Souls of Mischief

Souls"Yo, what's up, this is Tajai of /the mighty Souls of Mischief crew. I'm chillin' with my/ man Phesto, my man A-Plus, and my man Op, you know he's dope./ But right now yo, we/ just maxin' in the studio. We handlin' from East Oakland, California, and um,/ sometimes it gets a little hectic out there. But right/ now, yo, we gonna up you on how we just chill."

I was in the tenth grade when Souls of Mischiefs debut album From `93 Til Infinity dropped with these words: At the time I had a huge crush on cashew-colored, gravely-voiced Tajai Massey, who introduced their first single. This Winter the group swas on tour in DC and I got to sit down with them after one of their shows. As it turns out In 2001, Tajai is still chilling. And, now he's boycotting retail stores.

But in this age of bobos and eco-tourism, Tajai wants to make sure he picks up one last thing: a pair of Campers. "I need those," he emphasizes of the specialty European walking shoes. As the manager of and most vocal member in the Bay Area-based rap group, Tajai is exhibiting that he is still part "sheep" as he would say, even though he is trying hard not to be.

"Im just trying not to be in the matrix you know. 80% of our economy is consumer based so basically we spend all of our money, especially black folks. So I'm trying to save a bit of my money and not be feeling like I gotta have that. I gotta need this. You don't need none of that. All you need is groceries," he says. Oh yeah, and $125 kicks.

In high school, Tajai, along with some friends--Opio, Phesto Dee, and A-Plus (government names withheld)--started a group called Souls of Mischief. In the basements and dens of their respective East Oakland, California, homes, they spent hours penning the lyrics that would eventually become their ground-breaking debut LP, `93 Til Infinity.

When they debuted in 1993 with the single "`93 Til Infinity," along with the Pharcyde and Freestyle Fellowship, they helped usher in a new sound for West Coast rap. A sound that focused on the art of emceeing, with lyrics that were irreverent and sometimes "conscious," with content that was contrary to the gun-toting, gang-banging, pimping-is-easy, epics of their regional predecessors Too-$hort, Ice T, and N.W.A. However, though they admit that they offered a different viewpoint in West Coast rap, they are quick to dismiss any notion that they were somehow "alternative."
"We black men, so of course it's gonna be political."

Opio, a tall, slender guy with a cute, baby `fro says, "People try to pigeonhole certain styles of rap. People used to say, "Ya'll sound like you from New York," when we was using Oakland slang, and talking about our own experiences. But the fact that we was lyrical, people try to put us on some New York [tip]. When I was coming up, I saw Ice Cube as lyrical. I'm not about shooting people, but I could peep his wordplay, and I admired him. I didn't see no difference between Cube and Rakim. I didn't differentiate between gangsta rap. I saw them as emcees.

The influence of Cube and Rakim are evident in the styles of the Souls. On their latest effort, the four emcees flip flows quicker than Lil Kim changes hair and eye color, providing listeners with an opportunity to hear them wax philosophical on topics varying from revolution to partying. They didn't always have this freedom, however.

"You get your whole life to make your first record," Tajai says, "So you take your time and then the second album you're living as a rapper and you have to put [an album] out. Everybody knows who you are and you don't live a normal life. The transition was hard for us between the first and second album."

Hard for Souls of Mischief meant that they faced stuff like lackluster sales, royalty disputes, and creative differences with their label, Jive. "We didn't wanna do certain things we didn't want to do. They [Jive] wanted us to be a teen group--do some pop type stuff," says Tajai. Two weeks after the release of their second album, No Man's Land, in 1995, they were dropped from the label and disappeared.
Souls2As part of a larger collective--the Hieroglyphics--Souls of Mischief continued to record and play shows in the Bay Area and beyond. When fellow emcee Del Tha Funkee Homosapien-- who also happens to be Ice Cube's cousin and helped Souls get their initial recording contract--was dropped from his label as well, the members of Hieroglyphics, decided to start their own label: Hieroglyphics Imperium.

The crew created their name out of a desire to metaphorically associate their verbal art which is "pictures in words, word-pictures," with that of the ancient Egyptian system of writing. "We just wanted to create vivid music," says Tajai. The symbol for the Hieroglyphics crew resembles a happy face with three eyes and straight smile. Their symbol is meant to reference the third eye, a concept which represents a higher state of consciousness and awareness, a sixth sense. Discussing the third eye is a common activity of folks the age of the Souls (around 25), who like them, smoke a lot and consider themselves enlightened and astute.

