Thursday, March 16, 2017

Diggin in the Cassettes: 93 'til Infinity

Souls of Mischief is a four man rap group from Oakland, CA. They are a part of the larger rap collective Hieroglyphics. They released their debut album on September 28, 1993, in a simply unbelievably good year for rap music.

Prof Thug's Diggin in the Cassettes Vol. 7

Souls of Mischief - 93 'til Infinity

Signed by all four members when I saw them on the 20th anniversary tour. 

Souls of Mischief is made up of A-Plus, Opio, Phesto, and Tajai. Hieroglyphics is made up of Souls of Mischief, Del tha Funky Homosapien, Casual, Domino, Toure, and Pep Love. Individually and as a group they have released many critically acclaimed albums starting in the early 90s. Del is probably the most successful and famous with his early hit single "Mista Dobalina" and his work with the Gorillaz, but Souls are a close second with their single (and album) '93 til Infinity. They are also one of my favorite groups ever, based mostly on this album.

Souls came out at a time when West Coast gangster rap and G-Funk were dominating the charts. They never shied away from their West Coast roots and proudly repped Oakland, but they sounded nothing like the popular West Coast acts of the time. They filled a niche in the west coast: lyrical, boom bap hip hop. They were much more aligned with groups like Freestyle Fellowship than Tha Dogg Pound.

The beats revolved around a live bass and obscure jazz and funk samples. There were more typical samples (The Doors, Charlie Parker, Curtis Mayfield) mixed in, but they didn't flip the samples like other groups were doing. They also sampled lyrics from Oakland rap legend Too Short, as well as East Coast legends like EPMD, BDP, and Gang Starr. Their sound, and their influences, were universal.

The lyrics had complex internal rhyme schemes, also unlike most popular West Coast rap at the time. They rapped about the art of rapping, girls, weed, books, and their lives in Oakland. They definitely talked about the violence around them, and had some story rhymes that centered around violence, but they mostly rapped about violence from an observational perspective, they weren't gangbanging.

What stands out most about Souls is their charisma and the chemistry between the rappers. They are all very talented on their own, but their collective ability to weave in and out of verses together put them in the upper echelon of rap groups. I can't think of any four person groups that worked so well together. I truly believe they should be mentioned among the best rap groups ever, and once again it's mostly because of their incredible debut.

I was obsessed with this album. It had a big impact on me at 13 years old. I loved their style; laid-back, never flashy but very cool, the type of guys you'd want to hang out with. I loved all the pop culture references and clever wordplay. I loved the beats. I loved the Heiroglyphic symbol; I used to draw it all over my notebooks and I even wanted to get it tattooed at one point. They definitely had a Tribe vibe that spoke to me, but they had a little more of an edge.

I can still listen to this album all the way through and enjoy it as much as I did the first time I heard it.
Join me!

Let 'Em Know produced by Domino

The album opens up with a simple but funky bassline, setting the tone for the entire project. Then the dj scratches, a sampled voice comes in Tell me just what you know, and Opio's high pitched voice starts flowing. As the song progresses, the beat keeps adding different elements.

There are references to the X-Men, Star Wars, and Gladys Knight.  After Opio rips his verse, he passes the baton to Tajai who continues the sprint of wordplay. There's a simple hook where each member says a slight variation of "Yeah I let you know" as a jittery horn plays.

Then it's right back to what feels like a race, with A-Plus on the third leg and Phesto bringing it home for the gold. Constant forward momentum. This is rappity ass rappin at its finest. Just clever bars, pop culture references, geographical references, and rapping about rapping. They all have a slight variation on flow and delivery and voice, but they work perfectly together. Unlike, say, Wu-Tang, where each member has drastically different styles to bring to the table, forming one unit like Voltron, Souls work so well together because of their similar approaches. It's probably why they don't have great solo output, though.

Live and Let Live produced by Domino 

Another great bassline and the fish scale thing we used in grammar school! Very rare instrument in hip hop. There's also a fantastic horn sample on the chorus, and when the second verse starts, those cool piano keys start up.

It's a somber beat, especially during the chorus, which fits the theme of the song. The guys are examining life and death in their neighborhood. They are not prone to violence but they will defend themselves. Awareness is key in their neighborhoods. Tajai explains: "I love humans, they hate me, I'd love to live and let live but..."

