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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A Family Affair: Dream Day 2014

Event Review/ Dream Day, Greeenpeace Yard, 8/23/14

©Eric K. Arnold 2014For Bay Area aerosol art aficionados and devotees, there is no name more celebrated than that of Mike “Dream” Francisco. Even though the “computer style” designs of SF graf pioneers Crayone, Raevyn and the TWS crew were the first to gain national attention – when they were featured in Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff’s groundbreaking 1987 book “Spraycan Art” – Dream’s legend has surpassed that of any living Bay Area aerosol artist, with the possible exception of Barry “Twist” McGee (who’s become a gallery/museum exhibitor and no longer does much street work anymore).

©Eric K. Arnold 2014Raised in the hardscrabble streets of East Oakland’s Sobrante Park neighborhood, Dream was a proud Pinoy who fell right in with hip-hop culture as it emerged from NYC boroughs and evolved Westward in the mid-80s. He reportedly studied East Coast graf masters such as Dondi – his trademark “D” bears more than a passing resemblance to Dondi’s version of the letter – but quickly progressed from imitator to innovator to master and mentor, especially to younger artists who frequented the “23” yard where he could often be found painting.

Dream’s art was instantly iconic, from 1996’s “Tax Dollars Kill” mural, to his 1993 portrait of murdered emcee Jesse “Plan Bee” Hall, to the backdrops he painted live for KMEL’s Summer Jam, to the numerous eponymous 3-D burners he authored. His maxim, “Dream… but don’t sleep!” became a rallying cry not only for aerosol practitioners, but for Oakland’s hip-hop subculture as a whole.


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Along with Spie, his compadre in the TDK and Irie Posse crews, Dream ushered in a wave of political-themed graf which continues to this day in the Bay. Bay Area aerosol writers were rarely political prior to 1992, when Dream and Spie protested the 500th anniversary of Colombus’ “Discovery” of America with a series of works inspired by the “500 Years of Resistance” campaign uplifting the indigenous struggle. Irie productions often featured the numbers “1492,” a cryptic reference to the onset of colonialism. This led to a well-attended gallery show in 1993 at the Pro Arts Gallery (then located in Old Oakland), “No Justice No Peace,” which addressed police brutality in the wake of the Rodney King beating by LAPD.

It’s been a long time since that show, but I can still remember Dream arriving with the swag of a king dressed in royal finery, though in truth, he was attired in a generic vinyl rainsuit. That was part of Dream’s gift; he could make anything fresh.

In an interview conducted  at the Pro Arts exhibition for the Soul Beat show “Hip-Hop Slam,” Dream explained his moniker: “I get most of my ideas from my dreams.” Graffiti, he said, was “something the mainstream just can’t deal with, so automatically, they’re gonna call it a crime.” The art show’s theme, he said, was a reference to police brutality and oppression, as well as the socioeconomic conditions in “East Oakland, and any other type of ghetto out there… every time i get hassled by the police, i gotta go out and do me a piece.” Spray-painting, he added, was an alternative to violence, while the art contained in the show represented “a dose of reality, something they ain’t never got before.”

©Eric K. Arnold 2014An official member of the Hobo Junction crew — he designed their logo — Dream went on to do graphic design and ink tattoos, and worked at a t-shirt an airbrushing shop at Hilltop Mall for a while. Although he had developed a political consciousness, he never left the street hustle completely behind; on February 17, 2000, a dispute over a minor amount of marijuana resulted in him being tragically murdered in West Oakland, leaving behind an infant son, Akil.

For the past 14 years, Dream’s legacy and memory has been kept alive by the TDK Familia, his crew members and peers, who organized a celebratory event called Dream Day. This year, the event was held at Greenpeace’s yard in West O, on 7th St., next to the People’s Grocery.  Not only was Dream Day a family affair, but it was a perfect example of the type of unique, iconic event which puts the grit in Oakland and the heart in the Bay Area’s hip-hop community.


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After passing through the gates, and putting a little something in the donation box – proceeds benefitted the Dream Book Fund and the Dream Legacy Fund for Akil Francisco, now 14 – I stepped into what seemed like a hip-hop fantasy world. There were about a dozen writers painting pieces, in broad daylight; some had brought their families with them. A selection of top-notch DJs, including Sake One, DJ Fuze, Myke One, Max Kane, and Dulo Dulo, were spinning everything from Bay Area old-school hip-hop and mobb music classics to equally-classic dancehall reggae. Food was provided by the Lumpia Lady and El Taco Bike, and beverages ranged from water to beer to sangria to rum punch. Meanwhile, Marty “Willie Maze” Aranaydo, a Dream protégé who’s become a talented artist, DJ, and graphic designer in his own right, emceed the proceedings.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014The vibe got even fresher, with live performances by Equipto of Bored Stiff (who rapped a song he wrote in honor of Dream) and Richie Rich, the legendary East Oakland rhyme-spitter and game purveyor, who did his classics from the 415 era, “415,” “Sideshow,” and “Groupie,” along with “Let’s Ride,” a Town favorite from his 1996 Def Jam album Seasoned Veteran. It was hella cool seeing all the fam up in the house, especially the older writers who rarely come out to events these days anymore. If you were there, you know exactly what I’m talking about, and if you missed it, you’re probably sorry you did.

Dream’s legacy, however, stretches further than just an annual celebration in honor of his name. What Dream gave Oakland wasn’t just a folkloric legend of a martyred king to brag about in graf circles, but a legitimization of the aerosol artform and a sense of community engagement and social responsibility which extends to public art.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Palestine Solidarity mural by Spie

This can be seen in recent highly-visible works by members of the TDK Crew: the “StAy” mural featuring Rickey Henderson on 3rd St. (near Washington); Spie’s contribution to the Palestine Solidarity Mural Project on 26th (near Telegraph); and the “West Side is the Best Side” mural at 17th and Peralta painted by Vogue, Bam and Krash (which gives Dream a boxcar-style shout-out).

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“Dream” tag on Peralta St. mural

No doubt, were Dream still alive, he would be proud to see the graffiti aesthetic he championed – so underground and rebellious during his era – become more accepted, both in the art world, and by the community at large. -EKA