Posts Tagged 'Opio'

Part 2: Opio and Tajai Interview (Souls of Mischief)

Opio and Tajai of Souls of Mischief/Hieroglyphics

Opio and Tajai (right) of Souls of Mischief/Hieroglyphics

For Part 1 of this interview, click here. In Part 2 of my interview with Opio and Tajai, we discussed Bay Area Hip-hop, fan remixes, greatest albums of all time and the life lessons taught by their genre.

ACtual: I think that the Bay Area has some of the best Hip-Hop. There’s always people coming out from the Bay, the Hiero crew, E-40, Nickatina, Zion-I, lot of good groups. What do you think it is about this area that you think produces such good Hip-Hop?

Tajai: We’ve got diverse backgrounds, the port, especially Oakland and San Francisco, we’re the coast. If you look at the array of blue vs. red states, you’ll see that the coasts, where they have more than one type of person, or more than two types of people are places that embrace new and fresh ideas. Beyond that, there’s nothing to do out here. This is the worst place to try to start your career once you’ve made your move, so people are just bored so they make stuff. I could see in LA or New York, you can dress like a rapper, and look like one and hit the clubs and get that whole like, “I’m in the scene” thing. There’s no scene here, so you have to really be who you say you with regards to music. You have to do things yourself to achieve it rather than just looking the part. In other places you could look the part and try to get over like, “you know me…” and try to get in the clubs free, there aren’t any clubs out here. Because the scene is so wack, people are more creative and because we have a diverse background. This isn’t just the place where hella dope Hip-Hop is from. This is the place where the Panthers are from, where the hippies are from, where you look at San Francisco and gay rights, we’re on some other shit out here, we’re on some next level shit.

Opio: We’re trying to have equality out here. So in other places, in order to distinguish yourself and make yourself be something special to make people respect you like, “You’re doing something good, cool!” We ain’t really about that out here. It’s more about everyone is on the same level, so when in the Bay Area people lift you up and say, “Your shit is dope” that’s saying something because they have to see you and hear you and see it for themselves and know it’s true. Cause if not, you’re not going to get it. You might get it if you’re coming from somewhere else because it takes a lot to get on the scene and get heard. But if you come up from the grass roots out here, people are always like, “You’re never gonna do it.” Not that people are negative in general, but we ain’t really starstruck out here. You don’t see a lot of Bentleys and Lamborghinis and all that, and I don’t think it’s cause people can’t have it.

T: There’s a lot of money here. Per capita we’re probably one of the more wealthy cities in America.

O: That’s just not our stilo out here. You’re gonna stand out and make people get mad at you like, “What are you doing all that for? What do you need a Bentley and Lamborghini and all that for?” There’s something wrong with that out here, almost inherently so. People like to see you shine but they want you to be humble, you have to be a real person out here in order to maintain. So I feel blessed that we’re able to get respected out here, in this city in particular, especially being from here in all the years that we’ve been here, it’s a good feeling when we go to the Art and Soul festival or something like that. It’s a community gathering and there’s people from everywhere, but we still get love just like people paid to come see us at a show.

AC: A lot of groups are letting fans remix their work, putting stems up on the internet, doing remix work. Can you see getting into that and letting your fans work with your music like that?

T: We’ve got a whole album of fan remixes out. It’s called Over Time. So we’ve been doing that. So we might do it on this next record where we might put our ProTools files up and let people who are really serious about pushing the envelope and taking our music to the next level, do it. Because why not? We put our take on it, let them put their take on it. It’s not going to make less of what we have done. Once you’ve created something, like a record, it stands the test of time. All of our singles, we put up a capella so people can remix it, that’s the whole point. We sell a capella, we put it up on the internet so people can remix it.

O: We let people remix a single from my album Stop the Press, put that out there. We like that sort of stuff. The whole inspiration for us being independent was the show aspect, the whole interactive style, even if it’s over the internet or whatever. We want to maintain that where people can interact with our music and do whatever they want to do with it, manipulate it, that’s cool to me. Because I think eventually something really dope could come out of that. I’ve heard some shit that’s pretty tight, but I mean like if someone is out there just looking for an opportunity to do something with it and they just need the right sound or whatever and we could be a part of that, that would be dope.

AC: What are the current projects you guys are working on?

T: We’ve got Vulture’s Wisdom Vol. 2, probably going to start off the next year. We’ve got a new album by Souls of Mischief, we haven’t figured out the title but it’s done, produced by Prince Paul. New Casual album, Pep Love’s album called The Reconstruction, Del’s coming out with the LED EP, I’ve got an EP called THC 7. Opio came up with this idea, we’re gonna smash fools. Every week in 2009 we’re going to come out with a new song. Not a new freestyle, not a new rap over somebody else’s beat, a new song every week. So we’ll have 52 new Hiero songs plus about 5 or 6 new albums in 2009.

AC: Are you going to put all of those on iTunes?

T: Yea, they’ll all be out digital.

AC: A song every week?

T: We’ve got so much music, why not put it out? There’s no point in hoarding it because what good is music doing in the vault? Music is made to play, it’s not like money.

O: One thing is that it’s for our fans. For the people that supported us, they’re always looking for us, like, “What’s up with you guys? You guys ain’t coming out with this that and the other,” and they always want to hear something new. We have music done, but we’ll think we have to save it or whatever. But at this point in time, the way things are, people just want to hear it, they can’t stand it anymore, we just feel like now’s the time to let people get an inside look at whatever we’re doing, right then and there. We’ve never been the type of cats to just record a song and slap it on the internet or put it out. Everything we ever did came out 2-3 years after it was done, literally, I’m not even joking. Anything you ever heard was a long time ago by the time it came out. So as artists it’s something we’ve always struggled with because we’re always like, “We got some shit that’s hot, we want it out right now,” and we just never really had that vehicle. I kinda feel like now’s the time. The internet is such a community where people come together. I go there myself to listen to new music, do my YouTube thing, peep out all the underground shit that you can’t hear on the radio or you don’t see on television or whatever. There’s a large community of people out there where if we could let people that love Hieroglyphics know that you come to this one place and listen to all of our music, it’s hear for you, I think it would do a lot to re-energize our fans that have been supporting us. We got it for them.

