Pulling Strings Part 6 – Sol Guy [Interview]
Vancouver, B.C. – Sol Guy is surprisingly disarming, considering his integral role in cross-cultural media, his knowledge of hip-hop superstardom and generally being the coolest guy in the room. Sol’s past includes the Rascalz and a young mind for business, while his future looks brightly into movies and the alchemy of the creative. He walks the line where virtue and success collide: a formative influence as K’naan’s manager, an exposer of startling truths via glamorous stars in 4Real, and a small town boy who really, really loves hip-hop. His presence will leave you doe-eyed and sweating like a nerd, but you’ll walk away asking yourself what it is you really want out of life. Ladies and gentlemen, Vancouver’s own Sol G.
“I hope that if people wanna be like me, they see that the choices I’ve made are based on a value system and a lot more about what I can give than what I can get.”
HHC: So you’re a pretty big deal in the music industry, but you actually started out as an MC, I’ve heard.
Sol G: Man, it’s funny. It’s so funny cause I was with Flipout last night, I was just out and in East Van yesterday and Flipout was DJing and all the sudden he’s like mixing and he’s playing all this old shit, and he starts playing a version of Really Livin’, and I’m like “yo that’s dope man” and he’s like “no you dunno, this is the old one” and I’m like “what old one?” He’s like “this has you rapping on it,” and I was like “what? I don’t even have this,” cause there was a Raggamuffin Rascals CD before the Rascalz Cash Crop CD.
HipHopCanada: So how did it come about that you rapped on a Rascalz track?
Sol G: I was into hip-hop when I was living in the interior in a small town called Grand Forks. I was like the only black kid and I so I got into rap cause I identified with it, and nobody else liked it and I realized I was different so I did everything different that I could do. I dyed my hair, I skateboarded, I listened to hip-hop music. So when I came to Vancouver when I was 16 and I was looking for that community, you know what I mean? And I found that through Zeb and Dedos and Red1. The first time I met Red he was dancing in a crew called FBI Posse at a party on 12th and Main, probably one of my first hip-hop parties. And I didn’t know anybody, but I heard about it through these guys and I kinda went by myself, like kinda weird.
“I was just so tryna be in and I was just watching and these guys came out in white hoodies and did this whole dance routine, at the end this little black guy did a flip, and I was like whoa, it was honestly the coolest shit I’ve ever seen.”
Like straight outta Beat Street or something. The next week I would meet Red up on 41st and Main. Met him one day and hung out every day since. And so, for us it was dancing. It started with us all probably like catching a buzz somewhere maybe through hearing it on the radio or seeing it on a movie or something and then when I moved here we were dancing.
HHC: Red1 pre-Rascalz? How did you guys hook up with Misfit?
Sol G: We had different dance schools, we’d go battle, and then we had a big dance battle at the PNE That’s where we first met Flip and Rizk, and Misfit, and all them. We met them cause we were the two best crews and we kinda didn’t wanna admit it but they were pretty good. And at the end, their last move was like Misfit ran and did a front flip over 5 of them and landed in the splits and then we decided that we were too cool and we went up to Misfit like, your crew’s whack man, they’re from Burnaby, you should hang out with us. And cause he was kinda like the only black guy, he was like oh cool, other black guys! So he started hanging out with us. And then music came. Kemo was making beats. Music started to come, and we started rapping almost like the next evolution, it was kinda weird. But we all became a big crew that’s how we know Rizk and Flipout and eventually Jay Swing. And Jay Swing lived in White Rock and Kilo-Cee was on the radio. We wanted to emulate, to be hip-hop, so bad that we had to try everything! You know what I mean?
HHC: So how did that go from being a lifestyle to being a career?
Sol G: Good question. I was rapping at some point, then Kemo said I wasn’t any good and he didn’t want me to rap anymore and I was sad, and Red agreed with him and I was sad as well. Kemo ruined my rap career I coulda been somebody. And I went away for a little while and to Red’s credit he asked me to manage the group when I came back because we trusted each other, we were best friends – still are – and he saw that I had something to give.
HHC: How did that transition to manager go down?
Sol G: We got a little independent record deal by this label called Calabash Records. Then we had a deal with Sony and shit just kept growing, and eventually we collided with the business of it. And we didn’t really trust anybody. Probably cause our little criminal minds back in the day were kinda like little hustler minds. We had gone to Toronto, we’d been nominated for a Juno, everyone was like “yo we should manage you,” and one day Red’s like, “yo you should manage us,” cause I was the one who was waking everybody up like, lets go to the thing. Manager, in my mind from playing sports and stuff, was the guy who cut oranges and shit at half time, it’s not cool: it sounded horrible! But what I think is most interesting about hip-hop is you all find your lane and your contribution point. Because we were a crew and I wanted to of course be with my friends, I started kinda figuring it out. Nobody taught me nothing.
