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Aaron Matthews did not accept the Souls of Mischief’s invitation to high tea.

Following the meteoric rise of NWA and Dr. Dre, gangsta rap and G-Funk owned West commercial airwaves. Of course, there were alternatives like the Good Life Café, where the jazz-inspired Freestyle Fellowship and The Pharcyde got their start (also where a pre-Dogg Pound Kurupt cut his teeth). But Souls of Mischief was an anomaly when they emerged from Oakland in 1993, a time when the Bay was ruled by the rolling, bass-driven beats and mack braggadocio of E-40 and Too $hort. Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Souls and the rest of the Hieroglyphics crew were among the first in the Bay to champion the East Coast-style of sampling and complex lyricism. ’93 Til Infinity showcased A-Plus, Opio, Tajai and Phesto’s distinct flows over thumping, jazz-sampled beats. Recorded before any of the group’s members could legally drink, the album has a playful afterschool vibe reminiscent of Pharcyde.

Their sophomore album, No Man’s Land, dropped in ‘95, with darker, claustrophobic production and more aggressive rapping. The album flopped and SOM were dropped by Jive Records soon after its release — the rest of Hieroglyphics had their own respective contracts terminated shortly after. Instead of chasing labels, The Hiero crew founded their own imprint, Hieroglyphics Imperium in 1997. The Hiero Imperium website was one of the first band websites to be run by the group themselves. Anticipating the present demand for musician-fan interaction, Imperium connected Hiero fans globally before Facebook, hell, before Friendster.

Unfortunately, the Souls’ albums that followed No Man’s Land did little to improve the group’s reputation. 1999’s cassette-only Focus found the group further narrowing their musical and lyrical perspective, struggling to find new ways to dismiss wack emcees. 2000’s Trilogy: Conflict, Climax, Resolution was better, showing much stronger writing on songs like “Mama Knows Best,” even though the production sometimes faltered. It took nine years for its follow-up, 2009’s Montezuma Revenge.

However, the infrequent release schedule didn’t hamper their group’s career. Over nearly two decades, SOM (and Hieroglyphics as a whole) have stayed relevant by offering well-constructed backpacker rap without gimmicks. The appeal of underground hip-hop, years after Rawkus’ peak, remains the same: a concrete alternative to hip-hop inflected by pop music trends. It’s music that won’t go out of style, and if the SOM’s music isn’t of the moment, then it isn’t dated either. Hieroglyphics cultivated popularity through a number of niche markets over the last two decades: The crew’s music has a cult following among skateboarders through its frequent use in skate videos. Their signature three-eyed smiley logo is recognizable worldwide through, and Hieroglyphics has maintained a devoted fanbase abroad through frequent touring. By owning and operating their own label, the Hieroglyphics crew escaped creative interference and established a distinct, recognizable brand of independent hip-hop.

If You See Someone Wearing This Shirt, They Probably Smoke Bidi’s

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The independence offered by running one’s own label had its downsides as well. A little quality control would have been welcome on the Souls’ later albums. And without a major label’s sample budget, the Souls albums post-No Man’s Land suffer from tinny, sonically inconsistent production that distracts from the stellar rhyming. The Souls’ last album, Montezuma’s Revenge, rights these wrongs. Produced largely by De La Soul architect Prince Paul, the album marks a return to the dusty, sample-driven beats that characterize SOM’s best work.  Reinvigorated by Paul’s playful production, even when their verses aren’t memorable, the emcees sound just sound comfortable, a trait missed in their last three records. Whether they’re flexing lyrical skills on “Proper Aim” or chronicling a barbeque on the sunny “Homegame”, the unified sound and aesthetic makes Montezuma’s Revenge the best Souls album since their debut. The group’s performance at the Well earlier this month showcased how Souls have honed their talents over the last two decades.

The quartet have been touring and recording albums since 1991, yet the venue was populated largely by people still in Pampers when ‘93 Til Infinity dropped. The Souls played their hour long set sans A-Plus (allegedly held up at the border), and it’s testament to the strength of the performance that he wasn’t even missed. Flipping their trademark back and forth wordplay in voices considerably deepened since the nineties, the trio ably proved the importance of touring experience to a strong live show. Opio led the crowd through call & response choruses, thick shades likely concealing blood-shot eyes. The three emcees bounced off each other with near-telepathic interplay, kicking wry punchline after wry punchline.

Solo material from Tajai and Phesto provoked muted response but the packed venue lit up when the three launched into Hieroglyphics standard “You Never Knew”. Montezuma’s Revenge highlight “Tour Stories” elicited a similar response; a chronicle of the group’s adventures touring worldwide, it sounded even better in a room crowded with Europeans. The newer material neatly segued into electric performances of classics from ’93 ‘Til Infinity. When the squealing sax sample of the title track pulsed out of the sound system, the house nearly came down as every attendee rapped the song bar for bar. The show closed with the trio ripping through “That’s When Ya Lost” with enough vigour to convince you the Souls were in high school.

For anyone disputing the Souls’ relevance almost two decades into their career, I would point you to the pasty twentysomething in the front row, continuously throwing up the Hiero logo. Dedication, quality control and a road-tested live show set the Souls apart from the current indie hip hop scene, and its endless parade of Supra-hocking goofballs and overly conscious whiteboys. Judging by the brisk sales of apparel branded with the three-eyed smiley after the show, the Souls are still making new fans. That’s what batting practice is for.

Download:
MP3: Souls of Mischief-”That’s When Ya Lost It”
MP3: Souls of Mischief-”Cab Fare”
MP3: Souls of Mischief-”Tour Stories”

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