T: We’ve got fans that are so loyal that they’ve stuck with us for the past 15, really 17, 18 years. Del’s first record came out in ’91, so some people have literally been waiting a lifetime for a lot of this shit and it never comes out. Most records when they come out, they’re finished two years or a year before they hit the mainstream, and we’re independent, we can’t do that.

O: We want to give people that, like we said, try and keep it interactive. We want people to have the experience and share it with us, like, “This is a hot song, listen!” I love that, I’m excited as an artist. I mean, we’re all owners of the label and we always have to make smart business decisions in terms of how we release our music because that’s our thing, we gotta make sure it’s right, everything’s gotta be cool. That’s still the Hieroglyphics thing, we always want quality product, that’s why we ain’t just throwing a bunch of shit out there. This is real music that we’re giving to people. For me, I want to thank the people out there that have basically been sticking with us for all these years. I can really say, with all honesty that they’ve been waiting on certain things that they just haven’t been able to get. The music is there, they just aren’t able to be exposed to it, so we’re kinda changing our philosophy about that a little. We want to expose people to our music and give them an opportunity to come in. There’s so much of it that it’s almost a crime to not let people just hear it.

AC: What are you guys looking at in terms of target release dates for the Hiero album and the Souls album?

T: Souls, at the earliest April, the Hiero by the end of the year. Because downloading has basically destroyed the concept of the album, everything on your album can be a single now, there’s no album cut. So let’s drop a song every week so people can buy that single and pick up a Hiero song if they want a Hiero song, an Opio or Tajai song, Souls song whatever. The records will then come out for people who liked what they heard in the single format.

O: We always have albums available for people at our shows, and those albums obviously have bonus materials that you’re only able to get when you buy that specific thing. Just the way that it is right now, I don’t know if people really sit down and listen to an album in the same manner, actually I know they don’t. I’m just different in my philosophy of how I listen to records, and I look for certain things, but that’s not how it’s going forward at this particular moment. People ain’t necessarily throwing on a CD, sitting down and listening to the whole thing. They’re skipping through a bunch of songs, whatever whatever, oh that was kinda cool, and that’s about it. So this way you can sit back and enjoy these songs for a week or whatever, then get a new one.

AC: Favorite conversation in Hip-Hop: Greatest album of all time. Where do you two stand? A couple that stand out?

O: It Takes a Nation of Millions comes to mind, right off the top. AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Ice Cube.

T: And even that is great because of It Takes a Nation

O: Low End Theory is almost perfection, The Chronic, 3 Feet High and Rising. 3 Feet High and Rising is different because there’s so much material on there, it’s like a carnival, I love that album, that album is crazy. Then there’s other albums for us, Funky Technician, Stunts, Blunts and Hip-Hop.

T: The Main Source first record.

O: CMW, Music to Driveby.

T: I’d say Nation of Millions.

O: There’s so many albums but the gold standard of all of that I would have to say is It Takes a Nation of Millions, cause that album –

T: Had everything.

O: Has all the elements, it was saying something as well. It was educating me on a lot of stuff as a young kid.

T: A lot of these records, that’s the one thing they’re probably missing is that educational content that damn near every album we mentioned did have, Main Source, The Funky Technician. I think a lot of rappers are OK just being rap.

O: It was about their mind power. All of those albums that we mentioned, it was all about what they brought to the table. They were mental giants. Now, that doesn’t even matter, you can be a straight mental molecule and as long as you have enough money and material –

T: Swagger.

O: It’s not even about swagger, because I give credit to swagger. Swagger everybody doesn’t have and everybody can’t get. Money is nothing, anyone can get that, it’s material things, you didn’t do anything by your own, there’s nothing that you created there. People will give a lot of credit, I’ve heard people say, “He’s wack, he sucks, but he’s got a lot of money and I respect that about that dude that he got his paper.” Who doesn’t want it? We all watch the TV shows, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and we all want that, but to me, that’s not where Hip-Hop needs to be, Hip-Hop needs to be back to Takes a Nation of Millions level.

T: And it wasn’t like they were just un-positive. They were talking about all the shit that was hot in the streets, they had banging beats, they had scratches on their songs, it was connected in a way that you had to listen to from beginning to end, there aren’t any records like that any more. Fools don’t even take the time to craft albums anymore, they’re trying to craft songs.

AC: What has Hip-Hop taught you about life and what has life taught you to make you better at Hip-Hop?

O: The life experience of growing up here in the Bay Area, the diversity of thought that exists here, all the things we were exposed to, there’s so many levels that you have to understand and juggle at once. You have to be real perceptive out here to be good in your descriptions with words, but then you have to humble so when we went out, even though we had a lot of confidence in our skill and were ready to battle cats, we always paid respect and homage to all the cats who came before us. How Hip-Hop helped my life, artists like KRS-One, songs like “Why Is That?” that really helped me get a grasp on world history and these are large concepts that were coming from rap artists. Ways to live, knowledge of self, know your history, these kinds of things. There was a lot of misinformation that was going on and Hip-Hop was helping bring that to light. There is a lost past that doesn’t get talked about and this is something we need to be educated about, and that definitely influenced me in my life, through Hip-Hop, that was a vessel that helped me learn and get on the path to taking on those types of concepts. Also questioning the mainstream, like whatever I see on Fox News I’m not just going to take at face value and part of the reason I’m not going to do that and not be bamboozled or manipulated is because of Hip-Hop.

