By Ashley Zimmerman
By Dana Krangel
By John Hood
By Ashley Zimmerman
By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
By Ashley Zimmerman
Tajai was named president of Hieroglyphics Imperium this past January the same record label he helped build from the ground up in 1997 along with his alternative hip-hop collective the Hieroglyphics. The move didn't get as much press as Jay-Z's becoming president of Def Jam, but it doesn't mean Tajai carries less weight on his shoulders than J-Hova. In fact, with the strain of trying to keep an indie record label afloat in today's download-happy music world, he's probably got more.
That's why, on a cold afternoon last week, Tajai was schlepping his own Souls of Mischief crew around in a rented van, trying to navigate New York and New Jersey streets and conduct an interview with New Times at the same time. Any one of those responsibilities should require full attention, but to Tajai, this extreme form of multitasking is common. Again, it's not even noon yet.
"We've been doing this for so long, it's getting close to second nature," Tajai says while dodging traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike. "I'm really just learning now how to be a better leader and inspire people to gravitate toward my ideas. We got a lot of people that are part of the Hiero record label a lot of different personalities. When it's just the four of us as Souls of Mischief, it's like a roll-with-the-punches kind of thing. But if we're gonna be serious about the business and do more in the industry, I've got to be better."
The can-do attitude helped him take over the reins at Hiero, but one has to wonder if his ability to set aside time for making music with Souls of Mischief isn't suffering. The group hasn't released an album of new material in seven years, which, when Tajai does the math, is a bit embarrassing. "It's really been seven years?" he says. "That's fucking nuts. I mean, come on, dude, we've been putting out Hiero records for a minute, but it's time for Souls of Mischief to get back out there."
The group first jumped into the rap world with its smash debut album, 93 'Til Infinity, which came out toward the end of hip-hop's golden years. Laced with Bay Area slang, comical lyrics, and a feel-good attitude that's almost disappeared from the genre, 93 'Til Infinity saw all four members of the group, A-Plus, Opio, Phesto, and Tajai, become household names across hip-hop America. Most rap critics labeled the album's lead single of the same name a classic, and Source Magazine designated it one of the Top 100 Rap Albums of All Time.
But audiences weren't so kind to their follow-up LP, No Man's Land, released in 1995, at a time when hip-hop was shifting toward gangsta rap. Arguably, because Souls of Mischief wasn't killing a hundred people on wax, sales figures slumped. The music industry is rough, but no one in the group anticipated they'd be dropped by Jive Records the same year that No Man's Land hit the streets. It was a cold dose of reality. But Souls of Mischief managed to use the dismal treatment by Jive as fuel.
"Look at everybody else that was on Jive," Tajai says. "That place is like a career killer. Look at Keith Murray, A Tribe Called Quest, KRS-One. These were good artists that all went downhill on Jive. They make fools want to break up just to get off the label. We've taken what they've given us and expanded it into an empire. We ended up on top, and we're not done. We're barely midway, as far as this legacy goes."
Souls of Mischief linked up with fellow Cali backpack rappers Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Pep Love, Casual, and Domino to start Hieroglyphics Imperium a decade ago. While it started as an outlet for left-of-center MCs who simply wanted to put out good music, Hiero is now a million-dollar company with new artists on the roster, a clothing line, and a video production component. It's able to keep everything in-house these days, not just because it's cheaper but because it has the talent to do so.
"We got guys that can score movies; we got guys that can animate movies," Tajai says. "It's been a transition period, the last ten years. We're signing acts, breaking acts, and we don't want artists to duplicate our experiences on a major label. We want to provide artists with business knowledge as well. And it takes that long to really stake a claim in this industry. Now that it's been ten years, things are settling down a bit and we're able to record again."
Tajai says he wants it to stay a secret, but there is a new Souls of Mischief album slated for release next year. Prince Paul did most of the album's production work, but that too is supposed to be hush-hush.
When asked if there's still relevance for the group's music, he seems taken aback. As if despite the eight years in between albums, the group has never left. "I know there's a relevance for our music," Tajai snaps. "We still sell out shows. And we want the youth to be involved at our concerts. I don't want a bunch of old heads talking about how great things were back in the day. I love our fan base the way it is now, full of kids. They might tag up the bathroom, but they keep us current."