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Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Hiero Day VII: The Seventh Seal [Review/Photoset]

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This year’s installment of Hiero Day — which  has become one of the most significant hip-hop parties in the nation, if not the globe — may have been the most satisfying iteration to date. By the time evening rolled around and the locally-bred Hieroglyphics crew hit the instantly-recognizable opening notes of “93 Til Infinity,” the experience had become epic.

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It’s always interesting to arrive at a music festival early, when things are just starting. There was a good reason for early arrival, however: an all-to-brief set by Umar Bin Hassan, best known as one of the driving forces behind the Last Poets, the pioneering group who infused spoken word with street-level imagery, cultural nationalism, and a sociopolitical worldview. The Last Poets have been called the Godfathers of rap, and the tradition of “woke”-ness in hip-hop has a starting point in songs like “When the Revolution Comes” and “Mean Machine.” They’ve been sampled by Notorious B.I.G., and covered by Public Enemy, yet their contributions to the artform and the culture aren’t as widely-known as they should be.

Bin Hassan’s set was short but significant, in that it connected rap’s origins with its present-day manifestation.  He closed with “This Is Madness”, the title track of the classic 1971 album. Strangely enough, the song’s dystopian lyrics seemed just as relevant in the Trumpian era as they were during the Nixon presidency.

As host Mistah F.A.B. noted, at the time the Last Poets emerged, “trhey was still hanging us. Let me say that. We was still getting killed for reckless eyeballing. We were still getting locked up like we are today, at higher rates than we was in the South. So for a brother to come out with poems like that, the whole Last Poets, allof the brothers, man, to be here today, I’m honored just to share the stage with him.”

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After his set, Bin Hassan hung out for a while in VIP by the main stage, taking it all in. There was a lot to take in, indeed, Besides the main stage, there were two other stages with full lineups, vendors galore, a food truck area, a kids’ area – a sure sign hip-hop is grown—and live painting by graffiti legend Crayone.

As the day progressed, thousands of attendees began to fill up the staging area, which had a different configuration than the 2016 festival, also held in the general 3rd St. location. The main stage faced westerly, which meant that attendees were looking directly into the sun for most of the afternoon.

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As a veteran of many Hiero Days, one thing Oakulture has learned is, you can’t be everywhere at once. So while forays were made through the vending and food areas, and the two secondary stages, the place to be was around the main stage, where most of the action was – although word has it that Ryan Austin and Chinaka Hodge killed it, as did Chali 2na’s performance and Mannie Fresh’s DJ set.

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For the occasion, F.A.B.  donned a bright red hoodie-and-sweatpants combo advertising his clothing company Dope Era. Never one to under-accessorize, F.A.B. also sported a Dope Era backpack and gold chain. The charismatic host shuttled between exhorting the crowd to get loud, relaying anecdotes, and performing some of his own songs, like the hyphy era anthem,  “Super Sic Wid It”

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A major highlight was Richie Rich’s set.  Before he came on, F.A.B. again contextualized the moment, proclaiming Rich “raised” him. “This dude was one of the first dudes to really show me what it was like to be a real Oakland stunna, to represent the town all around the world… when I heard this dude was on the performance list, I was hella juiced.”

In the Bay Area pantheon, “Dubble R” occupies a rather unique roost. A founding member of 415 who later signed to Def Jam before going indie, he’s among the few OG pioneers of Bay Area rap who’s still actively recording.

Richie Rich’s Hiero Day set was heated. The soil-savvy yet lyrical mic presence he displayed was something up-and-coming artists could learn a thing or two from. The crowd’s energy level jumped significantly when he too the stage. Audible cheers of excitement ensued when he performed the classics “Ain’t Gon Do” and “Let’s Ride.” He appeared to leave the crowd wanting more, until he reappeared, flanked by F.A.B., for a rendition of the all-time Oakland anthem, “Sideshow.”

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Another bright note was Mike Relm’s video turntablism display. Relm—who started out as a member of Supernatural Turntable Artists, then shot to fame with the Blue Man Group—has mastered the art of mixing music videos, mashing up visuals as well as audio. This injects an added sense of excitement into DJ routines because of the enhanced visual component. Relm might appear to be The Nerdiest Guy on the Planet—an image he has carefully cultivated—but he is an absolute beast on the tables, so don’t ever sleep on him.