T: For me, Hip-Hop taught me about life that you have to complete what you started. Making songs, if you don’t think about it from beginning to end, it’s not going to be complete, so that’s probably the biggest lesson. That goes for business or whatever endeavor, you have to do it from beginning to end and if you don’t see it through to the end somebody else will. As far as what life taught me about Hip-Hop, it’s probably that it ain’t everything. I love Hip-Hop, it’s my favorite thing in the world, but it ain’t more important than my kid or taking a shit or something. You see what I’m saying? There are mundane things and other more important things that are more important than Hip-Hop, so you have to take it with a grain of salt. I love this, and I’ve given my life to this, but it’s not the only thing to live for.

Part 1: Opio and Tajai Interview (Souls of Mischief)

Opio of Souls of Mischief

Opio of Souls of Mischief

Tajai of Souls of Mischief

Tajai of Souls of Mischief

Since the early 1990s, Oakland, California based Hip-Hop collective Hieroglyphics has taken on many shapes and sounds, from the lyrically complex and dense solo stylings of Del tha Funkee Homosapien to the rapid-fire and diverse delivery of Hieroglyphics to the smooth and masterful underground sound of Souls of Mischief. Spanning nearly two decades, Hiero and Souls of Mischief have brought new sounds and ideas to the industry while also providing a backbone of creativity that has helped influence the entire Bay Area music scene.

In November I had the opportunity to sit down with Tajai and Opio of Hiero and SOM, two members responsible for an incredible amount of solo and collaborative work for the HieroImperium. In part 1, we discussed their musical backgrounds, the formation of Hiero and the difficulty of staying relevant in a music industry that places an emphasis on the “next big thing.”

ACtual: Starting off early, what were both of your initial musical influences and inspirations, and when did you decide that rapping is what you wanted to do?

Opio: I used to be hella into Reggae, really. Yellowman is one of my favorites, obviously Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, they had the swagger that got me on rap. My parents were really into music, so through them I heard Earth, Wind and Fire, Parliament-Funkadelic, stuff like that. When I first really started to hear rap, I heard “Rapper’s Delight,” stuff like that, Grandmaster Flash. They used to play Rock and Roll stations out here, mixing, like college radio. Really the first time I heard “Rapper’s Delight,” I was just hooked to the way he was spittin’, it was cool, and it just evolved from there. All the older cats in my neighborhood were listening to them, breakdancing, graffiti and all of that was a part of it too. At the same time cats were breaking, graffiti artists, so it was that whole Hip-Hop culture, it wasn’t only just the rapping, I was breakdancing, all of that.

Tajai: Funk, I would say Funk was my biggest influence. Parliament, Bootsy, George Clinton, and then Too Short is probably the main reason I rap just because all the other rappers, I saw other people doing it, but I didn’t think that people from here could do it. As a kid, it was just my perception of it was something that other people did until I saw Too Short rapping and then I was like, “He’s from here and he raps.” That’s when I really started seriously rapping.

AC: You two as well as the Souls of Mischief crew met early on. Talk about how all of you met, came together and the creation of both Souls and Hieroglyphics.

T: We grew up in the same area, so I’ve known Casual and A-Plus since like Kindergarten, 1st grade. Del was at the same school as us, we just sort of all had a mutual interest in Hip-Hop, so once Del got on in ’91 he sort of brought us into the industry, but we had been rapping together for a long time before that. Casual went to junior high with Op.

O: The first time I went into the studio ever, me and Casual rented a studio in the 8th grade. Our man Terai came with us, he was in the 7th grade. I wasn’t even rapping then, I was a DJ, so I was DJing, scratching during that time. This is in the 7th/8th grade, me and Casual went to junior high and he already knew them. I would listen to their music when I was in junior high but I hadn’t really started to kick it with Tajai and A-Plus, but he would have tapes and be like, “listen to my partners.” I’d see them up the block and be like, “there goes Tajai right there.” We really started hanging out in high school, but the whole time we lived right around the same area. We all lived around the same block as each other but we weren’t really in communication until high school, and that’s when we really became a lot more serious about the rapping.

AC: You were released on Jive Records in 1993. Talk about the process of creating that album and what working for a major label was like. You were what, 17, 18 when that album came out?

O: Yea. That album to me was something, that, I would listen to songs that they had done when I was in junior high and me and Casual went into the studio, we were kinda serious about the whole rap thing. Tajai and A-Plus were working with Sir Jinks and they had a professional sound that inspired us to get on our business a little more. This is early on, so we had been working on our craft until we came out. We were probably 13, 14 really serious going to the studio.

That album, even though we recorded it in 2 weeks, it was something that was formulating for a lot of years. I really think it was highly influenced also by the whole crew aspect, not just the fact that we were Souls of Mischief, because we’re competitive by nature within Souls of Mischief, but then there was also Del and Casual, Pep Love, we had these other fierce MCs. Even during the time before ’93 til Infinity came out, everybody heard the demos, so we had something to live up to. People would hear the demos and be like, “the album will be wack, whatever,” and they heard other cats around us that were really shining, so it was a long time coming to me, that album getting done, even though it seemed like it popped out of nowhere, we had been working for some years.

AC: When Hiero formed, what was your original vision for the group and how did you go about making Third Eye Vision?

T: We’ve been together as a crew since before Del’s first record. Our vision then was let’s just all be the best we can be, get signed and be super stars. That’s different than how things progressed just dealing with major label politics, and the fact that, for someone to walk into Hip-Hop today, they have no idea that even when we came out it was still like a sub-culture. So being a super-star and blowing up meant selling a couple of thousand records, maybe going gold, but not platinum. The only people going platinum were guys like Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer.

So once we got off the majors, it was like let’s not stop making music just because we don’t have a label, let’s keep making music and then Domino was like, “Shoot, we might as well put this record out instead of trying to shop it, and from there we started Hiero Imperium and we’ve been rolling since then because it’s been, I’m not going to say easier logistically, but easier in regard to being able to be agile and creative. And now, almost 10, 11 years later, we’re really reaping the rewards of having laid that groundwork of being independent so long. Third Eye was something we recorded out of the need to make music, and then from there it built up to this independent label.

