Once upon a time in Oakland, I went with the boys from Performance Options to a rap video shoot on Mare Island, a decommissioned military facility north of the SF Bay Area. Wait a moment… let me do some explaining to prepare you for what you’re about to read before I continue. This may prove to be the most difficult to understand article you’ve ever read. The photos within have very little to do with the interview to end all interviews that accompanies them, but if you love hip hop and its history it’ll be worth paying attention to. You see, it was that same music video shoot that got me the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interview one of the most influential people in Bay Area hip hop history, Tajai from Souls of Mischief.
This is Tajai’s cousin TJ, who works at Performance Options. He’s the one to thank for getting Performance Options and LifeBlasters involved in the video shoot, and he’s also the one who had to wash Erika and Rick’s cars before-hand.
The video shoot itself consisted of lining up a bunch of the Bay’s most awesome drift cars, and having the artists and extras dance and sing in front of them. Afterwards, Rick in his F22 Turbo powered AE86, Xander in Erika’s SR powered S13, and Aaron in his bone-stock AP1 S2000 got a rare opportunity to drift between the warehouses of Mare Island legally! Awesome! And now without further ado, I give you the Tajai interview. *applause here*
Pitts: First off, thank you very much for inviting LifeBlasters into your home. I speak for the whole staff when I say we’re really excited about this interview. Alright then, for those who don’t already know, who are you and what are you about?
Tajai: I’m Tajai.. I’m in a group of four guys called Souls of Mischief. Been out since ’93. “93 til Infinity.” Also the crew called Hieroglyphics, which consists of Del the Funky Homosapien, Souls of Mischief…the four of us, Casual, Pep Love, and Domino. We’re musicians from Oakland. We got an 8,000 square foot warehouse and studios and shit, over in East Oakland. That’s about it, man. Just been makin music independently for a while.
Pitts: Awesome! So you guys record and stuff over there at the warehouse?
Tajai: Record, film videos, make our t-shirts…all kinds of stuff.
Pitts: Nice, so how does it feel to be one of the most influential groups to come out of the Bay Area and affect so many people like that?
Tajai: It’s coo. It’s interesting because our influence is probably bigger than our popularity. So it’s weird…we’re Eminem’s favorite rappers, we’re Outkast’s favorite rappers, Kanye’s favorite rappers. You know, them dudes are probably a thousand times more popular than us, so it’s weird. It’s cool though.
Pitts: What about you? Who’d you grow up with? Who influenced you to get into rap and start out?
Tajai: Cold Crush, Brother Lewis, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-ONE.
Pitts: Okay, so… South Bronx or Queensbridge?
Tajai: South Bronx.
Tajai: Yeah, yeah, you know. Queensbridge…respect, but come on!
Pitts: For sure. So what’s the best battle you’ve ever heard?
Tajai: I guess Busy Bee versus Kool Moe Dee.
Pitts: Busy Bee Kool Moe Dee! Awesome, I’m glad you said that. That’s my favorite too.
Tajai: Hell yeah.
Pitts: That’s epic.
Tajai: It really was epic though. Proper use of the word.
Pitts: Yeah, what was it? ’80 or ’81 when that happened? And nobody ever heard anything like that before.
Tajai: At it was old versus new so the styles were really different, like boxing, you know?
Pitts: When you were growing up listening to stuff, had that changeover already happened?
Tajai: Oh yeah. I didn’t hear that battle til way later. Til…cassettes, like 1980-something.
Pitts: On the subject of New School versus Old School, what’s the defining line for you?
Tajai: That’s probably it. I mean, Run-DMC’s considered new school, right?
Pitts: Are they?
Tajai: To the purists, you know. Old School’s like Cold Crush, Funky Four Plus One More, basically guys that wear a lot of leather…or sweatshirts with their names on them. Then New School would be like LL, Run-DMC, Fat Boys, you know? And then we’d be even further New School. So it depends. If you ask somebody now, we’re old school.
