For 20 years now, the four members of Souls of Mischief have lived and played in the streets of Oakland. When they were 15, you might have found them using corrosive substances to bleach their names onto the football fields of the opposing teams, or dodging bottle rockets they were shooting off in the driveway. If you were a good friend of theirs, you could've just missed them as they egged your house on prom night. And since they were hanging out anyway, why not make some rhymes?

The crew is all grown up now, but the history they share (12 of those 20 years were spent performing as The Souls of Mischief) is the foundation on which they've built their music. "Oakland had its own hip hop scene early," says Tajai. "It was completely contrary to hip hop in the rest of the world, and the kids have grown up on it. We started making music all the way back in '81, '82, after Rappers Delight came out. Our friends were listenin' to it, our elders were. It was all we knew."

Listening to the first hip hop-bred generation to come of age in this West Coast rapping mecca, it's clear that Oakland has as much presence in the group as do any of the members of the Souls.

"When you come to Oakland, you realize it's a town by itself out here," says A Plus. "Oakland influences itself in a weird way. There's so much diversity, so much culture, that no matter what genre of hip hop it is, there's somebody always pushing the envelope." And it might be Oakland's history that sets this precedent. "People are always making new things here, being creative. It's a tradition. I mean, look at the gold rush. It was a frontier. It's an ideal more than anything, and it keeps us going," says Tajai.

This influence shows up in the Soul's music all over the place. "For one thing," says Tajai, "California is a real car culture, so a lot of our music is car music, rather than headphone music. That makes percussion and bass a lot more important--I think it makes this music laid back, but still aggressive."

What this all adds up to is a lot more funk. On their most recent album, called Trilogy: Conflict, Climax, Resolution the gingerly crafted lyrics of the Souls (all four do both lyrics and production) certainly carry them through the tracks, but in relation to the percussion, vocals are nothing but a tag line. "Interrogation," for example, the third track of Trilogy, is built on a kind of delicate, flute-like squeal. It's a sound that mimics a cops' sirens, yet is still remarkably pleasing.

The content of the Souls' music also seems to reflect a lot of Oakland's attitude. The sixth track, called "Bad Business," speaks of a kind of thoughtful self-reflection, a meditation on the self, coupled with a need to be aware of one's surroundings at all times. "One thing I've learned from Oakland," says A Plus, "is that you always gotta watch yourself. It's like a chess game on the street--a series of opportunities in front of you at all times, and you gotta plan ahead." The song suggests as much when it says, "When promises are made that you have to break for accolades/It's bad businessWhen you look into your eyes and see what you despise/That's Bad Business."

Of course, the Souls can't embody Oakland exclusively--every crew has a different interpretation of the city. "But we feed off each other," says A Plus. "We feed off each other to become individuals."