AC: With HieroImperium, you guys have been putting out albums and podcasts for a while now. What do you find to be the hardest part of being in this industry for as long as you guys have?

T: We’re not new, that’s the problem. To people who have never heard of us, which is not that many people, it’s like, “Wow these guys are fantastic!” But to people who have, it’s like, we come with something we feel is our best work and it’s like, “Ok, that’s dope.” There’s so much garbage out here that gets attention because it’s new, and that’s the frustrating part about it. If you’re consistent in music, that’s not good enough a lot of times, you have to have controversy or you have to fall real low to bring yourself back up, but we’ve been consistent and there’s so many of us, that that’s the biggest problem I see, we’re not new.

O: Also, over the years of doing it, touring, consistently going out and being on the road, not just only recording the albums, but the whole rap life in and of itself can take its toll. Sometimes people get jaded, but I think that luckily because there’s a lot of us, we’re able to keep ourselves focused and sharp. Without other people pushing you, and you’re hearing people recording songs and maintaining that creative energy and you don’t have it, your brother can lift you up a little bit and you hear some new shit, “oh man that’s dope,” it kinda gets your juices flowing. Maybe you’re at the house just bored, you wrote so many raps you’re through with it for a hot second, so it’s always a good thing to have other cats around you working and doing stuff. Casual, he’s always busy, Del is always in the lab working, A-Plus just consistent with the beats, so you can always go to those guys and be like, “What’s new?” just to get a little spark.

AC: In terms of approaching the writing, how would you say that your styles differ when you’re trying to come up with stuff for an individual album vs. working on a Souls project or working on a Hieroglyphics project, how do you approach each of those differently?

T: You’re competing against yourself when you’re making a solo record, so you get to look at things more holistically, you look at the entire project as a whole and where things fit in. Whereas when you’re in a group, you’re looking at how you fit into that particular song. With your own records I think it’s harder because you have to push yourself a little bit harder to be better than yourself, verse by verse and song by song. With a group album I think it’s easier because there’s so many other people you’re competing against that you have to come with your best work, that’s the main difference for me.

O: To me, I just feel more comfortable in the group element whether it’s Souls of Mischief or Hieroglyphics, I like the collaboration aspect of things and working with other cats, so to me that’s always been fun. I saw the challenge more so than doing music with others, trying to do something by myself like it’s a Herculean task cause you have so much more that you have to do. At the same time, once the process gets going, you kinda relax in your environment and it’s a good place to be because you can advance your style a little more. You get to go longer.

Especially in Souls of Mischief, we try to keep that quick jab approach so for me it’s kinda fun to just run my mouth for a little while. I’ve always been trying to explore more avant-garde styles whenever we’re doing songs with Souls of Mischief, so you can see the different elements that we bring to the table when you see our solo projects. You can see the different parts working. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what it’s like when you’re listening to the group all together then you get to hear the solo and be like, “So that’s how Souls of Mischief comes together,” at least for me because I’m a fan of Souls of Mischief too, even though I’m in the group, when I’m with other cats I love to hear the music and I like to hear the solo albums as well to see them even go further with it.

AC: Going off what you were saying earlier about the hardest thing is having been here for so long because new stuff always gets more attention. You hear a lot of mainstream writers, media people that say Hip-Hop is dead, and rappers will sometimes say that too. But there’s a lot of really good Hip-Hop out there if you know where to find it, so what do you listen to and what other artists in the genre inspire you?

T: Percy P, Guilty Simpson, Madlib, Black Milk. There’s a lot of groups that you probably won’t hear anywhere but satellite radio. I like Lil Wayne because he’s pushing the boundaries of mainstream but he’s doing something wild and crazy to something that just listened to dance rap so that’s good because maybe their minds will open a little more to people who dwell completely outside of that, but ain’t really much on TV that I like, not because it’s on TV, but because Rap music is really Pop music now. Hip-Hop can’t ever be dead. It may not inspire you the way that it used to, but that’s probably because you’re just not into it anymore. But as far as Hip-Hop, when we do shows and there’s thousands of kids there, it’s like, what are they talking about?

O: The way that Hip-Hop has been brought to the table and how it’s shown, it’s really not the true artform of it. It doesn’t represent. It’s more for trying to sell products, clothes, alcohol, stuff like that. It’s like a big commercial. But when there’s true artists trying to explore the creative process and what it takes to make a great song or a great lyric, a guy like J Electronica for instance is really dope. There’s people out there that’s doing it, but when you watch Rap City, you don’t get to see those guys that often.

I just feel like the vehicle that people are going to start getting Hip-Hop with is going to open the doors for more creative styles, people that are pushing the envelope stylistically and creatively which for me is the essence of Hip-Hop. How it was when De La Soul was coming out and A Tribe Called Quest was coming out, new flavors. I feel like that old form of commercialized, over-commercialized Hip-Hop, that is dead. It’s old hat, you can only use that so much before people get numb to it and it becomes a hard sell, pouring champagne everywhere, throwing money everywhere, people have seen that so much it doesn’t sell shoes how it used to, so now they’re going to start looking to the underground to do that.

AC: We were talking earlier about your latest project, Vulture’s Wisdom, Vol. 1. Talk about your vision for the trilogy, when the other albums are going to come out and what the idea behind these solo albums is.

O: I was just working with my man Architect, I’ve always been a fan of his music and his beats for a long time. He’s always been a cat that was out there, the style of his music is something that I always had a good time and enjoyed listening to. He worked next to us at High Street studios, he had a spot next to me so we had more of a chance to kick it and hang out and we were talking about doing a record, but it never really came together. Eventually I saw him in traffic one time and he was like, “I’ve got some beats, I’ve been thinking about you, we should do an album together.” When he hit me some of the beats and the style he was working with, it was perfect, we were right on the same page at the same exact time, so from there we just started collaborating and made a lot of music. Then we decided that we should not really stop at just one thing but hit cats with at least three projects, so that’s how the whole idea for the trilogy came up. The concept behind the title, like we were talking about earlier how everyone says Hip-Hop is dead, there’s nothing there, it’s over with whatever, we were like, “Nah, we can eat here, it’s still a viable option for us,” so that’s how the Vulture’s Wisdom title came into play.

