchism. It's the first sci-fi book series that I’ve read that is utopian, not dystopian. Not only is it fun to read, but it's a powerful and beautiful vision as well.

You say your song "The Military Entertainment Complex” is the symbiosis of Hollywood, video games and war. Tell us about that.

I became introduced to the concept through McKenzie Wark's Telesthesia. I also have a friend that helped develop the American Army video game - he went to West Point and met with the generals. He was bound by law not to speak on what they talked about, but insisted it was totally fucked up. They are on some Last Starfighter shit. They understand all too well the power of video games - and as we move away from wars with soldiers to wars that can literally be waged like a video game, it is imperative for them to blur the lines between what is real and what is not, to blur action violence with digitised violence, to glorify it through a video game, make you a good soldier - and then, when you are old enough to go die for empire, they can hand you an Xbox controller and write your name on a drone. The collaboration between Hollywood and the army is nothing new, but the interactive element is what makes it the most dangerous.

The title "The Military Entertainment Complex” reminded me of a quote attributed to musical satirist Frank Zappa: “Government is the entertainment division of the military-industrial complex.”

Ha ha. That’s amazing. If I was French philosopher, I’d say: "Entertainment is the government's division of the military industrial complex."

The video for “Fallujah” and “The Military Entertainment Complex” is great. Tell us about the juxtapositions and the feel you were going for.

Ya know, I had this terrible tooth infection and I just wanted to make a video. I'm not very good when it comes to artsy video shit, so I thought I’d try something new - namely, applying my Photoshop aesthetic to videos. So I started looking for stuff with solid colour backgrounds I could remove that could also prove the point. The idea of the video was to "bring the war home" and have white phosphorous falling on Disney marchers. It's an approach I want to do more with. My favourite part is the second half of the video where I just slowed down an atomic explosion and put a guitar player in front of it. I want Whitenoise to be more artsy and provocative. I tend to beat the shit out of people's ears with my political rantings. I love it - but I like this approach also.

Video: WHITENOISE: Fallujah & The Military Entertainment Complex. soleonedotorg.

Your new album is instrumental. In one way that's surprising, because you have so much to say. In another way, it's not so surprising, not only because you've done it before with Poly.Sci.187, but because you approach things so differently, in your music production and rapping. Can you tell us a bit about why you decided to make it instrumental? I'm not sure I understand the reasons you have previously given, such as "I always implode when I’m trying to make an opus on my own, which is why I never rapped on this shit and filled it with layers of ambient noise instead… I can’t take the pressure!" and "this project is a humble attempt to illustrate ways ‘instrumental music’ can provide an apt canvas to reflect on ‘critical’ sentiment in song form in a far less heavy-handed way then a rap song".

Well, art is a weird thing and artists are strange, temperamental beasts! When my band, sole and the skyrider band, disbanded in 2010 or so I knew that I wanted to change the way I made music and performed it. I always have a blast with the mansbestfriend stuff, and people always say, "you should produce your next REAL sole album", so I started making beats for my "one man live sampler rap show/album". The main reason I wanted to do this was so I could perform music I made on stage that I created myself and start trying to create a new way of performing/recording. I’d make beats, keep building them up, become hung up on whatever vision I had for the music and not accepting the way the music was, and in all of this I'd write songs to the beats but because there was so much pressure I was over-thinking it and just couldn't have fun with it. All the previous self-produced stuff is music I made between finishing one album and waiting for another to come out, so there is no pressure, it's just something I would do for fun, and when I'm forced to create EVERYTHING on my own, for some reason in the past I just haven't done well with getting a project out the door. Around the same time, all these new producers I’d been meeting, mostly through Twitter actually, would be sending me amazing music, and whenever there is a kind of collaboration it's always easier for me when there is stimulus outside of myself. So even though I started the music on Whitenoise before No Wising Up No Settling Down or Ruthless Criticism it was not until I felt really stable/comfortable/confident that I felt I was ready to finish and release it.

