Classic hip-hop crew the Souls of Mischief famously laid claim to the microphone until “infinity” in their debut album, released in 1993. Since then, they’ve released 5 LPs, with the most recent being Montezuma’s Revenge in 2009. They are known for their heavily sampled beats, which are pulled from sources as disparate as jazz, rock, an Islamic call to prayer, and some classical riffs, in addition to their fresh-squeezed-orange-juice-smooth-flow. The group consists of four emcees (Opio, Phesto, A-Plus, and Tajai) from Oakland who each bring their own style to each track. The tight production on individual tracks and the enormous energy put into creating cohesive albums through interludes, skits and smooth transitions are the stuff of great recorded material. In live performances, Souls of Mischief’s combined 80 years of hip hop experience is readily apparent as they create an intimate and satisfying performance. This past weekend, I had the pleasure of watching them rock the Main Stage at the Shoreline Amphitheater for Rock The Bells.
After their performance, I made my way to their trailer backstage, where the four emcees were kicking it fresh from their hour-long performance. Sitting down in the cramped room scattered with seats and a couch, we began talking about their experience in Oakland, which soon morphed into a discussion of the status of hip-hop today. Tajai, son in toll, was the most garrulous, while the others were reticent to speak at first but soon opened up to some of my questions. I was blown away by the rapport between them, as they sat intently listening to each other without hurrying to interject their own opinion. Keep reading for insight into Oakland’s stagnation, reactions to new music coming out of Oakland (Kreayshawn being one of them), and their experience performing ’93 til Infinity 18 years after it was recorded.
Tajai: It hasn’t. Let me say it like this, when we were kids the city was very positive, and there were jobs. Everybody moved out there for opportunities at the Port and Sunshine Biscuits. (Phesto: I feel what he’s saying) But as far as the city’s landscape, it hasn’t improved. It’s crackhead after crackhead. We were born in ’74/’75, so we were just an on the tail-end of the Black Panthers. Back then, Oakland was positive and forward-thinking with an attitude that we were going to get it together. But then the federal government pumped hella drugs into Oakland. Since then it’s stagnated. We’ve had punk ass leaders who’ve done nothing for the city like Ron Dellums, Lionel Wilson, Elihu Harris. They were puppets and did absolutely nothing for the city. I’d say the city hasn’t changed since ’86. You go to Long Beach, where my father’s from– it’s a port city like Oakland– and Long Beach has developed their harbor and improved the schools. Oakland is stagnating. I was just there two weeks ago and they are at completely different levels. Same sort of working class background, a couple universities near it, near a big city like Long Beach is near L.A., but Long Beach has improved vastly. I blame it on the (lack of) leadership and the influx of drugs during the early 80s. We haven’t recovered from it.
How do you think that impacts your music?
Opio: Everybody in Souls of Mischief is trying to pursue education. We learn and give back our take on the situation. Some people play us off as softies because of our choice to make the music we do, but they miss that we’re strong mentally. We have the perspective from living in Oakland to be able to talk about gang violence and drugs, and why people should stay away from them. We try to interject some real jewels in the lyrics, to that end.
You guys are performing ’93 til Infinity, which you recorded it 18 years ago. What kind of memories and emotions is that whole experience sparking?
Opio: One thing is this is a first, we’ve never performed a record in its entirety. For Souls of Mischief to come out and do 93 til Infinity all as one record is a first for us. We’ve performed and toured in a lot of different combinations, so I can almost say we’ve seen it all. Sometimes you’ve been doing it for so long you feel like there’s no new experience to be had. But an opportunity like this comes up and you’re doing the whole record, it’s kind of like uncharted territory for us. For me, that’s fun. It’s enjoyable. I like to be in that territory to test my skill and see how it comes out. On top of that, it was a beautiful thing to see the people’s reactions to the performance. Many of the songs aren’t material for our other performances, but we did it. And people got hyped off of those songs.
So how was it performing just now?
Phesto: This show was special because we’re at home. We did last week, which is down in Southern California, and that’s like our second home. This was actually being home. We got friends and family and wives and our kids, parents– so this is what’s all about. Coming in and performing for the people you’ve grown up with made the performance that more special. A-Plus was saying to our friends, “Last year I was up where you guys are.” So all of us have come to this Shoreline Amphitheater to see a lot of our favorite artists, and now we’re on that stage stage. It brings everything full circle.
