Real Name: Tonya Johnston
Birthday: July 17,1973
Hometown: Kansas City, MO.

Love: Sole' & Ginuwine married. Born and raised in Kansas City, Mo., rapper Solé made her debut as one-half of amateur rap duo Divine when she was only 15 years old. Solé and friend Shurhea Mitchell were regulars on the Kansas City talent show circuit, and were even offered a record deal at 1989's BRE Convention. But Solés father thought the girls were too young for a recording contract and Solé returned to Kansas City empty-handed. It would be several years before Solés return to music. In the interim she went to college, worked for a phone company, ran a spa at a salon, and even went to beauty school. When Solé decided to pursue music again, she called on her old friend, rapper Tek-9, who let her perform with his group in LA for several months. Ready to leave the group behind and launch her solo career, Solé hooked up with producer/manager Chris Stewart in Atlanta, who had worked with R&B acts like Blaque, Tyrese and Chante Moore. For Solés debut album, "Skin Deep", she had help from heavy-h

itters like Montell Jordan, Goodie Mob's Big Gipp and Xscape's Kandi Burruss.

Skin Deep is slated for a late-1999 on DreamWorks Records. "Shy" is not a word many people would use to describe Solé (So-LAY). After all, the rapper comes on like a freight train throughout much of her debut album, Skin Deep. Her commanding presence has likewise made an impact on JT Moneys "Who Dat," a Top 5 entry on Billboards Hot 100s. The track is included as a bonus on Skin Deep and Before Darks "Baby." Nonetheless, Solé confides, "As far as being one-on-one, Im naturally a shy person." Asked how she can say this in light of the bravura, in-your-face performances marking her live and recorded output, she asserts: "Its like I have a split personality. Im generally a sweet person. I think about everybody else before I think about me, and thats been bad sometimes. But in my music, Im hard. Its about me.

What you hear on this album is me taking care of me." Early in her relationship with her record label, an executive asked Solé if she could pull off the attitude he heard on her demos in a live setting. "That attitude is my attitude," she replied. "Its just not my only attitude." Elaborating on her stage skills, Solé attests: "I enjoy getting in front of people and going crazy. Whenever JT and I are getting ready to do a show, people who dont know me say, Oh, youre so cute, youre so pretty. They think Im this little girl whos gonna sing a song. And then I go out there and pow! Im just shouting it and sounding like the boys. I do my thing and show out and then I go offstage. The person onstage is like my alter ego. But its all me. Theres a lot of different sides to everybody." Produced primarily by Chris "Tricky" Stewart (JT Money, Tyrese, Blaque), Skin Deep is a showcase for the many different sides of Solé . Swaggering boasts ("I Yi Yi," "Rewind That") and bouncy party tracks ("Aint Nobody," "Get Up i

n It") stand toe-to-toe with a vividly imagined revenge fantasy ("The Story") and what Solé calls "a ghetto love story" ("Our World").

They ensure theres something for everyone on Skin Deep, but its the songs about thorny sexual politics ("4, 5, 6," "It Wasnt Me," "Tryin Too Long") and hard-won self-discovery ("Pain," "4 tha Love of U," "Never Thought I") that give the album its emotional center. Of the latter, Solé confirms: "These are stories of things Ive gone through, and a lot of them are angry. But theyre things I needed to say. I feel like everybody goes through certain things in their life because its how you learn, its how you get to where you need to be. Sometimes you say to yourself, Did I really have to go through all that to get here? But thats what makes you realize, I can do anything." Solés journey to this realization started in Kansas City, Mo., where she grew up the lone girl in a family of three children (shes the middle child). "I was the tomboy," she informs. "I ran with the boys, played softball, kickball, climbed trees, threw rocks everything the boys did, I did." And though her mother and grandmother had both been

singers (gospel and jazz, respectively), it was hip-hop that the boys were into.

Thus Solé expressed some of her earliest creativity in rhyme. "Me and my brothers rapped since we first heard that Sugarhill Gang record Rappers Delight, she says. "We used to split the parts up and rap them. I was around five when we started that. Then we got into L.L. Cool J., Eric B. and Rakim, and KRS-One. I also liked UTFO and Roxanne Shanté. I used to write down all their lyrics. When I was 10 or 11, I took that Run-DMC song My Adidas and changed the words so it was My Mikita. Mikita was my cat. Id rap against the boys on the bus, then go home and make something up to hit em with the next day. I knew I could rap even back then." Despite this precocious focus, Solé has been a multifaceted creature from day one. "I used to go with my mother to rehearsal for her group and play around on the piano," she recalls. "I played the clarinet in school, played in the marching band. I sang in the school choir. I used to write poetry and draw, I was always making something." Her ambition, too, was clear from th

e start. She reveals: "I wanted to be a performer as far back as I can remember.

I was in the school plays and musicals, and I did some modeling. I always wanted to be onstage. Id see people like Diana Ross or Cher on TV, and Id say to my mother, Im going to be on TV. Im going to be a superstar." When Solé was 15, opportunity knocked. Her older brother, also a rapper, had begun recording tracks with a local producer. "I used to go over to where they were working and say, I can rap, I can rap, I can rap," she reports. "But Amir, the producer, would just say, Yeah, yeah. Then one day he finally listened to me. After that, he said, Oh you really can rap. So I started writing seriously and he did some tracks for me." Still, Solé was a long way from the steely independence that distinguishes Skin Deep. Despite her background in performance, the idea of getting onstage by herself and rapping seemed too big a stretch. "I was just this skinny little girl, and I was shy," she says. "I didnt think I could do it by myself, so I got my best friend, Shurhea Mitchell, to do it with me.

