Souls of Mischief came back with a vengeance in ’95. But why? They came off a critically acclaimed debut, had been nationally present on one of the regionally most diverse record labels and must have enjoyed at least some of the perks that come with being a teenage rap star (all aged between 18-19). How does that translate to a harsh, dark, single-minded second album only two years later? There are battle raps at every turn of “No Man’s Land.” Roughly 90% of the content simulates some type of battle situation. You can identify this as Rap Rhetoric 101, or even dismiss it as the least common denominator for a group of MC’s who had already shot their bolt. You can champion it as an attempt to shake stereotypes (think “De La Soul Is Dead”), or as judgement day for clones and copy cats (think Bone’s “The Art of War”). There’s even the suspicion that the Souls saw themselves in need of home front support and were trying to ensure the local audience of their loyalty to Oakland. Also, insiders will not hesitate to mention the lyrical feud with Hobo Junction the Hieroglyphics were engaged in in ’94, while others might point to Del’s second album “No Need for Alarm,” which brought a very similar change in tone.
By their own account, Opio, A-Plus, Tajai and Phesto felt the need to ascertain their position as a leading force in… Well, it gets a bit vague after that. For a mid-’90s album, “No Man’s Land” drops exceptionally often a term that by then had to be considered old fashioned – biting. A-Plus asks, “You hoes that don’t do your own rhymes got to chew the pros?” Tajai demands, “Keep my rhymes off your tongue!” while Opio assures, “We ain’t stole no lyrics.”
Evidently, just because biting as a term went out of style doesn’t mean that it isn’t still happening. The constant struggle between innovation and imitation is in fact deeply embedded in hip-hop’s genetic code. Still it’s strange to witness SOM complain about the sincerest form of flattery on an album that claims East Oakland like only Too $hort has while they simultaneously streamline their own styles to the point where they all damn near rhyme alike.
Compared to “93,” the rhyming intervals are shorter, which indicates a strong freestyle influence. When Opio jibes, “I hear he don’t be comin’ off the top / He better drop and give me 50,” he may very well refer to Saafir, who allegedly used writtens in the Hobo/Hiero showdown hosted by KMEL’s Wake Up Show the previous year. Either way “No Man’s Land” combines the freestyle aesthetic with a focused attitude. While in no way great lyricists in the traditional sense, SOM were on the verge of becoming masters of the miniature. A-Plus is often top of the class:
“I reduce you to dust piles
‘Plus styles’ll crush smiles
seducin’ women till they bust out
of they garments
Always gave the crowd what they wanted
I rocked the mic and now they don’t want you on it
So I own it, I make my grip tight
It’s like I’m nothin’ nice when
I’m writin’ rhymes to cut and slice men”
This can result in memorable and convincing lines, such as you’ll find in the hook of “Rock it Like That”: “The inventiveness is what you can’t resist.” Or Opio’s “First of all for you pussies – don’t take it personal / SOM is versatile / That is irreversible.” The Hieroglyphics album “3rd Eye Vision” could be considered the apex of that rhyme style. If enough thought is put into it, there isn’t a description that is more apt than Phesto’s: “Perfect is the only way to word it.” Within Hiero, SOM have the distinction of not over-enunciating their rhymes, which renders their performance effortless. But “No Man’s Land” also contains simple one-liners that are just as effective. Tajai’s “One day I got up and I willed: no rapper greater.” Opio’s “I can’t escape my thoughts, my mind spirals until the vinyl stops.”
