Walking through the gated entrance to an unmarked recording studio on the northside of industrial Williamsburg, I encountered four legendary rappers slumped on a couch, trying to decide what to order for lunch. Souls of Mischief looked exhausted. They spent their morning on a radio talk show, announcing details of their latest album, There Is Only Now. The release will be a collaboration with Adrian Younge, composer and producer of Ghostface's Twelve Reasons to Die, who entered the studio shortly after I did. Quietly fly in a slim orange button-up and desert boots, Younge offers the Souls a pizza delivery menu. Tajai Massey, who began rapping with Adam "A-Plus" Carter, Opio Lindsey, and Damani "Phesto" Thompson in the third grade, jokes that his dozing compatriots would prefer baby food.
In a way, Souls of Mischief and Adrian Younge are complementary. Souls are living legends, who are still active and touring 20 years after 93 Til Infinity cemented their place in the hip-hop canon. Younge is the up-and-coming producer who specializes in delivering cinematic narratives through live instrumentation, breathing new life into old sounds. Younge mentioned that the album will sound like "93 ’til Infinity meets The Low End Theory meets De La Soul Is Dead." This intersection of past and present bodes well for hip-hop fans with fond memories of the 90s. However, Souls of Mischief take pains to note that they’re not holding a flag for anyone’s nostalgic idea of "real" hip-hop. The album promises to be "a look back to move forward," that will recontextualize backpacker lyricism for a new era. On the way to infinity, There Is Only Now.
VICE: What was the Bay Area scene like for teens embarking on a rap career?
Tajai Massey: There wasn't anything established and not many venues for shows. We'd sneak into clubs when we were 15 and start rapping on stage or at house parties. All the heads would meet at record stores—those were places you could buy large round objects imprinted with music, by the way—and talk about the newest releases. There wasn't any kind of distinction between rap. You were into rap or you weren't.
Was there a definitive Bay Area sound you identified with?
TM: I wouldn’t say there's even one now. What's popular is popular stylistically in the Bay. But Hieroglyphics is a Bay Area sound. The Coup is a Bay Area sound, along with 40 and $hort, and hyphy and all that. The Bay Area is the most diverse place in the world. Real diversity, not segregated diversity. People marry each other and eat with each other and live in the same neighborhoods. It’s a crazy concept.
Damani "Phesto" Thompson: Not just in a hip hop context, but you have to narrow it down to all forms of music that came from the Bay Area. You got Headhunters, Carlos Santana, Parliament Funkadelic, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. All that shit was out here.
How did this environment play into the development of Souls Of Mischief?
Opio Lindsey: The people who live there have a diverse taste in music. When we were young we would listen to NWA and X Clan, which really aren't that different, but people try to make it seem like two totally different things. Still, right now in the Bay a lot of kids who are into Mac Dre are also Souls of Mischief and Hieroglyphics fans. That's a whole other world that doesn't have anything to do with us, we don't make that type of music cause that's not us. But we live in Oakland and that's where it came from. If you look at the 93 Til Infinity video it's a dude doing donuts in his Mustang, which is the quintessential hyphy thing to do. So there’s a lot of interconnection.
Yeah, I was in high school when the “hyphy movement” was really popping off. At the time, it felt less like a sonic movement and more like a bunch of kids wilding out with a lot cars and a lot of space.
TM: Yeah, an outlet. Fools always been hyphy in the Bay. That's just something we'd say, like, "Damn, y'all fools is hyphy. Y'all doing too much." You know, now it's a movement. Now it's a sound. Cats have been dancing on top of cars and congregating on the strip since they moved out here in the industrial era. If you could afford a Cadillac... Yeah, I'm going to ride down the strip and pop at the hookers, you know what I'm saying! But the idea of a Bay Area sound, trying to define that, is almost what everybody in the Bay is striving not to do. There's so much diversity where we live that it's hard to peg it.
Did you go to a lot of sideshows?
TM: Yeah, as teens. There wasn't nothing else to do.
OL: That was just a normal kind of thing, and we lived right there. We're from East Oakland, Eastmont Mall is ten blocks from where we live. That’s where it used to happen. So we inevitably ended up there, numerous times
When did you first start touring on a national scale?
TM: Our first national tour was with De La [Soul] and A Tribe [Called Quest]. That was when De La had Buhloone Mindstate out, and Tribe had out Midnight Melodics, and then we came out with 93 Til. That was in '93, right before our album came out. And shit, we've been on tour ever since, every year, probably 150 to 180 shows every year. That's been the key to our longevity, is that we retain a live performance aspect to our music.
Is there one show you look back on as particularly formative?
OL: The shows in Berkeley Square. It was a high school thing. Our demos weren't known at all. It was at a spot called Berkeley Square, a punk rock club where Green Day used to play a lot. We felt like we were trying to do something that was uncharted territory lyrically, the way that we were trying to flow and use our wordplay. It was mostly our friends that would come, but it started to spread, and from that we played the Ice House which was a big show in West Oakland, and Too $hort came. It started to be a big deal when we'd perform, and we were still juniors in high school.
