20 Years of "93 'Til Infinity": Souls of Mischief's hit taps the collective unconscious

Maybe it's the sample, a mercurial sped-up marimba melody from a Billy Cobham jazz-fusion song. Or maybe it's the familiar boom-bap beat, or the warm, wistful bassline, or the fact that this prophetic posse-cut features four precocious Oakland teenagers spectacularly out-rapping each other in punchy, slang-splattered verses. Or maybe it's the message — "This is how we chill" — and the way the chillness of the track and the subject matter contrast so sharply with the hyperactivity of the rhyming. Or maybe it was that rap music from Northern California had never sounded like this before.

One thing is for sure: Twenty years after its original release, Souls of Mischief's "93 'Til Infinity" is still as big a Bay Area rap anthem as there is.

The song launched the major-label-signed but mostly unknown group — A-Plus, Opio, Phesto, and Tajai — to the echelons of rap stardom, at least for a while. As Souls of Mischief's first single, "93 'Til Infinity" peaked at 72 on the Billboard Hot 100, with the accompanying album rising to No. 85 on the Billboard 200 — pretty high considering the uneasy place rap music occupied in the pop mainstream. It got onto influential shows like BET's Rap City and Yo! MTV Raps. The members' friends at colleges around the country heard it on the radio and called to say so. East Coast titans A Tribe Called Quest took the group on tour. Now two decades later, Souls of Mischief is part of Oakland's Hieroglyphics indie-rap collective, still recording, touring, and drawing big crowds, as they did at this year's Hiero Day celebration, which peaked with an anniversary performance of "93 'Til Infinity."

In 1993, Souls of Mischief and their friends took over Hyde Street Studios in San Francisco for two weeks to finish their first album. One day, rapper/producer A-Plus was showing off some new beats, and played one with an atmospheric melody that had been sped up over an earthy bass. Everyone knew that the beat was special. "It just had a really ephemeral quality," Tajai remembers now. "It felt like the soundtrack to when we would go to the hills and blaze one and talk about our future." A-Plus had promised the beat to a friend, Pep Love, but the other members of Souls of Mischief overrode the gift and demanded to use it.

What followed was the kind of rare confluence that often leads to great recordings: a magnificent beat, a crew accustomed to constantly freestyling, and an encouraging atmosphere. "The studio was full of people, weed smoke, everything, liquor — it was a party," remembers D Sharp, a friend and erstwhile DJ of the crew. "I was actually in the studio when Tajai went, 'Sometimes it gets a little hectic out there...' I don't think no one really tripped that it was going to be that big."

Judged by its subject matter, "93 'Til Infinity" is nothing special. Aside from the brilliant backing track, it's basically four dudes bragging to one another about smoking weed, attracting women, evading cops, and trying to be cool. The complexity, and the art, come in the way these tales are rendered — in the slinky, elastic verses, in riffs inside of riffs. Read Opio's eighth verse and think of the way a jazz instrumentalist will structure an entire solo around a certain note or phrase:

Greenbacks in stacks, don't even ask

Who got the fat sacks? We can max pumpin' fat tracks

Exchangin' facts about impacts, 'cause in facts

My freestyle talent overpowers brothers can't hack... it

They lack wit; we got the mack shit

93 'til infinity — kill all that wack shit

Even the structure of the song mirrors a jazz tune, with four soloists improvising riffs but returning to a main theme, the song's memorable hook: "This is how we chill from 93 'til." It's a little bewildering at first, with the complexity of the rhymes, the breadth of meaning conveyed in so few words, the sheer quickness with which they change directions and subjects and voices. But it exemplifies the artistry of what what would later be considered "alternative" hip-hop.

In those gangsta-dominated days, this sound was already a throwback. "93 'Til Infinity" came out when West Coast rap was dominated by the war between Dr. Dre and Eazy E that blew up after the dissolution of N.W.A. Snoop Dogg had yet to arrive as a force. Tupac was just getting big. The Bay Area was known for lurid street-rap like Too Short's "Freaky Tales," not traditional beats and deft lyrics. Those were the realm of East Coast groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. And when Souls of Mischief put out "93 'Til Infinity," "the 'hood didn't really take 'em serious, real talk," says D Sharp. "'Cause it's like 'Oh, they on some De La Soul happy shit.' They wasn't making [1995 street-rap hit] "I Got Five on It." Souls of Mischief were from the same part of East Oakland as many street rappers, but they were doing something different. "93 'Til Infinity" showed the world — and especially the East Coast rap establishment — that more traditional hip-hop could be an Oakland thing, too.

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