Pitts: You’ve got an interesting perspecive. I was just talking to Drew and he was saying that the line for him is like ’93, when Biggie and those kind of guys were breaking apart but it’s different for everybody too.
Tajai: That would be…I’d call that Modern. Golden Era’s like ’88 to ’93, so ’93 I’d say Modern. Wow, that’s a weird can of worms, because like us, Biggie, Snoop kind of like ushered in the era that we’re just now getting out of. Like just now. Like when I was in high school [1989-1994] it was revolutionary to wear Jordans and have dreadlocks and wear baggy clothes. And that’s been the style for like 20 years. Now kids are wearing skinny jeans and crew necks, trying to bring it back to a different era, so that Modern era lasted a long time and I think we’re past that now.
Pitts: What do you think about the Hyphy movement?
Tajai: I mean, it’s cool that they call it a movement, but kids been doin that since before I started driving. But they Bay has no scene. It never has. You know, there’s like house parties and school shows. In San Francisco you can do shows because it’s a major city, but I’ve probably rocked 20 shows in Oakland in 20 years and thousands elsewhere else. There’s no scene here. There’s nothing for these youth to do at all. That’s why they drive around in souped-up cars [looks at TJ] HAHAHA!! Or jump out of their souped up cars and burn shit down and shoot at each other. There’s nothing here. There’s no scene. There never has been. That’s why people are so creative too, but there’s nothing. It’s like the least youth-friendly territory probably anywhere. We got the rawest street skaters, because street skating comes from no skateparks, no vert ramps, no swimming pools, so they were like “Hey we’re just gonna use curbs and hand rails,” you know? Underground comes from there’s nowhere for us to go to have any kind of party jam or anything like that. There’s no concerts because we shot up all the concerts, so our stuff is just in all the warehouses and house parties.
Pitts: So do you think Oakland kinda did that to itself? You said there’s no concerts because we shot them all up, so do you think it’s self-inflicted to a certain extent?
Tajai: COINTELPRO was self inflicted, but then it turned on itself. Like this is is the place where the [Black] Panthers are from. The Panthers were a response to police brutality. Not just to the youth but to the adults, to the black community. And then J. Edgar Hoover and COINTELPRO pumped crack in here, and pumped heroin in here, so I mean yeah, Oakland did it to itself, but there was a cause, you know? It didn’t exist in a vacuum. So yes and no. I mean, by the time I was old enough to go to concerts everybody was sellin crack and had guns. And they still do that to this day. They sell syrup and pills too now. But still crack, cocaine and all that. It’s like when you go to Jamaica. There’s all this good music. Beautiful people but it’s a shitty place. I went to Africa in the ’80s and it was doing better than Jamaica in the 2000s. Like way better, not kinda better.
Pitts: Yeah, I went to Jamaica around ’97 and it was…yeah the resorts were nice but everything else was pretty bad.
Tajai: Yeah it’s terrible, and then the World Bank screwed them, Tommy Hilfiger and all these sort of trade agreements and these work zones kind of screwed them because they moved all that stuff to the Dominican Republic or all these other areas, there was just nothing there. It’s their island so it’s not like they can get some kind of pipeline going, you know? It’s messed up. At least Africa’s a continent with all the resources so even though the resources aren’t distributed evenly and they’re kind of being exploited, it’s still a continent with all the resources and Jamaica’s an island. But I can see how the music is rebellious and it’s creative and all that stuff…because there’s nothing there…so you use your imagination.
Pitts: So you think hard times breed creativity then?
Tajai: Oh hell yea! What do they say? Necessity is the mother of creation? So I mean, that’s why hip hop is electronic and not live music, you know? Because they didn’t have any art programs, music programs or instruments. They had turntables and that’s it. Amps and shit. So definitely I think adversity spawns these movements, but then to watch it grow and flourish beyond that is cool and now it’s kind of eating itself you know. It’s bloated and fat. We got kids basically, look at Lil’ Wayne. Lil’ Wayne grew up rich right? I mean he might have been poor up to about age 10, but then after that he’s been rich this whole time. He’s a blood? He’s a killer? He goes to the pen? He’s covered in tattoos? You see what I’m sayin though? What’s that all about? This guy’s had all the opportunities in the world and decides “I’m gonna be a fake gang-banging, misogynistic punk.”
