Souls of Mischief: Chill from ’93 ‘til

by Ryan Snyder

There’s a catch to owning what’s admired by judicious hiphop listeners as one of the most universally slept-on records of the genre’s golden era: even after 20 years, not everyone will have woken up to it.

After packing the Pour House in Raleigh a few days earlier, Oakland indie hip-hop legends the Souls of Mischief were greeted by fewer than two dozen people at the Still Infinity tour’s Wednesday night stop at Ziggy’s. The tour itself is a celebration of the foursome’s iconic debut, ’93 ‘til Infinity, a pillar of DIY rap from a time when the genre as a whole was bursting through the crust of the underground and into the waiting arms of the label machinery. Ideally, it would have been an opportunity to appreciate not only their whip-smart synthesis of Les Mc- Cann and Freddie Hubbard samples and deft lyrical mapping, but even more fundamentally, four accomplished lyricists/ producers who have weathered innumerable changes in hip-hop over two decades to almost illogically remain a group. What it was was role reversal in its purest form.

“We’ve played for crowds of three people and we’ve played for crowds of 30,000 people,” said A-Plus, the group’s de facto leader. “It doesn’t matter to use because we’re going to bring it no matter what.” That the group absolutely held true to that ethos shifted the burden of balancing their energy to the pitifully small crowd. Yet, an assemblage that seemed less predisposed to throwing up hands than head-nodding stoically came to the realization almost unanimously that they would have to share in the heavy lifting. The response didn’t go unappreciated by the performers, either.

After perfunctorily laying down the top of ’93 ‘til Infinity — this deep into the tour, the visual component and group interaction has become as unassailable as their flows — the Souls rewarded the efforts of the tenacious few by going slightly off program. Nearly everyone either instantly recognized the sinuous Grover Washington Jr. sample that DJ Lex queued up, or at least went Pavlovian at the prospect of getting a treat, but their response to the group’s performance of their early demo “Step to My Girl” — the track that inspired Vampire Weekend’s “Step” — was nothing but genuine.

Yet, it’s also possible that the group’s unified dynamic was established before the Souls ever took the stage. While a few were glued to DJ Eagle Man’s mixes of KRS-One, Joeski Love and other studied, obscure cuts, opener G-Man kept the oldschool vibe going with a billing as a member of the Sugar Hill Gang. That wasn’t exactly true, however, though he was a member of Sugar Hill Records’ Crash Crew. His repertoire was reduced to mostly clean covers of classic hip-hop, and a segment with a “live” bassist that was as puzzling as it was dreadful.

“Where you at, Casey?,” G-Man shouted, as his manager, sporting a hybrid Les Claypool/ the Edge look, proceeded to rip it up with a complete rock-star physical oeuvre while G-Man rhymed. Problem was, the bass wasn’t plugged in, nor was there a cord or an amp on stage to which it could be connected. There was no sound coming from it, despite the hyperventilating taking place on the fret board. His timing was absolutely on the beat, but the fingerwork more closely resembled Rush than the subdued low end of the tracks that G-Man was taking on. The dozen or so who witnessed it paused to check with one another as if to ensure they weren’t hallucinating this scene.

It was debatable, though, whether the fake bass player was more embarrassing than an over-the-Sugar-hill rapper ballyhooing the “return of clean hip-hop,” as if in good conscience he has to skip over the “bust you out with my super sperm” lyric every time he covers “Rapper’s Delight.” Those kind of revisionist claims and anyone who trumpets the myth of “clean hip-hop” does a remarkable disservice to the origins of groups like Souls of Mischief and the music itself by attributing false values to it. East Oakland wasn’t a clean, kind place when the Souls were forming; it was a brutal, crime-ridden hellhole, and so were most hip-hop crucibles.

The Souls of Mischief made honest, noteworthy music outside of the gangster idiom and it certainly wasn’t clean, but it didn’t need scrubbing either. A-Plus summed it up best with a lengthy homily to the crowd toward the end of their set, thanking the crowd for not only supporting that show, but for supporting hip hop so passionately in general.

“We’ve been doing this for 20 years, and this is what it’s all about right here,” he said while Tajai, Opio and Phesto looked on. “I wouldn’t change anything at all about this right here. Y’all might as well have been 15,000 people.”

A-Plus did drop a few F-bombs amidst his heart-on-his sleeve address, so it wasn’t “clean,” but it was genuine and that the two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive shouldn’t be slept on.