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."