With a new record and a whole new generation of fans, Oakland's Souls of Mischief take it back to the old school
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."