The Hieroglyphics' core quartet talks about teaming up with Prince Paul for the new LP, and how getting dropped from Jive spawned them into being underground pioneers.
In a musical terrain where fans are reduced to digits on a Facebook page, the emphasis on actual face-to-face supporter acquisition has plummeted. Pictures and signed apparel are trumped by @ replies on a Twitter feed and RTs following a performance. Up and coming artists dip out on studio sessions to make sure their follower and friends count stays above one to one.
Who better to clap on the lights of reality than a quartet of emcees who have their hard-earned fan base to thank for their fully stocked cabinets and the three-eyed symbol etched tee shirts on their backs? Thanks to their dedication to these fans, Souls of Mischief are 16 years deep into infinity.
Mostly devoid of any sort of mainstream success since 1993, Tajai, A-Plus, Opio and Phesto D epitomize the show-by-show, record-by-record tactic that is prescribed by their career’s longevity. For their first album in almost a decade, the original group within the greater Hieroglyphics constituency brought Stetsasonic, Gravediggaz, and De La Soul production wizard Prince Paul into their close-knit fold.
Soul’s trademark lighthearted realism, steady rocking, and non-stop touring has branded them as certified veterans of underground Hip Hop. With the Montezuma’s Revenge release in full effect, A-Plus, Tajai and Opio spoke to HipHopDX on what it takes to survive in a group, in Oakland and in Hip Hop.
HipHopDX: Montezuma’s Revenge is out, your first album in years. What do you think of how it turned out and the overall response to it?
Opio: It’s been a long time coming. Souls of Mischief have been out so much on tour, doing records with Hiero and our own solo records but the opportunity to work with Prince Paul, he’s an architect. Working with that dude was a dream come true. People who respect the real foundation of Hip Hop are showing love for this record. We are blessed right now.
DX: Did you find that Prince Paul had a big influence on how you guys recorded this album? I noticed that the overall sound of the album was more nuanced than what I was used to hearing from Souls of Mischief.
Tajai: I’m working with one of the best producers in the music game. To have a dude whose records have been so much of a foundation to how we even got to the point where were at, all in a house together, chillin’, playing beats, making songs, that brings out a whole different dimension. I got A-Plus, Opio, Dominio, these are in house production dudes who got hits, slappers. Then you got Prince Paul and these dudes are all living in the same house. We’re living in the same house making music. Music is organic right, so just being there and living with it and letting it grow, that’s how it came out. It was more of living together and we went over a lot of beats.
A-Plus: He’s not exaggerating. We went over so many beats it’s ridiculous. One thing that’s real poignant in this situation was the opportunity to work with Prince Paul. Of course we are going to jump at that, he’s an icon to us. We were listening to his stuff when we were in junior high, Stetsasonic and all that. We feel honored that he had that idea but when we decided to do it, he told us that he was going to move in with us and he said if this shit wasn’t sounding good after two weeks, we were going to scrap the project and say, “we tried.” As the Souls of Mischief, hearing that from Prince Paul lit a fire under your ass. He’s not a mean guy or anything, but he doesn’t play. He’s straight forward, when he says some shit he means it. He meant it. There was no way in the world that Souls of Mischief was going to let that happen. Getting together, we certainly had something more on our minds. Prince Paul’s effect on us was very deep on the album. It was very intrinsic.
DX: Wow. How long did you guys end up living together?
Tajai: Six weeks. We were in the boonies.
A-Plus: The house we lived in didn’t have a TV, a radio, no newspaper, no cell phones, it was just rappers, producers and equipment. That’s all there was. It was in the middle of the wilderness. At nighttime it was a zoo out in the streets, elk, deer, wild boar, skunks, raccoons, the house was infested with spiders. We were in the sticks. We were secluded from any kind of outside interference so we really had nothing else to do but focus on the project as hard as we could.
Tajai: One of the tables we would write raps on had a deer skull on it.
DX: So many different personalities in Souls of Mischief and Hieroglyphics have been able to make music together for so long without any real in-fighting or big problems in the group. How are you guys able to work together for so long without wanting to tear each other’s heads off?
A-Plus: Let me just say something first, Tajai is a great guy. He’s kind of like the glue of the whole shit. He may be the youngest, but he’s probably the most mature out of all of us so that has a lot to do with it outside of the fact that we all love each other to death. We brothers, we all fight someone but no fight can bring us apart. You can’t divorce your family.
Opio: You're not going to really be successful if your not going to have enough passion to where you fight and argue over shit. You gotta have some passion going on. We’re going to be respectful but were going to yell, scream, put our hands on each other, whatever we got to do because we are passionate about this music. You need that fire in order to be successful.
