The office of Hiero Imperium sits squat in a West Oakland neighborhood that seems transplanted from the set of Colors or New Jack City -- a flat-as-posterboard warehouse district scattered with buildings the color of bone. Inside, the members of the Hieroglyphics crew sit at desks surrounding racks of Hiero paraphernalia -- everything from CDs to thong underwear -- as they absorb the constant thrum of a berimbau from the capoeira studio next door.
The Hiero mothership has a lackadaisical air that belies its cottage-industry appearance; business-as-usual amounts to penning rhymes and smoking Bali Shag spliffs. This may be the hip-hop biz, but Hiero prefers the pluck and funk of an indie flag-waver to the glamour of a major label. These guys would rather roll joints than peel off hundred-dollar bills.
Now one of the Bay Area's most successful indie labels, Hiero Imperium grew out of the East Bay crew Hieroglyphics, comprising Pep Love, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Casual, Souls of Mischief, and Domino. Hieroglyphics emerged from Oakland's Skyline High School in the '80s, back when the city bumped a wall-to-wall soundtrack of sinister beats from E-40 and Too $hort. At Skyline, the young A Plus, Opio, Casual, Tajai, and Pep Love sat in Language Arts class with hoods over their heads and headphones in their ears, listening to the teeth-chattering, boom-bappy sounds of Freddy B and Run DMC. After school they made beats on EPS production machines and sampling keyboards, wrote rhymes on yellow ledger pads in lieu of writing essays, and mined the racks of local record stores for the hot rap albums du jour.
"In 1982, if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I'd say 'a rap star,'" A Plus recollects. "I had crates chock-full of records in sleeves, and I plastered my bedroom walls with the album covers. I would have covered the roof too, but my grandma wouldn't let me."
Many current rap aficionados were still reading Ramona books and copping a squat at the local 7-Eleven when Tajai, Opio, A Plus, and their friend Phesto formed Souls of Mischief and began rocking shows at the now-defunct Berkeley Square. For the Souls and other members of what would soon become the Hiero crew, making music was about making do with what you had. "I ruined a couple albums because I didn't know you had to put a scratch pad down on your turntables," A Plus says. "Nobody taught me how to scratch, and my equipment was weak." Casual recorded his early raps on a four-track machine, stacking up tons of shoddy four-song demos. Meanwhile, Pep Love was coming up in Jackson, Mississippi, whose record stores completely ignored hip-hop. Before he moved to Oakland for high school and got down with Hieroglyphics, he'd borrow LL Cool J and Double Dutch Bus tapes from his brother and memorize the raps.
Despite everything these guys lacked, they didn't lack balls. Casual fought his first freestyle battle at Grass Valley Elementary School ("I said a line, she said a line, and it went on like that"); the young MC cribbed fifty-dollar words from newspapers, Louis Farrakhan speeches, and PBS documentaries for his own raps. A Plus carried a Dictaphone with him everywhere because, as he points out, you never know when you'll hear something and think, "Oh my god, I have to use this." Opio took to his notebooks the way journalists take to their coffee and word processors: He'd scrawl rhymes in pencil, erase them, and court the muse until the right lines came to him.
Years of word-scrounging turned these cats into the kind of MCs who conk you over the head with their verbal adornments. As Casual notes on an early Hieroglyphics track, "I used to battle Socrates rockin' these same styles."
What united these rappers was their devil-may-care attitude: a combination of smugness and verbal pugilism that'll win more playground battles than the snappiest "Yo Momma" jokes, but tends to thrust a rapper into the commercial realm just to squash him five minutes later. Souls of Mischief hit #14 on Billboard's R&B charts in '93 with their debut Jive LP '93 'Til Infinity. Although this album remains a classic for the hip-hop community, its overground success was short-lived. Casual wowed industry moguls at the 1992 Gavin convention, where he took the stage with Souls of Mischief, Pharoahe Monch, and Kurious. He signed to Jive soon after, releasing the album Fear Itself in 1994, but abruptly severed ties with the label because he felt they didn't promote the record properly.
