Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Souls of Mischief

Returning with their sixth album in just over 20 years, Oakland's Souls of Mischief have just - unusually for a group with such longevity - created their masterpiece. The epitome of everything that's good about '90s hip-hop (the record is 'set' in 1994) by the archetypal '90s hip-hop group, There Is Only Now is genuinely the finest moment of a band who haven't put a foot wrong in two decades. It should be out by the time you read this, on producer Adrian Younge's Linear Labs label. We spoke to Tajai of the mighty Souls of Mischief crew...

Souls of Mischief, chillin' in the cooler. By Andy Smoke.
Your producer, Adrian Younge, told me that this album was basically a follow-up to 93 'til Infinity. Is that right?
Maybe Adrian thinks of it as the follow-up to the first album, because it's set in 1994, but that's basically a completely made up concept based around things that were happening in '94. We don't look at it as our second album! We have a large catalogue. Maybe if you put yourself into the mindset, into the context of that era, then maybe it could be seen as our second album. But we didn't try to go back or recreate anything, you know? It's just that the timeline is set in 1994.

You guys had a pretty big 1994, following the success of your first record. Are you touching upon any of that?

Not at all. The musical style, and the actual album, are set at that time. The year 1994 is not significant at all.

Can you tell me more about the concept of There Is Only Now? I think it's your best album.
It's basically is a wild tale which grew out of a real experience in 1994 where someone tried to kill us after the club. I think it is our best record too but I think that about every record we record. I think that it is insane for artists not to feel that their most current effort is their best. Like, what are you recording for if you aren't trying to top the previous catalogue? But it is a wild ride, very story-heavy and the beats, because they are all original, analogue recordings and overseen by a maestro like Adrian, definitely stand way out. I will not be surprised when people deem it our best record thus far.

What was it like working with Adrian, compared to working with Prince Paul?
Adrian is a completely live, completely analogue producer. With Prince Paul we'd pick fifteen, maybe twenty, beats out of about two hundred that we'd listened to, and then started crafting the album piece by piece in that manner. With Adrian, his music is all from scratch. Every day he would make new music, and we just started recording, step by step. We weren't going back and forth between different beats or anything like that. Every day he would create something new, and we'd listen to it, and figure out what it was going to be in the story, then record that record. Then he'd go and make another song after that. He didn't just have a bunch of beats sitting around. It was crafted. 

It must have been pretty cool inviting somebody like that into your group. Was it a fun record to make?
Yeah. It was a completely new experience. It was super exciting. You can hear in the record, the difference in how it was made. Everything has its place, nothing comes from left-field, and every song is different. It wasn't like we chose a particular style. He made music based on the emotion, on the feel of the day. Completely different from anything we had done before. 

Sounds like it might have taken a while to do.
You know what, it took basically a day for each song. We recorded over about a two month period, but there's, what, seventeen songs? So seventeen of those days was recording and the rest was just refining. The process didn't necessarily take longer than if we had picked a bunch of beats. In fact it went quicker, because we only focused on the task at hand each time. There was no jumping around. Every day was tailor made for the music of that day. 

Whose idea was it to get Busta and Snoop on the record? Did you write with those dudes?
We all - Souls and Adrian - sat and thought of who would be best for the roles and they - Busta and Snoop - were shoe-ins for their parts. Now that they have recorded the stuff, I can't imagine any artists in all of hip-hop who could be more fitting. We are all super grateful that they added on to the project, it was magical.

Were you aware at the time of how much Hieroglyphics music, how much Souls of Mischief music, was in skateboard videos in around '93, '94, '95..? For a lot of people like me back then, skateboard videos were the best way to hear good new hip-hop.
We just had friends that were skaters who chose the music on the parts. We didn't realise that those friends were, like, Mike Carroll, you know?! We didn't realise the level, or that they were creating something new and completely different, that was kind of complimented by our music. We were just like "Hey, you like the music? Go ahead, skate to it!" The songs on those old videos were like demo songs! That was before the record came out; they were songs that were on cassette demo. We didn't have any idea that some of that stuff would be so big, or mean so much so many years later.

