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Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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15 Reasons to Go to Hiero Day This Year

Hiero Day 2014

Hiero Day 2014

The 2015 Hiero Day lineup looks formidable indeed, especially for fans of West Coast underground hip-hop. With almost 50 live acts and DJs performing, the event—which drew more than 20,000 fans last year—appears to have broken through the stratosphere to major event-status, and is certainly the biggest independent hip-hop festival in the Northern California region. That’s a major plus for folks tired of attending mega-hyped music festivals with a dearth of rap or hip-hop artists, and for underground aficionados who have been underserved by mainstream/commercial-oriented rap tours. Best of all, tickets are less than $20—$19.93, to be exact—which portends a high boom-bap for the buck ratio. Oakulture is pretty hyped about the number of underrated/slept-on fan favorites—several of whom are doing reunion shows—scheduled for this year’s event, which cover a full spectrum of stylistic diversity within the underground hip-hop subgenre. We’re also not mad at the emphasis on Bay Area and Los Angeles groups, nor the inclusion of a few representatives from the Midwest and East Coast for balance.

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With so many groups on the bill, it’s unlikely you’ll see every single act, unless you can be in two places at one time, so we’ve prepared a special guide for the artists we think will make Hiero Day extra-fresh.

  1. Psalm One

With eight albums and a handful of mixtapes released over the past 12 years, Chicago’s Psalm One is one of the most-prolific indie-label female emcees in the industry today. Affiliated with Minnesota’s Rhymesayers crew, she’s also worked with Hiero’s A-Plus. Her recent video, “Free Hug Life” shows her to be an original, creative spirit with an engaging staccato delivery, and topics which offer an intelligent alternative to rachetry.

  1. Phat Kat & Guilty Simpson

This veteran Detroit emcee duo have long collaborated with California’s hip-hop scene – Kat was once signed to SF’s Look Records, while Simpson has released several albums on Stones Throw. Both are authentic Dilla disciples, having cut their teeth working with the legendary producer, and both boast gritty flows which swerve between backpack and hardcore hip-hop flavors.

  1. Foreign Legion

First emerging into the Bay Area’s underground hip-hop scene in the late 90s, the terrific trio of emcees Marc Stretch and Prozack Turner and producer DJ Design built a reputation for notable live shows while releasing several full-length albums (and one short film); Their return to active duty promises to be one of the feel-good stories of this year’s Hiero Day. FL maintain a classic underground hip-hop aesthetic, complete with sampled loops and scratching, but flip the script by balancing braggadocio with honesty and humor.

  1. Cali Agents

Another West Coast group some might remember from back in the day, the duo of Rasco and Planet Asia released three well-received full-length albums between 2000-2006. Each has had solo success: Rasco is remembered for the Bay Area classic “The Unassisted,” while Asia has collaborated with everyone from Grandmaster Muggs to Bun B to Evidence to Ghostface Killah.  As Cali Agents, their remarkable chemistry elevates their individual lyrical deliveries to a higher level.

11. Otayo Dubb & Equipto

Don’t look now, but this SF-to-the-O hook-up is swiftly creeping on an indie hip-hop come up. The pairing of the Bored Stiff lyrical wonder with the versatile Co-Deez emcee/producer is one of the bright surprises of the current Bay Area scene. Their current single “Baby Steps” addresses maturity and growing up, with an arrangement which subtly recalls classic West Coast soul and R&B. The album of the same name features similarly-sublime production and features from the likes of L’Roneous, Pep Love, and Mars Today.

  1. Aceyalone

An original member of Freestyle Fellowship and a prolific solo artist in his own right, Los Angeles hip-hop veteran Aceyalone should need no introduction. The fact that he does lends credence to the oft-cited complaint that lyrical (read: non-gangsta) emcees from the West tend to get slept-on – except by hip-hop nerds who appreciate Acey’s jazz-tinged, highly vocabulistic delivery. Here’s a chance for him to expand beyond his core audience of diehards and reach the ears of a younger generation.