Tajai: It was fun. When we first got asked to do it a couple years, it wasn’t time yet. But now, with the record 18 coming up on a 20 year anniversary, people are ready. We represent an incredible time in hip hop, the tail-end of that time. People are like “’88 to ‘93 son, that was hip-hop b”. The fact we can capped off that era and make it still relevant for the youngsters, that’s the best part about it. You look at Hieroglyphics when we were independent, in ’97, and that was a transition phase. Hip-hop was changing. You look at our fan base now, we’ve got fans in their 40’s and 50’s, but most of our fans are 14-25 years old. We’re like Earth, Wind, and Fire or something. We’re old-school to the them, but they still go to every show and get tattoos. They’re real fans, like the Grateful Dead or something. It’s a multi-generational thing. You can see both types of fans mouthing the words. For some people, they remember us back in the day performing, and for others it’s an invented memory. That’s how I feel if I see Bambaataa or Cold Crush or Cool Hurt. We do festivals all over the world with old cats, REAL old school cats. All I can remember is being a kid was breaking and popping to their music. It wasn’t like I was in N.Y. in the park at the jam, but it has the feeling.
Let’s talk about that. I speak with hip hop heads and they say the early 90’s were the height. And now shit’s going to the fan and a lot of hip hop music now is shitty. Nas said “hip hop is dead”, and was trying to bring alive that feeling. How do you feel about hip-hop right now? Do you agree with that sentiment that hip hop is dying, or is it really alive and well?
Looking at the landscape in Oakland– with all the musical movements that have started there– what do you think of new movements like Kreayshawn and V-Nasty. What do you think of them and the rest of new Oakland music?
Opio: On some real shit, Hieroglyphics have been doing our own thing for so long that’s a new movement that they’re doing. More power to them. But it’s not something we’re involved with.
A-Plus: We’re in different lanes. One thing about hip-hop is that it has all of these different parts to it. There are so many lanes and they all deserve to be there, but Hieroglyphics focuses on our lane. Love or hate any other lane, we have to respect it because it deserves to be there. It’s just like how other lanes treat us. We focus on being Hieroglyphics. We only focus on pleasing the people who love to Hieroglyphics, and potentially bringing new fans on. We’re happy to be in the mix with other groups our fans like. But we don’t gage what we do on anyone else.
Phesto: I personally think it’s pop music. It’s good pop music and bad pop music. Nobody would ask us about the new Branford Marsalis album. It’s because they don’t really care what our opinion is on that (laughs). The same thing goes for artists like that. I don’t feel like its the same genre at all. I really feel like that’s just pop music. And they happen to be rapping. It’s not like you can’t ask me that question, but I’d like someone to ask me what I think of Branford Marsalis’ new album. (laughs)
Opio: Some people try and put us on the opposite side of the fence, and it’s not the case. It’s been like that for so long, we been telling people we like Too $hort and E-40. They’d tell us “you can’t like that, it’s all about being lyrical, we don’t fuck with that”. They don’t see the intricacies of what E-40 is really doing. The average person on the street doesn’t realize how goes into being an MC. We are the rapper’s rapper.
You’ve been in the game for such a long time, what’s the formula to success?
Tajai: We’ve been on tour for 100-180 days out of the year since 1993, to where you can’t fall off. For the first 10 years of our career, we talked so much shit everywhere we went cats wanted to battle. We had to stay sharp because of that. And then we’d win those battles, but we’d have to rock the shit out of shows. Because we were performing next to KRS-One or Common or Nas.
But 18 years later, you all have families.
Tajai: I had a daughter yesterday
Shit, congratulations! What’s new on the music front?
Tajai: A-Plus just came out with Pepper Spray. Pep Love has something too. Phesto just dropped the first single off his record. Opio has Vultures Wisdom Vol. 2. Hella shit. That’s another thing, touring is where you practice the shit. Think about a photo albums– you put your best work in there. So we build our repertoire by trying new music out. It takes a while to make good music. People are always pressuring us to release shit and we’re like “c’mon, we’ve got music but we only want to the best shit out”. We use the rest for soundtracks and B-sides, video games.
A-Plus, tell me a quick bit about Pepper Spray
A-Plus: Pepper Spray is an album produced by Compound 7– which consists of myself, my brother AG and Del The Funky Homosapien. All of beats were samples from Red Hot Chili Peppers’ songs, but we made them hip-hop beats. It’s not a mash-up. We made an EP– it’s free online. The next installment of that is Rage Against the Machine with me and Del, that’s coming next.
Support Souls of Mischief’s music here.