Interview: Souls of Mischief

SOM co-founder Tajai talks to Skiddle's Jasmine Phull about sobriety, the ‘wackest part of hip hop’ and inspiring Kayne West.

Jayne Robinson

Date published: 26th May 2010

Souls of Mischief make rap with west coast sensibilities. Starting off in the early 90s, members Tajai, A-Plus, Opium and Phesto were wrapping up high-school while simultaneously rapping on tour with the legendary likes of De La Soul and Grave Diggaz. 

Whether through their collective 'Hieroglyphics' or on their respective solo efforts, these pioneers have helped define hip hop at its rawest form; proving to fans the world over that their verbal chemistry is very much intact. After a nine year hiatus the Souls have recently celebrated the release of their fifth album Montezuma’s Revenge, co-produced by the highly lauded  Prince Paul. Montezuma’s is the first collaborative effort for the Oakland MCs who create ‘lyrical hip hop structured with a beat’. Co-founder Tajai talks to us about sobriety, the ‘wackest part of hip hop’ and inspiring Kayne West.

Your 2009 tour only included America and parts of Europe. Will you be visiting the rest of the world?

We’re going to tag on the rest of the world this year. We’re trying to do Australia, NZ, Japan, Canada and the whole South and East coast of the US.

Let’s talk about your forthcoming album Montezuma’s Revenge. Who is Montezuma?

Who is Montezuma? (surprised) He is a great Aztec King!

Why does he want revenge?

We recorded it up in the mountains of Northern California and the street was called Montezuma. In Mexico if you drink the water you supposedly get a travelling sickness known as Montezuma’s Revenge. We called it Montezuma’s Revenge based on the street but you know, it’s a good album; it’ll make you crap yourself.

Something to look forward to then?

Yea, a great visual (laughs).

So for the past three or so years what have you been up to?

We finished recording the album at the end of 2007 then Prince Paul had to do his magic and that took about a year or two. We’re independent so we got to tour to let people know we have projects out and tour to feed our families. We’re not trying to slow things down it just takes time and resources.

Do you still enjoy touring?

Touring is the bomb. Recording and touring are the two purely musical kind of energy based things. Everything else is secondary to those two.

Oakland, California comes up in the majority of your songs. Why did you choose that area as the base for SOM?

The Bay area is the place of so many movements because it is so diverse, because it’s a port and because of its history. California was once part of Mexico; it was ground zero for the black power movement and for the hippie movement. All revolutionary movements have happened in the bay area. Oakland and San Francisco are very eclectic places; we probably live in the most integrated part of the country.

Would SOM consider collaborating with some of the more recent rappers and producers?

There are a lot of dope rappers and producers but we’re one of those groups that have our own sound; we make our own music. Prince Paul was the first time we were like 'okay, we’re going to do a collaborative effort with someone'. It’s hard to collaborate with other rappers and producers who have a sound because say there’s a hot producer like Kanye or the Neptunes; everybody uses them when they’re ‘hot’ and then all music sounds the same. The situation just has to be right.

I heard Kanye gave SOM props for inspiring him.

When Kanye was letting people know that we were one of his favourite groups it was at a time when his production and himself were over saturated. At that time, it wouldn’t have been the best time to collaborate with him; it would have been like us eating off his plate.  If you look at Hip Hop for the past ten years: 98-01: it was all Neptunes beats, from 01-03: it was all Little John beats and 03-08: it was Kanye beats. So it’s like, how are whole genres of music sounding exactly the same? That’s crazy to me. That’s the wackest part of hip hop; the labels push you to sound like other people who are ‘hot’ at the time.

But you guys use samples?

We definitely use samples and lyrical samples and scratches; that’s the foundation of Hip Hop. We’re not anti we just don’t want to sound like everybody else.

How about Karaoke? You into that?

I’m going to keep it 100 percent; I sing a lot in the shower and in my car but I’m too scared to do karaoke. I do like it but I don’t drink and I reckon it’s really a drunk thing. For me it’d be like a real performance... but I’m definitely secretly an R&B singer.

You like your Janet and Michael Jacksons.

Oh yea and a bit of Barry Manilow.

I know Hieroglyphics have a line of jeans out. What are your thoughts on lending the SOM name to consumer products?

If it’s organic and it works; cool. If it’s not then don’t. We are a business and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Hieroglyphics soaps or Hieroglyphics panties. I think with that concept Pandora’s Box has been opened so long ago. Anything that is for sale is commercial. People want to work with you because they’re going to sell to your fan base.

So how do you feel about name dropping things like Cristal champagne in songs?

I don’t drink! Opium’s got a song about [the tequila] Don Julio. If it’s real then keep it real. I think the guys that were originally singing about Cristal, were drinking Cristal. We’ve never been into rapping about what we have and how big we’re doin’ it. It’s just not our subject matter; we’re about painting pictures.

Did you escape to a location to record Montezuma’s?

Yea up in the hills; two hours outside of Oakland. We built our own studio and stayed there for a month and half with producer Prince Paul.

So you closed the doors and let the creative juices flow?

Yea and the Cristal!

Careful you’re going to sound like an alcoholic by the end of this interview

Yea (Laughs).

Is SOM/ Hieroglyphics for life?

As long as the people want it, we’ll make it but I’ll never stop making music. It’s not hard to make music because that’s what we do. When I’m 70 I’ll still be making music but it might not be relevant. Seriously though the guys that are at their peak now are the same age as us. We came out so young that I think we still have a long career ahead of us.

Interview by Jasmine Phull