We just are really trying to kill the backstory in terms of that being the forefront, we want to make the music the forefront, the style, the beats, the rhymes, the lyrics, not really like this guy did this, that, and the other. There’s always the story and sometimes it’s more interesting than the music and then you hear the music and you’re like, “this is what all the hoopla is about?” We want to bring it back to where the music is what people care about more so than the imagery. I feel like the 90s are something that people are trying to reach for right now, like that’s the golden ear, which for me is ’88, but other cats are more caught up in that ’93 era right now, always reaching back to the 90s and trying to bring it forward to here. Whereas I’ve always been a part of that connected to the whole essence of real Hip-Hop, so that’s where I come from, that’s my pedigree, whereas other cats might be trying to bring that back, I’m just trying to stay in that vein that I’ve always been in, that true essence of Hip-Hop, so it’s not a stretch for me to come and do something that people might call “real Hip-Hop,” that’s what we do, that’s Hieroglyphics, some of that good shit.

AC: Tajai – Stanford Anthropology grad, is that right?

T: Yea.

AC: How do you feel that education, that degree has helped your music? Have you incorporated that in your career at all?

T: It’s helped me with research, but that’s about it. School is school, it’s different from music, it just helped me research topics. Aside from that, it maybe helped me be organized in terms of my business, just going to school in general, but that’s about it.

AC: How important is it to you guys that you’re not major label? Do you think that you would have gotten anywhere near what you have accomplished if you were working for a major?

T: You’re just at the mercy of the market. There’s artists like J*Davey, Bilal, artists that you’ll never see their record. They’ve been in the industry now for almost a decade but because it doesn’t fit the labels idea of what records are supposed to be, it never comes out, so in that respect we probably would never have been able to bust the moves we could. It’s still different, it’s not like you’re doing it for a more noble purpose when you’re independent or you’re major. The way it is now, we’re like a major independent, us, DefJux, Rhymesayers, probably Stones Throw are labels where people want to get on the label, so it’s like they’re treating our independent record label like we would treat a major as a signed artist. We have more control, but really the market determines a lot of it and it’s harder right now to not be seen as generic in this marketplace because there’s so much. I mean, I think there’s more musicians than fans almost, especially rappers. So it’s hard to distinguish yourself as far as “into the marketplace,” so in that respect, it might even be better to be on a major label where they have the money to market you, where you have a shoe and a commercial and an appearance on Entourage and all these different things that are going to give you more exposure. Like when we put out a record, when we put out Vulture’s Wisdom, it has 8 videos, and how many of those are going to be on TV? We send them to TV, but do they end up on TV? No. So it’s really like we’re relegated to YouTube and MySpace and satellite radio and internet radio, and that’s the downside of being independent. It’s more a matter of exposure and it’s a double-edged sword. They’ll spend the money to expose you, but if they don’t like what they hear, they’re not going to expose you at all and you might never see the light of day.

O: If you’re doing it in terms of a business endeavor, you have to take advantage of what’s out there. I feel like for Souls of Mischief at the time, how the market was, us going major label was the best way for us to go at the time. To try to go independent would have been a bad look. It gave us a really good opportunity to get our music out there. We made what we really wanted and it got out to the people. For a time, the labels were all about trying to make super Pop Hip-Hop and I don’t know if they were going towards super avant-garde now, but definitely the tide has changed in terms of which artists are selling records. Lupe Fiasco is outselling artists, he’s like top-tier in terms of who the guy is. Kanye West outselling 50 Cent, so there’s a changing of the guard where if you are really more on the creative side of things, you might be able to get in and bust some moves, if you’ve got what it takes. Some people don’t necessarily have that appeal so it might be bad for them to go the independent route, you gotta really weigh your options. Cause the main thing, what you want to do is get your music out there for people to see you and listen to you and at the end of the day, to me that’s the most important thing. Then you can do whatever you gotta do with your hustle.

Check back with Evolving Music on Friday for part 2 where we discuss the future plans of the group, their thoughts on the remix culture and their favorite Hip-Hop albums of all time.

11 Songs to Be Thankful For, Vol. 2

For last year’s 11 Songs to Be Thankful For, click here.

I know you’re in pain. The music industry, no less than last year, is inundated with made for radio pop songs meant to burn brightly in the minds of middle schoolers, sell millions of copies and then fade quickly into the one hit wonder used CD bins. Some will make club playlists and stay relevant for another year or two, but most will be either forgotten or turned into the butt of some future musical joke. But these simplifications overlook a large cross section of musicians from all genres that are producing quality music that not only can get stuck in your head, but won’t make you want to put a loaded revolver to your temple to get them out. In fact, months later, these songs are still gripping and enjoyable.

Thanksgiving is over, but while you’re eating some leftovers, there’s still much to be thankful for in the way of music. For each month, a main song that stood out above the others with the album you can find it on, and a second song that I give honorable mention to for being generally kick ass. But since life isn’t a one man affair, I invited my roommate, who receives the same monthly iPod updates (see the “What I’m Hearing” posts… the links in the month names will get you there), to give her input on what songs grabbed her focus this year. 11 months, 1 main song, 1 honorable mention and 2 recommendations from the roommate will give you about 44 fantastic songs you haven’t listened to yet. I say about because in some cases you may have heard a song, and in others, we picked the same one. Enjoy!

