‘I mean for us even though there are times people just try to be yeah whatever whatever I’ve heard enough from Souls Of Mischief or Hieroglyphics inevitably they always come back to the fact that our shit is real.’-Opio
Souls of Mischief are legendary Bay Area stalwarts of hip-hop that have managed 17 years of unity only rivaled by Public Enemy’s longevity. Unlike the colorfulness of the Wu-Tang Clan, the tragedy of The Fugees or the fickle whims placed on Outkast by Andre 3000, Souls’ low-key eternal grind have made them one of few lasting hip-hop groups. ’93 Til Infinity magnetized a loyal underground following with lo-fi soul jazz samples and gasp-free breath controlled wordplay. Their Hieroglyphic collective of Del The Funkee Homosapien, Pep Love, Casual and newer members Musab, Prince Ali, Knobody and Chosen Few has released over a dozen albums and retained a peripatetic lifestyle that keeps them away from home the better part of each year. Souls as a unit released its last album in 2000 with Trilogy: Conflict, Climax, Resolution another piece of three-dimensional storytelling worthy of a Native Tongue litmus test. Montezuma’s Revenge has appeared as the dexterous return to form audibly shaped by the production finesse of Prince Paul. Opio and Tajai spoke with me about the blessing of having Paul on the album, longevity and why they must get to China.
Why is it called Montezuma’s Revenge?
Opio: Well basically we rented a house to do the album so that we could kind of get away from you know we have our own studio and recording space in Oakland at the Hiero office there’s a lab and everything but this is our hometown in Oakland and we have a lot of friends that come by all the time so we needed an area that wouldn’t have any distractions. So we rented a house about an hour north of the Bay Area and just like laying in the cut the street that the house was on was called Montezuma.
Has anything changed about Souls as artists?
Opio: I think life experience played a big part in our lyrics so having a lot more life experience a lot more things to draw on in terms of the types of things we have to draw on creatively. We have a lot more options and what we can talk about has expanded a lot more since we dropped our first records even before that when we were recording our first demos and what we were talking about just travelling the world and all the things we’ve seen and done kind of helped us grow creatively and lyrically. So I think definitely that’s changed over the years but we have stayed the same as well, the fundamental the foundation of how we actually believe in hip-hop and how things should go we stuck to that even since before we put out albums so even though some things do evolve some things do stay the same.
I always have seen you guys as like a west coast Wu-Tang Clan. A lot of groups emerged when Souls did and afterwards. How have you all been able to stay together when so many groups have fallen off?
Opio: The Wu-Tang Clan are definitely a pillar in hip-hop. Souls of Mischief was there at the very beginning. Certain things that we were first to do I think the reason why we’ve been able to stay together and be together so closely because we are actually truly friends and it’s beyond just my man and I’m down. We were brothers our friendship was so strong we were brothers earlier on before anybody was ever exposed to Souls Of Mischief outside the Bay Area. And our little demos our bond was strong and we weren’t like a group that was just put together by the producers we came together and all my brothers are like real stand-up dudes. We would get into fights and argue but you know it’s not something that at the end of the day someone’s going to turn around and say ‘I hate you ‘ or a little kid. This is grown man business men handle themselves accordingly. No reason for us to go to a magazine and ‘Yo man so and so punched me in the face ‘ we do get into our little squabbles brothers will fight but we just always maintain that love it’s a mutual love and respect for us but it’s true brotherhood.
How long were you guys working on this project before you put it out?
Opio: It didn’t really take too long to complete I think we spent like a month up at the house then like another three weeks for something like that here at the Hiero lab we worked closely with Prince Paul. We kind of did some stuff on our own he mixed and mastered and did all that so I mean the whole project the whole project I’d say probably took about two or three months or something like that not including the artwork and all the other final touches.
What was it like working with Prince Paul this time out?
Opio: It was an honor Souls Of Mischief are not only fans of hip-hop but also students Prince Paul is in terms of what we envision for ourselves being progressive, avant-garde kind of going against the grain with stuff that is different from everybody else cutting edge Prince Paul is definitely the architect for that and so he’s such an important part of hip-hop and its development so for us to get an opportunity to work with such a talent and to be on equal footing with him you don’t get many opportunities like that. It’s almost something that you have to earn just the fact that we’ve been around Prince Paul stepped to us like ‘Yo man I’m a big fan of Souls Of Mischief I’d love to work with ya’ll’ he’s one of the greatest minds in hip-hop of all time.
Hi Tajai I was just asking Opio about what it was like to work with Prince Paul and I was going to ask next if either of you have any favorite songs from the album that may have more significance for you than others?