  1. Native Guns

Possibly the closest thing Pinoy hip-hop has come to a supergroup is Native Guns, a trio comprised of emcees Bambu and Kiwi and DJ Phatrick who became celebrated multicultural ambassadors during their heyday in the 2000s. Mixing dexterous lyrics and slapping tracks with a fair amount of political and social commentary, they also dropped science on the Filipino-American struggle, and what it means to be an indigenous immigrant. Though both Bambu and Kiwi have remained active as solo artists, their timing of their breakup always seemed unfortunate, coming so soon after the release of their 2006 album Barrel Men – rightfully hailed as a West Coast classic, one which shows the Bay Area was about so much more than hyphy even during the “hyphy era.”

  1. The Team

Speaking of the hyphy era, Oakland trio The Team were one of the most buzzworthiest groups of that period, helping to define the region’s then-emergent sound as uptempo, party-friendly, and club-ready, with hooks for days. We haven’t heard from them since 2013’s “Slow Down,” so it should be interesting to see them drop classics like “It’s Getting Hot” and “Bottles Up” and hopefully some new material. Added bonus: Clyde Carson, Kaz Kyzah, and Mayne Mannish are some of the best rapper names ever.

  1. Tha Alkaholiks

West Coast OGs since the early 90s, Tha Liks’ 1993 debut album, 21 & Over, is a high-octane hip-hop classic which set a high bar for both lyrics and production. Four subsequent albums followed, the last being 2006’s Firewater, all of which mix hardcore hip-hop with party-oriented themes. One-time disciples of King Tee, they’ve always been a force to be reckoned with in a live context, and there’s no reason to expect anything different from their Hiero Day appearance.

  1. The Luniz

Best known for the all-time cannabis anthem/ Bay Area rallying call, “I Got Five On It,” Yukmouth and Numskull are inner-city griots who’ve lived a wilder life than most of us, and put much of it down on record. It’s somewhat gratifying to see them on a bill so saturated with underground and alternative hip-hop – a confirmation of their lyrical finesse, as well as a shout-out to the streets of East Oakland, where Hiero is from.

  1. Compton’s Most Wanted

This classic Compton gangsta rap group, possibly second only to NWA in terms of influence and reputation, never enjoyed the mainstream success of their Ruthless peers. But their street-level stories had a louder ring of authenticity to them, and it’s safe to call them some of the originators of “reality rap.” Though they didn’t have an overt political agenda, the sociopolitics and socioeconomic content of songs like “One Time Gaffled Em Up” was omnipresent, and often sublime.

  1. Zion-I

Zion-I have held the Bay Area down for 15 years, being one of the most-consistent underground groups in the region, establishing a national and international fanbase, and collaborating with everyone from Deuce Eclipse to Talib Kweli to Too Short. Their long list of classics ranges from “Inner Light” to “The Bay” to “Warrior Dance” to “Don’t Lose Your Head.” Though they’ve experimented with their sound, incorporating everything from EDM to folk, they’ve always maintained strong hip-hop roots. Their latest release, The Rapture: Live From Oaklandia, follows the departure of producer Amp Live, and finds emcee Zumbi Zoom taking things in a more musical direction by featuring a live band led by the incomparable Kev Choice.

  1. Crown City Rockers

In the mid 90s to early 2000s, hip-hop band Crown City Rockers were often called the Bay Area’s version of the Roots – mainly for their uncanny ability to swing jazzy, funky musical elements played on real instruments with the cultural b-boy witticisms of frontman Raashaan Ahmad. They boast a solid, if criminally-underrated, catalog of recordings too, from 2001’s One (recorded as Mission) to 2004’s Earthtones to 2009’s The Day After Forever. Their live shows are legendary, if infrequent these days: the last time they performed as a unit in Oakland, at an Old Oakland Farmer’s Market gig, Levende had not yet become District, so prepare to be blown away.

  1. The Coup

It was only a matter of time before Boots Riley’s subversive funk/rock/rap band the Coup played Hiero Day, and this is the year. That’s an underground hip-hop lover’s fantasy come true. While we are, once again, in-between new Coup albums, Riley has been highly visible of late with a new book of his lyrics and high-profile media appearances discussing activist issues. Though the Coup’s sound—and personnel—has evolved since 1993’s Kill My Landlord, they are one of the few continuously-active groups from hip-hop’s  90s Golden Age on any coast, and thus did not need to be coaxed out of retirement to do this gig. If you’ve never seen The Coup, expect to be revolutionized and entertained.

