Though this is still a very young blog series, I imagine that it’s already pretty clear that I really have a penchant for rappers and groups that talk about social issues in inventive ways. I also geek out over complicated rhyme schemes, extended metaphors, changing meters, and soulful voices. Orlando-based rap and hip-hop group Sol.illaquists of Sound packages all of these into a slick product that lays everything on the table and still leaves me wanting more.
For over a year after I was first exposed to the group, the title track from the group’s 2006 debut As If We Existed. From my first listen I was a fan and proceeded to add the track to playlist after playlist, but I didn’t probe deeper until I heard an advance track from the Sol.illaquists’ 2008 follow-up. Fast forward four years, and I happened upon a CD copy of As If We Existed at a record store in Dallas. I’ve been trying to absorb the messages that the Sol.illaquists of Sound lay into their tracks since.
Sol.illaquists of Sound formed in Orlando in late 2002 with the collaboration between producer and DJ DiViNCi and rapper Swamburger. By involving their respective romantic interests in their musical pursuits, the duo was joined by poet Tonya Combs and singer-emcee Alexandrah to round out the quartet as Sol.illaquists. The group often lives to subvert expectations and contradict conventional wisdom as a group fronted by duets between a rapper who calls himself “Swamburger” and an intentionally bald female emcee whilst a DJ manipulates as many as four MPC sample sequencers and a slam poet occasionally chips in spoken-word interludes. Four unique individuals somehow blend seamlessly as Sol.illaquists of Sound, and an unexpectedly cohesive sound is presented.
Sol.illaquists of Sound’s sound itself is one that is simultaneously pleasing to the ear and maddening to the mind. This is a heady group, with both hyper-intelligent lyrics and musical compositions that require a bit more investment from the listener than a more run-of-the-mill hip-hop group might. To bring up the listener indeed is key, as the group’s debut album begins with a soliloquy (appropriate) raising up the question of the listener’s role in music; additionally the group has repeatedly stated that their first three albums will center around one concept that has been dubbed “the listener trilogy”. Processing everything that happens in each Sol.illaquists song is no small undertaking, but the levels each resonate with the letter to the extent that it’s almost possible to fall into the groove and just listen passively. Almost.
The beat and samples that DiViNCi creates are dynamic and varied; smooth guitars exist with hyperactive and syncopated drum machine loops to give a steady sway to each tune. To this end, “instrumental” solos come in unexpected forms, as synthesized bass and analog drum samples. On the next layer are Swamburger’s vocals, which are aggressive, percussive, and highly intelligent. The rapper is clearly no stranger to four-syllable words, and seems equally comfortable unleashing free-flowing rhymes in duplet- and triplet-based time signatures. In the gaps between Swamburger’s rhymes are Alexandrah’s own rhymes, which are a smooth contrast to her male counterpart’s. While Swamburger has a short, dry delivery, Alexandrah’s voice slides and glides effortlessly through rhythm, melody, and overdubbed self-harmony to flesh out the vocal lines in Sol.illaquists of Sound’s music. When all of the group’s components are firing on all cylinders it approaches the sound of a New Orleans brass band with DiViNCi laying down a base over which the two vocalists harmonize and deliver fast and articulate rhymes in unison.
2006’s As If We Existed seems to be a stirring of the listener, an awakening from complacency. From the opening monologue, the album draws attention to harsh truths of reality in modern urban America while reminding the listener of his or her power to affect that reality. On the swaying 6/8 groove of the title track, a smooth delivery by Alexandrah gives way to a second verse by Swamburger that may be the most impressive display of on-point rapping I’ve ever heard that releases into the insistence that “you’re not just a voice” with an ending that drops the music out to an a capella conclusion. And this is only the third track on the album. The next song itself is another triumph, as the listener is introduced to the “Mark It Place”, in which bigoted and presumptive advertising campaigns are ruthlessly attacked as Swamburger and Alexandrah trade lines and accusations. The album continues with high points like the inventive hook to “Ask Me If I Care” and the unbelievable alliteration on “Ur Turn”. Not only is As If We Existed a staggering accomplishment as an album, it is meant to be only the first installment of a trilogy. Sol.illaquists of Sound set the bar high for themselves.
If As If We Existed was an awakening for the listener, 2009’s No More Heroes is a call to action. While I’m still processing the album, it takes the implied comic book imagery that adorned the liner notes of As If We Existed and fleshes it out and combines it with even more time-warping rapping, bombastic synth beats, and effortless vocal acrobatics. Part two of the so-called “listener trilogy” is hard-edged and adds elements like a series of short films and odes to Harriet Tubman, Kunta Kinte, and hip-hop producer J-Dilla. While Sol.illaquists of Sound look for heroes to reappear and save the comic book caricature parallel universe that the album appears in, the listener finishes the album anticipating a conclusion on the yet-to-be-released third album 4th Wall.
So this is the state of the listener that features so prominently in this group’s music. The finale of the concept trilogy is due out later this year, and the more I listen to the first two releases, the more interested I am as two what direction it will turn. For the time being, sparing live shows and the Solilla website are the main avenues to taking in more Sol.illaquists of Sound. No one is listening to this intense hip-hop quartet, but the highly intellectual level of the music and the stirring performances each member of the outfit delivers make this a rap band that begs for more listeners (and to engage with them on a personal level). Sol.illaquists of Sound should have a few more ears bent their way, if only for the upcoming conclusion of a trilogy of interrelated rap albums of undeniable quality. On As If We Existed, poet Tonya Combs wonders if sound even exists without the listener. If sound is so reliant on the listener, the Sol.illaquists deserve listeners just to sustain such impressive talent.