If there’s one thing the Oakland group Souls of Mischief — Opio, A-Plus, Tajai and Phesto — is known for, other than the classic “93 ‘Til Infinity,” the still-fresh-sounding 1993 track that brought attention to their remarkable and relaxed chemistry as an ensemble, it’s consistency. Not once have they recorded a terrible album. (Plus they sampled Lalo Schifrin’s Magnum Force score and Ennio Morricone’s La Donna Invisible score in 2000’s Trilogy: Conflict, Climax, Resolution, and your crew wins when you flip those works.) Even No Man’s Land, the 1995 album that the group’s label at the time, Jive Records, was dissatisfied with, is a decent album (if Backstreet Boys-era Jive wasn’t feeling it, that means it was actually good to begin with). Jive kept wanting to tinker with their sound — a “rap boy band” is what Tajai once said Jive wanted them to be, and man, does the thought of that make me feel like facepalming — so the two parties went their separate ways, which turned out to benefit Souls of Mischief because it led to their Hieroglyphics collective forming their own label, and going indie hasn’t hurt either of the Hiero artists one bit.
The Oakland crew’s history of consistency continues with There Is Only Now, which, like 2009’s Montezuma’s Revenge did with Prince Paul, unites them with a really inventive producer — this time, it’s Adrian Younge, who himself is a longtime Souls of Mischief fan — and it’s their strongest album since their 1993 debut. Once again, Younge relies on live instrumentation, analog recording techniques and a Prince Paul Presents: Prince Among Thieves-esque storyline that ties together all the album’s tracks to craft a hip-hop album that, even with the use of old tools, sounds innovative and not like any other hip-hop album right now. It’s as if Younge took note of that repeated line from Skyfall — “Sometimes the old ways are best” — and abided by it, but he’s using the old ways to bring hip-hop to the future instead of trapping it in the past. His collabo with Ghostface Killah, last year’s giallo thriller-inspired Twelve Reasons to Die, was Ghostface’s cleverest album since Fishscale, and now Younge brings that same cleverness to this Souls of Mischief concept album.
While Ghostface was the star of a supernatural revenge tale, Opio, A-Plus, Tajai and Phesto’s storyline in There Is Only Now is a far more grounded, Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby buddy movie-ish misadventure. The Friday buddy movies wouldn’t really be an apt comparison because There Is Only Now is less cartoonish than those movies; while I got more of a Poitier/Cosby vibe out of There Is Only Now, Opio has cited Walter Hill’s The Warriors as a primary cinematic influence on the album. The storyline has the four Hiero MCs portraying younger versions of themselves and running afoul of a maniacal gangster portrayed by Busta Rhymes, and it’s drawn from real life: a shooting incident Opio, A-Plus, Tajai and Phesto emerged unscathed from in Oakland in 1994, to be exact, and that scary 1994 day of gunfire is vividly dramatized by the crew in “Time Stopped.”
The four MCs have always been terrific storytellers, and the same “rap opera” structure Younge worked with on Twelve Reasons to Die is an ideal fit for their storytelling skills. In addition to having Opio, A-Plus, Tajai and Phesto flash back to their past, the album’s got Busta looking back at his past as well, during his guest feature. “Womack’s Lament” is loaded with affectionate references to “Scenario,” the classic Tribe Called Quest posse cut where Busta’s rambunctious guest feature made the Leaders of the New School member a star. Busta’s “Scenario” verse was his “Eddie Murphy taking over the redneck bar during 48 Hrs.” moment (or if you weren’t born before 1982, it was his “Chris Pratt dancing to ‘Come and Get Your Love’ by Redbone” moment). Astoundingly, Younge evokes the Brother Jack McDuff organ riff that Ali Shaheed Muhammad — who, throughout There Is Only Now, portrays himself, but as a radio DJ/narrator who’s modeled after Lynne Thigpen’s DJ character from The Warriors, with a little bit of the gravitas of legendary Oakland anchorman Dennis Richmond seeping through — and his fellow lab rats looped in “Scenario” without sampling it or re-recording it. That, of course, frees Younge from having to worry about clearing any samples. An original score a day keeps the lawyers away.
Snoop Dogg, Scarub from Living Legends and Delfonics crooner and previous Younge collaborator William Hart also drop by There Is Only Now for guest features. With Souls of Mischief, Busta, Ali Shaheed and Snoop together on one project (and with references to “Scenario,” the now-defunct BET show Rap City and, of course, the 93 ‘Til Infinity album), There Is Only Now is like the tribute to the best of ’90s hip-hop that a fan of that era like myself has always dreamed of. If you lost track of Souls of Mischief over the years, There Is Only Now is the perfect album to reacquaint yourself with their music. While many other hip-hop groups have disbanded due to either discord or death, Opio, A-Plus, Tajai and Phesto have amazingly stayed together, and like the best acts from other genres that never broke up or lost any members, they’re continuing to evolve by experimenting with the likes of Prince Paul and now Younge, instead of sounding stagnant. Looks like that plan to be here ’til infinity wasn’t a joke, and the plan is paying off immensely.
Stream There Is Only Now below.