FALL ARTS If you are a fan of hip-hop, you likely already know that 1993 was a very special year.
Call it coincidence, call it fate, call it a combination of social, economic, and political factors projected through the kaleidoscopic lens of American pop culture and write your thesis about it (you wouldn’t be the first). But something in the air in 1993 coalesced into a weather system of seminal albums from the best of the best: Tupac, Queen Latifah, Snoop Dogg, A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang, De La Soul.
In Oakland, E-40 made his solo debut. Too $hort’s new album hit the top of the R&B/hip-hop charts. The Coup was selling records by rapping about the Communist Manifesto. And then there was Souls of Mischief.
Fresh out of Skyline High School, the sound of the four-piece’s debut was something else altogether: Over obscure jazz and funk samples, Souls of Mischief traded flows about weed, street violence, girls, teenage boredom — so no, not entirely unique in subject matter. But there was a sweet subtlety to the delivery, a charismatic, self-aware almost-wink to their bravado. These were Bay Area kids talking about how it felt to be Bay Area kids at that time, with a mission statement that charted a modest path for the future: This is how we chill/ from 93 ’til…
As of this writing, it’s been 20 years and 11 months since 93 ‘Til Infinity helped put the Bay on the hip-hop map. A lot’s changed, to put it lightly. The Internet happened, and the Internet’s effect on the music industry. The consolidation of thousands of smaller, regionally-influenced media channels into a few giant, similar-sounding ones.
And then there are things that haven’t changed. Twenty years and 11 months since that record first propelled them into the national spotlight, the four high school buddies who make up Souls of Mischief — that’s A-Plus, Opio, Phesto, and Tajai — are slouched on couches in their clubhouse in East Oakland on a warm Wednesday evening, ribbing each other about joint-rolling technique.
The Hiero compound, as the converted two-story warehouse is known, serves as the physical center of Hieroglyphics, the close-knit hip-hop collective/umbrella record label that’s home to rappers Del the Funkee Homosapien, Casual, and Pep Love, DJ Toure and producer Domino, in addition to Souls of Mischief. The exterior walls are covered with a mural done by teenagers in the neighborhood (it’d be tagged up by now, but everyone knows it’s Hiero so they leave it alone). Inside, the ground floor contains recording studios — Pep Love is working in one right now — and a big room that can be set up for video shoots. Upstairs, more recording space, a room with wall-to-wall shelves of vinyl, a mini-kitchen, an office.
A-Plus’s teenage son is here at the moment, recording something of his own. Stickers bearing the three-eyed Hiero logo adorn nearly every surface. An incoming mail pile is marked with a Post-it. Items on a nearby bookshelf: a stuffed alligator toy, Swisher blunt wraps. In one corner, a whiteboard reads “HIEROGLYPHICS CREW NEXT PROJECTS,” with members’ names down the left-hand side and updates about their records; as an afterthought: “THE PURPOSE OF THIS BOARD IS COORDINATED MARKETING STRATEGY.” In another corner, a chart titled “Capitalism Is a Pyramid Scheme.”
In the two-plus decades since that momentous year, the members of Souls of Mischief have had kids. Hieroglyphics went from young upstart crew to real business venture to respected veterans of the hip-hop world who can still easily sell out amphitheaters (as they learned on their 20th anniversary tour last year). There are special edition box-sets of their 20th anniversary reissue waiting for autographs downstairs before being shipped. On Monday, Sept. 1 (Labor Day), Souls of Mischief will be the centerpiece of the third annual Hiero Day, a free, all-ages music festival/block party in downtown Oakland that gets bigger every year — and it’s not just about the music. But more on that later.
What the guys have been consumed by for a year makes its debut a few days earlier. On Aug. 26, Souls of Mischief will drop their sixth studio album, There Is Only Now, the group’s first full-length since 2009.
A richly orchestrated concept album set in 1994, based loosely on real events from the year following their breakout album (when they were dealing with newfound fame, as Oakland dealt with an increase in gun violence), the record serves as both a bookend to 93 ‘Til Infinity and as completely fresh territory. For one, it’s Souls of Mischief’s first collaboration with the LA-based producer of the moment, Adrian Younge (Jay Z, Delfonics, Ghostface Killah), who’s using the album to launch his new vinyl-centric label, Linear Labs.
“The name There Is Only Now comes in part from Buddhism, the idea of focusing on the moment and being present. But it’s also a period piece with a twist — it touches on issues that are still going on now: Street violence, love, drugs, the music business. It’s a universal story,” says Tajai, after ambling in the last of the four, asking who has rolling papers. (He’s just come from a panel at UC Berkeley’s architecture school, where he was judging undergraduates’ projects, he says, by way of explanation about his preppy sweater. He’s enrolled in the Master’s program there.)
Fittingly, the record is a study in contrasts and surprises. Its guest stars are folks you might have heard of — Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes — but in roles we’re not really used to. The story, which follows the crew on an adventure through Oakland after Tajai is kidnapped, is punctuated by interludes from A Tribe Called Quest‘s DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad as an animated radio DJ, narrating and addressing Oakland from a fictional radio station, K-NOW.
Even more appropriately: The record, which clocks in at a packed 40 minutes long, sounds slick as anything — and was created without the use of a single sample or computer. At 35, Younge is known for using only live instrumentation (most of it performed himself), and the resulting beats and backing tracks draw heavily from classic ’60s and ’70s soul; his affinity for the Blaxploitation era of cinema and experience scoring films lends an extra layer of cinematic feeling to the record’s narrative.
Maybe most importantly, Souls of Mischief sound like they’re having a damn good time.