There have been Souls of Mischief solo albums - was there ever any question of the band splitting up to go solo?
Oh, no. We have the creative freedom to do whatever we want to do, and as you grow musically, some of that stuff you want to do on your own, but it's never been like that. We're the only rap group left, right? The industry went towards solo artists, and the groups are 'super groups' made up of solo artists. We're the only group left. Us and De La Soul. We understand the power in numbers, and longevity, and we have the creative space - because we're independent - to put out records that are individual records, but we've never even had a falling out, you know? We've always just been a group. Look at the longevity we've had. That's got a lot to do with the fact that there's four people steering the ship and not just one. We can build up each others' strengths and weaknesses so we can continue to elevate. It's never been at the point where we've thought there's going to be a break up, or a change in personnel or anything. The craziest thing we've done is bring in outside producers, because everybody in the group produces too. Except for me. So it's us and De La. If you wanna call Public Enemy a group, then yeah, but as far as an active recording group there's literally us and De La. You never hear about a break up, or De La having problems or anything, even if they do in real life. That's who we modeled our success after. Those guys. They just stay consistent. We're the only real competition, and the way I see it is that we're competing against each other. We aren't competing against Wu-Tang, or any of these other collectives. I mean, are there any other collectives? We keep each other sharp. Sometimes it's easier to travel, as one person, rather than four. That's the only disadvantage of being a group. Some promoters won't bring out five people - they'll bring out one because they can't afford it.

Do you think the rise of the solo hip-hop superstar, and the deification of Kanye, is ruining things?
I don't think it's ruining the music. I think, more so than that, the artists all want the hot producer to make their music, right? So we go through periods in hip-hop where all the music sounds the same. You look at the Gang Starr Foundation, where Premier was the basis of all their beats between Jeru, Group Home, Big Shug, all those dudes - they had a sound. Or Juice Crew - Marley Marl was producing all their stuff, so they had a sound, right? The thing with solo artists, and with pushing these individual personalities rather than musical movements is that individual artists want whoever's hot. So we go through these epochs where every single song that's big is produced by Timbaland. Where every single song that's big is produced by Neptunes. Where every single song that's big is produced by J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League. So all the music sounds the same. As far as at the mainstream, popular level. As a genre we don't have very much to stand on when all the music sounds the same and it's the same beat over and over again, because they're promoting superstar producers. It makes it so that people don't really develop their sounds, as far as the sonics, the music, because all they're doing is working on their lyrics and trying to find the biggest producer. I've never hated the radio as much as I hate it right now. It's the absolute bottom of the barrel, it's the worst music. From all genres. A lot of these artists have great albums, but you listen to the single and it's the same song over and over and over again. Everybody's rapping like Two Chains. I liked grime, but you listen to grime rappers now and they sound like shitty American rappers. It's frustrating because that doesn't push the music or the culture forward at all. 

It's damaging that some kid could put on a hip-hop channel now and just hear garbage.
And it's nothing to do with hip-hop, there's a lot of great music out there. The way the labels are structured, the way the radio's structured, they just play the same stuff. Because hip-hop is no longer an underground thing, it's just for pop fans. It's no different from David Guetta or Pink, you know? I get it, I mean, it makes money, but it's very different from growing up where you would go to the club to hear new songs. Now you go to the club to hear the same song you heard on the radio all day long.

There was meant to be a Souls of Mischief/Pharcyde collaboration album. What happened with that?
I don't know, it just never came to fruition regarding the business side of it. It was like 1998, so that's sixteen years old now. Although it'd probably do good because it was so ahead of its time. But then, right now everything's so regressive because it's so mainstream. It's vapid. The things that people think are lyrical, are elementary rap flows from twenty-plus years ago. People are like "Oh, he's so lyrical, he said this" or whatever, but I'm like "Actually, L.L. already said that twenty years ago". There's no history there now, and because of that people think the stuff they hear is the best thing since sliced bread. And it's actually a rehashed old song. It was different with sampling, because you were looking for old stuff. Now, guys may have heard something somewhere, and they try to use it in their music and pass it off as their own. Instead of paying homage to where it came from. Because they don't even know where it came from, they're not doing their history. We were doing history, we were learning about James Brown at the same time as we were sampling. Or learning about Earth, Wind & Fire, or learning about Roy Ayers, or learning about Bob James. Instead of just like "Let's take this whole song and rehash it because we can make a lot of money". Nobody was making any money.

Talking of history, what kind of crowd came out when you toured that first album? Was it people who'd been there at the time?
We did the whole album, plus 'Cabfare' - a demo classic. It was awesome to see multiple generations rock out to our old record and know all the words. I think we did a couple new songs as well, but it was a crazy experience doing the entire album all over for the 20th anniversary. You don't realise how many people you have touched until you do something like that. That record represents a whole era, you know?