She wrote poetry, too, and we were always in plays and singing together. We even used to make up fake radio shows and pretend we were interviewing each other. So I told her, Write a rap. Were going to rap." Calling themselves Divine, Solé and Shurhea took the Kansas City talent show circuit by storm. "All the girls would be singing or dancing or whatever, and we would get up there and rap," Solé relates. "It really made an impression on people we started winning these contests. I was listening to a lot of hip-hop at the time, and I felt I could rap better than that." Acting as Divines manager, Solés father helped the girls finance a demo tape, which he shopped at the 1989 BRE convention (the duo had won a trip to the music industry event by triumphing in yet another talent show). "We performed and met a lot of record execs and rappers," Solé says. "We met L.L. and even sat down and wrote with him. That was it.

We were like, Okay?!?, okay!, we met L.L.we can go home happy." "The first year we were not really ready," she concedes. "But when we went back to BRE in 90, we got a lot of offers. My father didnt think they were appropriate, though. And we were only 16." So Divine headed back to K.C. and continued performing, by now opening shows for the likes of EPMD, DJ Quik and Whodini. Their momentum was derailed, however, by a variety of circumstances. "In my ear people were telling me, You should do something by yourself," Solé says. "So I was thinking about that. And then we graduated from high school and just stopped. Shurhea and I both went to college, and I wanted to stay close to home and concentrate on my classes. Music just didnt seem to fit into the picture anymore." Solé first gravitated toward political science and psychology, but it wasnt long before her real love re-emerged. "I decided to major in music," she explains. "I figured, even if I wasnt doing music myself, I could always teach it to kids down

the road." She continued to pursue her studies while exploring other career options: "I worked for AT&T.

I was the spa coordinator at a salon. At one point I decided to go to hair school and open my own beauty shop. I tried so many different things, but none of it made me happy because I knew I had to perform. Finally, my mother said, Do what you have to do to be happy." One of Solés first steps toward that goal was a phone call to her friend Tek-9. "Tek and I rapped together a long time before," she says. "Wed been friends for 10 years. So I got back in touch with him and said, What are you doing? Im trying to get back into rapping. He hooked me up with the group he was working with, so in 1997 I went out to L.A. and spent some time with them. But the producer they were working with really wanted to go in a different direction from what I wanted to do, and I went back to Kansas City." Fate next intervened in the form of a dancer friend who was trying to put a group together.

She lived in Atlanta, which is where Shurhea had also settled. Though that project didnt gel"I didnt really want to be in another group situation," Solé admitsit did lead her to her current manager and eventually to Chris Stewart and his Red Zone Entertainment. Stewart initially pegged her as a singer. Once again, Solé found herself insisting, "I can rap, I can rap, I can rap," and once again her declarations were met with "Yeah, yeah." Not long thereafter, though, she happened to be at Red Zone when Stewart was working with some rappers who needed material. He said to Solé, "Well, heres your chance." He played her some tracks and challenged, "Write something to this." She recollects: "I wrote it, and then I rapped it. And he just said, Okayyoure going to rap now. Youll be rapping for us." When it came time to make Solés album, the choice of Stewart as producer was a natural. "He and I have this great chemistry," Solé says. "He knows the kinds of tracks I like, and I know what he wants to hear me ra

p. We just feel each other like that. And hes helped me overcome my shyness and encouraged me to be more open to trying new things." Moreover, Stewarts résumé as a producer was very attractive to Solé particularly for what it lacked.

In fact, he had established his considerable reputation in R&B, working with Tyrese, Blaque and Chanté Moore, among others, but had not yet penetrated the world of hip-hop. "Id heard his R&B stuff and I knew he was very creative and very musical. And the fact that he hadnt done much rap was a plus for me because I wanted something really different, something new. Thats one of the reasons we decided not to take a bunch of songs and loop them and rap over it. I wanted my stuff to be so original that people would be wanting to sample it." Additional production for Skin Deep was provided by Rashad Smith, Focus, Mr. Raja, Big Trev, Chuckey Charles and KD. Nor does the album suffer from a lack of guest performersJT Money, Montell Jordan, Goodie Mobs Big Gipp, Xscapes Kandi Burruss, Tek-9, Tamar, Mr. Raja, Miss Toi, Bobbi Bosselina, LoÉ, O., Reg Raw, Focus and J. Weav all take turns at the mic.

These high-wattage contributors notwithstanding, the point of view defining Skin Deep is Solés and Solés alone, from the repeated chants of "I Yi Yi" (a nod to the rappers Native American heritage) to her fearless confrontation of the past. "When Shurhea and I were doing Divine, I was a teenager I didnt have anything to talk about. I hadnt lived," Solé states. "I needed to grow up before I could make this record, and that meant coming to terms with some things. I went through a lot of heartache and pain over the years, situations I got myself into that were not good for me. Once youve gone through all that and have overcome it, once you can say to yourself, Okay, I havent had a nervous breakdown and Im still alive, then youre ready to do the job you were put here to do. And by doing that jobmaking my recordI was able to grow even more." Solés job now is to take Skin Deep to the people. She says shes no longer apprehensive about appearing solo onstage: "The shows Ive been doing with JT have been fun a

nd theyre definitely getting me ready, but theyre not my shows.

I want to do the whole show, not just my 16 bars of Who Dat. When I perform the material on Skin Deep, the energy will be so intense itll raise the bar for live shows." Beyond that, Solé declines to predict what her creative future holds. Having grown more confident in her abilities as a singer, she says shed like to sing more than backgrounds on her next record. About that disc, shell also volunteer, "Maybe it will be a completely clean record, because thats me, too. Artists are categorized as soon as their first record comes out; people decide who and what they are based on one album, and I dont think thats right. I talk about a lot of things on Skin Deep, and Im sure there will be a lot of new things to talk about on my next album. I mean, people are more than one-dimensional, ya know?"