A Rational Conversation: Souls of Mischief On Their Vampire Weekend Connection and Why '93 'Til Infinity' Endures...
A Rational Conversation is a regular column by writer Eric Ducker where he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
Last week, Vampire Weekend released their third album, Modern Vampires of the City. One of the first songs from the album that the magpie-ish indie rock act premiered was “Step,” which lyrically references the title of a Run-DMC album and film, the city of Alameda, and inappropriately dressed punks at Astor Place in New York. It also borrows part of its chorus and thematic issues from “Step to My Girl,” a 1990s rarity by the Bay Area hip-hop group Souls of Mischief. Ducker got on the phone with Tajai of Souls of Mischief and the Hieroglyphics crew to get the story behind “Step to My Girl,” how Vampire Weekend came to use it, and the other unexpected places he’s heard his songs appear. Also last week, Souls of Mischief announced the summer-long Still Infinity Tour, which will commemorate the 20th anniversary of their debut ’93 'Til Infinity, and leads up to both a documentary about the landmark release and a new album due this fall.
Eric Ducker: What’s the story behind the original “Step to My Girl”?
Tajai: We recorded that song when we were still in high school; I was probably 15 or 16. The YZ sample [from “Who’s That Girl?”] of him saying, “Every time I see you in the world, you always step to my girl,” was really the impetus behind it. The sample drove it. We were at the age where we were getting into serious relationships. We wanted to make a love song, but for it not to be sappy, so we added the “I’ll beat you up if you talk to my girlfriend” aspect to it. We were kids. Literally.
ED: Was it one of the first songs you did?
T: No. We’ve been rapping since we were eight. A-Plus and I have been in the group for 30 years. That was one of our later songs as an unsigned group. That was actually one of the songs on our demo that got us signed.
ED: How did you come across the sample of Grover Washington Jr.'s “Aubrey” for the beat?
T: I don’t know anything about that. A-Plus produced it. I do know that they wouldn’t let us clear it for our first album. There were these guys who worked for Jive who used to re-work samples called Hula and Fingers, but [their version] just didn’t recapture the essence of the original.
ED: You guys famously had the same problem with the song “Cab Fare,” which sampled Bob James’ theme song for “Taxi.”
T: Yeah, same thing. The crazy part is that I saw Bob James talking about how he couldn’t let it be cleared. First off, Bob James didn’t own the sample – the TV company owned it: he did okay the clearance, but he didn’t own the sample. But I’m glad. I’m happy that both of those songs are cult classics, but when we got signed, we were transitioning between childhood and adulthood. So as a guy who was making that transition, those songs represent a period of our youth. They’re nostalgic and all that, but I don’t think they’re representative of the Souls of Mischief that was on that album. They encapsulate our pre-'93 era. I don’t think they would have passed muster on the '93 'Til Infinity album.
ED: Were there songs on the demo that did make it to the album?
T: “That’s When Ya Lost” was one, but it was called “Lost in the Maze of the Rhythm” or something. “Let 'Em Know” was a demo song, I believe. We had stuff on there with, like, Doors samples that would never clear, so a lot of the stuff on the demo never made it.
ED: Even when '93 'Til Infinity came out, there was already this legend of “Cab Fare.” Did “Step to My Girl” have a following, or did that only happen once you put the Hiero Oldies compilations out?
T: “Step to My Girl” was big. That whole demo is probably platinum. There are guys who come up to us at shows right now with a dub of a dub of a dub of that tape. In the streets, that’s what we traded in. I remember that on the same tape that I had my demo, I had the Pharcyde’s “Ya Mama” demo, I had “Jump Around” by House of Pain, I had some Cypress Hill stuff, all before they came out. They were just these things that were floating through the industry.
ED: What was the motivation for you guys to put out those Hiero rarities tapes in the late ’90s?