I really do. What's your plan for when the album comes out?
Hopefully we'll go out with Venice Dawn - the band that plays the music - and with Adrian. And I'm hoping we'll maybe go out with Ghostface, or Bilal, or Common maybe. Just touring; the US and an international tour. Get back in the lab and record some more. We'll be taking a big production of tour, with lights and costumes and things of that nature. Adrian does these things all the way.

I saw Ghostface last night, and there was no show whatsoever. He brought his son out for a few bars, but that was it. It was pretty disappointing. Do you think artists are forgetting their role as entertainers? Something like Wu is a product anyway, and they'll always sell tickets - do you think even the people who are great artists, great writers and are great rappers are neglecting their 'duty'?
Ghostface with Venice Dawn is an entirely different experience. There is storytelling, opera, costumes etc. One thing about Adrian is that he has a flair for theatrics, both musically and live, so anything he touches is kicked up a notch. However, I believe many rappers have fallen so far from MCing, or being Masters of Ceremony, that the live show is not as much of a priority anymore. This is funny because nowadays the show is the only way rappers can get paid, so I hope to see an upswing in showmanship in the coming years.

OK, one other thing - has anybody ever claimed to be Bridget? Seems like a thing a crazed fan might do.
Haha! Lots of women with that name come to the shows, and the song definitely gets them excited. But no, no Bridget! Haha!
Cool. Thanks a lot man, you guys rule.
Thank you! Peace.

Adrian Younge

Having seemingly appeared from nowhere, and despite his career being in its infancy, LA's Adrian Younge has quickly stamped his indelible mark - and style - on the music industry. The 35 year-old multi-instrumentalist, producer and songwriter had already written and produced a Ghostface Killah album, produced an album by the classic soul band Delfonics, soundtracked (and edited) the modern blaxploitation masterpiece Black Dynamite and made his own solo album before the call came to produce the forthcoming album by legendary Oakland hip-hop collective Souls of Mischief. We're stoked a guy as busy as him found time to sit down and talk to us.

You seem to have come up from nowhere. How did things change from you being an enthusiastic kid to you producing records by artists that I presume are your heroes?
Yeah. My first release that I guess everybody heard was Black Dynamite. I did a score for this movie called Black Dynamite. A soundtrack. That kind of showed everybody my sound, my kinda seventies sound, and from there I did an album called Something About April, in 2011. A couple of songs on there were sampled by Jay-Z on Magna Carta, and that gave a lot of awareness to what I was doing. As far as playing live instruments to recreate an old sound, to make it modern. If that makes any sense. This Souls of Mischief album is one that's just crazy because as you said, I'm working with my heroes. Working with Ghostface, having Jay-Z sample my stuff, doing a Souls of Mischief album; it's crazy. It's a very humbling experience, and in working with these legendary artists it pushes me to be on top of my game and be the best I can be. I think the Souls of Mischief album is my personal best work.

These artists already each have very established identities, and now you're writing their music and producing them. Is it hard to walk a line between making a record for yourself and a record for them?
As a producer, you have to meet halfway. You and the artist have to figure out where that line is. There are certain things I won't do. Everything I do is analogue, so if an artist didn't want me to record on tape I wouldn't record with them, regardless of who it is. That's just part of me. So we meet each other in the middle, and I say "What do you want? This is what I can produce for you, this is what I think will work for you, how do you feel about that?" And we'll agree or disagree. We'll get to the position where we can make things work, and make the best music we can. That's been the plan for all the music I've done. 

I know you learned to play drums through listening to hip-hop. What's the difference between playing along to sampled, looped drums and playing along to real soul drums? Explain to people.
Hip-hop culture is based on vinyl culture, and vinyl culture is based on people loving records. Music that was made on records. To me, the golden era for vinyl was '68 to '73, as far as recording is concerned. Hip-hop is based on a lot of the music that was made at that time. A lot of hip-hop producers took the drum break and they made new music out of that. I'd study those drum breaks - I'd study what they did back then - and I try to record in that fashion now. I try to make my drums sound like I got them from an old record. Hip-hop drums, for the most part, are basically funk drums. But then also, there's classic rock grooves that have drum breaks. They can have a funky beat to them too, so you would take it. A hip-hop producer should listen to all drums, whether it's classic rock, country or whatever, to determine if they can find soul in those drums. If they can, they'll create a song around it. That's what I did. 