Relm was followed by a very laid-back Talib Kweli, who recounted a story of coming to Oakland in 1996 and hanging  out with members of Hiero. It was a subtle reminder that Hiero Day is built on relationships in the artist community which extend back decades, as opposed to a corporate festival where money is the only commonality. The phrase “for the culture” gets bandied about a lot, and sometimes in cliched ways, but there is absolutely nothing cliched about a grassroots event which built itself up from its own bootstraps – which could be said about the Hiero organization as well (more on that in a minute).

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Kweli’s set cruised through hits like “The Blast,””Get By,” and “Redefinition,” before the Brooklyn emcee gave way to Southern Cali’s Pharcyde. Now down to just two original members—Imani and Bootie  Brown, the group still was able to muster considerable stage command, especially on their closing tune, “Passing Me By,” which turned into a sing-along with several thousand people – indeed, the staging area had become a dense thicket of bodies.

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By now, the sun’s merciless rays had begun to ease a bit, setting the stage for an otherworldly set by Black Thought. The Roots’ headmaster made his first Hiero Day appearance one for the history books. If you think you have heard dope emcees before, you really haven’t heard anything until you’ve heard Thought do a solo set, backed by just a trumpeter and a give tapping out beats on an MPC.  Tarik Trotter simply put on a rhyme clinic, scoring high marks for subject matter, flow, breath control, vocabulary, tonality, and several other metrics which may come to mind later. He held the mic like a staff, emanating a vibe of hip-hop royalty. Fronting on Thought was simply not an option; he basically exuded greatness from every pore, as he poured on the similes and metaphors.

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The coup de gras was the special guest he brought out, none other than Sa-Roc. Though she looked graceful, even demure, she beasted the mic with an impressive  display of skills and finesse which served as dessert to Thought’s entrée. Definitely keep an eye out for her.

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At this point in the day, the show was running a bit over, which  cut into the headliner’s time. Which is also a testament to Hiero’s aesthetic . Most groups in that position, especially at their own festival, would have cut the time of one of the other acts; to cut your own set speaks to their integrity.

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Their 30-minute slot was cut down to maybe about 20 minutes. But lest anyone complain, they more then made up for it in intensity, bum-rushing the stage like they were hungry for their first taste of success.

If you’ve followed Hiero for a while, you know they function as a collective unit with distinct  personalities: Casual mixes physical and verbal aggression with subtly complex rhyme patterns and battle-rapper bravado; Tajai—who sported a black and gold African-patterned robe straight outta Wakanda—evoked the image of a high priest or wizard of some mystical Afrocentric sect;  the underrated Pep Love is a fount of lyrical dopeness and hip-hop aesthetics; Phesto Dee mixes sporty flair with a subtle sense of humor (he had on some shades with the Hiero symbol on the lenses); and A+ and Opio are deceptively laid-back cats who deliver devastating ninja strikes causing verbal lacerations.  Producer Domino and DJ Toure stoically play the background, but also serve as grounded focal points – the crew likes to move around a lot onstage. Missing in action was Hiero founded Del—a zany character if there ever was one—who is still recovering from a recent illness.

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Hiero’s energetic set went by quickly, but every moment was befitting of a prime-time performance. After seeing them live countless times, the way they complement each other never ceases to amaze. They never get in each other’s way, seeming to employ telepathic commands, or maybe just intuition born from working alongside each other for three decades.  It would have been dope to hear a full set of classics, but the songs we did hear, including two newer songs and the now 20 year-old “You Never Knew” were lapp[ed up like milk by the crowd, leading up to “93 til,” a song whose most enduring quality may be that it never gets old.

Some final thoughts: Hiero Day covers a fair amount of the hip-hop spectrum, and presents the genre as united—as opposed to subdivided by style or region. In doing so, it transcends subjective biases. The mix of up-and-coming and veteran artists not only challenges fans to be open-minded and encourages embracing of groups they may be unfamiliar with, but also means each and every Hiero Day is similar yet different.

