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Souls Of Mischief: 'It's Like Catching Lightning In A Bottle'

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Souls of Mischief, the Oakland group most widely known for the ageless "93 'til Infinity," is, in many ways, the best of us. They are compassionate and kind and loose and sharp. They are artists. They work together. The quartet has long been intertwined with A Tribe Called Quest, and so Microphone Check cohost Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Souls has just released a new album, There Is Only Now, on which Ali appears as the narrator. He and his cohost, Frannie Kelley, spoke to three of the four members of the crew and to their producer on this project, Adrian Younge.

Though they were reluctant to reveal too much of the true story at the heart of There Is Only Now, a concept album, preferring that listeners hear the music first, they did talk about opening for Tribe on the first tour, the variety of rap music that was available to them in the late '80s and early '90s when they were teenagers promoting their own shows in the Bay and departing from sample-based music. "We're trying to make records like Innervisions or Superfly or something like that and we just happen to be MCs," says Tajai. He, Phesto and Opio say they were invigorated by working with Younge in his Los Angeles studio. "When a guy is waking you up every morning with fresh music, like fresh bread or something, and it's something you've never heard out of machines that you didn't even think existed anymore, it takes you to that next level."

ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: What up?

FRANNIE KELLEY: Thanks, guys.

MUHAMMAD: We got legendary Souls of Mischief in the house. We got Adrian Younge. He's on legendary status stairsteps to being.

ADRIAN YOUNGE: I gotta do it for over 20 years like you guys.

MUHAMMAD: No, you're on the fast track.

YOUNGE: On the fast track? Cause I'm hanging out with you guys, that's why.

MUHAMMAD: What's happening? How y'all doing today?

OPIO: Doing good.

TAJAI: Doing wonderful, man. Glad to be here.

MUHAMMAD: This is the super relaxed California kind of response.

TAJAI: Yo, it's mad real.

MUHAMMAD: Or is this the early — had to get up early and get on an airplane --

KELLEY: Where are you guys coming from?

TAJAI: Oakland, Calif. Sunny Oakland, Calif.

KELLEY: Everybody still lives there?

OPIO: Yep.

TAJAI: You sounded so astonished and sad!

OPIO: Someone said that to me the other day. I was like, "I'm born and raised in Oakland and I still live here," and someone was like, "That's not normal." Like, I never meet anybody that's from Oakland, in Oakland, which is strange to me but you know, gentrification. What are you gonna do?

MUHAMMAD: That's how I feel about being in Brooklyn.

OPIO: Yeah, I can see that when I go to Brooklyn, too.

MUHAMMAD: It's changing.

OPIO: For sure of that.

MUHAMMAD: Really happy to have you guys here. I don't know how far back we want to go with this.

KELLEY: All the way.

MUHAMMAD: Let's go back to the beginning.

KELLEY: Let's talk about the '90s. Let's talk about Jive.

MUHAMMAD: Jive, dag, you went there.

TAJAI: Started them out, start from the bottom, right.

KELLEY: No, let's go further back. I mean, where'd you guys meet? Where'd you start working together? When? Origin story.

TAJAI: Well, we all grew up together — as far as Souls of Mischief — in the same neighborhood in Oakland. So we met really by going to the same schools — which is weird because none of the schools were in the area that we lived in. We all bussed to further areas, but we met at those further areas and then realized we all lived within walking distance of each other. All kind of had a mutual interest in hip-hop. That was, you know, graffiti, breakdancing, everything, but rap music is something that I think it doesn't require a lot of pens, it doesn't require turntables necessarily and everything — it's portable. Something we could hang out together and do together. That kind of became the focus of our — not focus of our friendship, but what we sort of bonded around. And it kind of grew from there to Del the Funky Homosapien, who's Ice Cube's cousin, getting signed first and then reaching back and helping get us all signed.

So Hieroglyphics is Del the Funky Homosapien, Souls of Mischief, Casual, Domino and Pep Love. So we kind of are like a musical collective. I say early '90s is when we became professionals but we've known each other since the '80s. Just been fortunate to have a long career with longevity and being able to stick together and sort of ride the ups and downs. I guess currently we're on a super up-swing. We got a new album, we got a new remix album. Things are great. I'm, "Happy!"

KELLEY: Oh, no.

TAJAI: I had to go there.

KELLEY: Dammit. What do you mean by professional? How'd you become professional?

TAJAI: Alright, I guess it just got to the point where we just started selling music.

KELLEY: OK.

TAJAI: So at that point, you know, your hobby becomes at least your means of survival. And then as we started — we got signed to a major label, which is no longer around. I can't recall their name. And then from that point, I'd say we were professionals.

KELLEY: OK.

TAJAI: But to me, a profession, you know, it's something where if this is how we're feeding our families, this how we're living and people will pay us to do it, that's when I say professionals. We were probably together 10 years before that, just as hobbyists.

PHESTO: I always say it's when you start signing contracts.

KELLEY: Yeah. When you get a lawyer.

MUHAMMAD: What did that feel like? What were you doing like leading up into — before the big deal. I don't know how that came to be cause I don't know if there was — you say that Del kind of like ushered you guys in, but just before that point, what was happening with Hiero locally that gave you the indication of where things were going, to the point that you got the contract and you knew like, "Oh, this is what it is." What was happening? What was the feeling?

OPIO: I mean, we were doing, throwing our own shows and --

MUHAMMAD: Throwing your own shows like promoting your own shows?

OPIO: Yeah. And we were performing at this club — it's called the Berkeley Square – it was kind of a semi-famous club in Berkeley where they had like a lot of punk-rock acts used to play there.

MUHAMMAD: How old were you guys at that time?

OPIO: Probably like 15, 14.

MUHAMMAD: Promoting your own shows at the age of 15?

TAJAI: Out of necessity. Out of necessity too.

OPIO: What we did was we did — we had one, I think it was like — was The Icehouse first? I can't remember. I feel like we did a show where it was like a bunch of people performing and we performed there, too, and we kind of realized, "OK, we got people here that want to see us, kind of thing, so we could kind of spin off, do it ourself with everybody in the crews — there'd be Souls of Mischief and Casual and Pep and whatever." So we were just doing these shows, and it was a really, like, young crowd, but we started to gain popularity.

MUHAMMAD: What, 12?

OPIO: Everybody was in, like, you know, between ninth and eleventh grade, really. I mean a senior in high school, I think, would probably be the upper level of the age group that was there. And it was just — it was a good energy in there. We would be performing songs that we recorded not long before we hit the stage and just kind of experimenting, just having fun, you know what I mean?

MUHAMMAD: What was popular in hip-hop at that point in time that may have been the backdrop for that moment?

TAJAI: Y'all?

OPIO: Tribe and De La and Brand Nubian. It definitely was a lot of, I would say, East Coast music. I mean, there was always N.W.A. and the West Coast sound. Too Short, all that was always a part of what we listened to, but that was also what everybody listened to in the area. So we kind of ventured out — would be like Gang Starr or something, you know what I mean, which wasn't necessarily what people was checking for in Oakland at the time, but we definitely were.

MUHAMMAD: That's what I meant by the backdrop. Too Short was probably — was he king of the Bay at that point in time?

TAJAI: Definitely, yeah, Too Short.