Tajai: Our family vibe is deep. Everybody knows everybody’s parents and kids. We all live in Oakland, we’re always together but brother’s are going to fight. It’s not like we are a super group who got together. We grew up together rapping. We’re lucky to have a musical family.
A-Plus: We have our bickers but that stays private. It’s just like any other family and we move into the world as a unit. We came into the Hip Hop world as a unit, we discovered Hip Hop as a unit, loving this shit as little kids.
DX: Now on the other side of the coin, for a group to be surviving this long, making music that people are still supporting with the albums and on the road isn’t easy either. How have you guys been able to maintain that consistency without ever making a real mainstream push that you see a lot of board line artists trying to make?
A-Plus: We’re some purists Hip Hop kids. We were listening to Hip Hop before there were separate genres within it. So the first time we ever felt any pressure to do anything outside of what we like doing was working on the second album with Jive [No Man’s Land] and they were like, “That first album did well, it got you guys out there, now you gotta go Pop.” We were like, “Huh? Fuck that. Go Pop?” That’s when we started going independent. We sheltered each other from the pressure of going off that way. That ain’t what we’re here to do. We have always been trying to push the envelope and try different stuff but it was never our intention to do anything outside of our lane. That doesn’t mean we are confined to one certain area, but there is certain shit that we will not do for anybody. We have to have integrity in our music at the end of the day and we’ve just always been like that. We are talking about ‘94, so that was our main experience with somebody trying to force us to go Pop and we said no in ‘94 and we’ve been saying no ever since We’re not trying to say fuck Pop, because everything has its place in music but we made our decision then and we’ve been that way ever since.
Tajai: We make our own music. We make the music. It ain’t like we just get the hottest producer to get in here and do our shit. Only recently have we even started opening up and doing a lot of stuff with outside producers. If it’s going to be popular and people are going to love it, let it be because people like the music that we make. There’s nothing wrong with blowing up or any of that, most of our fans know us because of a song that was huge, but it was a song that was organic and came from us. It wasn’t something were we were like, “Oh, this is gonna be huge.”
Opio: If you look at Hieroglyphics, it is a lot of cats who spend a lot of time together. Hanging out for us is doing music. It’s an organic thing for us to do and we’ve always respected and admired all the great producers out there that we would listen to, Pete Rock, [J] Dilla, [DJ] Premier, all these cats that we would listen to helped our music. We would’ve loved to have worked with them as well, but I think that the fact that we stayed tight knit over all these years allowed us the opportunities to create a lot of music. I don’t think that we ever get together, where we don’t sit and build and talk about what we’re gonna do making music. So it’s not like we shied away from other cats we we’re just doing our own thing.
DX: How do you see independent Hip Hop going forward being an example of how a group can stay afloat without ever having to address those mainstream concerns?
Tajai: When we got dropped, we went independent. At that time, the only cats that were doing it independent out here was maybe Stones Throw and ABB. We had no access to television or any of that so we just produced the music and started working and building this circus of touring that is insane. Now the count is at 60 to 70 separate stops in the continental U.S and Canada. I remember tours where we were driving across tundras in Canada with our windshield cracking. We’ve been able to work our records based on the fact that we’ve interfaced directly with the fans and at the same time had our website 10 years before most fools had their website. So there’s the cyber thing and the physical contact going on here and overseas, all over the world. It’s really all over the world, that’s what people don’t understand because maybe we don’t make a lot of YouTube videos or blogs about us. I always say that if you can be the tweet master that you are, the tweet mistress that you are, the king of Facebook, you have to interface with people. They have to know you. If not, they are just going to download your record because you can find it at least a day or two before it comes out. You have to interact with fans. I think the infrastructure is laid. Cats like us, cats like Atmosphere, that have pushed all over the planet. I think underground just has to move on that and be confident in their skills. If this is the path you choose, I don’t want to sound like no Kung-Fu movie or nothing, but you gotta be skilled enough to have the confidence, then you have to be confident enough in your skills, to be like “I’m gonna eat off of this.”
A-Plus: With the digital age and the sale of the hard copy going down, it’s given underground musicians more of a lane. There is more exposure than normal. Independent artists are going for broke. They give it there all. I think the kind of people who want that kind of music respect that when you put it down. We’ve been fortunate to be benefactors from that situation. We’re one of the only underground staples right now that actually came from a major deal. We didn’t hop it out independent. We turned down record labels because we didn’t want to fuck with them anymore.