  1. Hieroglyphics

A member of Hiero recently tweeted that their independent label, Hiero Imperium, has now outlasted the major record label which signed and then dropped them back in the 90s. That’s poetic justice for Oakland’s lyrical laureates, an octagon of obtuse emceeing  and sick beat-making skills, who have given more back to the community from which they came than any other hip-hop artist or group in Bay Area history, while continuing to make more history with each new release and annual iteration of the event bearing their name. Not only do they have more catalog than J. Peterman and Victoria’s Secret combined, but their signature tune, “93 Til Infinity,” never gets old.

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The Oak Q & A: Jahi as PE2.0

Jahi as PE 2.0 on the set of the "What You Need" video

Jahi as PE 2.0 on the set of the “What They Need” video

Being asked to be a part of your favorite group is a dream come true for a music fan. That rarely happens in real life, but it happened for Oakland-based emcee Jahi, who was asked by rap icon Chuck D to be the lead emcee in PE 2.0, a continuation of the legendary hip-hop outfit Public Enemy. The chess-like move made sense: there was a need to update the PE formula for a new generation of listeners, and Jahi—who’s been making conscious rap music for more than fifteen years, and is a father and educator who works with youth to boot—fit the bill to a tee.

With the release of People Get Ready, the first PE 2.0 album in a planned trilogy, the dream has become reality. On the album, Jahi swerves between faithful remakes of some of the lesser-known, but still relevant, classics in the PE catalog, and new songs which update the PE ethos. Recently, Oakulture founder and Editorial Director Eric K. Arnold spoke with Jahi about the project, which not only rebrands PE’s movement politics-over-beats-and-rhymes-style for the 21st century, but also entailed a number of inherent challenges for the emcee, who was passed the torch of a historical and cultural legacy and expected to run with it. In the first part of a lengthy conversation, Jahi runs down the story of how PE 2.0 came about, and how he approached the task of making People Get Ready.

People Get Ready album cover

People Get Ready album cover

Oakulture: What’s the concept behind PE 2.0?

Jahi: The concept is two-fold. One, my job is to go inside of Public Enemy’s catalog and find songs you haven’t heard that still have power and punch, and either cover those, or what we call revisit. Where I may cover a portion of it and write some new material. Second part is, I create brand new songs over either Bomb Squad production, or the new production team we have within PE 2.0., which also really is a part of the Public Enemy family. So, it’s those two things, but the goal is, when you do something with Public Enemy, you find it’s a tree with many branches. And the trunk is the main part, but also it’s a lot of other things. The other thing I want to add is songs, movement, and mindsets. We’re trying to create strong songs, in the spirit of Public Enemy, which could either be the soundtrack to the movement, or allow our music to create movement, and ultimately to create better mindsets. PE 2.0 is just another branch on the tree that is Public Enemy. Over the next five to seven years, PE 2.0 will slowly emerge into the core of Public Enemy. Chuck D is not retiring, he’s an elder statesman, meaning that so instead of doing a two-hour show, he can do a one-hour show, but you still get a two-hour experience, because PE 2.0 is myself as the lead emcee, but it’s the rhythm section of Public Enemy currently.

Oakulture: So you had access to the entire PE vault then?

Jahi: I do.

Oakulture: How did this come about? What was the discussion between you and Chuck D?

Jahi: Hmm. Well, the discussion kinda started, it started on the 20th anniversary tour of Public Enemy, where Chuck had kinda said, James Brown, Bobby Byrd.  I was like wow, cause he wanted me to emcee the tour and host, and also perform, so he hit me with that concept and I understood what he meant: the call and response, the connection between James and Bobby so, if you know that history… I knew exactly what he was saying. Over a period of time, we have just been talking about how to extend Public Enemy and how I can become an integral part. We bounced around a couple of ideas, but we landed on PE 2.0 because it represents the second generation. I’m the second generation, right under Public Enemy. Chuck and I have known each other for fifteen years. I have to say, the main way that PE 2.0 really took off was, I got a call from [Professor] Griff, and Griff was like, we gotta make this happen, this is an opportunity, get on it. I had already bought into the idea with Chuck. But I didn’t know how to address some of the songs. I’ll give you an example. “Yo” was the first record to come out in Cleveland by Public Enemy. So when Chuck was like, revisit that, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I was like, I can’t say nothing else on this, ‘cause I just hear the original version. But it just took a bit of time, and us having conversations that just really mattered. You know, Chuck is very strategic, this is not a rap group, this is a strategy. And a lot of those conversations about what the strategy would be and all of that, we realized, you have to get out of conversation stage and simply start, and this is the starting point.