Jan: “Breathe Me (Mylo Remix)” (Breathe Me EP) by Sia. Most people had their first introduction to Sia’s heartbreaking song through the final 5 minutes of the HBO series Six Feet Under. The song, steeped in lament and longing, is nostalgic and only further inundated with emotion from Sia’s haunting voice that at times seems to whisper. On this EP version, Mylo remixes the song by fleshing out a lush electronic sound with bass and digital flourishes around the vocals and speeding up the main melody. The result is a moving and dance-able, yet still emotional track. Honorable Mention: “Way Down in the Hole” (The Wire Soundtrack) by The Blind Boys of Alabama

Jessie’s Picks: 1) “Nudez” (Rainydayz Remixes) by AmpLive. “Mushaboom (Postal Service Remix)” (Open Season) by Feist.

Feb: “Campus” (Vampire Weekend) by Vampire Weekend. When this album came out, I positively reviewed the whole thing, and now, many months later, it hasn’t lost its luster for me. With “Campus” the group uses simplicity in the vocals and instrumentation to evoke the feeling of days at college and crushes (if your college crush happened to be a professor.) The staccato lead up to the frenetic chorus is an instantly attainable indie pop that also brings to mind a Killers tune on Xanax. With the line, “In the afternoon you’re out on the stone and grass/and I’m sleeping on the balcony after class” the song takes me back to my own college balcony naps. Honorable Mention: “Weightless” (Lucky) by Nada Surf

Jessie’s Picks: 1) “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” (Vampire Weekend) by Vampire Weekend. 2) “The Chills” (Writer’s Block) by Peter Bjorn and John

March: “Front Steps, Pt. 2 (Tough Love)” (Absolute Value) by Akrobatik. This song is haunting both lyrically and musically. The solid production includes a piano sample and string overtone that sound like they’ve been submerged in water. The murkiness is then combined with scratches and a bass and drum line that provide it with a depth that comes off simultaneously polished and street rough. All of this is so that Akrobatik can provide an incredible song about the economic and social plight within the project communities, the current state of hip-hop and the need for change within the criminal justice system. He exhorts the youth to avoid the drugs and black on black violence that help oppress them, and strive for something better by offering them his honest take in the form of “tough love.” His lyrics come from a seriously educated perspective as he recognizes that the format of the ghettos allows the upper middle class to ignore riots and financial losses inflicted by them (“And when we riot they won’t care about the dollars lost/they’re sipping cocktails while we’re throwing Molotovs“) and sees the difference between a middle class white education and the education provided in inner city schools. The entire song is filled with lines that are both mentally stimulating and potent in rhyme scheme (full lyrics here). One of the best hip-hop lines of the year comes from this song, “This ain’t a war on drugs, it’s a war on thugs/they supply the guns, we supply the bodies with slugs.” Easily in the contention for my top 5 songs of the year. Honorable Mention: “Live 4 Today” (Break A Dawn) by Zion I

Jessie’s Picks: 1) “Opening Act” (Garbage Pail Kids) by Sene and Chief 2) “Muddy Water Stomp” (Garbage Pail Kids) by Sene and Chief

April: “The Things That We Could Share” (Soundboy Rock) by Groove Armada. Here’s one the roommate and I agreed on. In an age of Craigslist Missed Connections and the disconnect between people, this joyous song about the potential connections is a love song for the person you haven’t met yet. Starting with a groove bass, handclaps and “SB” chant, the electronically strained vocals through the verse beg for a balance with another person (“I need a warm hand to cool me down/I need a soft voice to drown me out”) moves into the chorus about a boy on a bus watching a girl, who is simultaneously telling her friend that he doesn’t care. When the bass line undulates and crashes into the triumphant refrain of “the things that we could share,” if you’re not dancing, you’re not breathing. Honorable Mention: “Far Away” (In Ghost Colours) by Cut Copy.

Jessie’s Picks: 1) “The Things That We Could Share” Groove Armada, Soundboy Rock. 2) “Watch As They Go” (Other People) by American Princes

May: “Winds of Change” (The Show) by EMC. Leave it to a super-group of hip-hop mainstays to write a love song to hip-hop that can surely stand as a classic. With an old static laden and sped sample singing, “Winds of change, that blow forever” EMC rips off a masterpiece devoted to the past, present and future of hip-hop, while never forgetting the overall perspective of fleeting life and inevitable change. Subjects like evolving music (MJ to Usher), technology (Beta to DVD), and clothes (Osh-Kosh to Phat Farm) are all well and good, but the highlight of this track is the last verse that takes a sad hindsight view of a hip-hop career from an old age perspective (“Holding the picture frame wishing that we didn’t age”) and the unfortunate decay that it can bring (“At 55 started forgetting lines, mumbling rhymes.”) As the rap moves to talking about freestyling with his grandchild, the song becomes both melancholy in its reminiscence and happy in the remembrance of the experiences. Honorable Mention: “Mathematics” (The Fashion) by The Fashion

Jessie’s Picks: 1) “27” (Butter and Gun$ EP) by Blue Scholars 2) “O Samba Tai” (Carolina) by Seu Jorge

June: “Watch Out (Remix)” (The 3rd World) by Immortal Technique (click here for exclusive interview). Sounding incredibly sharp over a beat that samples from the Apocalypse sounding symphony from the central battle scene in Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith and polished Green Lantern production, Immortal Technique barks through this track that cements his status as one of the most lyrically intelligent and delivery potent rappers around. Starting with his album sales off just a Source magazine quotable and moving onto direct attacks on the music industry (“they push pop music like a religion/anorexic celebrity driven, financial fantasy fiction”) and American government, Tech doesn’t take pause for a chorus here, but why bother when you can deliver like that for two and a half minutes straight? When he ends the song with, “I need more than advancements and a rented mansion,” you know that he means it, and doesn’t care who he pisses off in the process. Honorable Mention: “Let the Beat Build” (The Carter III) by Lil Wayne

Jessie’s Picks: 1) “Reverse Pimpology” (The Third World) by Immortal Technique 2) “Dance Dance Dance” (Youth Novels) by Lykke Li

July: “Sittin’ On Chrome (Mr. Flash Sittin on Cr02 Remix)” (Delicious Vinyl: Rmxxology) by Masta Ace. This revamped version of the old school Masta Ace song is given all sorts of synths and electronic overtone. The verses get a video game-like sound backdrop with a fast dance beat. When the hook drops, the whole song slows down and the sample carries it. Honorable Mention: “Built to Last” (Coup de Theatre) by Haiku D’Etat

Jessie’s Picks: 1) “Desperada” (Jeanius) by Jean Grae. 2) “GFC” (Como Te Llama?) by Albert Hammond Jr.