I read somewhere that you stopped listening to hip-hop in '97. Was that a reflection on your tastes at the time, or a reflection on the way hip-hop started going?
That's a very good question, and there were multiple reasons. First of all, I was getting really into records, and I was getting really into DJing at the time. I was listening to records that were just blowing my mind, and were actually better than the hip-hop getting made at that time. Beastie Boys sampled Superfly, Ice-T sampled Superfly, but when you listen to Curtis Mayfield's Superfly, you realise how good - how much better - that soundtrack is compared to the other versions. No offence to the Beasties or to Ice-T, but that's how good the original music is. The original music to me is better than the hip-hop, so I started studying the original music to try to become even more inspired by what they did, with the source material. Hip-hop was changing a lot at that time, it was getting a lot more mainstream, a lot more pop. Hip-hop wasn't being made as much for the subculture as it was prior. It was made for radio, and television, and it just did not have the same underground vibe to me, so I wanted to get away from that and find music that still catered for the underground vibe, and to me that was all the old records I was finding. That was when I stopped listening to hip-hop.

A lot of these 'classic' artists just put out the same album again and again, based on their one banger - their Superfly, or their Paul's Boutique or whatever. Do you think artists have any obligation to evolve?
My thinking is that artists should do what they feel is their best music. Artists should never chase money, artists should never try to be trendy and artists should never try to appeal to younger audiences. Artists should just make what they feel is good. If an artist is making music in the seventies, then thirty years later is still making the same music, then more power to you if that's what you feel is good. I don't like when 'legends' try to adjust to a younger audience to make money. It saddens me when producers, artists and composers do that. We saw a lot of artists do that when disco came. Nobody was doing disco before that time, and when disco came in, soul groups and soul performers weren't making as much money because disco was making all the money, so they just started making disco songs. Singles, or even full albums, when these artists had never recorded disco music prior. Everything, for me, is looking back to move forward. Hip-hop is still great, but I just don't look for it because the records I listen to inspire me more than what's going on today. 

How much input did you have to the Ghostface record? It sounds to me like you pretty much made the whole thing.
He wrote all his vocals, but as far as the music is concerned, I wrote all the music.

Did he write the vocals...
...after he heard the music. Exactly. 

What did you think of the Apollo Brown remix of that album?
Oh, he did a great job man. I love Apollo Brown. It's funny man, a lot of people compare them, like is mine better or is his better... It's one of these things where I'm just proud of what he did, and I never really tried to figure out which is better, I just know that he killed it. I hope that on my next one he'll be involved. 

Like everything you do, the Souls of Mischief album has a concept behind it, and the concept is that it's set in 1994. Does that dismiss everything they've done since 93 'til Infinity? They'll forever be known for that record, so could you see how people might see this as the 'follow up' to that first album?
That's a good question, and to me, it kind of is. To me, 93 is the best album they've done, so I wanted to take it back to that time and feel like young soldiers again. I wanted them to feel that hunger. I wanted to take it back to 93 'til Infinity and make an album that is based on that time frame. I guess you could kinda say that it is a follow up, in a way. But that's just me saying that, not necessarily them. It's amazing to me that after 21 years in the game, they can still come so hard. I'm really proud of them, really proud of what they've done, and I hope people enjoy it.

They did kind of falter after 93 'til Infinity, do you think they see it as the follow up?
None of us have ever said that this is a follow up, but it does have that feeling. You know what I'm saying? It feels like a follow up because 93 'til Infinity is their best work, and now we have this album, and - at least for myself - I know it's my best work. I think it's their best work. But we've never said it. 

It's like they've finally made a proper second album.
It feels like that, man. It just feels really good. We're really proud of it. A lot of what went into the making of this goes back to when they were making 93 'til Infinity, when they were a team, in the studio together.

Do you think they could ever be a collective like Hieroglyphics again?
All of them are really, really talented, you know? As long as they keep the fire, as long as they have the passion, they could do whatever they want to. They have the ability to. On this Souls of Mischief album now, I believe it's the best they've ever been lyrically in their lives. That's how much I believe in this album. 

Is it right that you worked in music law in the past?
Oh, yeah. I have a law degree so I served as an entertainment law professor. For me, it really helps me out with business, because I know all the legal documents and how they apply to music and all that stuff. It's really helped me out. It's not a big deal to me.

I kinda wondered if that was why you learned to play instruments, like, maybe you were worried about the legality of sampling.
No, that was a creative thing. I love music that samples also, but for me, creatively, live instruments were where I was at. Where I'm at. 

What have you got lined up for the rest of the year?
I'll be doing another Ghostface album. I have an album I'm doing with Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest. There's another few things I've got in the works. I'm doing another Something About April album. But more importantly just my Linear Labs label, trying to make that big. I want people to look at it like a lifestyle brand that people feel speaks to them musically. We're not chasing money, we just want to make good music.