Pitts: He actually went to college, didn’t he?
Tajai: Yeah, but there’s a lot of gangsters that went to college, but he’s not a gangster. Maybe Baby and Slim are, but that’s what I mean by it’s eating itself. We’re portraying an image that’s not even real or relevant or positive or helpful, and then we’re selling these records to people and the kids in the hood believe it. Look at 2Pac. More kids have probably killed each other emulating what they saw of 2Pac. 2Pac ain’t never killed nobody, you know? He went to art school, he was a poet and an actor. Never sold drugs or tried to sell drugs unsuccessfully. So that’s what I mean, it’s eating itself because it’s become a parody of itself. But the parody is based on this thing of “Oh this is real” and it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. It’s just a trip. Hip hop is a trip because it has so much potential but because we’re in sort of this system that is anti-youth, anti-black, anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-old people, you know it’s like anti-everything, it’s hard to get any traction with those movements because in the end it’s just like “kill yourself.” Even if you’re killing yourself with expensive champagne and fast cars, you’re still gonna kill yourself. It’s not like “live well and take care of your kids.”
Pitts: How about for you? Over the years, being more of a conscious rapper, have you taken a lot of flak over that? Would anybody rather see you be a gangster rapper?
Tajai: No, hell no! If you’re gonna base it on reality, like dude, I went to Stanford. I’m from East Oakland but my mom kept me out of the street. And the street cats kept be out of the street. They were like “Dude, you’re gonna be a lawyer or something. You can’t be out here doing this shit. Somebody’s gotta have a clean record!” So, when you’re really a real person nobody is gonna deny that or knock you for it. I wish more people would deal with the realities of the situation. I mean, look at Ice Cube. He’s probably the hardest rapper ever, right? But still he was in college before he came out. He’s made a multi-million dollar empire making family movies and all this kind of shit, and he’s not running around like “I’m gonna kill you!” He might even say it in his songs, but you know that he’s not…at this point. But nobody’s trying to beat him up or kill him or test his gangster thing because he’s honest and real about shit. So that shit’ll protect you, know what I’m saying? That’s courage. Reality will protect you too. Nobody in the hood who’s REALLY in the hood is gonna be like “I don’t respect you because you’re a square and you don’t act like you’re hard.” They were like “I don’t respect you because you’re a square and you act like you’re hard.” So that’s why these guys are ending up in shootouts, end up catching gun charges cuz they gotta walk around with guns, because they’re fucking cowards, you know what I’m saying though? And they’re not hard but they’re really trying to be. It disturbs me that, for instance, Ja Rule is in jail, when he’s like a love ballad, duets guy. See like he shouldn’t be in jail, dude. I mean he should because he broke the law or whatever, but it’s messed up that he felt backed that far into a corner that he had to ride around his own city dirty. You know what I’m saying though? When he’s not even like that, but that has to do with the 50 Cent beef and all the extraneous circumstances. And look at 50 Cent. Even though he’s a bully, 50 Cent doesn’t do drugs, 50 Cent doesn’t sell drugs. 50 Cent doesn’t drink alcohol. 50 Cent takes care of his kids, you know? He wears a suit most of the time. He’s not out here trying to front like he’s a tough guy, even if he IS a tough guy. He’s more like “Look, I’m gettin this money, I’m doing this positive,” even though the way he got there was sort of on the back of others, but that’s personal. But he probably had good reason to hate Ja Rule, but it’s just unfortunate that both of them couldn’t have been like, “Okay we’re gonna do this out in public where we’re not gonna be shooting at each other, not like in private where we’re gonna have to run around with guns and all that shit.” But I guess that’s the personal aspect of it.