Tajai: I would say for me my favorites are I like “Won1” because the sound is so raw. I don’t know it sounds like the Death Star entering the atmosphere and it just sparks it off like it’s straight lyricism and just the way it moves. I like “Postal” because of the way it deals with relationships or the disillusions of relationships. A little more seasonsed perspective than say when we were younger when it would just be like ‘ah forget you I’m out of here.’ You know it’s kind of like dealing with emotions but it’s still lyrical it’s still cool the chords is cool and I think a lot of people relate to it. A lot of women are hitting us up like ‘Yo you guys really captured both sides of it’ which is interesting because we’re all coming from a male perspective. And I like “Proper Aim” that combined with the video is to me it’s like a serious display of skill. The guy who made the cover showed how his skills are kind of comparable it’s sick because it lets you know that art is universal and it comes in all forms.
What’s the story behind the Morgan Freeman skit?
Tajai: (Laughs) That’s Morgan Freeman wiling out right about now he’s going out with his granddaughter he’s got all type of stuff I guess when you’re an OG like that you want to get some youth. No but really no Prince Paul is the master of skits he’s like a real funny dude subtle funny in real life and just like hilarious when he starts doing these sort of characters and scenarios. That’s a lot of people’s favorite track on the album.
You guys have been independent for over a decade what have been the benefits of going that route?
Opio: I think that as an artist how we try to do things is not trying to just go along with the status quo and do what everybody else is doing to have anything to do with what is popular at the time. We always steer clear of that from early stages if Tupac went too mainstream normally nine times out of ten it was something wrong with it. It wasn’t all the way true and that’s what labels try to do they just try to make you be like this it’s more like a machine than an instrument. The way that we create it we’re trying to do something different than everybody else that’s to me the main benefit from us being able to be on our own label is that we keep the key of what we do musically and we get rewarded for that.
Who made the Hiero logo?
Tajai: Oh Del made that up. We started out as a mad circle and he put the third eye in there and just switched it up. It’s crazy cause we found out it later it’s the Mayan symbol for eight but it turns sideways and it’s the infinity sign you know like the line is the five and the three dots are ones. It turns sideways and it’s the infinity sign is eight it’s like the symbolism goes beyond just a cool sort of logo. I never knew that we found out all that stuff later as people started gravitating towards it and letting us know what it meant.
“Never No More” is one of my favorite songs if someone was going to do 2010 remix on it who would you want it to be?
Opio: People definitely have with that song it’s hard for me to choose somebody but it’s always kind of an honor if you hear some of the talents that actually have went to that song like Kanye West John Mayer and all these different people that we like show that song a lot of love.
Tajai: There’s a lot of dope rappers I like the way Guilty Simpson’s voice is but I don’t know about “Never No More.” You know we never really thought about it like that it’s a compliment when somebody does it but we’re on the make something new vibe so remakes are cool but we really like brand new stuff.
Speaking of new I read in another one of your interviews where you said the biggest challenge being veteran rappers is that you’re not new.
Opio: You know I think the way hip-hop was when we first came out it was like almost better to be new. People judged you with more opportunity like a give and take type scenario. In this day and age it’s kind of it’s almost not as good to be brand new. It’s just so many artists I have seen come and go in a hurry where they made a big deal like you this is the next coming and it never really materialized. I mean for us even though there are times people just try to be yeah whatever whatever I’ve heard enough from Souls Of Mischief or Hieroglyphics inevitably they always come back to the fact that our shit is real. And one of the benefits for us is that we haven’t really just been force fed to people. It’s like you’re going to have to search out Hiero and Souls Of Mischief to get a full bar.There’s very few cats out there who really truly have followed our music and listened to it over the whole seventeen years. Such a vast amount of great music that never gets played on the radio you never hear it on your television or whatever so when people actually turn their microscope towards Hieroglyphics or Souls Of Mischief after a while because the names are just so synonymous with underground hip-hop it’s like eventually you’re going to end up talking about us when you analyze what we did and what we’ve accomplished. I think it’s a lot more than what people give credit to and so luckily our fans and the people who have actually supported us they do have people check us out. That’s what has kept us relevant over all these years and to be able to go out and consistently rock shows and travel across the world. The competition between us and like newer acts out it’s always healthy for us to be prepared for the future and new stuff. Like for instance when the hypy movement started out here in the Bay people was coming from all over the world to come and interview and talk about the hypy movement but at the same time they had to seek out Hieroglyphics because of our legendary status out here and who we are and what we represent to hip-hop if you don’t talk about and don’t mention us it’s like you’re doing yourself a disservice. And at the same time if you really analyze what we really do you would understand that we don’t only have one song or whatever we have a huge body of work.
