Hip Hop Academic: Dave Hook on Solareye's new album
Best known as the frontman of hip-hop sextet Stanley Odd, Solareye is going solo for his latest project. We chat to him about politics, prison rap, expressing identity and his hip-hop PhD
You'd be hard pressed finding anyone who cares more about Scottish hip-hop than Dave 'Solareye' Hook. When he's not writing intricate rhymes and catchy hooks in his role as frontman of alt-rap group Stanley Odd, he's preaching hip-hop's virtues in schools, holding writing workshops in prisons and lecturing on all things music production at Edinburgh Napier University.
Most recently, he even completed a PhD that investigated the Scottish scene, entitled 'An auto-ethnography of Scottish hip-hop: social commentary, outsiderdom, locality and authenticity.' He comments: “Being a rapper, I probably should have come up with a snappier title, but the academic world isn't exactly full of hip-hop studies.”
To Hook, hip-hop artists are hip-hop studies. He quotes Will Smith's famous contention that “rappers are reporters,” whose goal is to give the voiceless a way of expression that tells a story about their stories, struggles and surroundings. “Rappers put so much effort into understanding their art, their culture and where it comes from,” he says. “To me, that's similar to academic study.
“Hip-hop has that didactic element to it where knowledge is central, but not in a preachy way. You're actively encouraged to know about it. In my study, I argued that you need both those skills which are globally recognised – the multisyllabics, the wordplay, the social referencing, the flow, all the rest of it – but you need to present it in a local voice for people to perceive it as authentic.”
For nine years, Stanley Odd have shattered a lot of misconceptions about what authenticity within hip-hop means. Their five albums have combined emceeing, sampling and loops with rock-based live instrumentation, putting their own captivating spin on the genre. In spite of this (or perhaps partially because of it), they have managed to put hip-hop on the radar in previously untouched areas of Scottish culture, playing band-oriented festivals and winning recognition in broadsheet newspapers.
“It happened organically,” says Hook. “We worked hard – it wasn't some magical thing, because we gigged up and down the country a lot, but we understand perhaps our style meant we were that bit more accessible. Ironically, it's maybe that same element that might put off the purists who are more into the traditional boom bap stuff. But it opened doors and it meant we were able to shine a light on the scene as a whole and play and curate bills with other hip-hop artists. We were the gateway drug.”
Hook stresses that the band “aren't finished” and are looking at putting out another record “hopefully next year,” but for the meantime he has other things on his mind. The upcoming project All These People Are Me is his first solo LP since he began rapping at the turn of the millennium. In contrast to his band's more conventional style, the album is entirely synth and sample-based with production handled by Stanley Odd drummer Samson and Glasgow beatmaker Harvey Kartel. But as he expresses on futuristic lead single Mr. Margins, the record doesn't try to be subversive and dystopian for the sake of it.
“I wanted to do something completely musically different,” he says. “Someone once told me that you only get writer's block if you always write in the same way. The album's title alludes to that – this idea that every single one of us gets placed into categories pretty much from birth. We're told we're unable to express certain elements of ourselves. I wanted to make something that challenges that and recognises that we're all complex, contradictory human beings.”
It's not lost on Hook that much of his creative process was specifically about analysing the creative process. The album took two-and-a-half years to complete in total, with “many peaks and troughs along the way.” He says the tracks Reconstruction (Where the Sun Rises) and Deconstruction (Where the Sun Sets), which bookend the record, refer specifically to identity.
“I read a book by a late academic called Adam Krims which mentioned how Ice Cube, for example, built up this image of himself – this militant Black persona,” he says. “When he tried to do something different later, his fans rejected it as inauthentic, simply because he wasn't doing what they wanted. Hip-hop is autobiographical and people change. I've done some songwriting workshops in prison and the thing that strikes me about many of them, who have no writing experience, is the most powerful thing is them being confident and being unashamedly themselves.
“So I suppose Reconstruction is about how we present ourselves and physically assemble ourselves each day before we're ready to go, and then Deconstruction takes it all apart again. The stories on the record are all mine and they're all tied to that concept – there are no guest verses or anything like that. I tried to really shut myself off creatively and fully concentrate on it, but, of course, life often gets in the way.”
He's also keen to point out that “everything is political, but this isn't an overtly political record.” Arguably Stanley Odd's two best known tracks – Son I Voted Yes and Marriage Counselling – both sought to frame the issue of Scottish independence through unique thematic concepts. Along with the likes of Werd and Loki, Hook was identified as one of the prominent pro-independence voices in the scene. However, he stresses that hip-hop had been political “long before that came around.”
He says: “hip-hop has always lent itself to protest and social commentating so the referendum came around at a good time. Artists were already doing that kind of thing here in Scotland – it just so happened we suddenly had a bigger voice because the media was looking for creative voices on either side. A pal of mine who voted No complained that his side was under-represented, but the truth was we were still the minority even if it's where most of the hip-hop community stood.”
In a way, it's surprising that Hook has taken 18 years to put together a full album under the Solareye moniker, especially given his status as one of the Scottish hip-hop scene's leading ambassadors. That might be because he sees himself as a student and a scholar more than any kind of authority – he raves about younger up-and-comers like Ciaran Mac, Futurology and Busker Rhymes, arguing they should be seen as “valid on the highest level.” If anything, he believes his studies have only given him a “broader appreciation of hip-hop culture” and cites rappers with as much enthusiasm as any academic professor.
“A lot of the time, academia, and indeed journalism, around hip-hop feels like outsiders trying to explain it – a 'they write about it while we do it' kind of thing,” he says. “But my learning has only made me love it more. In Scotland, we have this amazing situation where we're concurrently global and local. There's this dichotomy: hip-hop is this worldwide mainstream music, but what we're doing is this underground sub-culture and somehow the two never meet.
“We've translated it into Scottish culture. For example, braggadocio is a big part of hip-hop – people find these new, innovative ways to say 'I'm better than you' – but it doesn't always fit with our self-deprecating nature. It's like a local filter on a global form. And because we're so underground, we've not been limited in our scope of 'what hip-hop should be'. So, I enjoy actually trying things that are completely different or new – the diversity of hip-hop in Scotland is what I love about it.”
All These People Are Me is released on 4 May via A Modern Way
Solareye plays Stag and Dagger festival, Glasgow, 6 May; Tolbooth, Stirling, 24 May; The Mash House, Edinburgh, 26 May; Electric Fields festival, Dumfries & Galloway, 30 Aug