Pitts: So speaking of beef stuff then, what do you think? Is ‘No Vaseline’ the best diss track ever?
Pitts: Who did that? I’m not familiar with that one.
Tajai: Nas, about Jay-Z
Pitts: Oh really? Okay I’ll have to listen to that.
Tajai: Dude it’s a verb now. When you ether somebody, you destroy them.
Pitts: Oh serious then…
Tajai: Like 50 ethered Ja Rule’s career. So when a song title’s turned into a verb, that’s as bad as it gets. But ‘No Vaseline’ would be a close second probably.
Pitts: What do you think about Oakland’s version of the Occupy protests going on right now?
Tajai: Man, Oakland is the front line. There’s a vortex or something going on here. This is where the Panthers are from, the hippies, silicon valley, Hell’s Angels, all these movements that affect the entire world. The Hell’s Angels hideout is walking distance from here! You now what I mean though? There’s something special about the area. It’s not racial, I think it’s because it’s actually a real melting pot. You go to Chicago and there’s all kinds of people but they’re all in their own pocket. The white people are even segregated in Chicago, like “That’s the Russian area, I’m Polish.” That’s how deep the segregation is there, when it’s intraracial segregation as opposed to interracial segregation… Like here, it’s not like that. On my block I’ve got Hell’s Angels, eses, real Mexicans from Mexico, working class black people like Gary Payton live up the street, you know? I think that has something to do with it. No movement is sparked by separatism, it’s the confluence of all the stuff that makes things happen. Even the Aryan nation and things like that, it’s a response to something else. It’s not like one day guys were like “Hey, white power!” It was like “Okay, there’s this thing going on around us and we’ve gotta band together.” Movements come by things interacting, and this is the truest melting pot. Not even black/white, I mean, you look at Bill Clinton and see that he thought of everything in black & white. I think being from here helps you see through black & white to more important things. Like how come I’ve never seen a Filipino on TV? How come there are no Eastern Indians on TV? How come any Asians are usually Chinese and they’re nerds, know what I’m saying? People in other places don’t even miss Filipinos on TV, because they don’t even think that far! It’s really a real melting pot here. I think that’s why these movements get sparked. As far as occupy Wall Street, we’ve been having this huge discussion on tour about it. I say you need to fight on all levels. For me personally, I think one of the best things to do is to go take your money out of the bank. Start there. The problem is, the people staying in the tents in Oakland don’t have any money in the bank, hell they might not even have ID, know what I mean? I think it’s working because it’s a visual thing, but we’re also in the military, industrial, hospital, pharmaceutical, death & destruction complex, and there’s no way to get outside of it before we decide not to be consumers.
Tajai continued: In this protest REI probably made nine million dollars on North Face tents and shit! That’s the irony of the whole situation. It’s not like we’re on the brink like Mexico or Central America or Africa you know? You go to Costco it’s full of food, you got to Wal-Mart and it’s full of stuff. Nobody’s looting that shit. So it’s not like we’re on the brink like that, but everybody needs to have a voice and I like the way they’re expressing themselves, and I don’t think that’s going to go away. We’ve exported our jobs, we’ve refused to educate people properly, so we’re looking at the possibility of having an uneducated, unskilled, unemployed people. The only employment they’ve been able to get is military, where we have to have perpetual warfare for them to be gainfully employed, or cops…and who wants to be a cop, know what I’m sayin though? Or security, you know, basically protecting the rich from the poor, but you can’t get rich doing that. Unless you’re like Blackwater or something where you’re really professionally protecting the rich from the poor. So it’s a good movement on all fronts, and it’s sorta a fight on all fronts. My thing is like this, I’m gonna take money and invest it elsewhere. I’m probably going to invest in Africa, Europe, I want all my daughters to go to college, then I’m gonna get outta here. The world’s not going to end, even if the USA ends, the world’s not gonna end, it’s just gonna be different. Russia ended in our lifetime, and some people died, kind of, but it wasn’t like “Oh my God! USSR fell, and now there’s a big hole in Asia!” It was like “Okay, well now we’re capitalists and we’re in Russia.” I feel solidarity with the movement, but I wouldn’t participate. I’ve got four kids to feed, I can’t afford not to work. That’s the messed up part about it too, the way they get you is that we can’t really opt out because our food is tied to it, but I’ve got chickens in the back, I’ve got food growing in the back, I’ve got farms, I’m trying to get rain-water HOGs out here to collect the water, my gas station is in my front yard! I’ve got a bio-diesel setup out there, but I’ve still got the NFL package! Hahaha! [points towards TV]
Pitts: You’ve got a great house, a wife and four kids, when did you settle down?