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Unlike most rap shows—which tend to either target younger or older audiences—Hiero Day has broad, multigenerational appeal. This also helps explain Hieroglyphics’ longevity: they keep attracting younger fans while retaining longtime listeners, essentially turning over their fan base. It’s a brilliant marketing model.

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While similar festivals like Summer Jam or Rock the Bells have attracted large numbers of hip-hop aficionados over the years, neither event has ever felt truly organic. There’s a DIY mentality afoot at Hiero Day which makes mainstream or overly-commercial rap seem completely irrelevant. From an audience perspective, there may be some performers you especially want to see, but a greater sense that folks are there for the overall experience.

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©Eric K. Arnold 2014


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Third Eye Visionaries: Hiero Day 2014

Live music review/ Linden St. Brewery, 9/1/14. All photos © Eric K. Arnold/EKAphotography

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

A-Plus raises his hands in tribute to 22,000+ Hiero Day attendees

Late Monday afternoon, after watching an unannounced surprise set by Deltron 3030, the alt-rap supergroup featuring Del the Funky Homosapien and Dan the Automator, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan read an official proclamation declaring “Hiero Day” on stage at the event of the same name, in front of a crowd of more than 22,000 hip-hop lovers and diehard fans of the Hieroglyphics. Quan’s reading of the proclamation may have been one of the few, if not only, times in recent memory when a major city’s top elected official embraced hip-hop culture as part of a community engagement strategy.

All eight members of the Hiero crew—founder Del, emcees Casual, Phesto Dee, Tajai, A-Plus, Opio, DJ Toure, and producer/ road manager Domino—beamed as Quan handed Domino a piece of paper, upon which, one imagines, suitably puissant and laudatory words were written. The gesture may have been symbolic, yet its meaning was magnified by the fact that 2,000 miles away, in Ferguson, Missouri, the aftermath of the Mike Brown police shooting had created a level of civil unrest which threatened to set the clock back to South Central Los Angeles, circa 1992, or perhaps Detroit, 1967 – an uncertain, volatile mix of racially-tinged cries for justice and equally racially-tinged clamors against looting, curfew-breaking, and civil disobedience.

Mayor Jean Quan poses with Hieroglyphics, after handing them an official proclamation

Mayor Jean Quan poses with Hieroglyphics, after handing them an official proclamation

Meanwhile, Oakland—a city not immune to protests against police hostility toward unarmed black men, a city which had marched for Trayvon Martin, as well as its own martyrs Alan Blueford, Oscar Grant, Derrick Jones, and Gary King—remained calm, if that word can be used to describe a boisterous yet well-mannered crowd who thrust 20,000+ three-fingered salutes into the air and smoked enough ganja to give the Mayor’s entire entourage a contact high.

For the mayor to co-sign on Hiero’s accomplishments was major; Politicians generally don’t openly acknowledge the positive contributions of hip-hop, or align themselves with rappers, since such approaches could be perceived as not being tough on crime. Yet crime is down in Oakland, without the mayor or local government resorting to such draconian measures as instituting a youth curfew.

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©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Hieroglyphics/Souls of Mischief emcee Phesto Dee

Hip-hop often gets a bad rap because its practitioners tend to be young and black, even though its audience crosses all racial and ethnic lines. Historically, hip-hop concerts have been linked to violence ever since the infamous Run-DMC Long Beach show in 1986, and Oakland itself once declared a yearlong moratorium on rap shows after violent incidents at the Oakland Coliseum and the HJK Auditorium in 1989. The threat of riots breaking out has been used to justify cancellation of shows and tours, high insurance and security costs, and exorbitant ticket prices, and rap shows which do turn bad are sure to get extra media attention. Just a week prior, a local promoter had been murdered backstage at a Wiz Khalifa show in Mountain View, and a high-profile warrant served on rapper Young Jeezy and his entourage. Yet there was no heavy-handed police presence at Hiero Day, despite a crowd which had swelled by 50% since last year’s installment.

The Grouch addresses the Hiero Day massive

The Grouch addresses the Hiero Day massive

That there were no fights, no scuffles, no drama and no violence at an event attended by so many is a testament to Oakland’s native sons, whose three-eye logo is synonymous with authentic West Coast underground hip-hop. Hieroglyphics have always represented conscious hip-hop, albeit with gritty urban overtones which never quite sink into clichéd gangsterdom.

