When was the last time you heard a voice even remotely similar to that of an opera singer on a hip-hop track?
Listening to Souls of Mischief’s latest album, There is Only Now, is like watching a 40-minute movie with your ears. It’s presented by composer and Ghostface collaborator Adrian Younge, stars Ali Shaheed Muhamad of A Tribe Called Quest, and has cameos by Busta Ryhmes and Snoop Dogg, but the appeal goes far beyond its stellar cast.
It’s that kind of experimental and grandiose approach to boom-bap hip-hop that gives There is Only Now a transformative feel. It’s transcendental hip-hop of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill standard and the kind of back-to-basics storytelling music needs right now. Over analog beats—that means all live instruments too—Souls of Mischief tell the story of a friend kidnapped straight off the streets of Oakland. But this album is not the story of the instigation, the fight or the boasts like most other hip-hop albums, but rather how the rappers react, fight back and seek justice for themselves that makes this a story speaking to and for America today. Like the people caught up in the murder of Michael Brown, Souls of Mischief are the confused and vulnerable victims, not the consequence-averse, clap-happy killers.
Ahead of the album’s release I talked to its composer Adrian Younge and then Tajai from Souls of Mischief. Here’s what they had to say.
VICE: Was it ever awkward between you and Souls of Mischief because you were such a superfan?
Adrian Younge: The awkward moment was me telling them how much I’m a fan of them and them telling me how much they’re a fan of me and us trying to figure out who was more of a fan. I’ve been so inspired by them for so many years, to have them telling me that they dig what I do and know my catalogue and all that stuff—that tripped me out.
I saw that you used to be a professor.
I have a law degree and I was a professor of entertainment law for about three years, so I kind of understand both sides of the business. As an artist I always wanted to have an educational side because I feel like it would help me in creating an enterprise.
What do you mean enterprise?
I just started a record label called Linear Labs that speaks to the people that I believe follow my music, which is the silent majority. These are the type of consumers that are looking for an artisan approach to music that’s hand crafted, bespoke, tailor-made, organic music that’s made for the type of person that pays attention to detail. I want everything in my enterprise to speak to these kinds of people with this kind of message.
How do you accomplish that?
Everything I do is all live instruments, all analog recorded. No pro tools, no plug-in, no nothing. It’s all recorded in a way that they would have done in the late-60s-slash-early-70s, had they been making hip-hop music. Just on that level it sounds good. It’s fresh and robust. We gave it life. You can hear the human error in it—that exudes feeling. All of the videos that we shoot are on 60mm film. Everything is real real shit.
That’s so incredibly different from all the 16-year-olds in their bedrooms making hip-hop beats today.
It’s not that the music is actually bad music, but it’s bullshit to the people that have sensitive ears. People don’t want to hear something looped on Pro Tools every two bars with no progression or deep chords. I started making music that is in competition with the music that Marvin Gaye first made or that Isaac Hayes, Tribe Called Quest, and Wu-Tang made. I strive to make music on that level. There are a lot of people that want to hear that kind of music that have settled for a lesser-cultivated brand of music. I just don’t settle for that kind of stuff.
Sometimes I think that music is moving towards hologram pop stars and the complete elimination of the human touch. I guess you’re fighting that.
It makes it seem lazy to not to do what you’re doing.
If somebody is inspired by the kind of music I create, then they should try to learn how to use analog equipment. I started creating my studio in about ‘96, but and I never really had money before to do it. I would just not pay my rent or not make my car payment to buy equipment because I believed in it so much. I never let money be a hindrance to detour and/or stifle my passion when it came to making this type of music.
What else is part of your enterprise?
My wife and I own a record store slash salon called The Artform Studio, which is an actual boutique record store and a boutique hair salon. I run the record store with my business partner Patrick Washington, so we focus on rare golden era hip-hop, rare soul and psych-rock to jazz. I only listen to old records to get inspiration and I go there to find records.
Why do you only listen to old music for inspiration?
New music does nothing for me. It’s not to say that there’s not great new music being made because you’ve got artists like Black Milk and Kendrick Lamar, but there’s not a plethora of great music that it’s easily accessible to provide you with that inspiration that records do. I love records that are created between ‘68 and ‘73, from classic rock to psychedelic jazz. That is what speaks to me, that is my foundation. That’s what I love.
This is Souls of Mischief’s first album in five years. Welcome back.
Tajai Massey: After being in the game 20 years you kind of need something to wake you up. This was the perfect project.
