Souls of Mischief at Berbati’s Pan, Saturday, March 5

Portland is often graced by nationally known underground hip-hop crews and producers. A brief telephone pole survey reveals this trend. Dilated Peoples, Greyboy, Subtle, Sunspot Jones, Del, Handsome Boy Modeling School and the Black Eyed Peas (who have admittedly abandoned the underground) will or have performed for the 20-something, white, urban hip-hop heads of PDX. Although these acts are in themselves extraordinary (not including the now radio-safe B.E.P Family), the best thing about these shows is that they offer an opportunity for the extraordinarily talented local crews to showcase their talent in front of larger audiences than they might normally have.

The Souls of Mischief show at Berbati’s was no exception. The two incredible Portland crews that opened for the grand-pappies of bay area, underground hip-hop were easily the most entertaining and talented portion of the bill.

Libretto was the first local MC on the mic. Though the club was sparsely populated, he hit the stage as if he were playing to an arena. He was able to get a good portion of the club to the front of the stage and less than two songs into his woefully short set the crowd had matched his energy. Libretto’s positive flows blended with creative beats that allowed for easy breaks and nuances in rhythm. He was also accompanied on stage by Wolveryne who created an excellent counterpoint, but could have been a bit tighter on the microphone. Still, the two created a beautiful flow that got hands in the air and heads bobbing.

Wolveryne and I were discussing the lack of serious local interest in Portland crews when Sideways Speech took the stage. It seems clear that local crews need to combat the fact that locals don’t take their scene seriously by putting more energy into their performances. Even though they started their set with a sobering dedication to a cousin who had died during a basketball game at Lincoln High School, they set it off in quick order, rolling out some ghetto-bass heavy joints that brought the few club goers remaining in their seats to the front of the stage.

Where Libretto focused in education conscious lyrics, Sideways Speech focused on party. With lyrics like "We gonna get drunk, cause we want to," that seem to touch a particular joyful nerve for young Portlanders, it’s no wonder the seats were empty and the bar was full. Again, the set for Sideways Speech was far too short considering their talent and ability to move an audience.

In fact, one could say that a crew is only as good as its beats. One of the reasons I had been looking forward to seeing Souls of Mischief is that they have created some of the most beautiful hip-hop tracks I have ever heard. Choosing breaks and samples that create infectious melodies and laying old school flow over the top is made their album 93 til Infinity a classic.

The problem is that market forces in our world increasingly affect originality. The Souls of Mischief throw a great party – that cannot be denied. The amount of dope and liquor on stage was enough to make any head high just from proximity. Likewise, years of experience have created an incredible tight and charismatic crew that could turn a crowd in with a look. The only thing is, Souls of Mischief seemed to have given in to a driving 808 gangster bass that has killed the mischief that was key to their success. The playfulness that made tracks like "Cabfare" so incredible has been replaced by a hardness that just didn’t have the same affect.

Don’t get me wrong. I danced my ass off. I just didn’t feel like I was moving to the same Souls that I had come to love. In fact as I dropped my own cab fare on a safe ride home, the only thing I could talk about were the local crews who opened the show. They had the most soul and mischief of the night.