MUHAMMAD: So then you guys come with this Tribe, Gang Starr-inspired, 15, whatever, putting on your own show. What was that like? What was the crowd? Were they responsive? Receptive?

TAJAI: The crazy thing is, once we realized we weren't going down sort of the Too Short route — you get to a certain age in life where your friends are going down more of — we're from Oakland — the gangster path, or you can go be a doctor. The reason why people move away from Oakland is a lot of brain drain. So smart kids all go away to school and never come back. And we're like, we're not, sort of, this gangster type. We're into the eclectic, you know, jazzy, digging for records, peace and love, I got a little satchel. Just hippie-ish. That's kind of Oakland hippie vibe, but when we started doing the shows and stuff, we realized probably most kids — hip-hop was a small subculture, but of that subculture probably most of the kids were into the same stuff we were into, moreso than into the street stuff. You know, the street stuff was for guys who were in the streets. They're not going to parties anyways. So it actually was a cool thing because people come out of the woodwork and you realize that there's a huge community of — I don't want to say conscious just to label it, but of people who were sort of listening to the further reach in hip-hop or who were into jazz or into digging for records, who are not just into rap music and things like that.

And I think that's what we realized when we started doing it more outwardly rather than in the comfort — confines — of our own home, is that there was a huge crowd of kids who didn't necessarily want to wear Nike Cortez and derbys and burners and didn't have perms. They might have had dreads or they might have, you know, they might have been into dance — and not necessarily doing the popular dances but more iller style, you know, different styles and stuff. But to me at that time when we started throwing the shows, we realized there's a critical mass of people who think like us — that doesn't mean they're the same as us — but who were more on a quote unquote progressive — I'm not trying to use these absolute terms cause it's not really absolute like that.

OPIO: We were huge fans of the Geto Boys and D.O.C. and you know, I think everybody listened to that, too, so it was this really, it was a very broad spectrum that our peers, what they listened to as far as hip-hop. They weren't like, "Oh, I only listen to West Coast gangster rap." Or, "I only listen to East Coast gangster rap." Or, "I only listen to East Coast more avant-garde style music." I mean, everybody listened to a huge variety of different types of hip-hop. And I think that's what helped us kind of develop our style and make us be more original, cause we listened to so many different things and tried to — we respected it all but we wanted to be different from everything. We didn't want to sound like anybody else because those were the rules of all of the greatest rappers that we heard, you know, and people would be kind of offended and upset if you just totally ripped off their style.

And we would be, too. Like, we didn't want to hear any other artists sounding like Tribe Called Quest. We would point that out like, "They biting they style a little bit." Or, "These dudes is trying to be like De La or something," you know what I mean. Native Tongues is one of our biggest influences, and everybody in that crew was so different. So if you talk about like, for me, how The Black Sheep came out — it was even within the differences between Tribe and De La and The Jungle Brothers, then you have something like the Black Sheep, which is totally different from all of that. All those type of things were very inspirational for us to always kind of be different from everybody.

MUHAMMAD: What was interesting for me during that time is knowing that — the whole Hieroglyphics to me was synonymous to Native Tongues, and the reputation of Hiero kind of preceded — because there was this movement and this wave that was happening. That's why I wanted to know what was the backdrop in Oakland, considering. You know, we're label-mates — ha ha, Frannie – we're all signed to Jive, but so was Too Short. My introduction to, like, the whole Bay Area came from Too Short being a label-mate, you know, and listening to his stuff and going, "Wow, that's really different." We were fans of the Geto Boys, but that, the Geto Boys is — that Houston sound was totally different. And then comes Del and you guys and it just was like, "Oh, there's guys on the other side of the world that's similar to us." I mean, we bonded. We did some tours together.

KELLEY: Yeah, I'm really just here for the road stories.

TAJAI: How many years has it been? Is there a statute of limitations?

KELLEY: He says he doesn't remember anything. I don't believe a word of it.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah.

KELLEY: Yeah, later. Alright. We'll get there. That's fine. I have a question about — how did you know that Too Short was it? That he was everywhere? The radio mattered so much more back then. Did MTV — what was your evidence?

TAJAI: Too Short has been an underground rapper his entire career. It's not until very recently that he's got songs on the radio. His songs aren't — the subject matter is just not radio-friendly.

KELLEY: Right. He was never even on KMEL.

TAJAI: But I think when "Life is ...Too Short" — that video, I guess The Box was out and I think it may have gotten onto MTV — maybe. Once you are — in that era, once you had gotten to MTV or BET, you made it, like, this is as big as you can possibly get, especially for hip-hop. I mean, they weren't playing — Short gets much more radio burn now than for the first 25 years of his career.

KELLEY: OK, so how did you know, then, if it wasn't the radio?

TAJAI: We didn't know. I mean, he's the alpha rapper from where we are, like the first guy. There are other guys, you know, but he's the first one to really be recognized. But before we started traveling as a group, we're just kids from Oakland. So he's the biggest guy from Oakland. He's hopping on stage right before Run-D.M.C., or after De La — but Coliseum shows. This was before the demise of Coliseum shows. And it's not like we're looking at him like, "Yay, our local guy!" He's on the same level as these guys. His chain is — you know, we're kids — his chain is the same size, his entourage seems just as menacing. He's just as big as the other guys. So I think we've always sort of grown up believing Short is an international dude.

The concept of international, too, that's something new. Like this whole thing where it's like, "I'm a worldwide phenomenon, instantly" — that took, you know, you had to break a world's record or break the sound barrier or go to space to be a worldwide phenomenon. When we were kids, I mean, it's like, it's not a thousand years ago — it's 15, 20 years ago. Just Short being — us knowing that he was known other places besides Oakland, as kids, you're like, "This guy, he's doing it!"

KELLEY: That's it.

TAJAI: They got one picture we see in Word Up or something from a concert in Texas that looks just as much as a picture at home. We're like, "Oh, he's doing it! Look, he's got fans in Texas!" But I don't think we had a consciousness of how huge the hip-hop nation or the culture was until we actually started coming out as artists and traveling.

KELLEY: OK. So what was the first tour? Where'd you go?

TAJAI: Our first tour was in New Hampton, Massachusetts — Northampton, Massachusetts.

KELLEY: Isn't there a college there? Smith? Isn't that where Smith is?

TAJAI: I believe so.

KELLEY: OK, what happened?

PHESTO: We were on tour with A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, I mean, as, you know, 18, 19-year-olds, so I watched the show, like I was a fan in the crowd like. We rocked — we did our thing, and then I went out in the crowd and watched them. And just being a student of the game, I think we all were like, "Let's watch them."

TAJAI: Every night.

PHESTO: Every night just about. Just about every night going out and watching and studying and being students of the game and learning cause we were, you know, we were new. It was a fresh and new experience for us. Everything about the road — the ups, the downs, all these trap doors and all that kind of stuff you have to maneuver around — we learned pretty much from them. They taught us the ropes, as they say.

TAJAI: This guy might be the reason we're all still around. He's a strict, straight-edge dude and he's like, "Y'all are partying all night. You know we got work to handle tomorrow." And this — you wasn't but 22. So this is the type of maturity. We're like — we're 19 — we're like, "This guy's 22. He's old enough to drink and doesn't! Wow!"

