Many artists dream of releasing a debut single that crashes into the consciousness of listeners the world over, but very few actually achieve such a goal. Yet that’s exactly what happened to Oakland, California’s Souls Of Mischief, when, in the early-90s, they dropped the instant hip-hop classic ‘93 ‘Til Infinity’ on Jive Records, an upbeat, jazz-fuelled explosion of high-calibre lyricism that firmly established A-Plus, Opio, Tajai and Phesto as emcees to look out for.
As members of the Hieroglyphics collective, a crew initially introduced by Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Souls displayed another sonic side to Oakland, which at the time was primarily known in rap circles for the explicit freaky tales of hometown hero Too Short and the gangsta funk of Ant Banks and MC Pooh.
Seventeen years, four albums and hundreds of shows later, Souls Of Mischief recently released their latest project ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’, which finds the group teaming up with visionary music man Prince Paul, who produced a large chunk of the album. Still as sharp as ever on the microphone, the group’s latest endeavour finds the foursome once again displaying the same proud independent spirit that prompted the Hiero crew to break free from label contracts in the 90s, blazing a trail as one of the first rap outfits to embrace the internet as a viable business outlet for artists.
Group member Tajai recently kicked it with Black Sheep to talk about working with the great Prince Paul, the lost art of lyricism and some of his favourite rappers.
Souls Of Mischief have been releasing music as a group now since the early-90s – what hopes did you all have for your music careers back then?
“Man, we were just trying to put a record out. We were kids when we recorded that first album, I was only 17. There really was no groundbreaking, over-arcing concept behind any of the stuff we were doing back then, we really were just young kids trying to make music. It’s kinda hard to fathom now looking back on how young we were because kids nowadays are like a Soulja Boy or a Bow Wow. But we just wanted to make a fresh record.
Are there any particular memories from that time period that really stand out for you looking back now?
“Being on tour with A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. Just being able to be on the same show as greats like that was definitely special. It was a great time in hindsight because things have gotten so bad for rap music, but to be honest the whole journey has been a great memory and the best part is that it hasn’t ended. It’s not like I’m only sitting around reminiscing about some shit I did back in the day, we do bigger shows and travel more than we did back then and we’re still out there making music.”
The recently released Souls album ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’ was largely produced by the legendary Prince Paul – how did that come about?
“Opio and Domino were on tour and Prince Paul had expressed an interest to them in doing a record with us. We just thought he meant a track, but he wanted to do a whole album. I mean, c’mon, we’re sorta from that whole Native Tongues, black medallions, no gold thing, that’s what gave Souls Of Mischief life in a place like Oakland where it’s all about pimps and keeping it real. So for us to be able to do a song with one of the architects of that movement, let alone a whole album, it was just like a dream come true. It’s kinda unreal. I mean, Paul flew out and lived with us for a month to record the album. We rented a house and he came out, stayed there with us and we recorded everything real guerrilla style. It was an amazing experience and we definitely didn’t want to disappoint him and I think it really brought out the best in us creatively. Paul had a vision and I’m just glad he’s as happy with the record as we are.”
Through his work with the likes of De La Soul and Gravediggaz, Prince Paul has always seemed to enjoy bringing concepts to the table when creating music. Did he do the same thing during his time working with you?
“Paul had a whole concept for the album, but it wasn’t anything that was really rigid. But that’s how we’ve always made records as Souls Of Mischief, we make whole albums. I mean, we came up after the 12″ single era but before the mix-tape era, so we came up when it was normal for artists to actually think about putting a whole album together, instead of just throwing a single out or putting a bunch of unrelated songs together on a mix-tape. Other than about three songs on the new album, like ‘Proper Aim’, which are just us straight ripping the track, everything else is concepts and stories. We’ve always been known as being rapper’s rappers, but even on ‘93 Til Infinity’ we had tracks like ‘What A Way To Go Out’ and ‘Tell Me Who Profits’, which were more than us just freestyling. But Paul is such a down to earth person that sometimes you wonder if he knows how important he is to hip-hop. I mean, to go from De La Soul, to Gravediggaz to ‘Prince Among Thieves’ to Handsome Boy Modelling School, those are all creative leaps and bounds that are miles apart, but he just seems comfortable in everything he does. So for Souls Of Mischief to be a part of that pantheon of great records is incredible, because I really think that when you put this new album next to all that stuff, it’s gonna stand up because it’s really a Prince Paul record. That’s why we put him on the cover because it’s not just a Souls record with Prince Paul beats.”
Souls Of Mischief and pretty much the whole Hieroglyphics crew have always been known to keep a fairly hectic tour schedule. Is that still the case?
