With a new record and a whole new generation of fans, Oakland's Souls of Mischief take it back to the old school
There's a base level of social consciousness that Hiero fans will know to expect. During one radio interlude that prefaces the song "Ghetto Superhero," callers into K-NOW voice concerns about violence in Oakland in a way that, unfortunately, is still highly relevant. (Ali Shaheed Muhammad, with an audible smile: "It's almost like we need some kind of superhero...").
But it's never been the goal to hit listeners over the head with social commentary, says A-plus. If they were going to tackle something like gentrification in Oakland, they'd do it for real, "and it'd be an 18-hour song."
Besides, adds Tajai, "We're older rappers. When we preach, it comes off preachy."
Which is not to say that they're reluctant to get political. Ask, for example, what they make of current trends in mainstream, commercial rap (and what seems like the chasm between that and the independent hip-hop that's always bubbling just underground), and you will hear some opinions about materialism. Particularly, hypothetically, if A-Plus and Phesto had to leave an hour ago, and the light outside is waning from the pink East Oakland sky, and Tajai and Opio have smoked a good amount over the last 90 minutes.
"Music is always a reflection of society, and rap is like a 40-year-old man. That motherfucker has kids and a 401k. That's how it's acting," says Tajai. "It doesn't have the idealism it used to. It's about 'get paper.' And you're hearing kids saying that."
"I think you can talk about money and still be a real person and have some style and finesse — I always liked Run-D.M.C. with the big chain and whatever, that's part of hip-hop," offers Opio. "I don't think standing in front of the car is horrible in and of itself. But when every single thing is that..."
"The problem is not the subject matter, it's that access to shit that isn't that isn't equal. It's always the lowest common denominator, scraping the bottom of the barrel," says Tajai. "I'll hear something these days that's like — is this a parody? I can't even tell if it's a joke. And then it takes off!"
Opio: "That's just advertising dollars. People are investing in that because it makes money."
Tajai: "I'm not mad at that. I'm mad that the dollars that do come in don't go toward building new power structures. Look, the materialism is across the board. 'In God we trust' is on the dollar. We're a materialist, capitalist society that's driven by consuming. We are the mall. We're not even the manufacturer or the farm, America is just the mall, and we're being fed these images that make us wanna go to the mall all the time. My thing is I just want there to be some kind of reinvestment. Like cool, make a million dollars, but then have 40 percent of it go to literacy programs. Because then at the very least, people will understand that you're a human who thinks, and not just this caricature of a rapper you're selling to everybody."
And now is maybe when we talk about Hiero Day.
The thing about Hieroglyphics, most fans will tell you, is that Hieroglyphics has never quite gotten their due. Souls of Mischief were notoriously underpromoted by Jive following their debut; as violence in Oakland increased in the '90s, the city put an actual moratorium on hip-hop shows for a while. Ask hip-hop historian Davey D about it. There was literally no place in Oakland for rappers to get on a stage.