KELLEY: Right.

TAJAI: You know, maybe I should call it a night tonight.

OPIO: I mean, we had just basically graduated high school. We graduated high school in June or whatever and then we went on tour — I feel like it was in October. So it wasn't that big of a gap, going from being in high school to being on tour with your idols, you know what I mean. And I wouldn't say we were super super impressionable, just because we had kind of a rich teenage life, and had to avoid a lot of pitfalls already. So we kind of regulated ourselves pretty well, but it was — the people that we were on tour with were very serious about their craft. And there were things going on at the time — like De La Soul played us The Roots and I had never heard them before. And Tip played us some cuts off of Nas' Illmatic record, and it was, it really — it just opened our eyes. We're on tour with people that we really respect, but they're fresh, new things also happening.

Mastering the art of performing and recording songs and just the passion for the music — cause I feel like, looking at those brothers, it was all about the show, you know. It wasn't about like, "Yo, afterwards, we gonna go and kick it and do da, da, da, da, da." And, "Yo, I got this chick coming, flying in, meeting me," and all that. That wasn't even the focus. It was all about the performance every night, and they smashed it, killed it, every night, you know what I mean. So for us to sit there and watch that — I mean, the songs are just incredible already but the energy that was on stage — De La Soul probably — I can't think of too many people that I've seen that are better than them. They're just so on point. They have fun, they switch it up every night. It's just like a big --they're just having all this fun, you know what I mean. You would watch them smash it and then Tribe would come on and kill it even harder.

For us, we were kind of like standing in the shadow of these giants, and they really were on our side. Like they wanted us to succeed, they wanted us to come out and do well at the shows. There was no — I've heard other artists talk about, you know, "This artist kind of like stepped in my way and they didn't like the way we was doing our thing so they hated on us." We didn't even have any concept of that because they were just very supportive. We were so fortunate, I can't even say.

TAJAI: It's crazy, what he said, and so true. It set the tone for our industry experience. Even when they smashed, they still sat down and critiqued the show every day, you know. So you're serious about the show on tour — hey, there's fun, whatever, there's busses, all this kind of stuff — but serious about the show on tour. But then also the part where it's like, "Let me show these younger guys." You gotta understand, everybody in the room is 24 or under probably. The oldest person on the entire tour is maybe 26 or something. So these all young guys, but they always were like, "Let me put you onto this." Or, "Hey, come down to my room, let me holler at you about something."

So that's, in turn, how we've sort of moved throughout the industry. And I think that's had a lot to do with our success — is that you're building coalitions and inroads and friendships and all these things and it's based upon a mutual love of this craft. I don't think that, if we would have had like a competitive — some of the experiences we hear about other artists — I don't think that we would have had the longevity we have now. Because they came at us with such open arms and such open hearts, we thought that's how it is — that's how it's supposed to be. And I think that us spreading that same kind of love to people who've come behind us — I mean, we've brought out guys on tour, you know, Eminem, Little Brother, all these people who are now doing well but at the time were just starting, and I think because we were embraced with open arms and we move that way, it's helped us to maintain throughout the industry.

But it's crazy. That tour, we still — lessons from that tour we use today, after, you know, 10,000 shows, being around the world 20 or 30 times, you know. And so --

KELLEY: Specifically which lessons?

TAJAI: Bring your own sound engineer. My goodness, Light used to be — not Light. What was the brother's name? Skeff?

MUHAMMAD: Skeff Anselm.

TAJAI: Skeff used to be getting it in. I mean, bring your own sound engineer. What else?

OPIO: Don't cuff the mic.

TAJAI: Don't cuff the mic!

OPIO: That was a huge problem for us, because we would just be screaming and holding the mic and we had all this energy and the crowd would be reacting to our energy, but it wasn't translating right.

MUHAMMAD: There was no clarity.

OPIO: Yeah. And so we would — they would be reminding us like, "Yo, that was dope but you guys cuff the mic too much." Like, "Don't cuff the mic."

MUHAMMAD: Every rapper cuffs the mic.

KELLEY: It's what you see in the video.

OPIO: So we would look at each other like, "Don't cuff the mic!" Like we would see each other cuffing the mic and, "Hey, don't do that."

MUHAMMAD: What is interesting in hearing this — cause hearing this for the first time, it's like, wow, that was your vision behind your eyes and your experience. And I'm like, wow, for us, it was – the 93 'til Infinity album was incredible, you know, it was a masterpiece. And it's like, "Yo, they speak our language." And, "Wow, they're label-mates as well, so they're gonna go through the same struggle. We don't want them to go through the same struggle. Let's roll."

Our approach to touring and taking it from a professional perspective came from Chuck D. Our first big tour was going on, opening for Public Enemy and we got six minutes. I'm trying to think what was popping. I think this was like Check the Rhime –

OPIO: We were on the Check the Rhime Tour, right?

TAJAI: No, we were on the Award Tour.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah, this was Check the Rhime fresh off the plate, you know. We thought in New York we were finally like, "Yeah, we on," but we got sonned so badly. It was the lesson, like six minutes. Thanks to — Chris Lighty, may he rest in power, was: "Yo, we gonna give 'em the hardest six minutes ever seen in a five-hour tour." That was Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, Kid 'n Play, Ice Cube — nah excuse me, Ice-T. Who else was on that tour? I can't remember — so many people — and it was just us and Leaders.

OPIO: Oh, wow. You got a T-shirt from that tour I could have?

KELLEY: I know, right.

MUHAMMAD: I wish. So we up against powerhouses and it was like, six minutes — this is what you have. What are you gonna do with it? And I remember before the tour Chuck sitting us down and saying, "I'm responsible for your life, so whatever you do out here, it's gonna fall on me." Like, "I'm responsible for your life so whatever — you want to have fun, get into trouble, whatever. But I'm responsible for your life." And hearing those words like, "Yeah, not only you gonna make the tour look bad, I'm responsible for your life." Just hearing that was like, oh, this is serious. Like, yeah, we can have fun, but that was the aspect that brought the professionalism aspect to it. So in bringing you guys on, we wanted to kind of like share the same sort of information.

But also, you guys, with the whole Hiero movement, it was like — clearly these guys are doing something right, in their business acumen. And then you look at it now — how many years later are we talking? Is it 21 years? Even what you guys are doing with Hiero Day is reflective of what was occurring in the origin — which proceeded A Tribe Called Quest, in my opinion — is a matter of your local community and what you guys were doing at the age of 15 that brought you all the way to There Is Only Now. It's pretty powerful.

TAJAI: We were all nodding in agreement, yeah.

MUHAMMAD: So I want to talk about how did this come together.

KELLEY: Can I pause real quick and we can come back to it? Adrian, what was your experience of them at that time?

YOUNGE: My experience with them — I mean, I think that Tajai nailed it when he said that he tapped into like-minded individuals around the world at that time.

KELLEY: Where were you and how old were you?

YOUNGE: I was actually in the Inland Empire. And I was, damn, I was probably a freshman in high school, something like – yeah, a freshman in high school, I think. And I remember when the "93 'til Infinity" video came out. I remember the next day everybody was talking about it, and, like Tajai was saying, when you hit MTV or BET, I mean, if you had a video that stood out, it was a big deal. Because the subculture was so small, but that small subculture — everybody had something to say. So seeing the cultivated visual aspects that they put on screen, it was like, "Damn."