I think you've said you've never written a love song, yet you express your love for your wife Yasamin in far stronger ways than that. You mention her in songs and on the latest album she plays keys on every song. Tell us about her input and how you met.

We met on Telegraph Ave in Berkeley [California] in 2001. At the time she was in UC Berkeley studying art history for the summer. It was the first day after my first tour, me, sage, alias, dose, why, the whole crew were hanging out outside of amoeba getting pizza. She recognised us and came up and gave me some flyer for some weird graffiti rap show thing in SF [San Francisco] and for me it was literally love at first sight. It's hard to explain. She was (is) so beautiful, humble and kind and she seemed to walk on air. So I lied to her and told her to give me her phone number and "I’d call her when we had a show". She did, and - totally unlike me - I called her the next day and said: "Do you want to go out...?" She agreed. What started off as a lunch date turned into lunch, dinner, hanging out in a park and a Mogwai concert. I had never clicked with anyone like that. There is something about our chemistry that is just perfect. We started a long-distance relationship, where we'd write Keroacian poems back and forth, and I stole a bunch of her writings for the song Salt On Everything, which - in all honesty - is kind of a love song about how bummed I was when she went back to Virginia after that summer.

Her input is invaluable to me - she is a multi-talented genius, she can literally do anything. She is a teacher, makes art, is a fashion designer, a poet. As an English writer she helps proofread all my press releases and helps make them read like sentences. Whenever I have a conflict I usually run my email responses by her, because my instant response is usually anger, so she's helped me to be a little smarter in my conflicts. I always play her my new music and she critiques it. She has a natural gift for music, but was always too independent to cash that chip in and just be "Someone's girlfriend" in a band... Now that we've been together for a decade or so I imagine we'll probably do more music together, who knows? I really get a chuckle out of people viewing this project as a husband/wife duo. I couldn't have made it without her! I hope over the winter we can do something more collaborative, because she has very good ideas for music.

Author Elizabeth Royte says: "According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, which makes exhaustive studies of consumers’ environmental impacts, the issues that have the biggest impact on planetary health are transportation, housing, and meat eating." The final point is not discussed much on the left, in my experience. I am just as guilty - I was vegan for six years, then got stranded in Western Australia 15 years ago and spent the last of my money on a stack of frozen cheese and tomato pizzas. It was all downhill from there! I now eat meat! I prefer to blame the system rather than take responsibility and just figure I'm doing my bit in other ways... Hmmmmmm. On your autobiographical track "Juicy" you rap about being a chef in Spain and about how much you love to discuss food. On your latest podcast with Jared Paul you talk about veganism and localvores. You note how none of your lefty friends are vegan. Why do you think that is?

I think there are a lot of reasons for this, and I think a lot of it goes back to the Green Scare, and how a lot of animal rights work was driven underground. So the sort of militant vegan sentiment in many ways turned a lot of people off on a few fronts, like how are you gonna talk shit to a poor person about wearing leather shoes when there are so few affordable choices for vegan shoes? The other aspect of this is that animal rights campaigns were some of the most successful activist campaigns in recent history. If you look at what "Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty" was able to accomplish, it's no wonder why the FBI went so hard to stop animal rights activism in the States. I also think class plays a huge role - if you look at vegan culture it's so hypocritical and bourgeois. In order to make money selling vegan food they almost have to drive the "animal rights" aspect of it out of the restaurants. There are a few exceptions to this - I think of Red and Black Cafe in Portland, Oregon, and places like that. When veganism was really rising, a lot of vegans got really indignant and preachy, so it pushed a lot of people away. A good first step is for vegans to educate themselves about this being more than a lifestyle choice, to learn about the history of animal rights, to find new ways of talking about our non-human brothers and sisters and connect our struggles, because everything they do to THEM they're gonna do to us. You can't say "I'm a vegan" and then block out the fact that countless millions of life forms are killed every year, brutally, by this genocidal capitalist machine, all in the name of food!

You were a chef in Catalonia - what did you make of Catalonians linking arms in a human chain all around the country this month?