Similarly, Del tha Funkee Homosapien had a shotgun marriage with Elektra, which ended precipitously when his '93 album No Need for Alarm flopped. Del's initial failure was more a matter of character than quality: Alarm's tracks have an impish tone closer to early Slick Rick, De La Soul, or Dungeons and Dragons fanatics than the popular gangsta chic of Del's cousin Ice Cube. Predictably, Del was dropped and sent home to play video games and practice Japanese.
It wasn't too long before the crew came to a general consensus: Major labels ain't about shit. So these artists decided to take matters into their own hands with Hiero Imperium.
First they hooked up with Domino, a fledgling producer and avid crate-digger. Hiero needed a full-time producer, and Domino fit the bill: He'd spent much of his stint at Groove Merchant Records in SF cobbling beats and pawing through the rare funk and soul collections, and he wasn't afraid to take risks. "I had a 'wah-wah' soundtrack-esque steez back in '91," he says. "I'd think of a pimp walking down East 14th Street and I'd try to make his theme music."
In 1997, with Domino on board, the outcasts officially formed Hiero Imperium and moved to their West Oakland office, a stone's throw from where most of the group's members came of age. No one in the crew had ever attended a business school, but, as Domino contends, "People overestimate the importance of going to school, anyway. Real-life experience makes you learn a lot quicker." The artists had garnered a basic understanding of how to deal with distributors, accounting, and marketing plans from their years working with major labels. The rest was trial and error. In Tajai's words, "We keep our overhead low, don't tour in a big-ass van, and always headline our own shows. Not to mention we sell 130 products online."
Whatever the reason, Hiero has enjoyed staggering success. It's rare for an indie to sell more than 100,000 copies of a single record, a feat the label has achieved twice already -- with the original Hieroglyphics album 3rd Eye Vision (1998) and with Del tha Funkee Homosapien's Both Sides of the Brain (2000). Domino says the group aspires to put out three to four records every year to remain competitive, while keeping strong ties to its West Oakland neighborhood. It also has begun collaborating with artists who work within the same aesthetic and progressive vein -- such as Goapele and Dan the Automator -- even if their music doesn't fall within the purview of hip-hop.
But as artists themselves, the Hiero crew still has to hustle, keep the name alive, and get paid. Thus Full Circle, the new Hieroglyphics album. Casual breaks it down on "Make Your Move," which tells the story of a dauntless rapper contending against major label adversity: "And he turned and walked into the world/Young man facing the land/Chasing his dreams/Motivated by a picture of his daughters he embraced in his hand/Thinking what it might take him to win/And a 9-5/Ain't supplying what he trying to drive."
As a schmaltzy (and obligatory) sensitive-guy song, "Make Your Move" has an anomalous presence on an otherwise cranky album. Compared to 3rd Eye Vision, Full Circle is inferior if you like skronky beats and sample-addled cuts; it's as though the onset of adolescence has pockmarked Hieroglyphics' music. But while the sound is a little drained-out, the rhymes on Full Circle are still impressively pissy and pissed-off, triggering rap pyrotechnics to outpace, in Del's words, "sad sack/mad whack" rivals in the hip-hop arena.
On "Powers That Be," Opio introduces himself as a "killer of stone," ready to "Mash on your whole militia like I'm Hannibal/Imagine you the antelope and I'm the king of the jungle/Animal instinct, phenomenal stamina/Just think of a man on the brink of insanity/And it's me." Hiero envisions itself as a return to something grittily, resolutely, and savagely down -- a straight-from-concrete kind of rap that catapults artistic stones at its mainstream counterparts while it competes with those same counterparts on the business side.
Of course, Full Circle refers to how the Hieroglyphics crew has been around the block already, but it's also a metaphor for infinite progression. These guys are underdogs holding their own in that gusty and ungainly tempest we call "the rap game." As Pep Love chants in the album's prelude, "We're ahead of the charts/Man, we better than smart/We gonna get up in this industry and tear it apart." Going full circle amounts to undercutting a corporate system to create your own landscape and produce your own art. But it's also about resurrecting a sound that's emphatically, indelibly Oaktown.
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