Oakland rap quartet Souls of Mischief is most fondly remembered for a 1993 hit. Prince Paul is a legendary oddball production Svengali from Long Island who also goes by the aliases Chest Rockwell and Filthy Pablo. The idea of holing them up together in a rented house on Montezuma Street in Marin County for a month sounds like a particularly wretched reality TV premise. But for the Souls, the scenario was a way to channel their energy into the most potent music they have made since breaking onto the national stage with "93 Til Infinity." It's an outcome the crew achieved by conceding a chunk of creative control to Prince Paul, whose quirky vision helped craft De La Soul's first three albums. He acted as executive producer on Montezuma's Revenge, the Souls' fifth album, which was released in December to a favorable response from critics and bloggers.
With ego dominating rap music, it's rare to find hip-hop artists willing to submit to the guidance and criticism of an outsider. This is despite the rich history of classic albums being crafted under the guidance of a singular hand. In the '80s, Marley Marl conjured up a magical run of cornerstone East Coast rap projects for Juice Crew members MC Shan, Big Daddy Kane, and Roxanne Shante. Whether masterminding the rise of N.W.A., Snoop Dogg, Eminem, or 50 Cent, Dr. Dre is a proven master at controlling the destiny of others. On the flip side, the usually critically unimpeachable the Clipse caught its first middling reviews for Til the Casket Drops, the duo's only album not exclusively produced by the Neptunes. It's to the Souls' credit, then, that, despite being Bay Area recording veterans, they were humble enough to recognize the benefits of embracing the Prince Paul regime.
The idea to collaborate came about when the two parties met on tour for another Prince Paul project, Handsome Boy Modeling School. As Opio from Souls tells it, the producer's requirements were exacting. "He wanted to make sure we were up to par," he recalls. "When we met up, he told us he was a hard and demanding guy. He said if we couldn't handle that, we should pass on the opportunity to work with him. He warned us our minds had to be right for this to succeed."
The Souls were rewarded for their work ethic with the best batch of beats they've rhymed over in a decade — since their debut, their vocab has often trumped their production — as well as a reassessment of the way they make music. Prince Paul is a producer who favors the naked germ of an idea over the slickness of the recording. In the past, he has used the sound of a jangling fistful of coins as percussion. It's a mentality he imparted to the group. Opio gushes, "Paul doesn't let ideas fall to the wayside. Instead of us joking around about doing a song and then letting the idea fall away, he's like, 'Nah, do that now, let's record it and capture it at the moment.'"
It's easy to imagine the arc of creation with "Tour Stories," a melancholy lament about life on the road, and "Postal," which deals with the sour side of relationships. You can see the fleeting comment or coincidental conversation being quickly caught, refined, and molded into a cohesive song. It's a facet that gives Montezuma's Revenge a sense of verity and vibrancy, and ensures there's nothing staid about the tracks.
As Opio testifies of the experience, "Lending yourself to a master isn't a difficult thing to do." It's advice more rappers would do well to heed.