I always talk to Ali about how I felt the first time I saw The Low End Theory tape. I felt the same way when I saw the "93 'til Infinity" video, and it was just a reminder that there are other people out there that think the same. Cause I wasn't — I loved Wu-Tang but I wasn't into selling coke, you know what I'm saying. I wasn't into street hustling — that wasn't me. I loved N.W.A., but I wasn't a G, a gangster. I was just a dancer, hip-hop dude, you know. And when they came out, I was like, "Damn, those guys are just like my crew," and in my head, I was like, "Someday I'll probably meet these dudes." I don't know. And then I met these guys and they became brothers to me.

KELLEY: How did you know you were gonna meet them?

YOUNGE: I just knew it. I just felt it because I've loved music and I was just always a fan of music. I mean, I knew every — let me rephrase. I know every word to 93 'til Infinity, that whole album. It's something I've listened to every day. I always say that a lot of artists don't realize this, but you communicate to people through your music. You are actually talking to people, whether there's actual words or not, you're communicating with people that don't know you. And when those consumers actually meet the artist, it's a moment where the consumer knows the artist a little more than they actually think that they do know them, in a way, because the consumer was allowed to listen to their thoughts, listen to their feelings. So I always felt that I knew them personally. It was just kind of an inevitable thing for me, as a producer, that I would just meet them.

Now, did I know that I'd be producing an album for them? No. But it's one of those things that — meeting these guys has changed my life because — they changed my life the first time just with their music. I've been so inspired as producer studying what they've done and their craft and their brand outside of just music. And then us coming together to make something new, it's just been really special for me personally.

KELLEY: I have kind of a strange story to get another fan perspective in here. In '93 — my dad was in the Navy, and in '93 I lived in Lafayette, Calif., so, over the hills. All I had was KMEL. And I went to Catholic school, this tiny school, and somehow I got to Brand Nubian. It's funny that you mentioned them. I don't know, were they just on KMEL all the time or something?

TAJAI: "Slow Down" was.

KELLEY: Yeah, you're right. Maybe that's what happened. I had a tape and I just knew — I don't know. It was like there was this whole other world that I didn't — I suddenly knew about. I didn't know that it was happening right across the hills, though. I had no idea.

MUHAMMAD: Absolutely.

YOUNGE: So you're asking how it started?

MUHAMMAD: Yeah, how did you guys — you met and — just explain it to me.

YOUNGE: From my perspective, I had just finished doing my Something About April album — and that was my album after Black Dynamite, after doing the Black Dynamite score. And those two albums are — the Black Dynamite score is a blaxploitation funk soul soundtrack that's supposed to take place in '74 and the Something About April album is like a late '60s psych-soul type album. But the common denominator in both these albums are that they're really hip-hop albums because they focus on the break, and the break has served as a lot of the foundation for what hip-hop is today. So I basically made two albums that focused on the foundation of hip-hop even though there wasn't any quote hip-hop song on there.

In making my first hip-hop album, I wanted to be with somebody that really inspired me. And the reason why I wanted it to be with somebody like that is because — I tell a lot of people I stopped listening to hip-hop in '97. I just basically went off and started listening to records and the reason why is because I felt that the music wasn't as cultivated and as special as it once was when there was this close-knit subculture. So my two albums that were not really hip-hop were gearing me up to get to the point where I could make that hip-hop album. So people were hitting me up like, "Yo, I'd love you to produce my album," but they didn't do much for me. A lot of modern artists don't do much for me. Doesn't mean that they're not good, doesn't mean they're not great at what they do but I have to be inspired in order to produce. So --

MUHAMMAD: You're losing friends as you keep saying stuff.

YOUNGE: Frannie knows that she's not gonna hear much stuff today that's better than a lot of that stuff back then. Anyway.

MUHAMMAD: You'll make 'em up when they hear the music, but right now you talking and they like, "Man." Just like the campaign poll, he was high then it started dipping. But then they're gonna hear the music and then be like, "We love Adrian."

YOUNGE: I could just play "Lyrics to Go" and "93 'til Infinity" and say, "OK, it's your turn. Give me two tracks."

MUHAMMAD: He's gone back up, he's gone back up.

YOUNGE: Go ahead, gimme some tracks.

TAJAI: You've gotta tell 'em how we met, though.

YOUNGE: I know! I'm going there!

TAJAI: OK, alright.

YOUNGE: So, basically, I was talking to A-Plus on Twitter, and I said to him — we're just doing instant message — I was like, "Yo, man, I'd love to do some stuff with you guys sometime." He's like, "Yeah, man." You know, "Big fans. We would love to do something with you," and I was super excited. Week went by, I didn't hear from him. Another week went by, I didn't hear from him. Like damn, OK. And then I got hit up by RZA's label to do Ghostface's album, and I was like "OK, I guess this is gonna be my first one." But I actually wanted my first one to be with you guys. I'm not sure if you knew that. I did the Ghostface album and then A-Plus hit me up again maybe seven months later and I was like, "Finally, the album that I really wanted to do." Nothing against Ghost, but this was the one I had set in my mind on doing.

I got on the phone with A-Plus and then a few days later I got to actually hear all their voices on the phone. And it tripped me out. I mean, because, like I said, I knew all your voices already by all the music and then I'm on the phone with all of you guys and I remember it was early in the morning, too. I was like, "Damn, these fools must work hard, because it's like 8:45 or something in the morning and they're actually up?" Oh my god, I was trippin'. So that was our first meeting and at that point, I just said, "Damn, I gotta really get in because if we're doing an album, I gotta try to — I have to try to do something better than what I feel is their best work."

So at that time is when I really started just studying their albums even more so and studying the time, from The Native Tongues to what they were doing, and trying to determine what was special about that time. And to me what was special about that time is that it was the first time in hip-hop that everybody was focusing on a lot of the, quote, jazz breaks. Like the late '60s to mid-'70s jazz breaks. So it was a lot of Fender Rhodes stuff, horns and all that stuff, but it was the compositional perspectives that Tribe used, that you guys used, that Brand Nubian used. All that stuff, I wanted to make that new again. And at that time, I just really studied a lot of the breaks that you guys used, a lot of the breaks that Tribe used — cause I didn't even know Ali at that time — and then we just started making an album.

MUHAMMAD: Because we've been working together, I've gotten a little glimpse into your process. Your approach to making music is completion before you start. And what I mean by that is, you see the whole body of work, the piece of art, and there's a complete story. So there's a fullness from the music aspect of it, but then even from the story and what's supposed to happen with it. This album is, again, another one of those pieces of art. When you all finally came together and — you're talking about the break being the foundation and you had certain sounds that you studied and you pieced together sonically so you had that vision — but in terms of the next step into this full concept of There is Only Now and what it is and what the people will hear when the album is released, how did you come up with that from start to finish? Cause it's like one complete --

YOUNGE: It's a cinematic experience.

MUHAMMAD: It's a cinematic experience.

