Growing up in Berkeley, California in the 90s, my top music memories include Slick Rick preparing me for, ‘Teenage Love,” Q-Tip perfectly describing me in, “Vivrant Thing,” and rapping along to every word of JJ Fad’s, “Supersonic.” My hip-hop, then and now, articulates strength, power and self-love.
Locally, the Hieroglyphics crew, made quite an impression on 90s hip-hop. Adding a new flavor of lyrical wizardry and unique style sense to the Bay Area sound, Hiero was a distinct departure from Bay Area hip-hop giants such as Too Short and MC Hammer.
Consisting of artists such as Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Casual, Pep Love, Domino, and DJ Toure, the clique put an emphasis on lyrical wizardry and a unique sense of style unprecedented in West Coast hip-hop. Hieroglyphics also included the iconic group Souls Of Mischief. Comprised of members A-Plus, Opio, Tajai, and Phesto (Damani), Souls Of Mischief’s unique energy and lyrical precision pushed their debut Jive Records album 93 ‘Til Infinity into hip-hop classic status.
The album’s title has recently become a phrase that deeply resonates with hip-hop’s millennial generation. I had the chance to sit down with Damani to discuss the group’s illustrious history, the group’s new album, his solo career, and the China Royal song.
Shikiri: When and how did group Souls Of Mischief come about?
Damani: It’s a little difficult, because first Souls of Mischief started out as two people: Tajai and A-Plus. They’ve known each other since 1st grade. Opio and I came later. We weren’t Souls of Mischief until we were all in the group. We all lived in the same area of Oakland. That’s how we all got together. When we got to high school, we all started becoming more determined and more serious in how we approached creating music.
Shikiri: How close are you guys?
Damani: We’re family. When you know someone for so long and have been able to maintain that friendship through all the business. The business is fickle; people come and go. We were put together through the strength of our friendship and a common interest in hip hop. We were friends first, then we did our music. Our friendship has been our armor through all of this. The music industry has strengthened our friendship.
Shikiri: On “’93 till Infinity,” what does the word infinity represent to you?
Damani: When we wrote the song, it just sounded dope, but it meant we’re going to be doing this forever. Eternally we’re going to be doing this. Now it means longevity and timelessness because that’s what good music is. Good music is ageless. If there’s a good Marvin Gaye song, a good Stevie Wonder song, a good Michael Jackson song, the kids nowadays can listen and relate to it like it’s brand new. It doesn’t get old. That’s what we strive to do when we create music. It’s not just for the here and now or trendy, but something that will remain through the ages.
Shikiri: Why was important to create your own career, outside of Souls of Mischief? It seems like you all are supportive of one another’s solo projects too.
Damani: I think it’s a natural progression for any artist. When you’re creating, you really are creating by yourself in your mind anyway. So, it’s an extension of that. We’ve all been solo artists throughout the tenure of Souls of Mischief. You have to do more work as a solo artist. You have to write more verses and do more leg work to put the record out. Some duties you can pass off when you’re in a group. I always write and produce by myself and made songs by myself. But there came a time when I said, “Let me put it out, it’s just sitting around.” That’s why I decided to do a solo album. When someone puts out a record, we all go on tour as Souls of Mischief to support that solo record. We’re always in the studio together creating, so you feel like you are a part of the song, even if you’re not on the song. It has always been like that since day one.
Shikiri: The new Souls of Mischief album has features from Snoop Dogg and Busta Rhymes. Also, I found a clip of Kanye West on MTV mentioning your influence on him. How does it feel to be so respected amongst your peers?
Damani: That’s the ultimate complement because they understand what it takes to create good music and they understand the business of music as well. Maybe someone from the outside doesn’t know the hoops and loops you have to jump through to create and to be successful. In anything that you do, you look to your peers. If they have a mutual respect for you and admiration for you then that goes along way.
Shikiri: Kanye said, “The Souls of Mischief were the first fresh group, they had the rugby’s, it wasn’t about being a dirty backpacker. They were hip-hop, but they were fresh to death. They were like the ’93 me!” What does fashion represent to you?
Damani: Fashion goes hand and with the hip-hop culture. If you think about the word hip, it means that you’re in the know. Like you have a knowledge, insight, foresight about what people are doing. You’re on the cutting edge, vanguard of whatever it is. Fashion happens to be one of those things that we love to be apart of as hip hop artists. We always embrace the idea of being trendsetters. The music is always the most important thing when you’re a musician. But it’s a performing art, so fashion is a part of it.
That was a great complement by Kanye because he’s someone who is obviously passionate about fashion. We’ve been a group that’s been passionate about music and have not tried to put so much of an emphasis on fashion, so to have someone like Kanye who is passionate about it say something about us and our fashion, that means a lot.
Shikiri: Outside of music, what are some of your passions?
Damani: I’m an artist, from a young age my mother and father always encouraged me to express myself through art, whether it’s photography or drawing. I can’t move how I used to, but I used to breakdance and spin on my head and that was a form of expression. I just picked up the bass guitar. I’m always on to some new thing, trying to keep my mind working. Family is always first.
Shikiri: How did you create the “China Royal” song?
Damani: I always want to bring out my individualism, but what you guys are doing is similar to what we’re doing. You have a vision and it’s deeper than just the clothes. It has a deeper meaning. That made it a lot easier to write the song. It’s not just about a logo or embroidery or how well it is made. That’s all a part of it, but it’s not just that.
Shikiri: What is at the core of the song? You rap, “Kings and Queens means we can be anything we dream.”
Damani: It’s s our time to win; for China Royal to win and for the brand to just get it.
Shikiri: Growing up half Chinese and raised with my Chinese side here in the Bay Area, Chinese New Year has always been one of my favorite holidays. Primarily because I got my red envelopes with good luck money. What does Chinese New Year represent for you?
Damani: Living here in the Bay area, we are aware of a lot of cultural celebrations. Growing up, we would celebrate at school. But as I got older, I started understanding what it is about. I feel like I’m a worldly person and Chinese New Year puts me in this culture. It was a great learning experience doing the song, it forced me to study up.
Shikiri: What is your Chinese zodiac sign?
Mine is the Wooden Tiger. This year is about sticking to your principals and standing firm. Not wavering from your goals and maintaining focus and balance.
Shikiri: Where do you think the genesis of your creativity comes from?
Damani: For us as a people to be able to express ourselves artistically is not something I take for granted. Music is something that didn’t just start with hip-hop. We’re standing on the shoulders of many great artists who had to endure a lot, things we don’t have to go through. I can’t imagine going through the south during Jim Crow with a guitar, trying to rock shows. Now look at our fan base. We have people of all ages, colors, ethnic backgrounds, religions. I always think about that as a musician. I’m here standing on this stage, I’m not just representing myself, I’m more like a conduit for generations that proceeded us.
The words I write on the paper, the words I speak, I realize how powerful my voice is. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “That song changed my life,” or, “I was listening to that while I was in college! It got me through my finals!” So I know the power of music and how it can affect people. I know how it can change people and make people do things they would not do, positive or negative. Music is a powerful thing and I don’t take it for granted. I don’t take the power of words for granted either. That inspires me to create and to never settle for doing music for money or popularity. I’m an artist and that’s what I feel like I’m here for.