“I mean, we have to man, because if you’re not on TV nobody knows your record is out unless you’re in town. Nowadays, nobody’s going to buy your record unless they’ve been to the show and seen that you’re dope. We probably do between one hundred and two hundred shows a year. We tour like The Roots or The Grateful Dead (laughs). We get it in as far as shows are concerned and it’s definitely integral to our whole get down.”
Given that you’re part of a group that’s now been making records for almost 20 years, does it surprise you when you see younger fans at shows?
“It’s hella surprising because I’m like, ‘You like this shit? You actually know this shit? You were born the year this record came out!!’ (laughs). That’s the craziest part to me when we see kids at our shows who weren’t even born when ‘93 ‘Til Infinity’ came out. That’s a trip. But that’s what keeps performing those old songs fresh because they’re always going to be new to younger fans who’ve just discovered them. What’s really cool though is when you see older fans who were there the first time around now bringing their teenage kids to the shows. It is surprising, but it’s great because it makes you realise that, as an artist, you’re only as old as when people find out about you. I mean, Earth, Wind & Fire and Curtis Mayfield are two of my favourite artists, but most of their biggest hits came out before I was even born, so I can relate to our younger fans from a certain perspective because of that, but then in another way I can’t relate because it’s hard for me to put myself in that position and see us how our younger fans must see us. But when you look at the rhyme styles we were using on our early records, some dudes are only just getting there now, so that first album was a manual of rap flows.”
Listening to a lot of the early Heiro material from the likes of Del, Casual and Souls Of Mischief, you definitely got the sense that when you were all on a track together everyone was pushing each other to really up their game lyrically…
“None of that was contrived either. I mean, we were all sitting in the same room making those records. It isn’t like that was a time when you could send a track to each other over the internet and all add to it, we were all sitting there together. So one person might’ve kicked something and if it was similar to someone else’s rhyme then they’d change it up. Then there’d be other times where we were writing together, trying to mirror each other’s flow and bounce off of each other. Lyricism is definitely kind of a lost art nowadays and I do feel like a samurai in a world of gunfighters, but it doesn’t matter because in the same way that martial arts are practiced today, it’s about self-mastery and perfecting an art.”
And as a fan of hip-hop and lyricism that’s what you want to hear an artist doing – pushing themselves to perfect their craft. Back in the day you didn’t necessarily want to completely understand a rhyme straight away or catch everything an artist was saying in a verse the first time you heard it…
“Nah, you wanted to be able to play it over and hear something new in it. The whole point of it was to impress people and make them think about what you were saying at the same time. Even with the whole freestyling thing, we were trying to get to the level of making our freestyles sound like written raps and a lot of the time I don’t think that really connected because guys just thought we were kicking written raps. But our whole thing was to be able to rock a rap that sounded like it could be album worthy, but it’d actually be off the top of the head. I mean, we were never really about that snap-rap where dudes are joking about each other and dissing each other’s moms, we came up on Rakim, Brother J, Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, ain’t no rappers like that no more. I mean, there are some new dudes out there worth checking out like a Skyzoo or a Blu, but most new artists now are involved in the music for other reasons outside of the creativity. It’s almost like a cage fighter going against a dude who’s mastered ju-jitsu, on the one hand you have a guy who’s more about brawling and just does the cage fight shit for the money, then you have the other guy who’s about mastering his art and carrying on tradition. It’s really a sign of the times though and it goes beyond just hip-hop. We’re in microwave times and we have a dumbed down population that really can’t follow a lot of the shit people are saying. I mean, I play these records to some kids and they really don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about because they don’t understand things like metaphors. Lyricism is an art and some respect that and some people don’t, but I can’t blame that just on new rappers and the fact they’re trying to get paid before anything else, there’s also a lot of social factors involved. But it’s also not just about mainstream versus underground, or them versus us, because the dudes I listen to and think are fresh makes for a weird ass list (laughs). Fabolous, Peedi Crakk, Cassidy, Blu and Black Milk, those are some of the dudes that I think are from that true school mentality when it comes to rhyming. Someone like Fabolous I think tapers his lyrical complexities with his choice of subject matter, which I know some people think is wack, but the best way I can describe him is to say he’s a master architect but he chooses to build restaurants for McDonalds (laughs).”
So now ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’ has been released is there more new Hiero material on the way?
Yeah, I think we’re going to put out a mix-tape type project of all original material to hold people over as far as Hiero is concerned. Then there’s a new A-Plus record which I think is going to be called ‘The Return Of Good Time Charlie’, Phesto’s got a record called ‘Background Check’, Opio’s coming with ‘Vulture’s Wisdom, Volume 2’ and I’ve got a new record coming as well called ‘Rap Noir’. We’re also gonna put out a remix version of this new Souls album and Pep Love’s got ‘Reconstruction’ coming. So we have a lot of stuff in the pipeline, but I don’t want to over promise and under deliver, so those are the things I know are definitely in the works.”