YOUNGE: I'm a composer. I compose for film. I love cinema. And one of the things that these guys tapped into on 93 'til Infinity is their ability to tell stories in a very special way. I know when we first started getting together, we were like, "Yo, we got to figure out what — we got to have some kind of concept to this." And my personal reason for wanting a concept to it, because I want to score to their concept. So I wanted to use the backdrops of all these breaks of that time to score to whatever concept that they had. If it's a dark moment, OK, I would tap into one of the darker breaks. If it's a beautiful moment, bring in one of the beautiful breaks, you see what I'm saying? But they had to really illustrate this concept.

So we were sitting in the studio for a couple days and trying to figure it out. A lot of people know that these dudes, these four dudes, were serious battle rappers back in the day — not to say that they don't got it anymore. But they started telling me a story one night in the studio that had my mouth on the floor. I never heard this story before, and after hearing that story, I was like, "Yo, that's it. We gotta go." And in the first song I produced, I was tapping into like a Mission Impossible-type start of the journey kind of beat for them and that was our first song. So I'll let you guys pick up from there.

MUHAMMAD: You guys act like you've never done this before.

TAJAI: I'm trying to think how to tell a story without giving too much away, though, because I want — it's a delicate balance, you know. I don't want to give away the –

MUHAMMAD: Pardon me, you're absolutely right. And I do know this.

TAJAI: It started from — the incident he's talking about --

OPIO: Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze.

TAJAI: The story happened in — this incident happened in 1994 to a member of Hieroglyphics named Domino. We were all there and Dante Ross was there and a rapper, Saafir, was there and a bunch of other people and it was basically a life or death kind of thing. I mean, should I just tell it?

KELLEY: Yes.

MUHAMMAD: No, no, no, you don't have to. Cause I understand and --

KELLEY: See this is the journalist and the musician, and we gotta work this out.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah, this is my conflict.

TAJAI: But basically that's the starting point. It's just like with music: you get a central idea and then you build around it so that. It's not like everything in the whole story is this true, actual event, but it's based on something that actually happened.

MUHAMMAD: Well, I'll say this: 21 years after listening to the record, the cadences, the lyrics, the styles are fresh as hell. And it makes me wonder what are some of — I mean obviously you're veterans so the expectation is "Damn right." Like, "Give me my propers. I'm going to kick your butt," you know what I mean? "This is not a game, we lived this."

But I think the tendency is for people who get up there in time — when it comes to being rappers, is that you kind of fall off, you lose your edge, you lose the hunger and the desire to paint, to create, to communicate, to tell a story, to even feel. Like there's a numbness, a disconnected aspect of it.

TAJAI: You've been through this, huh? You've gone through this? Sounds like you know something about this.

MUHAMMAD: But you guys don't come off like that at all. You come off like, "Yo, I'm really 16 and we just getting started." That's what this sounds like, on top of some music that is well-composed. And I think that has never — hip-hop has never been experienced in this fashion, when it comes to the composition being a well-crafted aspect of the music. Not just like, "Yo, we made the beat and right here we want to have a chant." Everything is so intricate and detailed and then what you guys put on top of it, for me, I'm like, "Oh!"

If this is what you're doing 21 years into it, then like look out for the next 21 years, which, to me, makes the whole 93 'til Infinity aspect even more masterful. And maybe you guys realized that when you, obviously, you wrote that — that song is amazing, just in terms of science. And this album right now, There is Only Now, it still seems kind of like a ring of some infinity sort of like placement of time — and where you are and how you deal with it, how you maneuver. So I think there's a couple of things that I'm seeing from this album that just, amazed.

OPIO: I feel like with this project — for our whole career we've always kind of steered clear of trying to do 93 'til over again. And we got so far — the years had passed, and the way that we were able to revisit the album, not just the song "93 'til Infinity," and kind of delve into that energy that was there — and it's more of just the manner in which it was recorded. Because when we did 93 'til Infinity, we were capturing moments in time more than just going in there and I'm writing my lyrics and, you know, it's very just step by step kind of recording.

TAJAI: On a 2-inch tape.

OPIO: Yeah, it was recorded on a 2" tape, first of all. But there were moments captured. Like we would say, "Oh, say that verse over again with a little bit more energy," and that was the verse that came out on the album. And we had that same type of energy when we were recording this record. Not necessarily trying to recreate 93 'til Infinity, but the energy — kind of the electricity that's in the studio and the way that we were pushing each other, all of us, like making sure that certain cadences were said correctly. We're like, "OK, I see what you're doing there, but if you say this part like that ... And make sure your fluctuation goes up and comes down." I think that we were very successful in actually capturing those moments, which is so difficult. I mean, it's like catching lightning in a bottle, but we did it.

MUHAMMAD: You speaking about capturing a moment, and, being familiar with Adrian's process, for those who may not know, he has the sound and your process is analogue and it's 2". You record to 2", you're not a Pro Tools recording or Logic or Ableton type of a producer.

And one of the things I think is interesting for the four of you guys — A-Plus is not here – you probably can identify with this: having to share a microphone. And you may have had a performance where there's only two mics but there's four MC's and we gotta pass the mic. That adds, I think, an element to the stage performance, just that energy and that exchange. But then from the writing process, I get a sense that there was a pass the mic sort of a process to the recording. I don't know if that even added to that energy that you were talking about.

OPIO: Yeah, definitely. I mean, we've been trying to come together and be — because we are a group — and use that to our advantage. But at the same time, it was four MCs, and we have ideas that we want to get out and so it's hard sometimes to be trapped into a situation where you can't really just spit 24 bars every time, you know what I mean? And I think that over time of doing it and kind of pulling away from trying to, "Alright, now it's my turn and I really have to like go in right here." Instead of doing that every time, just kind of falling back and being like, "OK, how can I add in to this song? How can I create? Let the flow just keep going in the direction that it is cause there's an energy in the song that's moving in the right direction and I don't want to go against the grain." And when you free yourself up like that, I think better things happen.

Even though maybe as you're writing it, you're like, "Well, I could go a little harder. I wish I had more time to say more lyrics." But the fact that — how we are able to kind of play off of each other. A lot of that is from the experience, like you said, of doing the shows and having the one mic and you gotta pass it off and all that type of thing, cause that is the vibe on that album — it's like we are passing the mic, definitely.

PHESTO: This is a credit to Adrian. You were talking about how he almost — the song itself is done, basically. I mean, he finishes the structure of the song. All that is finished. With the writing process, it helped us out a lot because it's like you know the destination but we just have to figure out how to get there. So normally when we writing songs, Tajai might write a verse — we might all be sitting there writing verses at the same time and then we just like, "Oh, you go first. Or, "You go first." But with this record, most of the time we couldn't start writing the second verse until the first verse was done, because it was a story, so we had to know where the next part — and same with the third verse and then the fourth verse.

It was just a fresh, new way of making songs and making an entire record. And that's a huge credit to the producer for a group like us that's been doing music for as long as we have. You would think we had maybe stumbled across or done something like that. You know, we've done songs like that, but to take an entire record and base it around this incident and we know this is the end point, but how do we get there? I think that kept it fresh and new for us, and it brought back that feeling of, you know, that same energy of us passing the mic and that vibe.

MUHAMMAD: So were you guys writing — I mean, do you guys write together all the time? Separately? It just seemed like you guys — the whole entire thing it was like, "We're all on one page, together."