DX: Getting back to the album, before I listened to it, I expected Montezuma’s Revenge to be a theme of the album, but I didn’t find that. Why did you guys pick that tile?
A-Plus: It started off being a working title because the street in the boonies that we were recording on was called Montezuma Road. It was just a working title. Of course it got deeper than that if you know the story of the Aztecs and Montezuma’s revenge it’s synonymous with how we are approaching this right now. We are going to make you shit on yourself. We here to show that you still have to be raw. You still have to be dope to do this. If you’re not dope, you can’t get by, sorry.
Opio: We referred to the space we were working in as Montezuma. We said that shit so much. It just came into existence. We also wanted some dope artwork. If you look at the cover, the artist, Steven Lopez, captured the energy even though it might not be necessarily instep with the way someone looks at it conceptually. It has the power and the aura of longevity and what we stand for and how Hieroglyphics is all over the world.
DX: Steven Lopez was the art director for the cover but he was also the art director for the video, for the “Proper Aim” single. What made you go with the way you went with that video?
Tajai: He’s a really proactive guy and he’s all about how can he maximize the viewing of his work. I’m sitting here right now looking at the actual physical piece, even though the video shows the making of it, it doesn’t even touch on the magnificence of it.. He put that video together as a great way to showcase his art. What he does is art, what we do is art and he made it all come together and people can see it from all over the world and you don’t have to see it separately. You don’t have to go to a gallery or a club, look this is art and this how we build. He really captured it.
DX: One of the songs that caught my attention on the album was “Home Game” and it finishes the album off. How different is Oakland, your home, over 16 years after you recorded “93 ‘Till Infinity”?
Tajai: It’s exactly the same, dude. We live in a time warp.
A-Plus: Oakland is one of those cities. Every city is unique but the people from Oakland are some Oakland people. We have Oakland traditions, Oakland tendencies. Our slang is in Hip Hop all over the world. I don’t know if it’s in the water, or the location but Oakland motherfuckers are going to be Oakland motherfuckers and like Tajai said, ain’t nothing happen but time. Oakland hasn’t changed much. It’s still one of the most violent cities in the country, but it’s also one of the most prolific as far as arts and music and it’s very liberal. We have the Panthers out there, the Hippie movement, we set up the whole entire country for legal herb, right in downtown Oakland with Oaksterdam, where you can just walk into a store and buy some weed.
Opio: People will let you know if they aren’t feeling you. You can’t really get away with murder out here. I wouldn’t say I conquered Oakland, but I survived in that atmosphere, someplace where you had a lot of brothers and sisters fall to the wayside and not even be able to make it. Fortunately for us, to even be here right now, standing and being successful after all these years and having a record label, studios and offices with a lot of recognition I think it’s a testament to Oakland because it made us be able to survive.
DX: On the album A-Plus has a line where he says “I’m in love with Hip Hop, it ain’t lust,” Over this 15-plus years of doing music together, how has your love for Hip-Hop changed?
A-Plus: These are our dreams coming to fruition. We were little ass toddler kids who hadn’t been talking too longer before we started rapping. We’re all intelligent, we all did well in school even though we were in the center of east Oakland and shit but we’ve loved it since then, and nothing can really change that. We’ve seen Hip Hop go through so many changes and it expanded exponentially. It even mutated on numerous occasions throughout the years but a building still has its foundation and we are some cats who remember when the foundation was built. We’ve never wavered on the way we treat Hip Hop and the way we love it regardless of what has been going on in the atmosphere of Hip Hop. This is what we do, this is what Hiero does, this is what Souls of Mischief does and the state of Hip Hop at any given time in the past, present or future will not effect how we approach and how we love Hip Hop. That’s what I meant by that line. Hip Hop is a hustle for a lot of people and I don’t disrespect that. But there’s a difference between people doing it for the hustle and people doing it because they love this shit. There is a difference. And one ain’t better than the other, it’s just that we just happen to be one. We really love this shit and that’s how we are always going to approach music whenever we hear something from Hiero or Souls its going to be from that organic place, from motherfuckers who love this shit and found an angle where the world will respect us because of our art. That’s why we’re getting a warm reception on this album because the it that it ain’t about what’s going on in Hip Hop right now, this is what we’re doing right now. It just so happens that a lot of people want to hear that too and want to feel that as well. We’re fortunate to be a part of the catalyst for people to feel that way because we ain’t nothing but some fortunate ass fans that put our nose in the fucking dirt to get out here. We’re really just fans first. We aren’t artists first. We aren’t rap stars first. We were a bunch of people who love Hip Hop and decided to give it a go.