T: We had gone independent and were trying to generate funds to put out our first [Hieroglyphics] album, 3rd Eye Vision. They were on cassette first. We had Hieroglyphics B-Sides and Hieroglyphics Oldies. They were wildly successful, and the beginning of our website and our indie label.
ED: Do you ever perform that stuff live?
T: We’ve done “Cab Fare” live, but “Step to My Girl,” never. I don’t even think unsigned we ever did it. Both the Vampire Weekend version and our version are songs that you sit back and relax to. They’re not really energy filled. As far as our show, we kind of rock out. We might do “Make Your Mind Up” or “'93 'Til Infinity” or maybe “Oakland Blackouts,” but that’s probably as mellow as we get when we’re playing live.
ED: How did Vampire Weekend approach you about incorporating the song into “Step”?
T: It was through their legal team. Our lawyer contacted us and said, “Hey, there’s this group that wants to use 'Step to My Girl.’” We said we didn’t even own the sample, but I guess they had already cleared what they needed to clear and they just wanted to use one of my lines, or something like that. When guys from a hip-hop group want to do something with one of our songs, they just want to rap over the beat. These dudes crafted an entire new sound using elements of it, but not remaking it. That was incredible of them.
ED: Were you familiar with Vampire Weekend at all?
T: Me personally, no. But they’re awesome. I’m glad that I’m familiar with them now. What’s messed about this world is that I don’t have a television and I hate the radio, so it’s really hard to get exposed to new music. So when you get exposed to new music and they end up being fans or are inspired by your music, that’s a double whammy.
ED: Have you talked to any of the members of Vampire Weekend directly, or has it all been through lawyers?
T: We spoke to one of the guys. We’re thinking about doing a collaboration.
ED: Did Vampire Weekend tell you how they came to use your song as an inspiration for “Step”?
T: They did it humbly. Let’s just say the correspondence wasn’t all corporate. When I finally heard “Step,” it was so good; I was just happy we were able to be part of that. I’ve heard so many terrible “'93 'Til Infinity” remakes that it’s refreshing to hear something that is actually not a remake but is an “inspired by.”
ED: Have there been other unexpected places where Souls of Mischief music or influence has shown up?
T: The tie-in with the skater culture has been crazy. We got in on the 411 Video Magazine and [Plan B’s] Second Hand Smoke skate videos. That catapulted us to a whole different level. Fortunately, skaters have followed us throughout the years. We’ve got snowboarder fans and surfer fans through videos. There’s this action sports crossover. At first it seemed kind of random. But when we got on those skate videos, they were these seminal skate videos, just like our record is a seminal record for California underground hip-hop. These skate videos had guys like Jovontae Turner or Mike Carroll and they were skating in a style that was brand new. It was really a good fit. Aside from that, they played “'93 'Til Infinity” at a Warriors game recently, and that felt good, because you’ve got 20 million people watching the playoffs on TV.
ED: When Vampire Weekend first started, some people had cultural appropriation issues with them because they were a group of Ivy League-educated guys using aspects of popular African music. Does that type of stuff bother you?
T: Are artists who sample music culturally appropriating the music? I don’t really get off into that. If they had a bunch of guys in blackface singing their songs, that’s another thing. In the end, what you’re inspired by is what you’re inspired by. The crazy part is that it’s usually Ivy League educated black guys saying these things. It’s not anybody in the 'hood saying that. It’s guys that are from the same background, but are a different color, saying it about whoever the appropriator is. It’s an ivory tower debate, it’s not a debate that’s being had amongst guys that are just listening to the music. I’m not familiar with a lot of Vampire Weekend’s earlier stuff, but it’s frustrating to me to hear that. A lot of the times it’s like, “Are you mad that you didn’t find it first? Or that you didn’t come out with this style? Or are you really mad that these guys are into something that you cherish?” It’s weird. Everything is cultural appropriation: it can be done in a proper way, and it can be done in a denigrating and disrespectful way. Mostly people who really love the music and are into the music, they’re not doing it in a disrespectful way.