TAJAI: We were. Normally it depends on — really, it's situational. So sometimes it'll be a beat and everybody'll be at the studio and we'll write a song then. Sometimes the guy'll send a verse and a hook and a beat and then we'll, you know, do it in a row. But with this, it was literally we wake up from our 20-minute cat nap from the night before and he'd have something — he didn't sleep. Adrian didn't sleep, so he would compose a next song pretty much throughout the night while we were knocked out on the floor of the studio, and we'd wake up to something fresh.

A lot of times he had ideas like, "Doesn't this sound like?" Or, "Maybe we can do this, that and the third over this beat." Because he makes these soundscapes; it's not just a beat. But as far as writing, not a single song was done — maybe one verse or two verses remote, as far as writing — but everything else was done literally, "Let me hear the last two lines of your verse. Let me hear how the plot thickens from your verse." Nobody could go until the previous person went. It was a narrative, so you couldn't --

PHESTO: You couldn't just take a pre-written verse and fit it into the construct. I mean, even Snoop and Busta Rhymes, they listened to the song and they were like, "OK, alright, I see where this is going," and then they wrote a verse specifically for that song. It wasn't like email in a verse.

MUHAMMAD: It's kind of like how if you have a whole bunch of jazz artists together and it's a bunch of horn players and, you know, one person's improv-ing or doing their thing. It's like that one person has a line — they leave that line. The other person picks up that line, that melody, and plays it, but then begins to construct their own melody behind it.

You guys all have your own individual style but it's so like seamless and well put-together. Your individuals are well-represented, but the storyline is very tight and — maybe cause you guys are battle rappers? I don't know, you got 21 years. I don't know what it is, but there's such a freshness of it. Knowing — without letting — is it the cat out the bag or whatever that saying is — the story behind this album is — it's a risk. Not risky, but it's just — it's brave.

And I'm wondering how were you able to keep this contained, secret for this long. In being you guys — we all have secrets together that Frannie's trying to get out of us, so I know that. But it's a fascinating story, basically, is what I'm saying. Part of me wants to know how much of this is real or how much is this embellished? Did you — is there some fiction in there to, you know, to help to tell the story and make it not so detailed to what actually happened? Or this is really what happened from beginning to end?

TAJAI: Let's just say it's based on a true story. There are songs on there where every single word, except for maybe two or three, is stone-cold truth, like fact. And then, you know, it's a record that we want people to get into. So I don't necessarily say we went Hollywood with it, but we definitely embellished in order to add elements of just surprising stuff and a little bit more action.

YOUNGE: Well, Tajai, we did kind of get Hollywood on it because Ali Shaheed is the narrator.

TAJAI: Yeah, yeah!

YOUNGE: So we had to go pull out the big guns.

TAJAI: We had to pull out the big guns. We pulled out all the stops, you know, we wanted to make sure that it was a blockbuster. But the original incident out of which this thing is based? One hundred percent true. Like, I'm seeing it right as we're speaking — I'm running down the street from bullets.

KELLEY: OK, so without telling the story, why that story? And did everybody agree that that was gonna be the root of the album?

TAJAI: Wasn't it fluke-y? Like it seemed like we'd start talking on it, you're like, "That's it!"

YOUNGE: Well, yeah, you guys were talking about it, but the thing is, like Ali was saying, I approach everything from a completion perspective. This is just a 2" perspective to me. When you're recording to tape, you don't even start recording until you're convinced that this is exactly what you're gonna do. You don't say, "Well, let's try this out, try this out." And when we were getting together, I mean, I didn't even start writing music yet or anything. I needed to know where we were gonna go. So we were just talking about different things. Remember at first we talked about — we had, actually, a whole fictional kind of comic book story, if you can recall, just about battling and Del was gonna get captured and all this — remember all that?

OPIO: From like the power of the Hiero sign.

YOUNGE: Exactly, the Hiero signs of power. And then, you know, I was like, "That's cool," and we all were like," That's cool, we could go with it," but nothing hit me until you guys started on a fluke talking about that story — that sounds like that's done, we gotta go.

And what really hit me about that is that it painted the picture of watching The Warriors. And you guys are four guys. And also when I showed this — I was with Chino XL about a month ago showing him some stuff from this album and he said to me, "It's not fair that there's four MCs that got together as a group that are this dope. It's just not fair. I wish if I had four MCs I could have got with that were on my level that could do a group." He said that about you guys. Seeing you guys as a group, a cohesive group, kind of like battling the streets and this battle that you guys talked about, I mean, that just — I was like, "That's done. We gotta go there."

Also to go back to what you were talking about as far as them passing the baton onto each other, this album, like I said, is inspired by the time. And the time is '93, '94.

KELLEY: Oh, I thought you meant The Time the band and I got so happy!

TAJAI: Them, too, you know, you know!

YOUNGE: It was inspired by the time, and the time was taking these four-bar, eight-bar loops of some of the best soul, jazz, funk music ever made. But what hasn't been done up to now, is going back to that sonic palette and making new composition with chord changes for now. So it was looking back to move forward in a way that is nostalgic and new.

And you guys served as the horn section. But you guys were making words with the horns. So Tajai's a trumpet. He has different styles — you playing different styles on different tracks. But then when the sax comes in, which is Phesto, you know, he's continuing the story, but he's playing from your last notes. Because what would happen is that we'd say, "OK, we're working on song number three today. Tajai, you're gonna start." Tajai would start, he would do — let's say he'd do eight bars. Phesto would be like, "What were those last words that you said?" And there were times — remember we would double the last word so that we could go into the next section.

But the thing is like, yeah, I'm the producer, but we all produced this together. We all held hands and did this together. We all moved in the same way and then at the end of this, Ali is playing the radio announcer a la the movie The Warriors. He's wrapping this story together and he's having this all make sense. And also the reason why we wanted you, besides just obviously being fans of you, is that you guys are the foundation for why this is here, why this album came about. If there was no Tribe Called Quest, this album would be totally different. So we have a key member of a key movement wrapping this album up for us, helping us tell the story. And at the end of the day, listening to this album, I still feel every single time I'm listening to it that I'm watching a movie. I'm still hearing things that I didn't realize happened.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah, I would love to have you guys come back after the release of the record and everyone, you know, the people can hear the record and receive it and understand the story, and then maybe go into a bit more detail, if you're willing to talk about it without exposing too much.

Unfortunately we lost Tupac and we lost Biggie. We lost Scott La Rock. We lost Jam Master Jay. For unknown reasons there's an element that exists. I'm not gonna put it on hip-hop — it's just in the communities and environments that we are born in and raised in. And there are challenges and struggles that you would think successful businessmen, cause that's what we are, don't have to face, but the reality is this: we face it, our kids face it. I want to be able to talk about it with a little bit more detail into the story and how — what was the end result of that incident.

Because of time, I want move this along just a little bit in asking — not that any of the current state of hip-hop may be relevant to the recording process. Clearly it wasn't. You listen to this album, you guys are definitely in your own universe, period, point, and blank, nothing else exists. Not even ProTools in the 2" state of the world of Adrian's lab there. It is way different than anything that's out there. Do you ever give thought to the fact that you're consistently going against the grain and, really, so much so with this album? What's the current state of hip-hop mean to you?

