OAKLAND -- Twenty years into a career constantly skirting the seams of true celebrity, a musical collective invited its entire city -- which had rarely hosted it or officially acknowledged its contributions -- to a street party.
A community holiday was born.
Hiero Day was a gift to Oakland from its native namesakes, and thousands of people accepted the invitation last year to experience a peaceful, joyous celebration of Bay Area hip-hop. The surprise success gave innovative, independent Hieroglyphics an avalanche of overdue respect, and could replace canceled Oakland festivals of the past remembered fondly by the group.
"The end goal is to create something that is sustainable and that is a lot bigger than the group Hieroglyphics," explains rapper Tajai, one of the group's founding members and a member of the quartet Souls of Mischief. "There was a reason why the festival is free, and why it's all ages: Its not just about hip-hop, its about the best that Oakland has to offer, and us being proud that we're just part of this, more so than something to honor us."
Hieroglyphics drew together in the early '90s when most of the group members were preparing to graduate from Skyline High School. The core group began much younger, as boys trading video games in Oakland, when Del the Funky Homosapien says he and his friends "were just computer nerds, basically, game nerds, comic nerds."
Del was the prodigy who convinced his friends that fame was possible at an early age -- he received a recording contract while finishing high school, with his solo debut executive produced by his cousin, Ice Cube. But the group's second album made the biggest splash, and is still Hieroglyphics' only foray into the top 100 of Billboard's charts: Souls of Mischief's "93 Till Infinity," which the quartet ¿will perform in full at Hiero Day on Monday to celebrate its 20th anniversary.
Within two years of the release of the classic album, however, the major record labels had severed all ties with the Hieroglyphics collective, which includes Souls Of Mischief emcees A-Plus, Opio, Phesto and Tajai; rappers Casual, Del and Pep Love; producer Domino; and deejays Jaybiz and Toure. In response, the group tapped two Bay Area traditions, independent hustling and technological innovation.
"The thing that really made everybody proud of Hiero from the very beginning was that they always embodied the best that the bay has to represent to the world," said Jeff Chang, who moved from founding a contemporary indie label that turned into Quannum Projects to writing "Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation."
In 1994, Hieroglyphics established its Web presence, years before Napster and iPods would lead to a digital revolution in the music industry. The move nurtured an international audience, as Hieroglyphics sold merchandise featuring its now-iconic logo and tapes of unreleased material "to places like Iran and Afghanistan," says Tajai, who helped develop the original site while studying at Stanford.
"We were certainly one of the first groups that kind of maximized the Internet presence. I won't say we were the first, cause I don't know that, but we probably were one of the first hip-hop groups, if not the first hip-hop group," Domino says.
Early Web and merchandising success spurred Hieroglyphics to form an independent label, Hieroglyphics Imperium, in 1997. It has remained an international force in the indie hip-hop world for more than 15 years, touring nonstop to roaring crowds.
Back home in Oakland, though, the group found -- silence. Oakland's hip-hop scene throughout the '90s and into the 2000s was nonexistent, with longtime chronicler of the Bay Area hip-hop scene Davey D noting there was actually a moratorium on rap shows for a time. Hiero estimates they may have played three shows in Oakland through the years, with most of their Bay Area performances coming in San Francisco.
"We hailing from East Oakland, California, and sometimes it gets a little hectic out there, but right now, we gonna up you on how we just chill."
- Tajai Massey,
on "93 Till Infinity"
"For all the fantastic talent that Oakland has, it was not till very, very, very, very recently that there has been a place for us to perform."
Souls of Mischief
"This has far exceeded the dreams that we had in mind when we put this together. This is
f---ing amazing! We from Oakland! .. We love y'all!"
to Hiero Day crowd
Promoters "didn't think that people would come," Casual explains. "We sell out the Fillmore, but they were just like 'Fillmore people ain't coming to Oakland to see y'all because of the neighborhood, and the people who live in those 'hoods, they see y'all walking down the street, so they might not pack the venue.'"
As the group established offices in downtown Oakland and purchased a warehouse in the Fruitvale District they developed into the Hiero Compound -- complete with a mural painted by Oakland youths -- the city did little to partner with or celebrate them.
"You have a city that has these de facto ambassadors that have gone all around the world, and there's never been an effort to sit down and talk to these guys and see how we can raise the profile of the city," Davey D complains.
Still, Oakland has warmed to hip-hop and street festivals in the past few years, as Art Murmur celebrations on the first Friday of every month draw thousands and such venues as The New Parish, Fox Theater, Uptown and Legionnaire book varying degrees of national and local acts.
While celebrating the arrival of hip-hop in Oakland, members of Hieroglyphics still lament the loss of summer street festivals, including Festival at the Lake and Carijama, both canceled following violent aftermaths.
"Oakland is kind of traditionally a festive city, and all of that stuff got shut down in the mid-90s for a long time," Pep Love notes.
Prompted by one of its legions of online fans, Hieroglyphics put decades of entrepreneurial experience into a replacement: Hiero Day.
It started as a Facebook comment, with a fan telling the group that on 9/3, he would introduce as many people as possible to Hieroglyphics music, in honor of "93 Till Infinity." The group ran with it, building an event that would place a large, outdoor stage on the corner of 19th and San Pablo, with a second stage inside the nearby New Parish.
Hiero Day coincided with Labor Day, which freed people up to come listen to a day of free music. The crowd was much too large and excited for a pure holiday coincidence: Thousands of people soon started to file in to hear a lineup of Bay Area hip-hop greats, including Blackalicious, Planet Asia and Zion I. Unofficial counts pegged the total at 5,000-7,000, and video and photos from the event could easily put the total above that, as Casual does.
"I estimate by clubs, and a club's capacity a lot of the time is 600 to 1,000, and it was like 20 clubs out there," says the rapper, who had a prime view from the stage for the group's closing set and estimates the total was closer to 10,000.
No matter the total, it was the type of animated, dense crowd that marks a memorable event that will likely grow in congregants' minds, with all ages, races and backgrounds milling together peacefully.
Lynette McElhaney, the Oakland City Council member whose district encompasses the sites of last year's Hiero Day and Monday's event, took her son, niece and nephew to the 2012 event while campaigning and says "the vibe was incredible."
"It was an awesome, intergenerational crowd," McElhaney says. adding that Hiero Day "celebrates the best of who we are."
The electric, joyful vibe was noted by many members of the group, all wary of potential problems that killed their city's previous festivals.
"The one good thing we have going for us is that Hieroglyphics is inherently positive, and Hieroglyphics is homegrown," Opio says, noting that the group "worked so hard to maintain that nonviolent pride."
"I think the way that people carried themselves, the way people acted that day, is a reflection of who we are, as a group. That was a beautiful thing, it just made me feel ... I can't even describe it. It was definitely one of the proudest moments of my life," he added.
Girded by their success, members say they want to build the festival into an annual community event, and Mayor Jean Quan has officially named Sept. 3 "Hiero Day" in the city of Oakland, with a proclamation that deems Hieroglyphics "a steadfast cultural and musical force, a pioneering entity in technology and innovation and shining example of local, homegrown business with worldwide appeal and recognition."
However, the group is still accomplishing the feat as a private enterprise separate from civic involvement: "We're not a nonprofit, but there's no profit from Hiero Day," Casual notes.
Profits aren't the point, though.
"Hiero Day is for Oakland, it's for the city," the rapper continues. "We represent the community, born and raised in Oakland, and we're doing it for the people to celebrate ... so when I'm old, too old to perform, I can still be at HieroDay."
Contact Jeremy C. Owens at 408-920-5876; follow him at Twitter.com/jowens510.