“The fact that it was all analog took it back to the beginning for us,” adds Phesto, noting that in the high school days of Souls of Mischief, they wrote songs using three-way calling. “We’ve been messing with live instrumentation from the beginning. But with the storyline, [Younge] writing it like a score, and us being lyricists for that score — I think he brought out something in us that no other producer has.”
There’s a base level of social consciousness that Hiero fans will know to expect. During one radio interlude that prefaces the song “Ghetto Superhero,” callers into K-NOW voice concerns about violence in Oakland in a way that, unfortunately, is still highly relevant. (Ali Shaheed Muhammad, with an audible smile: “It’s almost like we need some kind of superhero…”).
But it’s never been the goal to hit listeners over the head with social commentary, says A-plus. If they were going to tackle something like gentrification in Oakland, they’d do it for real, “and it’d be an 18-hour song.”
Besides, adds Tajai, “We’re older rappers. When we preach, it comes off preachy.”
Which is not to say that they’re reluctant to get political. Ask, for example, what they make of current trends in mainstream, commercial rap (and what seems like the chasm between that and the independent hip-hop that’s always bubbling just underground), and you will hear some opinions about materialism. Particularly, hypothetically, if A-Plus and Phesto had to leave an hour ago, and the light outside is waning from the pink East Oakland sky, and Tajai and Opio have smoked a good amount over the last 90 minutes.
“Music is always a reflection of society, and rap is like a 40-year-old man. That motherfucker has kids and a 401k. That’s how it’s acting,” says Tajai. “It doesn’t have the idealism it used to. It’s about ‘get paper.’ And you’re hearing kids saying that.”
“I think you can talk about money and still be a real person and have some style and finesse — I always liked Run-D.M.C. with the big chain and whatever, that’s part of hip-hop,” offers Opio. “I don’t think standing in front of the car is horrible in and of itself. But when every single thing is that…”
“The problem is not the subject matter, it’s that access to shit that isn’t that isn’t equal. It’s always the lowest common denominator, scraping the bottom of the barrel,” says Tajai. “I’ll hear something these days that’s like — is this a parody? I can’t even tell if it’s a joke. And then it takes off!”
Opio: “That’s just advertising dollars. People are investing in that because it makes money.”
Tajai: “I’m not mad at that. I’m mad that the dollars that do come in don’t go toward building new power structures. Look, the materialism is across the board. ‘In God we trust’ is on the dollar. We’re a materialist, capitalist society that’s driven by consuming. We are the mall. We’re not even the manufacturer or the farm, America is just the mall, and we’re being fed these images that make us wanna go to the mall all the time. My thing is I just want there to be some kind of reinvestment. Like cool, make a million dollars, but then have 40 percent of it go to literacy programs. Because then at the very least, people will understand that you’re a human who thinks, and not just this caricature of a rapper you’re selling to everybody.”
And now is maybe when we talk about Hiero Day.
The thing about Hieroglyphics, most fans will tell you, is that Hieroglyphics has never quite gotten their due. Souls of Mischief were notoriously underpromoted by Jive following their debut; as violence in Oakland increased in the ’90s, the city put an actual moratorium on hip-hop shows for a while. Ask hip-hop historian Davey D about it. There was literally no place in Oakland for rappers to get on a stage.
When Hieroglyphics threw the first Hiero Day in 2012 — prompted by a Facebook fan who wrote online that, in honor of ’93 Til Infinity, he wanted to introduce as many people as possible to Hieroglyphics on 9/3, Sept. 3 — something shifted. A roster of the Bay Area’s hip-hop stars came out and played a free show in the streets that weekend, and roughly 10,000 people showed up. In 2013, it grew bigger, gaining sponsors, with Mayor Jean Quan naming it an official city holiday and referring to Hieroglyphics as a “bright spot” for Oakland.
This was a big change in tone from a city that hadn’t formally done much to support hip-hop for 20 years.
But Souls of Mischief aren’t looking for a medal. They’re looking at fundraising models like Farm Aid. They want to be able to give away houses after Hiero Day. They talk all the time, they say, about buying a farm and building a commercial kitchen where Oakland kids can learn about agriculture and cooking, learn farm-to-table techniques.
“As far as hip-hop moving forward, my thing is that hip-hop used to give us what we needed intellectually. And if we can’t feed people with it that way anymore, let’s feed them physically,” says Tajai. “You throw a weekend festival with 200,000 people, it should be an imperative to then go ‘Where is this money going?’ or ‘We’re gonna create this farm or this school.’
“That’s the whole point of Hiero Day,” he continues. “Use music to bring people together, bring people to local businesses, and then pool our resources and invest in the community so there’s lasting effects beyond just a party.”
“That’s one of the most powerful tools for young people,” says Opio. “It’s ‘OK, we’re partying, this is fun,’ and then you realize you can come together and do more than just party. You’ve seen the effects of that in the ’60s. That leads to revolutions.”
There are 15-year-olds becoming adults knowing only this version of Souls of Mischief. There’s a whole subset of fans who were born in ’93, in particular, who take Souls of Mischief lyrics straight to the chest. What will “old school” mean to their kids? Think for a second on the difference between infinity and there is only now.
“We’re talking about how to turn hip-hop into a generator of what it used to generate for us,” says Tajai. “I mean, we’re here today because of rap music. Not dead, not strung out, because of rap music. As much as because of our parents, our homies, whatever. So we gotta give something back.”
“Oh, right, and buy the record,” he adds. A half-hearted laugh. “We are the worst fucking promoters.”
Souls of Mischief play Hiero Day (alongside Zion I and some 28 other artists) Monday, Sept. 1 at the Linden Street Brewery Stage, 95 Linden, Oakl. More info: www.hieroday.com