Hip-hop, just like other genres, hasn't really boasted many groups that have stayed together for decades. Attitudes and personalities flare and clash. Sophomore slumps come about and albums flop. Reunion tours showcase an act that's limp and uninspired. However, 38 year-old Tajai Massey (who goes simply by Tajai) and the Souls of Mischief crew appear to be a glaring exception.
Says Tajai: "I've been rapping with A-Plus for thirty years and knew him three years before that. I knew Casual three years before that. I see them every day. We all live in Oakland. It's a family unit."
Since their years on the schoolyard, the members of Oakland's hip-hop quartet Souls of Mischief --Tajai, A-Plus, Opio, and Casual-- have stuck together like family. All four members gravitated towards the then burgeoning culture of hip-hop in their adolescence, and started working and rapping together as teenagers.
"There's this place called Iron Clad and they had a four track and it'd be five bucks an hour [to record]. They'd record cassettes. We were 14, 15 at this point, and A-Plus was making beats on the machines. A-Plus would chop stuff up there," Tajai recalls of their early recording days. "We had to take our lunch money and go to studios and make shit happen."
Things have changed since the group's days scrounging lunch money for recording time. The group boasts a sprawling fan base and has produced a consistent flow of heralded records including the 1993 classic 93 'til Infinity. They're known for being innovators of the craft and have stayed away from the prevalent hip-hop cliches of drugs, guns and money.
"The only reason the street stuff was so popular was because the industry was signing that," says Tajai. "There were always lyrical rappers; we grew up on lyrical raps."
Tajai and his Souls of Mischief cohorts have been successful with their lyric-based approach to hip-hop, and as a result have gained a great deal of respect from their peers. The group continues to be an act others in hip-hop aspire to be and look to for inspiration.
"Souls of Mischief and [associated collective] Hieroglyphics are on the cutting edge and forefront of rap and rap style, period," Tajai says. "You can ask any rapper and they'll tell you that, and I'm talking new rappers. When Kendrick and them formed Black Hippy what they said is 'We're the new Souls of Mischief.' When Kanye came out he said 'These guys are the '93 version of me.' Rap changes when we make new records, every time,"
Souls of Mischiefs' progression continues to move forward, with a collaborative album with L.A. virtuoso Adrian Younge entitled There Is Only Now on the way. "This new record we made is, in my opinion, our best record yet, and lyric-wise there ain't no rap out here that's close to it ," Tajai says. "Adrian's a genius. You'll walk into the studio and he'll have a piece of tape on a chord on the keyboard because he's doing the drums and he wants the chord to go through a whole song. He's a one man band."
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The Bay Area group's industrious schedule finds them just finishing a sixty-city tour and a new album. They all have active lives outside of what they do on stage and in the studio --Tajai himself is in the process of obtaining a Master's Degree in Architecture-- but they still maintain a pound-the-pavement, DIY work ethic.
"I don't give a fuck about the rap industry," Tajai says. "We put our own records out, and we make our own t-shirts. We go into our warehouse and turn on the machines and get the paint and screen our shit, then stuff the envelopes and send them out to the people who ordered them from our website. We've been doing this for nineteen years. We are the industry."
Souls of Mischief perform at The Observatory this Saturday.