A-Plus sums up the song's theme on the last line: "I don't like it but I guess that that's the way it has to be, Live and let live but then you're dead before you're blastin me."

They weren't gangsters, but they weren't suckers either. They were Oakland through and through.

That's When Ya Lost produced by  Del the Funky Homosapien

This was the second single of the album. Here they are just talking shit about other rappers. It's a very uptempo head-nodder. They all rap quickly but it's not exactly double-time. It's right in the pocket of the beat, and it's intelligible, just very fast.

Their confidence seeps through every song. At times it could be considered cocky (what great rappers aren't cocky?) but they are also very much at ease. It's a cool, calm confidence. Plus it seems like they are really enjoying themselves, like they were made for rapping, and rapping together.

Sometimes their voices are hard to distinguish, but to me, that kind of makes the group dynamic even more cohesive and complete.

A Name I Call Myself produced by Del the Funky Homosapien 

This beat is a little slower, with a classic drum break and many different psychedelic samples coming in and out. It's definitely a Del production. 

This is braggadocio, somewhat misogynist rap. The guys go back and forth talking about girls and their sexual prowess. The name they call themselves is "The Man." 

A-Plus states: "I hit it, I did it, I admit it, I never quit it, yes I knock the boots like I was Riddick (Bowe)"

Here and on a few other songs the end breaks down into them just bullshitting as the beat fades. It creates an atmosphere of inclusivity; you as a listener are hanging out with these guys as they rap around the kitchen table drinking 40s. 

Disseshowedo produced by Domino, Jay Biz

Great transition into this song. You know how important transitions are to me.

It starts off with some scratching and cutting, a sorely missed aspect of modern rap. Then of course there's a great bassline. Then another horn sample on the chorus. Like many of their songs, there was a simple chorus. Here the guys just repeat, "Diss is how I do it, I do it I do it." It represents an era where rappers didn't really need a melodious hook or somebody singing the chorus, they could just repeat a phrase, or isolate a 4 bar stanza in the verse and repeat it. Somehow, it really worked, and these simple choruses could be just as catchy as anything Drake ripped off a more talented artist.

What a Way to Go Out produced by A-Plus 

Yet another funky bassline. This is a great story song. Phesto describes a kid who wants to join a gang. As an initiation, he has to kill someone. His anonymous victim turns out to be his little sister.

A-Plus then describes a guy who thinks he's all that and gets killed. It becomes even more powerful with a self referential line: "I call myself the man." It's a clever way for A-Plus to acknowledge that he can be guilty of the same arrogance that gets this guy killed.

Tajai raps from the perspective of a guy acting tough and showing off for his friends. It's similar to the first verse, but instead of killing his sister, he ends up getting arrested, and he hasn't learned a thing. He's in jail but at least he's no punk! It's like an early version of Chappelle's "When keeping it real goes wrong."

Opio closes out with a verse about a guy who has sex with a busted condom ("Broke on the first stroke, I shoulda waited") then gets HIV and dies.


Never No More produced by A-Plus 

This starts with an ill horn sample and drums, then the bass slides in.

All four group members get their own verse to decimate sucker mcs. Then they join in on the simple chorus: "never no more, never no more, never will a sucker score, never no more." This was another single, although I'm not sure why. It's dope, but definitely one of the weakest songs. It's just a great 90's album cut (or should have been an album cut) that displays their excellent rapping abilities.


93 'til Infinity produced by A-Plus 

Whooooo! Here it is. The song that has allowed the group to continue touring for more than 20 years.

It starts off with Tajai talking to us over the bassline of all basslines, welcoming us in to this incredible world of females, inspiration, blunts, and sunshine.

The beat is legendary. That bassline, plus these keys with an echoing effect that sounds like it's coming back and around. The chorus is a perfect representation of early 90's hip hop choruses: a simple repeating of the phrase, "this is how we chill from 93 til." The song as a whole is a perfect representation of the Souls' sound: dope raps, cool samples over an awesome bassline, and a simple, catchy chorus.

Each rapper weaves in and out of the verses like a fast break, dishing it off to their teammates with ease and grace.

As I was listening, my tape hit a snag and wobbled in and out for a few seconds. I almost panicked, but it returned to normal. Weird. But that's what you get with cassettes. Retro!