Souls' first album on their new label was the aptly titled, Third Eye Vision, released in 1996. Since then they have released two more albums. The most recent project, Trilogy: Conflict, Climax, Resolution, is an underground hip-hop lover's dream, full of biting lyrics that flip both things political and artistic with ease, coupled with sweetly cacophonous beats.

Souls of Mischief enjoys this irony in their music. "We were always talking about breakin' sh-- and mayhem and destroying emcees, [but] we had vocabulary coming from every angle," says Opio.

Yeah see I'm only out for one thing/ Domination, encasing MC's chasing they dreams/ Evaded and slipped clean through the system/ mauled shaken-up and touchy cuz we dissed em/ Bitch you need to listen to this one/ The tension, to get your heart rate quickens/ damn near beating out your chest, ya can't predict what's next/ I bet conviction is stressful, MC's that bite they wrestle/ with the mic, all night, hoping to recite/ Excite, captivate the crowd, make my momma proud, now

--Opio, "`94 Via Satellite" No Mans Land

"We rhyme about everything," says mild-mannered Phesto Dee. "It's storytelling. You listen to the first album and how it was, that's our style," adds Opio. "We talk about some things political, I wouldn't say we was a political group at all. But it's hella different aspects to a person.

"When we actually talk about something, we're just showcasing skills and trying to progress the artform." A-Plus adds, "People sort of trip out because all our albums sound different, but we're not really trying to reach out to a core audience we're trying to expand on our sound and hope that will expand our fan base."
"I'ma have politics with regards to race, but beyond race, controlling your own destiny and not being a robot or a sheep is more important than what color you are."

He continues, "Basically, we're about originality, in whatever we're doing, whether it's a story or a political viewpoint or how fresh we are. There are political groups and jiggy groups or whatever, but that's them." I don't know if I believe that they're not political at all, however. In our conversation, they continue to refer to being in Washington and the state of African-American affairs and listening to a few of their songs, you hear lyrics like these, that Phesto spews on Trilogys "Bad Business":

That's bad business/ Spendin' all your time wastin' your time/ That's bad bidness that's bad bidness/ Yeah what do we have behind curtain/ Number three, ghetto fantasy/ Young buck sixteen, in a state of emergency/ Got you thrown in juvenile hall/ Cause you toss a marked car it's stupid/ Fit out a Lakeshore/ But you wanna bounce over the hill to thirteen?/ That's bad bidness/ Ten dollar genocide is senseless/ You wanna be a pharmacist?/ All you doin' is harming us/ What about Paris Robinson/ Medgar Evers and Huey/ They kicked you out of Oakland High

Tajai defends this by saying, "We black men, so of course it's gonna be political." So, it's not the group's focus? "Our focus is originality. Being positive don't make you dope. If you talking about something and your beats is wack, then I'm not feeling your sh--. We about some dope sh--. That will steer you away from talking about bi---- and hoes and my Bentley and sh--, cause it's so many ni---- talking about that. You wanna say something brand new and inventive," adds Opio.

"I'ma have politics with regards to race, but beyond race, controlling your own destiny and not being a robot or a sheep is more important than what color you are or anything," says Tajai. "Cause race is even that it's just programming believing we're black. I'm not black. I'm African if anything. All that goes into what we try to do. We're setting the example as to where a lot of rappers and musicians are like, 'Okay, I'ma do what ya'll is doing.' They say that to us. They don't say it in public. They say it to us, which is cool," says Tajai.

Being on their own label is not only good for opportunities to stroke the groups collective ego--allowing for their favorite artists to give them props and keep them in the rap game-- but is also far more lucrative than Souls' previous recording contract. "We all have regular jobs," says Tajai, "We gotta pay bills we make enough money, but you gotta make money on top of money we make more money now than when we did on the label 10-20 times as much," he adds.

So why doesn't every rapper start their own label and put out the kind of music they wish to hear? Tajai thinks it's because "they either don't want to do the work, or they don't know [it's possible]. We didn't know, that's why we was messin' with jive-ass records. Luckily, we had bad experiences, so it made it possible for us to know. We want to share our experience, so nobody else gotta go through that." Indeed.

Check out the Hieroglyphics website and listen to tracks from Trilogy, the Souls of Mischief's new album.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.