TAJAI: I feel like the pendulum is swinging back towards sort of lyrical content, just because I think for a while it got so dumbed down that literally the kids couldn't follow any dense lyrical stuff. But I think with the help of Eminem, who's very clear, but still dense, and with the help of just the way people are — hip-hop is a regular genre, not some exotic stuff now. I think people are gonna follow this record and maybe, hopefully, we'll be pushing this pendulum, adding a little bit of weight to it so that it swings even more in the lyrical direction.

I don't think there are other rappers that are incapable of doing what we did, it's just not been the — you know, it's about singles now. It's about a hot single now. It's not even about a full album. So nobody's even focusing on a full-length project that will — where the songs don't live separate from each other. So I think maybe in that way we're being mavericks, that we're not doing the single-based music, we're doing a whole record. I mean, I don't want anybody to digest this record in separate parts. Literally, sit down and listen to it, because that's how we listen to records. I remember sitting and zoning out and not waking up until I had to flip the record over. To y'all, your first album, vinyl, you go home and you'd sit and you listen to the whole record at least once before you spoke to your friends about it or anything.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah, this is definitely of that ilk. You have to listen to it from beginning to end. You can't — you cannot dissect one part of it. If you do, then you just – you're in the wrong neighborhood.

TAJAI: I mean, they stand alone. I say the songs stand alone, but when you look at it in terms of whole, I think that that is sort of the maverick-type thing that we're doing. But the rest of it is just — we grew up in an era where if you sounded like this dude and y'all were at the same show, there might be violence – like, just sounded like him! Like, "Yo, you're biting him. That's wack." We don't even want to sound like our old records, you know, that's who we're trying to beat. The other guys in our crew, etc., they're who keep us motivated.

But then when you add the element — Adrian when he brings in this soundscape that has never existed before in the history of time. It's different than when we sample records and do that stuff — it's a brand new soundscape — so it's an exciting, different parts of your brain. When you hear things you've never — or experience things you've never experienced before, it elicits a sort of response, and I think the exuberance from that response is why we got such a good sort of lyrical thing going on over the music. You get excited over finding a new sample, but when a guy is waking you up every morning with fresh music, like fresh bread or something, and it's something you've never heard out of machines that you didn't even think existed anymore, it takes you to that next level that's separate from whatever's going on in music in general.

Like the music that's on our record, jazz guys are gonna listen to it and be like, "I need to get me one of those." Or funk guys are gonna be like, "Oooh, that was funky!" Like it's not just the hip-hop record in that case, and so maybe that's kind of what gives us our against the grain thing — is that we're not going out to set a precedent for best rap record. We're trying to make records like Innervisions or Superfly or something like that and we just happen to be MCs.

So maybe that's really the departure more so than us saying, "Hey, look at current hip-hop. We want to be different." Cause there's a lot of really good stuff right now, and very recently but the pendulum is swinging back in the other direction. I think the kids are just, they beat their heads against the wall enough times to where they're like, "This isn't working. Let's go somewhere else." And it's happening with like Pro Era or with TDE or with Black Opera, things like that.

KELLEY: Do you guys have some freedom because maybe you don't have to — not to go back to Jive, but what do you owe anybody? I mean, you want the record to sell, right, you want it to make some money, but how does this album function in the market?

YOUNGE: I just want to comment: Tajai doesn't care anymore because he's now an architect. Congratulations!

TAJAI: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

YOUNGE: But now you guys can jump in. Go ahead.

OPIO: I think for us, the main objective never — especially working with Adrian — was never to sell records. That was not what we came together to do. I think what our goal was, was to really create a beautiful piece of art. I feel like we're kind of mature enough and seasoned enough and have enough love and respect for the art and the culture that we've, you know, describing it like that before even recording it. We're like, "We just want to make a beautiful piece of art."

Which is far different from what we said when we wanted to do 93 'til Infinity — which was a beautiful piece of art. But it was like, "Yo, we gotta come in, we gotta let people know what's up with us and get our respect." It was a whole different thing. It wasn't really — it wasn't that, where you really have a knowledge base that you're kind of reaching from.

It just made it a very pleasurable experience to make these songs and hear what we created every day. Being the artist and thinking creatively — art and commerce really don't mix, you know. I mean, once they start to cross paths, things get a little murky. So when we were recording this album — and we did take some risks with the content and what we're talking about and all that, but I think at the end of the day, especially for people that love hip-hop, they will see it as, you know, as a fan of art will look at a Van Gogh or a Picasso or something. I'm not trying to toot my horn like that, but it's just like if you're a fan of art and you see a beautiful piece of art, it strikes you. It could be a very, you know, sad, disturbing picture or it could be something beautiful, but at the same time, you see it and as a connoisseur of art, it resonates with you. And I think that that's what we were trying to do with this record.

We wanted to make a beautiful piece of art and we wanted people that love art to see it and have a connection with it, almost to the point to where we didn't really make this album to where you could leave it up to interpretation. So it's something that — people are like, "Oh, that song means this to me," and this, that, and the third. We wanted to make it very direct. And that's a risk, you know, when you're trying to make beautiful art. Sometimes it's better to leave it open because people can have their own interpretations and get more in-tune with it. You really have to get on our page to get with this record.

But it is so sonically — it just sounds so good. I mean, it just — it's buttery, it's recorded on two-track. It's not done in this little small, computery box that is kind of a philosophical area, you know, where you don't know where it's coming from, it's in this space somewhere that you've put — where does it exist, really, you know what I mean? This is actually on physically tangible — on a tape.

Just the vibe that was there, trying to do a project like that and think about selling records, you're gonna stumble out of the gate. So the whole point of it is to just be as creative as you possibly can; don't put any limits on yourself. It's very liberating, you know, to work like that.

PHESTO: Personally, I just want to — cause we're talking, you asked about the market, so obviously money comes into play — I would just hope that it does well enough from that standpoint that everyone involved with the creation of this record can tour together and show it to the world in a live setting. Cause I think we'd be doing it a great injustice to not, you know, to not do that. So that's what I see as the top of the mountain for this album when I think about what I ultimately wanted to do. I want to be on stage performing this record with everybody that was involved creating it and giving it to the world, cause that's ultimately what — the endpoint for all music, for me, is doing it live.

TAJAI: I want people, after they've heard it, like a year and a half or something, I think we should make a movie.

MUHAMMAD: Definitely.

TAJAI: No dialogue, even. Just play the record and sort of let it play out. But I want people to imagine it first.

Yeah, you know, we're indie, so of course, being indie, you hope that your fans support. But the indie game a lot of times is about the live performance of it. I mean, this is music. This is not necessarily an artifact — but pick up the artifact cause it's gone be a classic.

YOUNGE: Just to add onto that, I mean, for me personally --

TAJAI: Is this CEO of Linear Labs or is this the artist, Adrian Younge?

YOUNGE: Yeah, this is the artist Adrian Younge. For me — speaking of Linear Labs, I'm launching my label with this album and the label is — I look at it as the new modern movement in music, more of an artistan perspective on music. It's a lifestyle-oriented, handcrafted perspective on what we feel music's supposed to be.