The accompanying video is almost as classic as the song. I'd always wait for it on Rap City. It truly captures the vibe; hanging out with friends, circling around the same hangouts like the studio or the woods or the ball courts. Like the song itself, it speaks to a simpler time in hip hop; yet at the time, it was anything but simple. People forget that music like this was not dominating the airwaves. You had to catch it on that 90 minutes of Rap City or maybe the hour of Yo! MTV Raps. College stations might play it a couple times a day, but that was it. People complain that there's nothing good on the radio these days, but there never really was! It wasn't really until Snoop and Biggie blew up that radio started to play hip hop. Kiss 95.7 wasn't playing Souls of Mischief. Also, not all 90s hip hop was this good. It took a lot of talent to make this simple formula work well.

So a song like 93 til Infinity seems simple on the surface nowadays, because so many people have tried to replicate the formula, but at the time it was groundbreaking and unique and beautiful. It still is.

Limitations produced by Jay Biz 

This is just a solid beat with the guys rapping about how dope they are, how much better they are than other mcs, and what they'll do to wack mcs. It features a verse from Casual, a highly underrated Oakland legend, as well as the legendary Del, the godfather of Hieroglyphics, on the chorus: "Mcs should know their limitations, their limitations."

Simple. Classic.

Anything Can Happen produced by A-Plus 

This is another story rap, with a little darker vibe. Tajai's voice is even deeper than normal. He tells a story about seeing his man get shot and killed. His mother was also injured. He vows revenge, but needs his friends to help him. This is where the rest of the guys come in.

They all tell a different section of the story. They come together to plot and act out revenge on the killer. It would make for an excellent Netflix series. Most of the time Souls spit punchlines and battle raps, but when they decided to tell stories, they proved they could hang with the best.

So they end up killing the guy, and now he knows "anything can happen!" The beat cuts, which creates a great transition to the next song...

Make Your Mind Up produced by Del the Funky Homosapien 

...where Guru's voice cuts in take ya time recline and make ya mind up. This sample, combined with some scratches and cuts and a voice saying "yeah," becomes the chorus.

This has a cool brush drum sound making it excited and jittery like drinking a few too many cups of coffee. The guys kick intricate rhyme schemes and wordplay, switch up their flows mid-verse, and as usual,  rap rap rappity rap their asses off.  There's never a time where their flows don't match the beat, and there are no forced flows or metaphors. Everything always feels natural.

Batting Practice produced by Casual 

This'll get ya all riled up. This is braggadocio rapping at its finest over a bass heavy track and everybody on the hyped up chorus yelling "its like this yall, its like that yall, i swing a Hieroglyphics baseball bat yall!"

These quick horns come in here and there along with a lot of different sample elements. They did a lot of sample meshing throughout their songs, keeping the beat fresh for the entirety of its 3-4 minutes. Here, several samples come in during the chorus, so with everyone yelling, it feels like a cacophony of sounds, which adds to the adrenaline rush.

Tell Me Who Profits produced by Domino 

This track slows things down and brings up some serious topics. They are looking at society and individuals trying to make it.

A-Plus starts off talking about how fake people can be. He sums it up by saying: "Let me be me, and I'll let you be you." Great advice.

For the 2nd verse, Opio and Phesto go back and forth, debating whether they should go the straight route to make it or resort to crime.

In the last verse, Tajai raps about a gangster putting his life on the line for his boss. He compares that to how the government fucks over regular people. The working man always get screwed.

After each verse, the rapper/rappers handle the chorus. They all put a slight twist on the answer to the question: "Tell me who profits?" It's a well constructed song with some genuinely thought-provoking insight.

Outro produced by Domino

This is a classic trope of 90s hip hop albums: the shout-out closing song. It features a dope beat with the artists just bullshitting and shouting out friends, family and other artists. It was cool way to end things, and I'm sure people loved hearing their names on record. It was also way for groups to show who they liked as artists, maybe even make some connections. Sometimes I felt like the beats were wasted on these skits. Like, that's what liner notes were there for, no? But it does create a proper "conclusion" to an album, which meant something during a time when albums were cohesive projects. Some went on for far too long, but that's not the case here. This provides a mellow vibe to end the album, and a platform for the guys to show that a lot of people had input and influence on the work.

This album holds up remarkably well, much better than some of the more popular albums of the era. It's an album that, quality-wise, could have came out this year, but it's sound and style is defined by, and helped define, the era in which it was born. To me, this is an absolute classic.

5 THUGS out of 5

I Love You All...Class Dismissed

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