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Souls Of Mischief will celebrate the 25th anniversary of their debut album ’93 ‘Til Infinity’ with a series of shows, including one in The Sugar Club on June 14. We caught up with Opio to discuss the early days touring with De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest and how they've managed to stay unified in creativity.
“I was the type of guy who was listening to The Cure when most people were listening to hardcore gangster rap. That’s what hip hop is, you’re in this wonderful soup that has all of these different elements.”
It’s been more than five years since Souls Of Mischief came to Dublin, at that time celebrating 20 years of their seminal record ‘93 ‘Til Infinity’. Now touring to mark the silver anniversary of that LP, they’re set return to the city. 25 years is a long time for any group of individuals to continue to create art together, but Opio, Phesto, Tajai and A-Plus have been doing exactly that in unwavering unison.
The foursome have influenced hip hop right down to its core, with modern artists as lauded as Joey Badass and Freddie Gibbs paying direct tribute to the Oakland natives and the world’s longest running hip hop periodical The Source Magazine naming their debut LP in the Top 100 Rap Albums of all time list in 1998.
They’re quintessentially ‘underground’ and have been since that famous bass line sampled from Billy Cobham’s ‘Heather’ was first pumped out of a soundsystem.
I spoke to Opio who details touring in the early days with De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, the glue that binds the group and how the punk elements of funk were so instrumental in the birth of hip hop.
He also had some sage advice to offer to anyone involved in Ireland’s blossoming hip hop scene.
I read in an interview in 2014 that Phesto said it’s friendship that keeps the whole thing going. That was just after the 20th anniversary of ‘93 ’til Infinity’. How do you still maintain creative individuality without stepping on each others toes after all these years?
It’s chemistry. Once you work with people for that long you start to develop a flow. It’s a democratic process, everyone has a vote and majority rules. We bounce ideas off each other and maybe at times certain things don’t stick, but because we all have our solo stuff it’s not like we don’t have any other outlets to get our individual ideas out.
A Souls Of Mischief record is going to be totally different to a Phesto solo record, or a Tajai solo record. You’ve said that being on the road can make you jaded but the people around you keep you focused and sharp.
How important has being in Souls and Hieroglyphics been to your development as an artist?
For all of us, we had pretty stable upbringings. All of our parents stressed education first, so I feel like that helped us… Obviously you want to wet your beak with the rockstar life! But when education is important to you, you view the world through a different lense.
You’re always searching to enrich yourself, not necessarily academically, but mentally. Being on the road can make you jaded, but there’s also so much to learn through travelling and interacting with different people. I feel like my greatest education has come from being on the road.
Still to this day there are new things to be learned, conversations to be had, observations to be made. Our first big tour was with A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. We were fresh out of highschool, our album had just dropped and we were immediately thrust into this world with some of hip hop’s biggest icons, but also people we looked up to in a major way.
We had a lot of questions and they were really humble and cool. They took us under the wing, let us be excited and fan out and ask all of the questions, but once we had done that they told us about certain rules to the road that you need to pay attention to. We just learned so much from them, watching them be so professional on stage. If you’ve ever seen them on stage, they have fun. I’ve been on tour with certain people and it’s all about what you’re going to do before or after the show, whereas with Tribe and De La the focus was on the show and taking care of yourself. Don’t put yourself in a position where the show would suffer.
Learning from those guys really shaped us.
When you were touring alongside those bona fide legends, did you think you guys would make such a genuine difference to the landscape of hip hop?
Not being cocky, but we had trained from a very early age. The rules of hip hop are be original and try to add to the artform.
We didn’t want to duplicate anybody. In all of the music we listened to that was the message; don’t bite, be original. It forced us into this area where we had to come up with our own thing. That was the most important part – to craft a sound. We wanted it to be our own. For people to think we sounded like someone else would be the worst thing.
When we made the first record ‘93 ‘Til Infinity’ we knew we at least had something that was an original product. We didn’t feel like we were peers of De La or Tribe Called Quest, they were on a much higher level than we were, but if we could impress those types of people, that’s all we wanted to do.
We didn’t necessarily think this would have a huge impact 25 years later, I mean we weren’t even 25 years old! We never really thought in terms of legacy. That’s come much later. Maybe not even until our 20th anniversary we started to feel a sense of responsibility with the title of being a ‘legend’.
You mentioned crafting a unique sound. Do you think that’s missing from hip hop at the moment?
That’s the attitude with ‘serious’ hip hop aficionados, but those people aren’t really looking very deep. There’s amazing music that’s being done on a worldwide scale, so much that I couldn’t even begin to name.
While that’s happening, people are listening to ‘93 ‘Til Infinity’ or ‘Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’or ‘Illmatic’. Unless it’s on television or the radio and is super easily accessible they’re not putting in any effort to listen to new music. Then that becomes this narrative that new hip hop isn’t that good. At the same time people were saying hip hop is dead you had Madlib, Dilla and MF Doom coming out with what now is considered ‘classic’ hip hop.