One thing that you’ve been able to do with your label is have success with an R&B artist Goapele. Are you looking to expand the roster and if so are you interested in more R&B artists or hip-hoppers?
Tajai: We sign cats that we think sound lyrical and within the vein of Hiero. It’s hard because our family and don’t really understand how we came up with A Band Called Pain or Goapele or the R&B stuff. But we have a new group coming out called Chosen Few they’re out of Dayton, Ohio that are really sick we put out a guy named Prince Ali, we put out a guy named Musab from Rhymesayers and also this brother name Knobody from out here. So of course we’re trying to sign a lot more sort of lyrical rap you know just true school lyrical rap but it’s hard to get people to understand that hey underground is more than just backpack rap music. I think we all stay in our lane with regard to signing people who their aesthetic is in tune with what our fans are looking for and then you know we put up other labels and other distribution stands to put out other type stuff. We are definitely interested in more than rap music but it’s hard because our fanbase is looking towards us for a certain you know if you go to the health food store and all of a sudden we start selling Easy Mac or something so different or we start selling cars. People are like ‘Damn I’m not trying to buy a car from the health food store I wanna buy a car from a car dealership.’ We just try to keep it within our vein to really serve our customers what they want from us and the things we sort of recommend like the same way Amazon kind of might recommend something after purchase.
Is there anything you want to do that you haven’t already done?
Tajai: I want to rock a show in China. I know we have fans in Hong Kong I know we got fans in Kuala, Lumpur. We’re not hitting Asia like we’re supposed to we go to Japan and that’s really it. I wanna hit Asia think of how raw Chinese B-Boys like they probably a Circque Du Soleil rebel. I just wanna get the hip-hop moving in Asia. The crazy thing is we’re young dudes and we’re from Oakland so sometimes maybe we don’t aim as high as we should but we’ve done everything we wanted to and more. You would think seventeen years after dropping our first single you know like this dude sent me a picture today he just tatted up his arm with Souls Of Mischief and the other guy sent me a Hiero tattoo. You never think about getting to that level like a Grateful Dead or the Rolling Stones or something like that. I mean maybe we missed out on a lot of the fortune that comes with that but that kind of love you can’t buy that so we’ve done so much. Asia is an untapped market for us and I know we have hella fans out there because they always email.
Opio: One thing that I think we could benefit from doing is this like our first time working with another producer like Prince Paul. We did a lot of stuff in house just because we needed to get it done organically just for me I could see us working with there’s a lot of talented producers out there that would love to work with Souls Of Mischief . I think it’s a good time right now for us to try to branch out and work with these other cats that’s something I would like to see more of with Souls Of Mischief.
Can you name names of anyone you want to work with or anyone you have an upcoming project like that with?
Opio: There are a lot of artists out there that I have respect for. I mean Jay Electronica, Guilty Simpson is real dope and I like Slaughterhouse. There’s a lot of cats out here that are really lyrical I like Black Milk, Blue In Exile and older cats too like Pete Rock that’s who I would love to work with.
So what’s next for Souls Of Mischief?
Tajai: Well we have a European tour coming up probably do the US and Canada. We’e really trying to work on some new projects. We have sort of a top secret remix project coming out plus we have the solo records coming too. Opio’s got Vulture’s Wisdom Volume two Phesto’s got his debut solo album it’s called Background check . I got a record called Rap Noir and I think A-Plus is coming with The Return Of Guitar Charlie so you know it’s just like we really just want to supply our fans with what they’ve been asking for.People don’t realize recording a record on tour is hard you very creative but also your voice is shot you can’t get the right acoustics in your hotel room and you’re driving all day and certain things are going on. In order for us to eat and in order for us to maintain visibility since TV is Viacomed out we gotta be on the road all the time. People are always waiting for us to drop these new records it’s like we’re perfectionists. My motto is it may take forever but it will forever we’re not trying to give you microwave music. I’m really just trying to have these dudes in there creative as always it’s really the studio, being at home like regular people so we can draw from our regular people experiences so that it’s universal music not just music that rappers like or people of the industry like. A lot of rappers once they become they start rapping about oh and the press and oh I got this money it’s like can’t nobody relate to that. The people who are trying to relate to that maybe can afford that but the average people which is kind of who we represent they wanna hear what your life is like and who you are and all that kind of stuff. . So we gotta live normal life and really have real-life experiences in order to draw from that. That’s hard when you’re on a stage 200 days out of the year. I think that’s why we’re winning because the everyday person just loves music not necessarily the everyday hip-hopper. But the everyday person who loves music will gravitate towards what we’re doing because the stories we are telling and the way we move it speaks more to them than somebody about they’re buying champagne and dollars fall from the sky everytime they walk down the street.