Jahi performing live. Photo credit: PE2.0

Jahi performing live. Photo credit: PE2.0

Oakulture: What’s it like for you now to play the Public Enemy #1 position, as someone who came up during the Afrocentric era, during the height of the 1.0 version?

Jahi: You know, one of the biggest words is humble. Humility, honored, appreciative that I’m in this position. Not so much for me individually, but what I can bring to the table that can add—repave the lane of Public Enemy. We know that Public Enemy in the ‘80s was really our voice, you know, for social, conscious, political, black movement. And I think we are at a time and space where we continue to do that, and I’m just humbled to be a part of it, and have the Public Enemy brand, and I guess more than brand, the Public Enemy overstanding, the Public Enemy energy and spirit to guide my work as an emcee.

Oakulture: How did you approach this project from a lyrical standpoint?

Jahi: I have to say that in my career, this is one of the two toughest challenges I’ve had as a lyricist. This would be number one, because there’s only one Chuck D, you’re not dropping Chuck D, you just have to accept that. Chuck D is a one on one. In terms of covering, I was with Blackalicious for a while, and trying to cover Gift of Gab was definitely not an easy task. So that was kind of my proving ground. But the way I approached this lyrically was, number one, what would Chuck say, number two, I’m not trying to be an imitation of somebody, but also bring my own voice. Pay attention to what’s happening. In my own way, I had my own ministers of information over the years, giving me information or saying, oh you should come to this, you should talk about this. Because that’s part of the Public Enemy formula. Griff and Chuck, Hank, Keith, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler, they would have a lot of conversations and put a lot of things on the table. And out of that is where a lot of those songs came from. In a lot of ways, I tried to use that same energy and spirit, I mean, Chuck counselled me a lot, just on… I wouldn’t say counselled like go back and say this or change this, but Chuck set a standard, and I did my best job to meet that. So lyrically, it took some time. The longest time I’ve ever taken to write an album. Ever.

Jahi on the set of the "What We Need" video

Jahi as PE2.0 on the set of the “What We Need” video

Oakulture: Some of the songs are faithful remakes, like “Rightstarter.” On others, like “Yo!,” you add your own lyrics. What was the process like in choosing what PE songs to update?

Jahi: “Rightstarter (Message to the Blackman)”, Chuck was able to get the original instrumentals to Yo! Bum Rush the Show, he hadn’t had those instrumentals in over 20 years. So when they were unearthed, immediately, I just knew I was gonna cover “Rightstarter (Message to the Black Man),” because number one, it was an incredible challenge, number two it was a song that in the ‘80s really set my consciousness: mind over matter, mouth in motion, can’t deny it cause I’ll never be quiet, let’s start this… I really had freedom of choice to some degree, and then there were certain times, when Chuck was like, yo, I want you to cover this. Like “Yo” was a song, the record was almost done, but like you need to go and do “Yo.” Like, yo, pay attention. So, it was part freedom and part guidance. When I did “What Side You On,” to me that just felt like a complete Public Enemy moment. Just the whole way the record comes in. So I wanted to have healthy challenges. And then the other thing is, I can’t do “Don’t Believe the Hype,” “Shut Em Down,” “Fight the Power,” those are Public Enemy staples. You can’t touch those. So it took me a while to go through the catalog. But I wanted to be intentional: let me go to this period. Ok, let me go to this. Let me get away from It Takes A Nation of Millions to a large degree, and let me go to these other spaces and places. Because again, you gotta think about a 28-year catalog of music Public Enemy has. So, you know, and then the other thing I understood is that this [next] record comes out February, and the next record comes out this summer. So we’re doing a trilogy before we come up for air. So I also understood, ok, I didn’t get to that one, but I’ll get to it on the second record, or I’ll get to it on the third record.

People Get Ready is available here and here.

©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