Overall however, the strict ryhme pattern is one element that makes the album less playful than its predecessor. Other factors are the aforementioned battle attitude and street edge. The latter was definitely intended. Pep Love declares early on that “right about now it’s a Oakland thing.” A-Plus points out the inevitable Too $hort influence and depicts his hometown as a small world: “In the O we knowin’ where you at / Be in the cut if you scared of them gats / cause Oakland niggas be prepared to jack.” In the process, you will hear them make the kind of arguments street rappers regularly get shunned for. Phesto’s verse for “Fa Sho Fo Real” may serve as an example:
“No Thai weed, straight Oakland style with the hash block
Cash knots in my pocket with knock to blast
I put the EQ to 10, reminiscin’ about that cock last
night, waitin’ for this fool to bend a corner
Partner, hit the gas like a champ bumpin’ this
Big Touré drums and that fat-ass bassline hummin’
Thinkin’ about comin’ up before the summer hit
Then bubblin’, run my shit for double at shows
so promoters owe us more than four figures with hoes
disclosin’ hourglass shapes for the Souls
ESO’s finest, diamonds
’round my wrist is bliss
It’s like this
In the absence of goodwill it’s easy to interpret “No Man’s Land” as a sell-out or perpetrating move. But sophomore efforts are bound to process previous events, and if SOM really witnessed a “wave of overnight rappin’,” came to the conclusion they had to rep the Town harder and were “inspired by the biters who try us on for size,” then the album makes complete sense. A 180 it is not. “It’s all an illusion if my aim seems mainstream,” warned Phesto in the lead single “Rock it Like That.” Aiming at weak shit in general, they only briefly touch on the commercial scene, “the ones on the idiot box showin’ it pays to be a buster (…) expose we all some hoes or hustlers (…) no love for any other motherfucker.”
SOM rightfully demanded such love, choosing to earn it the traditional ’90s way – by coming hard. That makes “No Man’s Land” a rare, potentially unifiying album in a divided rap landscape. At the very least within the Bay Area scene. “Rock it Like That” with its hard drums and strategically placed synths is as big and badass as any Ant Banks beat. “Bumpshit” is the defined but sparse background that makes the MC’s flows and voices stand out all the clearer. The delicious “Fa Sho Fo Real” is an invitation to kick game no self-respecting player can turn down. “Do You Want It?” and “Ya Don’t Stop” recall the debut, while the staggering, pounding “’94 Via Satellite” (produced by and featuring Del) creates a raw live atmosphere similar to Freestyle Fellowship’s “Heavyweights.”
The title track may just best sum up the crew’s new direction with its rumbling, off-kilter instrumentation, cocky Pep Love adlibs and Opio’s opening verse from the enemy perspective:
“MC’s they diss but wanna be subtle:
‘What can I say to disgruntle
Hieroglyphics? But then the rebuttal
Don’t wanna get caught stuck on the mic
I know what it’s like
I seen some niggas be victims last night
a pitiful sight
All four of ’em, they tight'”
Divising production among at least a dozen members, Hiero may just be the crew with the deepest production talent pool in all of hip-hop history. For “No Man’s Land” Touré, Jay Biz, Opio, A-Plus, Casual, Del and Snupe all came correct with solid beats.
Yet as much as can be said for it, something is missing from the album. You may not realize what until the closing “Times Ain’t Fair” rolls around. For once SOM cater to the listener’s own soul with inspiring verses. The basic approach works just fine here, whether it’s Phesto arguing, “Rhymin’ pays / Never was it worth doin’ crime, it stays / on your record when you try to get employment / I avoid it – like bein’ exploited,” Tajai wondering, “What will I catch? / Will it be… / A good job? Huh? Two to the head? / Maybe HI’, say I can join the ranks of the livin’ dead,” or Opio shrugging, “I make cash doin’ shows from state to state / but still task wanna run the license plate / I don’t trip cause it’s all in vain / Your daughter knows my name / ask the broad the game.” A-Plus flunks this particular test, so thankfully they all come together in the last verse, concluding an unexpected album finale hip-hop fans from all walks of life should be able to subscribe to.
Food for thought is also provided with the short but intense “Secret Service,” an eye-opener for wanna-be revolutionaries, although limiting it to a A/Tajai duet reduces its impact. “Where the Fuck You At?” narrates four stories guided by the question asked in the title, but it pales in comparison to the cut that could have made “No Man’s Land” much more memorable, the brilliant “Cab Fare” whose ‘Taxi’ samples couldn’t be cleared.
Their breakout hit detailed how Souls of Mischief CHILLED from ’93 til. They were still willing to chill on “No Man’s Land,” but were forced to take action. What forced them is unknown but it resulted in a forceful album anyway.