HHC: What was your approach to the business end…you were so young!
Sol G: In the beginning it was just us kinda fumbling around and emulating what we saw, and learning. I think the first time we tried to book a show, it was a Big Daddy Kane concert that never happened and I think I ended up paying $200 instead of being paid; like I remember walking out, talking to the guy like what the fuck just happened? I had no meter for what I was engaging in, I didn’t have any business classes, nothing, I hadn’t gone to university. I was 17 years old, just tryna figure it out. I remember one day I was on Water Street cause I had registered a company and looked up record management companies and Bruce Alan had an office there and I decided I was gonna go down there and ask them. I dunno what I was doing there but I was like I’m gonna figure something out cause he’s Bryan Adam’s manager and I’ll ask him some questions and I walked in: they totally kicked me out, they’re like “get outta here” and “what are you doing?” But I remember walking in and seeing their office, and seeing awards on the wall, and seeing a secretary and other people being busy and I was like wow, okay, there’s a business here! And we’d been signed to an independent label and we just slowly wanted to grow and we also were very fiercely independent so after we got off that independent label we started to figure forward, you know, raise money on our own. I eventually got a job at BMG in Toronto, and got the guys signed there. It was less planned than you would think but we would just figure it out as it came. I mean our first tour was just a prayer. We had like six or seven people across the country who were DJs or promoters that were like “yea the Rascalz are coming in!” We’d go and try to make enough money to get to Calgary, to get to Edmonton, then to get to Winnipeg, all jammed in a van. We just kept going.
HipHopCanada: After operating on such a steep learning curve with the Rascalz, how much more strategic was your management of K’naan?
Sol G: It was very strategic. First of all by that time I didn’t even wanna do music anymore. I was so fed up with the music industry. By that time I had worked at BMG, I had worked at Arista Records in the States, I’d consulted for Bad Boy, Loud, Le Face, BMG, RCA. I was doing international so I’d known the world. I’d gotten K-Os signed to Capital. I’d got Kardi signed to MCA so I’d done two deals in the US, both of which never really panned out with bringing those deals back to Canada in order to make them. We’d turned down Junos, we’d won Junos, two gold records in my pockets from the Rascalz. I had, exactly, you nailed it, a very steep learning curve. I’d lived in New York for years. So by the time I was with K’naan, I was very clear on how people would be able to perceive him, which is probably the best piece.
“I knew that America wouldn’t understand. I knew that if K’naan wanted to make music from an African perspective Canada would be a good launching pad and Europe would get it. I also knew that we couldn’t sign a record deal right away.”
We got offered record deals immediately cause everyone wanted to sign the idea of him. Like the refugee war rapper, ooh! You know? But he was deeper than that; I knew that we had to develop a global base. They say you know, write the goal in pen, and the plans in pencil. I couldn’t have planned for Damian Marley, or Mos Def, or all these guys to love and get into it like we did and give us opportunities. Or the World Cup opportunity to come along. We were very proactive in nailing that. You can’t plan for that. But you can know where you have to go. What happens with experience I think, is when you know where you have to go, you have the ability to say no more than you say yes. Which is really important. Like you don’t get swayed! It could be very shiny but you’re like hmm…It was very purposeful with K’naan. Looking back, it’s been ten years we’ve been working with him now. We were in Toronto a couple days ago, and those ideas that we had then, they really come to pass.
HHC: What’s the boundary between a moral bottom line and “making it” as an artist?
I think that with your creative virtues, or scruples, you can’t always afford yourself, you can’t always afford the opportunity to be so high and mighty artistically. I think that sometimes, when people lack credibility or the thing they create isn’t solid and rock hard, and they stand really firm and purposeful and confident in their creativity – then you would kinda try to identify selling out. With K’naan, of course Coca Cola is almost the apparent antitheses of what he stands for but to just surfacely say that from a left side, like that’s the big bad machine and all that, there’s way more layers to it. He’s signed to Universal music, its one of the biggest corporations in the world. We go on television, on Fox, they play our videos, it’s like you can’t escape these bigger infrastructures that do distribution and access media and all that stuff. So I think to answer your question, selling out, or any of that idea of compromise, I guess that’s what selling out is; to me it only lives in the creative.
HHC: What was the process of making “Wavin Flag” for the World Cup?
