by The People’s Minister of Information JR
The band of rappers known as Souls of Mischief is one of the hip hop architects of the West Coast. They, along with Hiero teammate Del Tha Funky Homosapien, expanded the Bay Area hip hop sound from the likes of Too Short, Spice 1 and Digital Underground – and brought us up to par with the slick-talking New York rhyme-sayers epitomized by Slick Rick the Ruler.
After accomplishing that artistically monstrous feat, Souls of Mischief and their crew, Hieroglyphics, went on to build independently one of the internationally best known brands in hip hop. They put out their own albums, book their own tours and handle all of their own merchandise, and the revenue feeds their clan of a dozen or so men and funds the building they own and operate in the flatlands of East Oakland.
Phesto Dee, a quarter of the membership of Souls of Mischief, is arguably the most vicious and complex lyricist in the whole Hiero camp. Twenty years after exploding to recognition on the debut Souls album, “’93 ‘Til Infinity,” Phesto’s respect in the game has recently been documented and highlighted on the new documentary, “’Til Infinity,” which is about the classic album and is set to premiere on April 6 at 9 p.m. at the Black Repertory Theatre, as a part of the Oakland International Film Fest.
Phesto Dee has recently dropped his newest creation, “Infrared Rum,” so go check it out. Here is the legendary Phesto Dee in his own words in our very first Q&A …
M.O.I. JR: Souls of Mischief celebrated its 20th year in hip hop last year. How did you get into music? When?
Phesto Dee: Yes, we celebrated the 20-year anniversary of our first album “’93 ‘Til Infinity.” Our involvement in hip hop actually predates that time. I’ve been into music since I was a young kid – too far back to remember exactly when.
M.O.I. JR: Who originally inspired you to rap?
Phesto Dee: Spoonie Gee, Kurtis Blow, Melle Mel, Run DMC, Too Short, Slick Rick and Dougie, my older cousins etc.
M.O.I. JR: How did you get into Souls of Mischief and Hieroglyphics?
Phesto Dee: We were all friends who grew up in the same neighborhood for the most part. Some of us went to the same elementary, middle school and high school. We were all rhyming together in like the ninth and 10th grade, some of us as far back as first grade. That’s when I started taking it really serious. It just kind of formed organically after that.
M.O.I. JR: Is this your first solo project, “Infrared Rum”?
Phesto Dee: No. I’ve had a couple. “Background Check” (2012) was my first full length release. Before that I released “Granite Pedigree.”
M.O.I. JR: Many consider you the complex rhymer of the Hiero camp. Why is that? How do you look at the art of putting together rhymes?
Phesto Dee: I think we are all complex in our own way. I took a liking to using certain words and phrases that are not used in our everyday vocabularies early on. I think I gained an unshakeable reputation from that first record where I was using lots of grandiose terminology.
For me rhyming has been about being creative and original, so that’s why I want to use words other rappers don’t. I felt like that was one way to separate myself and be unique. I think the most difficult thing to do as an emcee is be a superb lyricist and simultaneously stylistically original. So many greats preceded us. But that’s the challenge. It’s more than just a form of expression for me.
M.O.I. JR: Did you feature anyone on this new album? How did you pick your features?
Phesto Dee: I got my homeboy Izrell on the album. I was on my way to the studio and hit him up on a fluke – like man, you need to jump on this track. For some reason I just hear your voice on it. He was on deck and ready to work. I respect that to the fullest.
I also have a group of musicians included on the album. My man Azim played bass guitar on almost the whole album. DJ Toure did scratches and he’s also a drummer who laid some traps for me. Kev Choice is my family, so I always got him on some synth or keys. A young lady named Christine Banks did some phenomenal string arrangements for me as well as performed violin. Dj Lex laid some scratches for me too.
M.O.I. JR: Hiero has been a camp of brothas working together for over 20 years. What does it take to keep a camp of about a dozen Black men from Oakland working together for that long?
Phesto Dee: Friendship and a family bond. We don’t always see eye to eye and probably never will, but we understand that if we work together, the outcome is better than us being divided.
M.O.I. JR: I recently saw “’Til Infinity,” the documentary about Souls of Mischief’s first album, and I was surprised by the caliber of rappers that were in it to pay homage to y’all, including De La, Phife, Redman, Shock G, Pharcyde, E-40, Yasiin Bey and Too Short. What do you think Souls and Hiero has added to rap music? Why were all these top-notch rhyme-sayers inspired by your crew’s work?
Phesto Dee: Because we made an indelible imprint when we came out – as an original group from the West who could hold its own anywhere – and as individuals we stood apart from those who preceded us. Also we bested on everybody on that freestyle tip. We brought it back to the essence and raised the bar.
M.O.I. JR: Where is the Bay Area independent hip hop scene currently at in your opinion? What’s right and what’s wrong?
Phesto Dee: That’s a tough nut to crack. Independent music has so many more outlets than it has ever had, and there are a multitude of talented groups and crews and artists in the Bay. I think the Bay is on the cutting edge at all times.
The diversity in music and vigor and hunger with independent artists is our strong point. There is no music industry here so to speak, so we, as independent artists in the Bay, have to be innovative in creating new avenues and outlets for our music to reach our fan base. We have been able to do that and keep our artistic integrity, while still making the music accessible and digestible for hip hop listeners.
We are the trendsetters here and not the followers. That’s the positive. The negative is that sometimes we are not supportive of each other and that happens a lot when you have a big group in a small market. It’s like crabs in a barrel, at times.
M.O.I. JR: Who are some of the rappers that inspire you that are on the scene today?
Phesto Dee: I’m not really inspired by other rappers. I’m inspired by life. That’s what a lot of the newer cats bring to the table. They bring a fresh perspective on life for me but also take me back to when I was that age. That hunger, that desire to achieve your potential, is something I always have love and respect for.
M.O.I. JR: How do people keep up with you online?
Phesto Dee: Go to phesto.bandcamp.com for my new one, “Infrared Rum.” I’m @phestohierosoul on Instagram and Twitter. Facebook is Phesto Dee. And of course hieroglyphics.com, @somhiero on Twitter and @soulsofmischief and @therealhierocrew on Instagram. Peace!
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and the newly released “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.