August: “Zhaoderen Nana” (Introducing Hanggai) by Hanggai. Another point of agreement with the roommate, Hanggai’s mixture of traditional Mongolian folk music and Western influences gripped us at the end of the summer and made for great lake music. The use of a an upbeat throat singer here and a rollicking strumming are contrasted with moments of full percussion. You’ll have to listen to get it. Honorable Mention: “Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You (The Twelves Remix)” (Partie Traumatic) by The Black Kids

Jessie’s Picks: 1) “Zhaoderen Nana” (Introducing Hanggai) by Hanggai 2) “Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You (The Twelves Remix)” (Partie Traumatic) by The Black Kids

September: “Transitional Joint” (The Preface) by eLZhi. (full interview here) Beautiful production and a perfectly placed “just because of love” sample back Detroit’s eLZhi as he dissects relationships and the process of moving on from a failed one. Without ever losing a positive outlook, the lyrics don’t dwell on the past, but always look forward to that next glow. eLZhi acknowledges the sour experience of “rolling snake eyes” without losing sight of the feeling of “missing her like when the summer’s gone.” The delivery from verse to chorus are sensational and the beat is addictive. Honorable Mention: “Ship” (Purpleface EP) by Throw Me the Statue (interview)

Jessie’s Picks: 1) “Girls and Boys In Love” (Girls and Weather) by Rumble Strips 2) “Honeybee” (Purpleface EP) by Throw Me the Statue

October: “Please Believe” (unknown) by Longshot. I’d give you a breakdown of this very solid hip-hop track, but you can click on this link and go listen to it yourself! Huzzah! Honorable Mention: “Electric Feel” (Oracular Spectacular) by MGMT

Jessie’s Picks: 1) “Sadie Hawkins” (Doomtree) by Doomtree, (interview) 2) “Electric Feel” (Oracular Spectacular) by MGMT

November: “Trail of Lies” (A History of Violence) by Jedi Mind Tricks. With a South American melody and lo-fi beat, this offering from JMT’s sixth studio album examines lies perpetuated by the government and mass media, among others. The gruff voice of Vinnie Paz and the lyrics about a system in severe trouble make for a socially conscious song steeped in conspiracy theories. Honorable Mention: “Signs” (Intimacy) by Bloc Party

Jessie’s Picks: “Don Julio” (Vulture’s Wisdom, Vol. 1) by Opio 2) “Trail of Lies” (A History of Violence) by Jedi Mind Tricks

What I’m Hearing, Vol. 8

For a taste of October’s music, click here.

November’s update comes with over 100 tracks spanning both new and old albums, and quite a bit in terms of the Yancey family. We’ve got hip-hop and indie rock, R&B and rap. Enjoy!

Black Milk, Tronic: An album that pushes the traditional boundaries of hip-hop with futuristic synths and musical approaches, Black Milk still puts out several songs that utilize nostalgic samples. I won’t say much more because I’ve already written a full album review, but in my recent interview with Hieroglyphics members Opio and Tajai, they named Black Milk as one of the hip-hop producers they were liking the sound of recently. Read the full album review here. Don’t Sleep On: “Long Story Short,” “Bounce,” and “Losing Out” featuring Royce da 5’9″

Bloc Party, Intimacy: When Bloc Party released their initial effort, Silent Alarm in 2005, it brought a distinct sound to the indie rock arena with Kele Okereke’s emotional British accent and their hard charging guitars on songs like “Banquet.” That album spawned a remix album before the release of what I viewed to be a lackluster sophomore effort on 2007’s A Weekend in the City, an album that had three, maybe four really solid songs, tops. Thankfully though, Intimacy not only serves to take some of the band’s music in another direction, but returns the indie sound on their rock songs to the top-notch form that looked possible from their debut. Intimacy still has driving drums and screaming guitars, but the band has started to utilize more in the way of drum machines and electronic flourishes that create a new dimension for them to explore and in some cases creates some of the most musically advanced songs the band has produced to date. Okereke’s use of his voice is showing maturity, commanding more range of both pitch and emotion here. In some songs, it feels like the input they had on their work from Silent Alarm Remixes has prompted them to explore in new directions. A very solid album. Don’t Sleep On: “Signs,” “One Month Off,” and “Talons.”

Illa J, Yancey Boys: I’ve read a few reviews of this album that basically mock Illa J’s approach and state that he only made this album because he got posthumously released tracks from his big brother J Dilla. I think these reviews miss the point of the album in that Illa J doesn’t fancy himself a rapper or hip-hopper, he’s a self-described singer/songwriter, so it only makes sense that what he does over Dilla beats is going to be different from Dilla’s output when he was alive. On this album, the younger Yancey proves himself musically diverse and extremely relaxed, while also recognizing the importance of respecting Dilla’s production. The tracks here are laid back and jazzy, and Illa takes no effort to listen to, he’s that easy. Click here for the full album review, and click here for my interview with Illa J. Don’t Sleep On: “R U Listenin’?” feat. Guity Simpson, “We Here,” and “DTFT” feat. Affion Crockett

J Dilla, Welcome 2 Detroit: With the way underground hip-hop is structured and feeds into the mainstream, it’s often possible for fans to miss an initial classic album from an artist, and then never check it out once they’ve gotten big because it gets lost in the new music. With Illa J’s debut album dropping this month featuring almost exclusive production from Dilla, it only made sense to make sure people were aware of J Dilla’s initial solo offering and the way it intersects with the rest of the hip-hop genre. On Welcome 2 Detroit, Dilla’s signature melodic and stoned out beats are in fine form with lyrical help from other Detroit rappers such as eLZhi (WIH6) and Phat Kat. The album, released in 2001, still sounds fresh and innovative today and features several tracks that showcase Dilla’s ability to fuse other sounds into his hip-hop such as the co-produced (Karriem Riggins) “Rico Suave Bossa Nova” and “B.B.E. (Big Booty Express)” which Dilla seems to have created in order to slip onto future releases of the 1977 Kraftwerk album Trans-Europe Express. Don’t Sleep On: “Shake It Down,” “It’s Like That,” feat. Hodge Podge and Lacks, and “Pause” feat. Frank-N-Dank.