Sol G: When we went to make that remix of Wavin Flag, we knew what they wanted, we knew what was going to be necessary for that song to sonically appease and get us that campaign. I remember distinctively we were going to the studio, we were riding with Bruno, and K, and Ray and em, and I said “Yo, just make a song.” Like let’s make a song, like we make a song, like we make a song, and we’ll get up in the morning and let’s listen to it and if it’s awesome like something we love and we can live with it for the rest of our lives like we would put it on an album, cool. It’s all good. If it’s not, than we won’t do it. So I think that’s the most important thing if you’re thinking how you engage. Or if like, if the creative is great, then the creative is great. That campaign worked because it was a really great song and made a really great campaign. And it’s kinda defeatist mentality to be caught up in selling out, you know, K’naan never wanted to not make music for the masses. He’s wanted to do that since I’ve met him. He’s very clear in his purpose and what he’s doing. Doesn’t mean it’s gonna be throwaway pop music, and if we hadn’t spent seven years touring the world and developing and putting out two albums and getting to the point where we’ve been, than even with the success of the World Cup, K’naan might not be standing but we had a very firm foundation to stand on so I think it’s easy to judge that but it’s not so easy to be in it. And I know from being in it that there’s a lot worse things that you could be doing and I also know that with business changing as radically as it is you have to look at different methods.
HipHopCanada: What do you mean when you talk about these radical changes in business?
In a certain way I saw a relationship with Coca Cola in a similar way as I saw the traditional way you have a relationship with a record company. We don’t always agree, they request things that they wanna do, you don’t wanna do, they push, you pull, you find a happy medium. They wanted the song to sound a certain way, they wanted certain things, it was almost like an A & R process with them. You don’t equate that to this big massive corporation but Universal music is not that much different; the face of it is different. Things have changed a lot so I think you have to change with those times and if you make great shit, right now more than ever, if you make really great music, or great creative films, whatever you do on TV, then you have all the opportunity in the world. That’s what everyone forgets. With all the facebook, twitter, and all that. Everyone’s got all these plans how their gonna do this and that but is your shit good? Cause now more than ever if it’s not good, people know.
HHC: It was interesting hearing your experince with Bruce Alan because you’re the role model now, you’re the guy people want to be. Why do you think you’ve become that guy?
Sol G: It’s funny that you say that cause that’s wild to me! Because some kid came up to me the other day, he wanted to give me his music; he was doing his thing, telling me about his band and stuff. I was listening to him and stuff and I looked at him, and I was like whoa, cause I could see he was kind of nervous. You know what I mean, and I didn’t feel like I was putting that on him and I started thinking, why is he nervous? And it just kinda hit me like, shit. I started thinking about the first time I had a Rascalz tape and I was tryna give it to the A&R guy at a record label, or I met Chuck D and I was trying to explain to him who the Rascalz were and my heart was pounding outta my chest and then I went back and replayed the conversation and thought that I was an like an idiot and whack, like how could I say something like that? You know what I mean, and I was laughing and in that moment I realized that for whatever reason, for whatever we’ve done or I’ve done, I am that guy now. Like I’m on the other side of it, and it’s not even that I’m that old, but it’s just the way that it is and I think that, I hope that if people wanna be like me, they see that the choices I’ve made are based on a value system and a lot more about what I can give than what I can get. And what I get, what I’ve learned in giving is that I’ve gotten more on so many levels. Not just financially, I’ve never chased the money or any of that, and I do alright, but had I’d been money minded I’d probably be wealthier. People might get a lot of different things like, oh I wanna be like him so I can get a record deal, or we could get a TV show, we could make films or whatever but I think that’s probably the surface of people. I would hope that they tune in to the passion and the principles and the purpose of the choices that I’ve made, because that’s what’s given me everything. I’ve tried to always explore the place where activism and art meets. And I’m getting more and more, it’s like I’m getting closer and closer… it’s like you feel like the Alchemist sometimes or whatever, like mixing potions and stuff and shit blows up in your face. And sometimes you make a rocket and sometimes it turns to gold but you always have to re-mix it, but I’m fascinated by that space. So I hope that people would know enough and look into it enough to see that that’s where I like to live and create. And that they could take a piece from that, and they could re-mix that, and re-work that and apply it with anything they do. Because art is not to be fucked with, if you have the ability to create, to be a facilitator, and be involved in that process anywhere. For me it’s very serious, but I like to party, I like to hang out, I like all sorts of music, I’m not so left that I can’t be right. You know? I don’t prescribe to that either.
HHC: So who’s my next interview?
Who the fuck am I gonna recommend? Wow, You already covered everybody, shit. There’s gotta be more. You got Roger, you got Jay Swing, you got Flip, you got GMAN, got Rizk, you got Red, there’s only one guy left…Madchild. He’d laugh if he knew that I fucking recommended him.
Interview conducted by Amalia Judith for HipHopCanada
Photography by Scott Alexander for HipHopCanada