It's the Fourth of July in New York City, and inside a Chelsea recording studio an engineer scans his laptop’s gauges behind the glass of a soundproof studio. Someone lays out orange juice, water, and Advil when a tall black Mercedes minibus passes the window. Backwards. Traveling east to west, i.e., the wrong way down 18th Street, which is one way. The van stops, the door slides open and out bounce Souls of Mischief.
Tajai, Opio, Phesto, and A-Plus are Souls of Mischief, or Souls to most (including the band). They (minus A-Plus) are here to talk about '93 'til Infinity,' their debut album that’s just turned 20. The group is touring the country on the back of that legendary album. They are also interested -- or I am, at least -- in how in the hell this or any '90s hip-hop group is still surviving and thriving. And as of Independence Day 2013, Souls is thriving.
Soul is thriving because, like their video for '93 'til Infinity' — which featured the guys rapping alongside not bouncing cars but a waterfall and a rural row of mailboxes — the band is atypical. Souls has always marched to it’s own beat, a beat that’s different, funny, thoughtful, and never fit rap’s status quo.
“We’ll always do our own thing,” says Tajai, seated (finally) with the bandmates he’s known since middle school in Oakland. “That’s what we’ve always done.”
It’s fun to do your own thing. But a band’s a democratic process. That can be tough. You get left out in the cold.
Maybe that’s why '93' holds the rare status as a classic. Or maybe it’s because their influences reach beyond hip-hop, into the nether regions of forgotten music obscurity. ('Step To My Girl,' a '93' b-side, featured a saxophone riff from '80s soul player George Washington Jr, a riff he adapted from the '70s psychedelic band Bread.)
Maybe it’s because they’ve always fed their own heads with outside solo projects and collaborations that, they say, only make the group better.
“It’s only helped me as an artist over the years,” says Opio, who was the engine behind 'The Big Lebowski' tribute album, 'Mark It Zero.' “It’s fun to do your own thing. But a band’s a democratic process. That can be tough. You get left out in the cold. You make something and it’s the sickest beat you ever heard, and then the other guys are like ‘I don’t like that.’ But no one’s going to have that experience every time, so when you come back, you come back refined.”
The years have changed things. Murmurs in the hip-hop world have linked Wu-Tang members to Souls’ next project, and July 16 sees the long-anticipated release of 'The Kitchen' by Hieroglyphics, the Oakland hip-hop collective that includes Souls.
There aren’t boxes of vinyl for their longtime DJ, Lex, to haul. Venues today are built for turntables, to avoid skips when the stage trembles due to hard-rocking. (Said Phesto, “It’s better now.”) The members, like their fans, have kids. “This one guy came to our show with his son, who he’d named after me,” said Tajai. “It was the first time he’d seen us, but he’d grown up listening to us. That’s dope.”
But the biggest difference today?
“Smart phones,” says Tajai. The others nod. “Now you tweet, and the whole thing’s sold out before you show up. Before there was always a plan. Posters. Interviews. You had to get directions to get to the venue, then drive around with the Thomas Guide.”
Time’s up. The manager is breaking down his charging station at the wall, and someone’s already out at the van. They’ve got a 300-mile drive to Higher Ground in Burlington, Vermont.
“Great crowd there,” sais Opio
“Crazy crowd,” says Phesto.
“People on top of people,” says Tajai.
“Let’s go,” says the manager.
And they do.
Cole Louison is the author of 'The Impossible: Rodney Mullen, Ryan Sheckler and the Fantastic History of Skateboarding.'