Happy 25th Anniversary to Souls of Mischief’s debut album 93 ‘til Infinity, originally released September 28, 1993.
It’s hard to understate the importance of the Hieroglyphics crew in general and the Souls of Mischief specifically. For me, as a teenage hip-hop head in the early ’90s, the group was an inspiration. Until they first made themselves known in the early ’90s, the music that I loved had always been made by adults. Sure, some of my favorite rappers were in their early twenties, but I’d always viewed them as guys who would be old enough to have graduated from college. And in the case of artists like Public Enemy and Ice-T, hip-hop was made by full-fledged grown-ups.
Moreover, up until the early ’90s, most hip-hop coming out of Oakland, my hometown, was made by Too $hort and his disciples. I love me some Too $hort, but as having grown up in the Oakland Hills, I didn’t share a lot of life experiences with him. He rhymed from the perspective of a seasoned player from Deep East Oakland. That was very much not me.
When Souls of Mischief appeared on the scene, it became apparent that people roughly my age could and did make dope hip-hop, which intrinsically made the group more relatable. It didn’t hurt that Adam “A-Plus” Carter, Opio Lindsey, Tajai Massey, and Damani “Phesto” Thompson were all from Oakland, each attended surrounding high schools, and were all essentially one degree of separation away from me. They were local celebrities on the rise, and as a high school junior and senior, it felt great to say that you knew someone who knew one of them.
By the time ’93 ’til Infinity dropped 25 years ago, I was less than a month into my freshman year of college, still a hip-hop head, and still trying to find my way in the world. To watch these four fellow nearly twenty-year olds take the industry by the horns and deliver dope music was empowering. They were the kind of artists that made you proud that you were young and from Oakland.
Souls of Mischief and Hieroglyphics as a whole were ushered into the scene by Del the Funky Homosapien with his debut album I Wish My Brother George Was Here (1991). Del had adopted the role of the every-man through much of his first release, but was still considered very much on the eclectic side.
After their appearances in the liner notes of I Wish My Brother and in the videos associated with the album, Souls of Mischief began popping up on various tracks. First were the verses by Tajai, Opio, and A-Plus on Del’s “Burnt,” one of the all-time great B-sides and posse cuts. Then demos by the group started circulating amongst my circle of friends or getting played on Sway & Tech’s “Wake-Up Show” radio program. Songs like “Taxi” became legendary, first for its use of the Bob James’ helmed theme song of the classic TV show of the same name, and for the fact that the members of the group rhymed from the perspective of taxi drivers.
Even in the early days of their career, Souls of Mischief were extremely good at what they did. They kicked clever rhymes, filled with witty punchlines and complicated rhyme flows and patterns. They were immaculate at freestyling off the top of the head, and would and could do so at the drop of a time. And though I generally hate the use of the word, they all possessed tons of swagger. They talked trash and could back it up, grinning while doing so.
In terms of production, Souls of Mischief relied on the jazzy, soulful palate similar to artists like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. They used a lot of records from the jazz label CTI and looped the tracks while playing the record at 45 RPM. In that sense, the crew were some of the early developers of the “chipmunk soul” sound popularized first by RZA and later by Kanye West and Just Blaze.
Souls of Mischief first really started making a name for themselves with their lead single “That’s When Ya Lost.” With its thumping, rolling bassline and muted piano stabs, Souls of Mischief use the track to exhibit their unique styles and their verbal dexterity. Tajai leads off the song by putting together a memorable verse built around incorporating the names of many different tools. Opio’s masterful verse closes the track, bending his words and delivery into an unorthodox start-and-stop flow, rapping, “Check as I’m chiseling riddles in your memory / Remember me? I hacked your body to pieces disassembling your flows / You bros started trembling from shock and trauma / I’m gonna, end lives when I bomb a / Babbling dyslexic, I make ’em exit / This lifetime, I wake up words, I excite rhymes.”
When it comes to lyrical braggadocio, Souls had few peers at the time, and excelled every time they engaged in verbal tete-a-tete. Songs like the album’s lead off track “Let ’Em Know,” as well as “Disseshowedo,” “Limitations,” and “Batting Practice” showcase all four emcees’ ability to display their lyrical acumen and creativity.
“Never No More,” the album’s third single, is a great example of their lyrical and musical excellence. The A-Plus produced track features a rambunctious horn sample, combined with mellow strings and keys. Here Phesto uses his verse to show off his expansive vocabulary, stringing together lines like, “Ponder on this, I swallowed the spliff with locution / Encompassing the pompous means, when I escalate my tool / Shins get split, men get spindled, swiveled, pivoted / By my riveting centrifuge.”
The album’s title track continues to amaze 25 years later. Everything about the song works, from the mellow vibe created by the A-Plus produced track, to the hook, to the song’s subject matter, which mostly involves the crew kicking 4 to 8-bar verses describing how they enjoy their everyday lives. “93 ‘til Infinity” is both Souls and Hiero’s most beloved and enduring entry in their expansive discography. Over the past quarter century, it’s been covered/adapted by artists like Consequence & Kanye West, Freddie Gibbs, and Kidz N the Hall, amongst others. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly about the song resonates so well with so many, but it could be because rapping about finding the time to chill out over a beautiful track will always have universal appeal.
Souls of Mischief also demonstrate their ability to build strong narratives in their raps throughout ’93 til Infinity, and when necessary, employ some introspection. In terms of subject matter, “What a Way to Go Out” plays like four separate Ice-T songs, with each member swaggering through dangerously stupid situations, unaware that they’re traipsing towards disaster until it’s too late.
“Anything Can Happen” is a multi-verse story rhyme with Souls detailing their revenge scheme against a thug who kills a friend and wounds Tajai’s mother in a botched drive-by shooting. Meanwhile, on “Live and Let Live” the group takes a more measured view of violence, with all four emcees kicking thoughtful verses about accepting their need to arm themselves if they want to survive in the streets of Oakland. As A-Plus raps, “Willing to be killing maybe is a great sin / But it’s not appealing when bullets penetrate skin / What pain when a brain leaves a stain with the quickness / So I get a fool if I think that I’m on his shit-list.”
Even with all the versatility that the group displayed throughout ’93 ’til Infinity, sometimes the crew just shines the brightest when talking about how dope they are. The bouncy, jazzy “Make Your Mind Up” is another of the album’s peaks. A-Plus, Opio, and Tajai each kick one of their strongest verses on the album over a sample from Ramsey Lewis Trio’s “Collage.” A-Plus leads off, stringing together a complex web of interlocking lines, rapping, “I got a plan, I got a plan, a strategy / Adam be mad a G, mad at me 'cause I got a fatter salary / Actually, you will be cooking like bottom ramen / Never top, ’cause you'll never stop the atom bombing.”
Souls of Mischief, with the rest of Hieroglyphics, went on to essentially establish the Bay Area underground as we know it and created the template for established artists thriving independently without a major label deal. Souls subsequently recorded many more group and solo albums, but ’93 ’til Infinity remains the most universally embraced effort within their catalogue. Its continued presence in the collective memory of the Bay Area hip-hop scene was central to the city of Oakland establishing Hiero Day and having the crew organize a giant block party/concert during Labor Day weekend every year.
’93 ’til Infinity still holds a special place in my own heart. Though I am many, many years past being a teenager, and married with a mortgage, the album harkens back to a time when hip-hop music was motivational, showing me and my friends that people in our age group could take what we learned from those who influenced us and make something excellent on its own merits. Sometimes it’s good to remember what it felt like when you just knew you had the potential to conquer the world.