Tajai: I started investing in real estate in 2002, and I just kept rolling. I tried to buy one house every year until the major collapse in 2009. Now I’m trying to buy land elsewhere. My wife is a farmer, so the land can be productive until we decide to develop it. I’m an architecture student, so I’m trying to learn to design hotels and stuff like that. It’s been a gradual progression, certainly not an overnight thing. I was in anthropology as an undergrad so architecture is a big change, but I’m in grad school now at Cal. As far as settling down, I used to go on 60-day tours but now my kids are teenagers, and teenagers are fuckin’ evil! Know what I’m saying though? You gotta be around to tell them to use the force. The kids are our future, so sometimes you’ve be like “Hold on…time to turn off the deadly rap and do some homework.” There ain’t nothing wrong with that, I listen to that music too, but they’re getting to point where you have to be around to guide their choices. Not even to tell them what to do, just to give them context so they can make their own educated decisions, and that’s hard to do when you’re on tour and shit. So I’ll go on tour nowadays for ten days, then be home for twenty. That’s still like 120 days a year. Not too bad, right?
Pitts: How long have you been married, and how did you meet your wife?
Tajai: I met her on a farm! I was in front of a property I manage, and she was on a farm. She had two kids, I had one, and we had one together. We’ve only been married like a year.
Pitts: What’s it like having TJ as a cousin?
Tajai: Man, I remember when he was a little kid! He’s a grown man now, it’s crazy.
Pitts: It’s hard to imagine TJ little!
Tajai: Yeah, seriously! It’s crazy that he’s grown…but man he hooked the video up! He’s gonna bring this underground highly illegal and dangerous racing culture to the forefront. Nobody has EVER put cars like this in a music video before, and I’m proud of that.
Pitts: Tell me about the video.
Tajai: The song is called ‘Ride With Me’ and the artists are called Cisum Tomorrow, and there’s a guy called Wes Nyle in there too. This is pop music, like Flo Rida, T-Pain, straight POP. I’ve got a label called Clear Label, so I run two labels. The Hiero label, and Clear Label. Clear Label is everything, I’ve got rock, jazz, pop, all of that, but it’s underground. But really, what is underground? Underground just means unknown. It’s mainstream as soon as it gets known. I’ve got pop artists like Cisum Tomorrow, guys like D-Lo you know…No Hoe, or Beeda Weeda, got R&B artists like Baby James, so it’s underground but it’s pop. Hopefully we’ll be able to bring the excitement of ‘Ride With Me’ to the forefront. It’s hard dude, being from out here and trying to get on MTV. Think about the Bay records that are on MTV, there’s zero. There’s E-40 whose been out for 20 years, and there’s E-40 whose been out for 20 years, and they might play Too Short every now and then and he’s been out for 30 years! Think about that though, they’ve broken nothing new from the Bay, period. Our radio doesn’t break anything, and I’m not trying to bust on the radio, but really they put you in this one little ghetto local hour called “the flavor hour” or “home turf” or whatever, and then 23hrs of the same playlist that you would hear in Wichita, Kansas, or Atlanta, or New York. Same stuff, Kanye, Jay-Z, Drake, Wocka Flocka, you know it’s the same stuff as everywhere else. Before, 106.1 KMEL was one of the MAIN stations that broke hip hop during the day on the radio. We’ve gone trailing behind ever since. They say “what about ‘Tell Me When to Go?’” Yeah, that’s Little John from Atlanta producing E-40 who has been around for 20 years and has had hits. Nothing else. Think about it, NOTHING! Even Mr. Fab! They still don’t pump him on MTV like they should. It’s hard, dude. We’re fighting an uphill battle out here, and I’m just trying to get the best music possible. I know it can compete because I’ve traveled the world and played it, and done well, but it’s hard to get on NYC based MTV and the radio that follows some sort of invisible ClearChannel list.