Jedi Mind Tricks, A History of Violence: Underground hip-hop mainstays Jedi Mind Tricks return for their 6th studio album with more hard hitting tracks, masterful production and intricate lyrics. The conspiracy themes from previous albums remain here, and the production draws from interesting samples such as the strings and haunting foreign lyrics on “Monolith” and the sparse flute in “Trail of Lies.” The lyrical deliveries on these tracks are tight, concise and deep in content, and on the whole, the album is a display of exceptional craft from artists working together with a common musical vision and knowledge of their strengths. Don’t Sleep On: “Trail of Lies,” “Death Messiah,” and “Heavy Artillery.”

Kanye West, 808s and Heartbreaks: Following the death of his mother, I was wondering what the latest output from an artist so in touch with his emotions and personal experiences would sound like. On the one hand, I could see West shaking off the events of the last year or so and putting out his most bouncy and sample-laden disc to date. On the opposite end of that, I could imagine West delving deep into what was going on and producing an intensely personal album. On 808s, West moves in a direction completely opposite of the roads he’s traveled before, and comes out all the better for it. Let’s be clear. 808s is not an album for anyone expecting the continuation of sound and work from West’s previous three albums, and it’s not an album that everyone is going to enjoy musically. Using an 808 drum machine and extensively using Auto-Tune to sing rather than rap, West has produced a stripped down and emotionally raw album. Heavy on synths and in points retro-80s sounds (tracks here could have made an Aphex Twin or Tricky album), West lays bare what’s going on with him and refuses to apologize for the new direction of his music. What’s amazing is that while I think the roster of musicians today who could completely change course from one album to the next and do so successfully is small, Kanye does make that list with this album. Dark, personal and musically adventurous, 808s and Heartbreaks exposes West as the musician he is rather than the hip-pop clone machine he’s often typecast as. Don’t Sleep On: “Paranoid,” feat. Mr. Hudson, ” “Bad News” (which features a sample from Nina Simone‘s “See Line Woman”) and “Street Lights.”

Ludacris, Theater of the Mind: While some artists are out to create philosophically moving pieces, or to in some way further the hip-hop culture, Ludacris doesn’t concern himself with such lofty ideals. He’s about making money. A lot of it. On his 6th studio album, Ludacris returns with the formula that has made him the hottest rapper in the South’s history… pulsing and grimy beats full of horns and deep bass kicks meet with quick delivery lyrics touching on sex, violence, money and his ability to outsell other rappers. Keep in mind, I’m not saying that this formula doesn’t work for him and doesn’t have its place within rap and hip-hop, but it is without any sort of creative growth that Luda moves forward. If there’s any doubt about the kind of sales Ludacris would like to see, this album is the most saturated rap album I’ve seen in years in terms of cameo appearances. Ludacris is the lone rapper on only 2 of the 15 tracks, getting guest appearances from Floyd Mayweather (yes, the boxer), Chris Rock (yes, that comedian), Jamie Foxx (still an actor?), Common and Spike Lee (one of them is a rapper, right?), Nas, Jay-Z and current Top 40 mainstays T.I., The Game, T-Pain and Lil Wayne. This approach either means that he intends to make a lot of money based on name recognition of his guests or he realizes that to put out an album that only has him on it, he’d need to come up with full lyrics to all of his songs, a task that might seem daunting (I mean, how many times can you really come up with new raps about rims and Cadillacs?) While musically and lyrically this album isn’t challenging, it has certainly produced some tracks that we’re sure to be hearing in clubs and parties very soon. Don’t Sleep On: “Intro” (only a minute of rapping, but well worth it, and one of only 2 songs with just Luda on it), “Undisputed” feat. Floyd Mayweather, and “Wish You Would” feat. T.I.

Opio, Vuture’s Wisdom, Vol. 1: The first in a trilogy of albums to be released by Opio from Hieroglyphics with production by Architect. The idea behind the albums is that people are saying hip-hop is dead, or at least that’s the popular expression lately. Vulture’s Wisdom refers to the ability to pick what’s left of life from the bones of the deceased, and this album shows that Opio hasn’t lost any of the edge that has carried him through more than a decade in the industry as a part of the Hiero Imperium. Be on the lookout for my interview with Opio and Tajai, where they discuss their plans to release a new single every week in 2009. Don’t Sleep On: “Don Julio,” “Mind, Body and Soul,” and “Some Superfly Shit.”

Singles… these are the songs where the full album just didn’t cut it, but the songs deserve their time in your ears. Check out “4 Wind,” a multi-lingual remix of the cut from Breez Evahflowin and Dirt E. Dutch’s Troublemakers album, and the radio ready hip-pop of T-Pain songs “Can’t Believe It” featuring L’il Wayne and “Karaoke” featuring DJ Khaled where T-Pain goes off on the rest of the industry (funny coming from the guy who did “Bartender”) and claims the only cool rappers are Kanye West and L’il Wayne. Well, at least he’s consistent. There you have it, the November update… up next is the second installment of last year’s 11 Songs to Be Thankful For.


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