I was a chef in my house in Catalonia! I only learned to cook out of necessity because the vegan scene in Barcelona was really rough. Recently I have made a conscious effort to pull my psyche out of the "global revolution" feed that seems to never stop. All I can say about Catalunya is that the legacy of anarchism is so powerful there and the people in Spain/Catalonia are brave and know how to live an authentic real life - and that’s why they throw down when it comes to foreclosures, the indiganatos, resisting austerity, etc. Unlike us settlers, they haven’t been stripped of their history, they are proud of it, they fight for it...

I've just been reading a book that argues the moral case against music piracy - Chris Ruen's Freeloading, in which he cites music-promoting website Bandcamp as a possible way forward for artists. Tell us about your experience with Bandcamp, why you use it, and the pros and cons.

I use Bandcamp because I make money from it. I was against it at first, because I felt like, "Why should I send traffic to Bandcamp to sell my mp3s when I can just sell 'em on my site?" Truth is, Bandcamp's ability to let you stream a whole album, share it, and download in any format is well worth the 10% they take per sale. It also collects email addresses from every customer, which is worth more than anything! All that work they've already done, so we can just plug right into it! It's an awesome product and I’m happy to support it - it's putting the power back in the hands of artists. The only con is that there are people who only listen to it on Bandcamp and never buy it - but if you can't afford music, you shouldn't have to pay for it anyway. Because I’m DIY, I don’t trip off that shit. If people buy my music, AWESOME - it means I can eat. Thankfully, so many people buy my music and all the profits go to me. I don’t have to worry about keeping the lights on in an office and keeping middle men fed so they can buy tickets to go to SXSW and hobnob with other middlemen - fuck all that. This model means if people download my shit and don’t pay for it, it doesn't really hurt me. If everyone stopped paying for my music, I’d be screwed, but when you're small, you're agile. When you are a big, clumsy, stupid corporation, you get caught up in old ways of thinking and can't adapt. Deep down, people know that I’m working poor - and when they support my music, they support all the other shit I do, and they support my ability to keep making music. But if you can't afford music, you should still be able to enjoy it.

Tell us about the album artwork for Whitenoise - reminds me of The Happy Mondays.

My wife made it. She makes the art for all my self-produced stuff. She is a visual artist and works mostly in collage with textures, lots of embroideries. That piece was a scan of these giant embroideries she does, where she sews thousands of tiny paper dots to paper. They are very meticulous and when you scan them for artwork, the texture reads quite well, but nothing like touching the original.

Listening to your back catalogue, I often found myself laughing out loud at the humour in songs such as "People Piss Me Off" - then I found myself wondering whether other people found it funny.

Well, that song is based on real-life experiences and arguments I’ve had. It was mainly inspired by posturing anarchists in Denver that talk the talk and don’t walk the walk. I actually got hit up by edison, who made his name on the Monome and helped popularise it. He was furious with my line, "I don’t care if you made your own monome, I know you're not doing anything!" And I was like, "Yo, I swear this isn’t about you. I like what you do. I’m talking about all these fake-ass electronica acts that press play and dance around." I felt bad. I didn't want him to think I was talking about him, but I also don’t like when people talk shit to me. Artists, activists, etc - we're all crazy, we all do dumb shit, we all do/say things we regret. We're not perfect. A lot of the lines in that song could apply to me as well - it's just a friendly little chin check to the world. Most people love that song!

You're coming out to Australia - tell us about that and your thoughts on Australia - no need to be polite.

When I came to Australia I absolutely loved it - it felt like one giant California. Australia has the same problems as America, they seem very similar, to be honest - probably more similar than the USA and UK. I am a nature enthusiast and I’m really looking forward to seeing some cool shit - saltwater crocs, etc. We are still booking the tour, so if motherfuckers have ideas, email tim at soleone dot org.

Read a Green Left interview with Asian Dub Foundation talking about sampling Syrian protesters here.

Video: I Think I'm Ben Bernanke (sole). soleonedotorg.

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