Pitts: What do you think about Kreayshawn?
Tajai: She ain’t bad, I mean, hopefully she’ll have a long successful career you know? There’s not really anything there for me when I listen to her. I dig the beat, and I really dig her style, but she isn’t saying anything. Look at Little B, who is actually an authentic movement, Kreayshawn’s like “I’m the female Little B, and because I have this style and I look this certain way, I can probably take it a lot further than you.” She’s definitely not untalented, there just isn’t anything there for me. That being said, I would’ve signed her had I heard it! Definitely would’ve signed her. I don’t think she’s faking it either, she’s not fronting for the cameras or anything, its really her. That’s important to me in music. She’s like the Oakland Rap Lady Gaga. Haha. Hey, I’m just glad to see any kids coming out of here doing something positive. I don’t see her buying Bentleys or popping bottles of champagne, and that’s cooler to me than cats who come out and just go bouji.
Pitts: What’s your favorite food?
Tajai: Wow, good question. Hard to say. Probably right now Indian food, but there was this one place in particular I went to in England that had a “matrix of curry” it was my favorite. England has the worst food in the world, but the best Indian food. I was thinking about doing a wrap like a burrito but in a naan bread with curry.
Pitts: Oh man, open that joint, I’d eat there. [I’d eat there too! -Bohan]
Tajai: I need to find who can really do it, maybe it’d be good as a truck or something. But yeah, Indian is my favorite right now, especially the regional nuances.
Pitts: Where’s your favorite place in the world, and where are you going when you “get out of here?”
Tajai: Wow, another tough question. I like the architecture in Prague, but my wife and I went to Paris and it was really nice. Just the way it was set up, all the crazy intersections… and the way you can get around on the metro is tight. We’re probably going to end up doing something in Paris, then going to Tanzania in Africa. They’ve got stuff like 10 acres on the beach for $300k, versus one house in the ghetto for $400k, so we look at it like a quality of life thing. We live in a great area, we’ve got great food, good weather, you can snowboard, you can surf, so it’s cool. I’m just tired of being here, and it costs too much. They charge you for all those opportunities.
Pitts: Well that’s about it, anything you want to add?
Tajai: Check out hieroglyphics.com, it’s been up and running for seventeen years! Check out clearlabelrecords.com, and watch out for all the Clear Label artists. Man…Baby James, League 510, Beeda Weeda, D-Lo, Cisum Tomorrow, Chris Marsol, Spark AKA Pac-Man, &c! I say this to everyone man, if you get all your musical knowledge and information from the television and the radio you’re a square, and you need to dig a little bit deeper because that’s just the tip of the iceberg. That’s the stuff that floats to the top. Not everything that floats to the top is the cream, sometimes it’s a piece of shit that’s buoyant. Dig deeper, man!
Pitts: That’s a great quote. So when can we see you play next?
Tajai: I’m doing a mixtape called Machine Language, and I’m doing the “Cream of Beat” on the 24th. It’s us and Digital Underground, so it’ll be a ’90s party for sure. It’s gonna be at the Mezzanine in San Francisco. I’ve got an album coming out next year called Rap Noir. I just took time off because I had a newborn, so in this downtime I’m trying to drop this mixtape and this album. Anyway, Cream of Beat is definitely going down! Come party and then you’ll be stuck in San Francisco because BART stops at 1:30am, then you can go shop.