A rising force on the local scene that leapt from sardine-packed shows at their homebase of Automatic Slim's to some of the city's most high-profile gigs, Free Sol knew what they wanted when they won a local Grammy showcase last November at the New Daisy Theatre (where they beat out six other finalists from Memphis, St. Louis, and New Orleans).
"We wanted to be like Saliva!" says Christopher "Free Sol" Anderson, the frontman and namesake of the seven-piece band. Saliva parlayed a win the last time the local Grammy chapter put on a regional showcase into national prominence. But Free Sol is trying to be a little more realistic.
"What we were really excited about was getting to play Memphis in May," says Anderson's vocal counterpart, Candace Ashir. "Everything else was just icing on the cake. We had no idea that so many things would follow."
It wasn't the first time Anderson had stepped onto the Daisy stage to compete in a Recording Academy event. Anderson was a member of the hip-hop act Sol Katz, which performed at an Urban Music Showcase a couple of years ago in a straightforward rap style that evoked Outkast and Goodie Mob.
That group didn't work out, Anderson says. The roots of Free Sol were planted soon after that Sol Katz performance, with Anderson meeting drummer James "Kickman Teddy" Thomas at the Midtown Applebee's while hawking solo CDs. Over the next few months, the group filled out to its current lineup, which, in addition to Anderson, Ashir, and Thomas, now includes keyboardist Daniel "Premo" Dangerfield, guitarist Elliott "E-Ness" Ives, trombonist Prentice "Print Dog" Wulff-Woesten, and DJ Torrence "Tee Brice" Brice.
"It's something that I thought was important, especially for hip-hop," Anderson says of his decision to form a live band. "It's our way of bringing all these different kinds of music together. And there's a certain feeling that you get from live music that you just can't get from a track. It's hip-hop, but it's live and in your face."
Doing hip-hop as a full band doesn't make Free Sol unique. After all, Philadelphia's Roots beat them to that concept by a decade. But Free Sol isn't just hip-hop. The band expands the vocabulary of hip-hop. This is how Anderson describes the sound on the relaxed, boastful "Loc'd Out," from the band's recently released debut, 11:11: "Do a lot of things but I love hip-hop/Mix it with soul and funk and rock/Add a little jazz and what do you got?/Hot, hot, hot, hot, hot, hot, hot."
You can hear this confident mix on 11:11 songs such as "Possibility," which opens with some Steve Cropper-style guitar before giving way to punching horns. The description evokes Stax, but the result is a little softer --more '70s, more jazzlike. And the skill of the vocal arrangement stands out, with Ashir's, Anderson's, and Brice's cut-in samples engaged in a tumbling conversation. And that's followed a couple of tracks later by "All Night," which is aggressive enough to pass for (nü-)metal. Other ear-catching sonic departures include "To Keep From Crying," a spare piano ballad reminiscent of Prince (one of Anderson's professed musical heroes) and "Take That," which recalls Outkast's percussion detonation, "B.O.B."
But as varied as the band's musical playbook is, it all comes back to hip-hop, where Free Sol is attempting to break new ground on a local scene that has long seemed one-dimensional.
"I remember when no one listened to anything but Memphis rap," Anderson says. "If you were black in this city, you were weird if you liked not only alternative music but even East Coast rappers. I even remember when Tupac wasn't that accepted in Memphis. This city was all about Al Kapone, Three 6 Mafia, which is cool, but there was a time when that was it."
But as different as Free Sol's sound may be locally, Anderson sees plenty of kindred spirits in the scene nationally: "If Outkast wasn't around, I don't think we'd even have a shot," he confesses. "They've really opened some minds, especially for Southern hip-hop. Even people like David Banner are opening up doors all through the South. The Black-Eyed Peas with their new success. And Kanye West. This is a good time for hip-hop, and the idea that we could be a part of that feels great."
Free Sol's sound has come at the right time for a growing Memphis audience starved for something different. It's no accident that Free Sol's rise has coincided with that of Tha Movement, the neo-soul-oriented concert series soon to celebrate its second anniversary.
"The young professional demographic has really grown in Memphis, and they're looking for something exciting, something edgy, but also sophisticated," Ashir says.
This new audience is responding not only to new sounds but new ideas. Though the sexually up-front tone of songs such as "No Need To Lie" and "U Damn Right" is nothing new, Anderson's willingness to take on organized religion is rare in hip-hop and R&B (Public Enemy comes to mind) and pretty much unheard of in church-heavy Memphis. But the band is pretty direct on the subject in "I Don't Give a Damn," which peaks with this lyrical attack: "Quit that bullshit/Fingers in my face pointing to the pulpit/And why the preacher got the bullwhip?/'Don't do this'/And on Sunday, bring the full tithe." The topical "Mr. President" links a personal experience of religious hypocrisy ("The preachers misleading/They don't give to the needy/We give to the greedy/Instead of helping Ma with an extra twenty dollars/He droppin' it in the offering plate/The preacher poppin' collars") to America's recent global misadventures.
Anderson doesn't shy away from this controversial content. "My experience with religion is that it's a business," he explains. "There are spiritual people in every religion who are searching for truth and I don't have a single problem with [that]. I do have a problem with some preachers. They take the opportunity to knock other people down, whether it's hip-hop or homosexuals or alcoholics or adulterers or whatever they're attacking at the moment. They do it in a way where they claim to be doing God's work, and they make their work seem so, so more important and closer to God than you are. And I just think that's bullshit. To call them on their bullshit is to attack their money, and I hope to attack a lot of their money. I hope to get some of their money."
This sentiment might seem at odds with a band many of whose members come from gospel backgrounds, but Ashir, herself a sometime gospel singer, elaborates on the stance: "Your religious experience and your relationship with God should be personal. For someone to tell you that wearing pants or wearing makeup is wrong according to God I mean, really? Am I going to get thrown out of heaven because of that? I don't think so. I'm a very devout Christian, but a lot of traditionalists have really messed things up."
The independent streak reflected in Anderson's willingness to take on the religious establishment is also reflected in the band's business choices. After winning the Grammy showcase, Free Sol could have shopped a demo to labels and waited for something to happen but instead chose a path more common to indie-rock bands than their particular style of soul and hip-hop: releasing an album on a local label (Memphis Records, offshoot of local studio Young Avenue Sound, where the album was recorded) and hitting the road.
"If you base a career on trying to get a deal and that deal fails, then you have to start all over again," Anderson explains. "I want to make this a career, so I stopped worrying about getting a big deal. What scares me most is being told I can't do this. That's primarily why we didn't want to do a demo. We wanted to put an album out and hit the road to make some money and make a name for ourselves."
This meant canceling a scheduled May record-release party at downtown's Cadre Building and instead hitting the local club scene harder -- a string of Tuesday night gigs at Newby's and shows at Young Avenue Deli and the New Daisy Theatre -- and beginning to tour regionally.
"We wanted to make sure that we used our resources correctly. There are a lot of things we need to do before it's time to celebrate. What we've been doing is preparing ourselves to hit the road with summer and fall tours," Anderson says.
But this doesn't mean Free Sol doesn't plan on making the kind of national splash that Saliva has. They've just put their career on a more realistic, deliberate path. 11:11 has been serviced to college radio stations around the country and is being prepped for a national release.
"We're in conversation with local distributors right now to take it national," says band manager Raheem Baraka. "We just wanted to get a little traction first." n