You mentioned that at that time there was no genre distinction for people that were into rap—when did you start to notice a divergence into sub-genres?
TM: We may have even helped bring that on. I remember Black Moon for instance, they came out with the backpacks, them and Rough House Survivors, two groups that were consciously like, We got the backpacks cause we're on the move, we got our shit in here, we in the streets, we're doing that. I remember thinking, Oh, that's backpack rap now. Genre-wise, if you listen to old Too $hort, Too $hort is an underground rapper! He curses in all his songs, he doesn't play on the radio. Nowadays, if you call someone like $hort underground, underground heads and elitists will be like, "Oh, you're crazy. He doesn't use big words." I would say it was around '93 when the genres started splitting off noticeably. Man, when we were kids, we kicked it with the punks and the metalheads. My homies called rap music "crap music," but we'd all smoke and chill and talk about it. They'd talk to me about Metallica, I'd talk to them about Run-DMC. I think the split was created by the industry to package and market and sell and hit certain demos on purpose. It’s literally a marketing tool. When we were kids just being into rap music was a secret society, like, "Oh, what tapes you got?" It wasn't like, oh what kind of rap do you listen to
OL: De La Soul and NWA did shows together, so at that time, even though people would try to be like, “Oh, these are different genres and they have different fanbases," no they did not! They came from the same place. We were fans of both groups, we went to see them, so [the split] came about later. It's just corporations coming in and trying to figure out a way to market and sell a product rather than really represent it in its true form.
So, radio tried to pigeonhole these different demographics for marketing?
OL: I had friends that were basically athletes, I was into music and smoked weed and did all kinds of crazy shit, and these dudes were serious about trying to get into college, and taking care of their bodies. We were two totally separate people when it came to how we lived, but we both liked Gangstarr. They liked Gangstarr cause they were hip-hop fans. They weren't like "Oh, I dig Gangstarr cause I'm a crazy head and I dig these ill Premiere beats." It was just, "I love hip-hop." Period. Gangstarr had a lot of fans in Oakland that wasn't just the hardcore crazy hip-hop heads, the way people would see them now.
Nowadays, divides between the audiences of different rap subgenera seem very wide. What do you think is next for rap with an emphasis on conscious, complex lyricism?
TM: I hate to sound like this, but if you hear this new record dude, I think we're taking storytelling and MCing to a whole new level. Now that we, I mean hip-hop in general, have been through all these ups and downs, we know that we have the world's ear. We know that we have a certain skill level. We know that if you go too hard nobody's gonna hear. And we know if you dumb it down too much certain people are going to be like, "These guys are idiots." So I think that in general music has found this medium where it's OK to be lyrical and complex and still fun and cool and all that. Just look at J. Cole or Jay-Z. Those dudes aren't slouches with the raps. I think Eminem had a huge part in making it so people could follow rhyme schemes. He's so clear with it. To a large extent most of the world was not following how deep these rhyme patterns were and how you could be funny and crazy and zany at the same time, before him. He opened the door.
So you think audiences are becoming more open-minded?
With cats like us and Eminem who rap clearly and concisely, along with the Jay-Z's and the J. Cole's of the world, people are looking for lyrics. I've got a teenage kid, and before, she would listen to rap music to tune out. Now she's listening to rap music to tune in. A lot of people around the world are going to start tuning in, hopefully to rappers who are taking some responsibility and coming with some pertinent information, not just how much they make or how many chicks they have or that kinda stuff. But I think that rappers are becoming responsible, and they're also being real. Like, real real. Even the gangster rappers are revealing parts of themselves that before you couldn't because you had to put up this negative energy.
There's definitely a trend towards vulnerability.
TM: It's almost hip to be vulnerable, so that means there's a deeper dialogue going on between hip-hop and the listener. And I think the fans are ready for that.
So tell me how this all fits into the new record.
Adrian Younge: I'll say that the new record is a look back to move forward. Basically, looking at their 20-year span, Souls Of Mischief start off as the quintessential MC group and they continue to grow as artists, and now this is the album is the culmination of everything they've done in the last 20 years. It's a journey that goes back to push forward. It's their type of sound from when they did 93 Til Infinity, their surroundings, and the world that they were in. The album is a concept story that takes place in 94, their classic album came out already and this is a moment in time right after that. Basically they're purveying this hip-hop world to the youngsters now, I won't say as "elders" but as masters of the craft. You hear the wisdom in the lyrics. And theres a reason to listen. Its not just background, there's a lot of depth.
As a producer you tend to focus on creating narratives. Does this new record tell a story?
AY: It does have a narrative to it. It starts off with an incident that happened to the group around 1994, it starts off as a movie, where we're trying to find out what the origin of this volatile situation was. Now, without me telling the story, one of the reasons why it was so interesting to me is that as a fan of hip-hop, most people don't know the backstory to the people you grew up loving. This is one of those albums that actually gives those backstories. You know, when they came out, everybody thought that they were millionaires. They weren't millionaires, but you got people in the hood looking at you like you a millionaire, and that changes the course of your life. Those are the variables this album deals with.
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