Oakland hip-hop crew Down 2 Earth channels ’90s rap and laidback vibes in its new album.

SF Weekly

music2-2When the Oakland hip-hop quartet Souls of Mischief dropped its debut album in September 1993, it sent ripples throughout the rap world.

Filled with obscure jazz and funk samples, internal rhyme schemes, and live bass, ’93 ‘til Infinity stood in stark contrast to the G-funk, gangsta-dominated, “gin and juice” era of hip-hop that was then sweeping through the West Coast. Mellow, chillout rap caught on like wildfire, and Souls of Mischief’s democratic style of trading bars so that each member got his share of the limelight became a common method for other acts.

It’s now been 20 years since the Oakland crew released its debut album, but Souls of Mischief’s impact is still reverberating — and you can hear their influence in the Oakland group Down 2 Earth.

“I think our formula is very similar to Souls of Mischief’s, even though that was 20 years ago,” says Down 2 Earth rapper Azure. “We’re very much a lyricist lounge type of act, and you can hear the similarities through little nuances, like making the drums extra-heavy.”

When I meet with Down 2 Earth at their newly acquired studio in the Jingletown neighborhood of East Oakland, it’s clear from the start that the three dudes — Dayvid Michael, Clyde Shankle, and Azure — have been friends for some time. Shankle is the perennially late jokester who has a habit of interrupting his bandmates and finishing their sentences. Michael is the ruminative old soul, and Azure is the idea man, who handles non-musical tasks for the group, like setting up our interview.

The trio connected over a period of five years, after they’d each graduated from high school and had been involved with other rap crews. Azure was a founding member of rapper Iamsu’s HBK Gang, Shankle was one-half of a duo called Native Son, and Michael was a member of the six-man collective Cali Made.

In fact, it was a Cali Made album that led Michael and Shankle to meet for the first time.

“He got off the bus in Berkeley and was trying to sell me a CD,” Shankle says. “I was like, ‘Nah, I’m good, bro.’ ”

As hustling, on-the-rise rappers in the East Bay, it was only natural that the two would run into each other again — and again and again. When their respective musical projects broke up or disbanded, Michael and Shankle each decided to pursue solo work. When Michael started working on a mixtape, a friend referred him to Azure who had a homemade studio and “some gear” at his apartment. On the day they were scheduled to start recording, Shankle ended up coming along too, because he says, “[Michael] needed a ride.”

Armed with weed and a flurry of outré, lesser-known records courtesy of Shankle — the group’s requisite crate-digger — the three musicians hit it off and had a startlingly productive work session.

“It was just really natural,” Azure says. “Through that experience, we connected and realized we’re all into weird, rare-sounding shit that nobody would ever play.”

Down 2 Earth continued fooling around in the studio and making songs for fun for a few months before the idea to form a group came up. They realized they already had more than enough material to put into an album, as well as lots of connects to land some high-profile features on it. But before they could release the project — which they called Wildfire and filled with guest appearances from the likes of Kehlani, Iamsu, Jay Ant, and even Tajai from Souls of Mischief and Hieroglyphics — they had to think of a name for themselves. And that turned out to be the hardest part.

“We came up with hundreds of shitty names,” Michael says, listing off some contenders like Greenhouse, Odyssey, Second Nature, and Tiger Groove.

Before settling on Down 2 Earth, the trio was pretty intent on using Three Deep, and you can hear references to the monicker in Wildfire in lines like, “Three Deep is back to get it.”

Since then, Down 2 Earth has opened for acts like E-40, Masego, and Sylvan La Cue, and been written up in publications like Complex. The members have also found time to release solo tracks and albums, like Azure’s Leap Year, which included an apology to fans in its description on SoundCloud for taking “my sweet time widit.”

But in the few months, they’ve turned their attention back to group stuff, putting in hours laying down tracks and recording music at a friend’s home studio in Lower Haight. In fact, on their first day there, they recorded the complex, jazzy number “Divisadero,” which shows up as track No. 9 on their upcoming second album, Fair Share (out Tuesday, April 4).

Filled with live piano and guitar, Fair Share picks up where Wildfire left off, but with sleeker production, more drums, and a livelier, bouncier energy. Instead of saxophone toots, there are hazy, trap-inspired beats and melodies created with what sound like droplets of water, giving the album a more playful vibe than its earnest predecessor.

You’ll also hear fewer meditations about fulfilling dreams, grinding hard, and “work[ing] together as one” (although songs about trusting your instincts and “stay[ing] true” are still in there).

“We wanted to do something different because of the reactions we got from Wildfire,” Michael says.

“We didn’t want them to put us in a conscious category,” Shankle adds. “Just because you’re aware doesn’t mean that you’ve got to be put in a box. You can still have fun, and that’s what we really wanted to represent with this.”

“After all,” Azure says, “underground rappers like to chill at the clubs, too.”