But when those records were being released, simultaneously people were saying that everything that was being done was whack. I don’t remember the same hoopla surrounding those records at the time. There was a core group, but that wasn’t the narrative in terms of what most people in hip hop were saying. Jean Grae and Quelle Chris are incredible MCs, but I don’t see people saying it online. People are instead talking about what female in hip hop is more popular, is it Cardi B or Nicki Minaj? That is just pop music. Not to take anything away from them, Nicki Minaj in particular is an amazing lyricist, but hip hop has transitioned into the most popular music, but I still don’t think people look at hip hop as pop music.
When you have something that’s making billions of dollars then it means that’s what it becomes all about. Art and commerce are really never supposed to meet. They taint each other. So those two things coming into the same arena are always going to be problematic but with that there has to be sacrifices.
As an artist you have to eat. You have to pay rent. There are only a lucky few who can make a career from their art without having to sacrifice too much? We’ve been fortunate to be one of those groups of people who have found a good balancing act because we are our own label. We are actually a business. We put out our own music, we hook tours up, but we don’t sacrifice our art at all in order to make money. That’s the thing that a lot of people don’t see. If you stay true to what you’re doing and keep trudging away, maybe that first year doesn’t pan out, maybe five years doesn’t pan out, but after you look back at 20 plus years, people start to really respect what you’re doing.
We’ve almost had a resurgence in terms of how people show love and respect to Souls of Mischief and Hieroglyphics. If you go through our catalogue there is no pop music, really.
There’s no pop, but there are definitely funk elements. You’ve said you were influenced by your parents music with groups like Parliament Funkadelic. George Clinton is now working with Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder. Bootsy just released a track with Tyler, the Creator and Kali Uchis. Why do you think funk has had such a long-lasting impression on the hip hop community?
It’s interesting, because the history of black music in America, it goes from the blues, to jazz, to funk, so there are these elements that are always there. I feel like the blues are the foundation, it’s in almost all of modern music, that storytelling element, it’s in certain rhythms, it’s always there.
I feel like funk, before hip hop came along, was just the more modern form of the pinnacle of black music. It was all of the elements, all of the knowledge coming together in funk. For me growing up in Oakland, California, West Coast, funk is something that my peers who were a little older were into.
There are elements in funk that present themselves in hip hop now. When people were looking at André 3000 as just dressing all crazy, I don’t think a lot of people would have said, ‘Oh, that’s some P-Funk vibes right there’. The funk elements were, ‘I don’t give a fuck and I’m not going to conform with what’s considered normal’.
Hip hop is a child of the funk. Yeah, I feel like the most long-lasting genres are the ones that subverted the norms of the day. Someone said to me recently, ‘If your parents like the music you’re not trying hard enough’.
Punk, hip hop, funk, they all do that. Funk is something that’s in a lot of your music, with obvious odes to the genre in ‘Funky Expedition’ or more subtly in other tracks.
What other musical genres influenced your sound?
For me, it was the combination of everything. I loved reggae music. I loved punk rock. I’d get really into a band like Bad Brains. Jazz music is a huge influence, because of the way improvisation and freestyling have a lot in common, plus the mindset of a Miles Davis who’s trying to do something new. Jazz hit me at a time when I was more sophisticated in my musical palette so I could really appreciate some of these far out compositions because I felt like they were stretching the limits. They were so cerebral in their approach to music. But saying that, Yellowman had just as much influence on me as Miles Davis.
I loved all of these people equally. I was the type of guy who was listening to The Cure when most people were listening to hardcore gangster rap. That’s what hip hop is, you’re in this wonderful soup that has all of these different elements.
You were DJing and scratching before you became an MC. Do you think that gave you a better knowledge of music and made you a better rapper?
[Laughs] I never excelled as a DJ. I loved the culture of hip hop and I participated in every element. Graffiti, breakdancing, MCing, DJing, the whole thing. I immersed myself in the elements. But I do think there’s something to be said for people who are DJs, people who excelled at DJing.
The DJs have been so instrumental in the growth of hip hop and what people were able to do with it. I won’t try to say that I was this amazing DJ, but you listen to music differently when you’re a DJ, so that perspective is very helpful when you’re trying to craft songs. That’s one of the beautiful thing about hip hop, all of those elements combine to create this wonderful culture.
Just to finish up, I have a question posted to our Irish hip hop forum on Facebook by Craig McSherry. The Bay Area grinded so hard and incubated itself allowing the artists and sound to develop independently while also being able to have national and international appeal. Seeing as the Irish scene is on the up, is there any advice you can give to keep us building on that? Both artists and fans?
I don’t know if anyone in Dublin knows the difference between growing up in Oakland and Los Angeles, but California is a huge state, so it’s like the Bay Area and LA are like two different states. People think we have Crips and Bloods, which we don’t have in Oakland, or that we drive lowriders with hydraulics, we don’t have those in Oakland.
It’s two totally different cultures and I feel like Los Angeles is bright lights, big city. Oakland has none of that, there’s no music industry, there’s nothing, and that isolation helped us to have this tenacity to be like, ‘Fuck it, if we can’t find a label to sign us we’ll sell the music out of the back of the trunk’.
I can’t speak for a huge place like New York City, but from being from Oakland and being in our own bubble we had our own slang and way of communicating, so my advice is to stay true to that. Don’t try and sound like somebody else. Don’t talk like someone from LA or New York just because that’s what everyone sounds like.
Use your own slang, use your own dialect, be yourself. People will gravitate towards that because real recognises real.