Look at hip-hop—look at what’s out here. Look at music in general. It’s time for something more refreshing to come out. Something live, something new, something that’s conceptual and the audio match the visuals. People look at music in general, but especially hip-hop, as sort of this cash cow and treating it, as far as the effort put into it, as little input as possible for as high output as possible. It’s cheapening the music in general. If the public eats mushy oats over and over again, I’m just going to make mushy oats. Why would I try to create some sort of crazy cuisine if we can make all the money off of mushy oats? That’s why it’s the perfect time. We got to wake things up and shake things up as musicians.
This album is all analog recording. Do you think music relies too much on the computer?
To get to the desired product you have to use the appropriate technology. In this case, we went for analog because it was time for a fresh approach. I want this record to be like a Johnny Cash record or a Bjork record. Not just these rap dudes.
How do you look at a Johnny Cash record differently?
Everybody has a Johnny Cash record and a Bjork record and I don’t care what background you’re from. Either your dad has one or your mom has one or you have one that you got from a friend in college. I want it to be judged on that scale—a universal music scale. I’m not trying to hype it up like it’s the most awesome thing created ever, however listening to it I think it’s a record that stands up to anything by anybody else, like a Portishead record or a Radiohead record or a Beatles record.
Have you felt stuck within hip-hop?
Sometimes hip-hop gets put in this little ghetto. I don’t mean ghetto in terms of socio-economic, but it’s crammed in this little corner. Well-executed musical masterpieces like Paul’s Boutique or It Takes a Nation of Millions transcend the genre. That’s what we’re trying to do with every record, I just think with this one we were actually successful, because of the creative approach—working with Adrian, doing it as a conceptual album, the way that the album moves. It’s like a soundtrack almost. It’s very visual. Some records within every genre transcend the genre and I’m hoping that we hit the mark with this one.
The album is about you getting kidnapped, but Souls of Mischief have always been the non-gangster guys of hip-hop.
Yeah, we’re just regular guys. In hip-hop there was the N.W.A-Compton persona, which was this hard, super-thug persona. Then there was De La and Native Sons as the sort of the hippie, crazy, trippy persona and I think when we came out we were in between those two, like oh, they’re just regular dudes. Going to jail every Wednesday and getting into beef with different rappers has fortunately never been part of our image. We don’t have to ride around and act all tough. I can’t imagine that being fun when you’re in your late 30s.
How did you steer clear of that?
Just being regular, man. I got a 13-year-old and a 2-year-old. I went to Stanford, I got a masters. How thugged out can I be? At an age like mine, I’m 39, I can’t see it being helpful being hella tough. Unless you’re in the racketeering or extortion bracket being tough is not helpful. I learned that early on in life. We got homies that are dead—a lot. We got hella homies that are in jail for life and all that kind of shit. Every one of them would trade places. It’s not normal to have to live this kind of super tough hyper-gangster lifestyle that I think is how a lot of rappers and Hollywood and just guys in general act. I don’t see that as advantageous in any respect unless you are really going that route. If I was still running an extortion racket, having street cred would be an important part of our business.
Adrian actually wanted me to ask you this question: do you think that you’re part of a new golden era of hip-hop?
I was part of the original golden era and hopefully I’ll be part of a renaissance or some type of rekindling of the rules and regulations and standards and morals that were established during that era, but I can’t, as a person inside the times, define the era that I’m in. I didn’t know that I was in what was called the golden era until now and I’m like Oh shit! That shit was golden.
You’ve got to wait ten years to find out.
First off all you got to wait and then second of all I’m from the original golden era. We don’t stop being golden era because something new happened. Even during the platinum era and the ice age we still were golden era rappers. When it wasn’t cool to be golden era, when it wasn’t hip to have skills and have music with depth and not make party jams. We haven’t changed that approach, so that’s how it’s kind of weird for me to even approach talking about another era. I didn’t know we were in the platinum era or the ice age. Are we in the swag era now? You sort of notice it at a certain point because you start vomiting up all the shit that’s going on.
What were those golden era rules to you?
Hip-hop was created out of necessity, but also to be different from what there originally was. I don’t like how when there’s a hot producer every single song out is by the same production outfit, so the entire sound starts sounding like the same old overproduced bullshit. My rule now is about creativity. When I make music, it’s new music! I’m not trying to remix somebody elses shit. I’m not a fucking microwave—I’m a chef! That is what the industry created out of hip-hop—that we can regurgitate this product and repackage it so that people will buy it over and over.
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