Hiero came up at a time when a tongue-twisting lyrical couplet was enough to confer cultural elite status, and for the past two decades, they’ve outlasted hundreds, if not thousands, of less high-brow rappers with a more simplistic focus on ghetto storytelling—without the conceptual narratives Hiero spin.

©Eric K. Arnold

Hieroglyphics founder Del The Funky Homosapien

They’ve obviously remained relevant, as the hundreds of t-shirts emblazoned with their logo visible from the stage Monday afternoon attested; Many of Hiero Day’s attendees weren’t out of preschool when Hieroglyphics made their first appearance in 1992, on “Burnt,” a B-side of a Del tha Funkee Homosapien record. In fact, it’s difficult to name another non-mainstream hip-hop act whose fanbase spans such a wide demographic spectrum of listeners.

On Monday, Hiero performed several classics, among them “You Never Knew”  and “Oakland Blackouts” from 1998’s Full Circle, and a mini-spotlight on Casual (in honor of the 20th anniversary of his 1993 debut Fear Itself), who tore through “I Didn’t Mean To Do It,” “Me-O-Mi-O” and “That’s How It Is.” Newer songs like “Gun Fever,” however, emphasized the fact that Hiero is no mere hip-hop oldies act.

The highlight of Hieroglyphics set, however, was another unannounced cameo appearance, this time by Goapele, whose regal presence all but confirmed her as the reigning queen of Oakland Soul.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Got Goap?

Up until then, the male-dominated bill had been somewhat of a sword fight—a fact that didn’t go unnoticed in online forums in the days leading up to the event. While a valid case can be made that Oakland’s resident female emcees should have been represented in the festival’s lineup, there’s no taking away from the inspirational upliftment Goapele blessed the crowd with, appearing with Hiero on “Make Your Move,” then segueing into “Milk and Honey,” followed by her signature song, “Closer.”

That provided a high note which was only surpassed by the show-closing rendition of Souls of Mischief’s eternal classic, “93 Til infinity.” The chorus, “this is how we chill from 93 til…,” has become not just a mantra, but a truism for Hiero and their fans; no matter how many times one has heard it, the song never fails to take listeners to their happy place.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

it’s like that, and-a, the Hieroglyphics, yeah!

Hiero’s performance, overall, was like watching a well-oiled machine being revved up to maximum capacity. 20 years of rocking together onstage has created some tight-knit bonds between group members, and the show never felt like any one emcee wasn’t completely in sync with the rest of the crew; even Del’s streak of blonde hair in his natural—a la Wesley Snipes in “Demolition Man”l— didn’t prove too much of a distraction during other emcees’ verses. Up and coming artists would do well to study Hiero’s stage show as a textbook example of how it’s done.

Speaking of up and coming artists, Hiero Day offered a potpourri of flavors, from the intricate battle-raps and supreme fluidity of Locksmith and Planet Asia to Los Rakas’ vibrant Town variant on reggaeton to the Mystik Journeymen’s “underground as fuck” credo, to the Hydra-like mini-supergroup of Zion-I, the Grouch and Eligh – and dozens more I didn’t get to see because there were three stages, a high level of crowd density, and the laws of physics say you can only be in one place at one time.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Raka Rich of Los Rakas fires up one of Hiero Day’s multiple stages

The best part of Hiero Day was that it remained a free event. That’s right, free. While traffic flow could be improved, beer lines were reportedly horrendous, and there was a shortage of water (promoters only expected about 15,000-18,000 people), that’s just a tremendous achievement any way you slice it. Attendees came from as far as Los Angeles, Sacramento and Tahoe, and any destination event helps a city’s financial bottom line.

Furthermore, when you consider the high prices of music festival tickets, Hiero Day not only has the most bang for the buck of any local event, but leaves festival-goers more room in their wallets to buy merch, which in turn supports artists, musicians, small clothing companies, food vendors, entrepreneurs, and the list goes on.

In other words, Hiero Day is a huge win-win for the hip-hop community, but also, as the mayor made plain, for the city of Oakland.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014