What I wanted to do with the creation of this album is illustrate some of the points I've been trying to say to people for a long time. And one of the main points is that when hip-hop music became popular music, a lot of it got watered down and a lot of the subculture dissipated. I wanted to show that you could bring back some of these artists — not to say that they ever went anywhere — but to bring back in the forefront, to show that these dudes were dope and are actually better now. I mean, you guys don't know that. One of the things for me was to say like — I want people to hear this and be like, "Goddamn, dude, I can't believe these guys can still do it." And like I said, when I was with Chino, with Ali, hearing the response from them from what you guys have done on this album, you know, people say that this is the best work you guys have ever done — the best work. And I personally believe it is as well.

My thing is, what do I personally want to get out of it, whether it's money or props or whatever? Of course, money would be great. Props come and go — props really don't mean much. But for them to get the respect, the continuing respect as artists — as old jazz artists used to get throughout their lives — that's what I want to happen with you guys. And also my band, Venice Dawn obviously, you know, how we make this happen. But my thing personally is really you guys, you know, cause I love you guys to death and you guys have given me the privilege of working with one of my heroes. You guys have been my heroes before I met you guys and now I even have even more respect for you guys. And also to bring in another legend like Ali, this is a special moment in time. It's very, very special.

Whether people like the album or not, they must be able to appreciate the fact that we all came together to try to make a change in music, based on the fact that we think music is very important. We're going back to what we felt was germane to the old subculture, and that's being ourselves and being different and not just trying to make rap music but just making soul music, making something that is great and soulful, captivating, and that can hopefully influence other people to do the same.

MUHAMMAD: You did it, so it's just a matter of time before the record is released and people of the world will be able to experience that.

I know the time for us is short — there's so much I want to cover and won't be able to, but I want to ask you guys about Hiero Day. That's pretty big that you guys have a — is this correct? On the calendar of California or at least in the San Francisco, Oakland Bay area, what has been dedicated to you guys from the government?

TAJAI: Well, we have these smallpox bombs — no! We have a day. Well, 9/3 — it was a fan that was like, "You know what, September 3rd should be Hiero Day and everybody should wear their Hiero gear and hang out with Hiero guys and do Hiero things." Because '93 is a big year for us. So I think Casual rolled with it, was like, "You know, we should do a Hiero Day on September 3rd." So in 2012, September 3rd actually happened to be Labor Day — is it Labor Day? And so we had a street festival and it was crazy.

OPIO: Thousands.

TAJAI: Yeah, I mean, crazy. The cops were out there hanging out, firemen, police — we didn't even pay for this police protection, all this kind of stuff the first year.

KELLEY: They just came through.

TAJAI: Oh, they came and hung out. I mean, after it was over, they were hanging, chilling. And that was the first annual Hiero Day. Got a lot of local artists, people we grew up with, you know, Planet Asia, Zion I, things like that, the Grouch, and got them to come out and rock and then we sort of headlined it.

Then last year we teamed up with a company called Linden Brewing Company, which is a craft beer company in Oakland. They've got a brewery near the cranes that make Oakland famous, the big – they look like AT-ATs from — actually are the prototypes for the AT-ATs for Star Wars. So we did something there and it was triple the size. I mean, almost 20,000 people came. Venice Dawn rocked, Craig G from the Juice Crew rocked.

So really this is our way of giving back to our community through a free — it's a free event and we sort of pledged to keep it free — it's a family event so there's corrals and areas for the kids. And it's something where it's just a music fest, a free music festival in Oakland on Labor Day until 9/3 probably hits the weekend, you know, as it moves around, it'll be on Labor Day. So this year it's September 1st on Labor Day. The mayor actually, last year, dedicated September 3rd — she made, Mayor Jean Quan made September 3rd Hiero Day in Oakland. It's surreal to even talk about having a day in your own city.

KELLEY: That's professional.

YOUNGE: Based on a song you guys made at the last minute.

TAJAI: Yeah, based on a song. And I mean, at the end of the day, the crowd cleans up the garbage, for instance.

KELLEY: What?

TAJAI: No violence, no, you know what I'm saying, no drug-induced comas or anything like that. Everybody's out there chilling, including the police department, the fire department and all of that. That is a great feeling that we're able to give back to Oakland something that hopefully will exist after we're long gone. Maybe they'll spin a couple of our records, maybe they'll throw the symbol up, but hopefully we have this festival-type holiday that's centered around really indie music that is a family affair. So it's sort of three different things: this festival recognizing Hieroglyphics and families and the indie spirit that we have. All the booths are, you know, local craftspeople and artisans, local food places. I can gush for hours on this thing.

To me, it's a awesome experience because we're curating it, you know, so we're exposing kids who were just in the neighborhood, people who are there with their kids, we're exposing people to this subculture that raised, I think, a lot of us, as far as — I'm not gonna say it's indie now, or underground, you can give it all these labels, but really just sort of like progressive music, progressive hip-hop music. And it's not just hip-hop. We've got – didn't we have Free the Robots? And all kind of electronica stuff there too.

But just exposing people to this sort of progressive crowd, musically eclectic sort of progressive crowd, and then making it about peace and about our city, which is always getting black eyes for some reason and making it about family. People who have never heard of Hiero, musically, constantly hitting us up about — to them it's an event, it's not a musical group throwing something. It's like, "What's going on with Hiero Day?" They're more concerned that it's gonna happen and there's gonna be places for the kids and face-painting than even about all the bands that are gonna be there. This year's gonna be crazy. We're doubling the footprint. It's gonna be crazy.

KELLEY: Maybe we should go.

OPIO: You definitely should go.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah, we need to figure this out because Labor Day weekend, there's a lot of pull.

But I just think in terms of the obstacles that people go through in the name of hip-hop, especially, you know, some of the corporate sort of obstacles you may come up against, the community oppression obstacles that you may come up against, the obstacles of being told like, "Yo, you want to be a rapper, it's all about Bugattis and strippers and all of these things," you guys have what no other hip-hop person has ever been able to do. Is to get that sort of accreditation from, and backing from, your city saying that you're doing something really beautiful and we support that. People need to hear that. That's the image that I want to see. I don't have any children, but if I did — I have a niece and nephew, I want introduce them to what hip-hop is supposed to look like.

TAJAI: That's why you stay looking so young. Ha ha! Just realized! I'm like, oh, you just chilling. You can do whatever you want to right now, alright, go hang out, get a Bugatti, you know what I'm saying, do whatever you want to do.

KELLEY: Called you out!

MUHAMMAD: Called me out. It's the freedom, the freedom to paint. No one saying, "Hey, but dad!" Thank you so much for coming up here.

KELLEY: Yeah, thank you guys.

MUHAMMAD: I don't know where A-Plus is but we understand, he's in the building, he's missed. Adrian, thank you so much.

YOUNGE: Thank you, man.

MUHAMMAD: For bringing this whole idea, this concept together, is pretty special, I think. And like I said, you guys sound really fresh. I'm looking forward to hearing a whole lot more. Like the cadence is, I mean, I'm all about the cadence and spitting fire, so thank you so much.

OPIO: I want to hear a remix album.

MUHAMMAD: See you come back and talk about that remix.

YOUNGE: Yes, we will talk about that.

KELLEY: Thank you guys.

TAJAI: Thank you.

OPIO: Word, thank you. Peace.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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