Hieroglyphics’ Hip-Hop Holy Day Celebrated the Bay Area’s Independent Spirit

Hieroglyphics on stage at Hiero Day 2019. (Eric Arnold)

Although Oakland hip-hop collective Hieroglyphics headlines Hiero Day every year, Souls of Mischief member Adam “A-Plus” Carter points out that “Hiero Day isn’t Hiero-centric.” In other words, the festival isn’t so much a celebration of all things Hiero as it is an affirmation of hip-hop’s—and the Bay Area’s—independent spirit.

Indeed, Hieroglyphics’ brief 30-minute closing set was almost an afterthought on Sept. 2, as the festival's eighth edition featured non-stop highlights. These included a jazzy, soulful and grown-up set by the Midnight Hour (a project by Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge); a surprise cameo by Queens hip-hop veteran the Large Professor; the debut live performance of an East-meets-West collaboration between Mount Vernon’s Pete Rock and Oakland’s Yukmouth; a fierce performance by “Gangster Goddess” Medusa; and an early set by bilingual MC Deuce Eclipse and DJ El Kool Kyle on the Infinity Stage.

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Even a technical glitch, which forced the early closure of one of the stages and some rerouting of artists, couldn’t kill the vibe, which remained resolutely upbeat.

Over the years, Hiero Day has morphed from a free block party featuring a few Bay Area and West Coast comrades to an all-star hip-hop extravaganza with musical talent from across the country, attracting fans from as far away as Australia and Japan. As the event has grown in size—it passed the 25,000 attendance mark a few years back—it’s also grown in stature while remaining uniquely organic and homegrown.

This year saw the event expand throughout Labor Day weekend, with a Family Day event at DeFremery Park and a collaboration with the 45 Sessions, featuring legendary DJs (including Breakbeat Lou and Diamond D) spinning all-7” sets. The festival itself boasted three stages of live music and DJs, food trucks, vendors and positive vibes everywhere.

Rapper Queens D.Light performs at Hiero Day 2019.
Oakland rapper Queens D.Light performs at Hiero Day 2019. (Eric Arnold)

From a fan perspective, Hiero Day is something akin to a Bay Area holy day—a chance to participate in a contemporary cultural ritual with tens of thousands of like-minded people spanning a multitude of ages and ethnic backgrounds. For the artists themselves, Hiero Day is an affirmation of authentic acceptance into elite hip-hop status.

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Yukmouth counts Hiero as not only an inspiration to him, but a positive influence on Oakland youth. “It’s definitely a rite of passage, for Oakland and Bay Area rap, just for hip hop period,” he says. “And it’s a Bay Area movement that’s so strong, you ain’t never seen so much peace in the streets. With 30–35,000 people strong. Blocks and blocks down Oakland. Peacefully. No fights, no disputes. Everybody having fun and partying.”

For A-Plus, Hiero Day is a “surreal” experience. Not just in the sense that it’s named after his crew, or that it's become symbolic of  the group’s ongoing contributions to a living history, but also because it’s a family affair. “Best part of Hiero Day to me is bringing my son every year,” he says. “The last few years, his little brother has been coming as well. As well as his mom’s side of the family.” Apart from the occasional Jamaican event, he says, Hiero Day is the only event that can bring out his entire extended family—including both his parents, who have been separated for years.

Damian “Domino” Siguenza, a producer who’s also served as Hiero’s label manager, tour manager and booking agent at various times, agrees. The festival, he says, is “our way of giving back to our community that supported us all these years, and, you know, give back to the community in the form of art.”

Pioneering Bronx DJ Diamond D performs at Hiero Day 2019.
Pioneering Bronx DJ Diamond D performs at Hiero Day x 45 Sessions at the Uptown. (Eric Arnold)

As it’s evolved, he adds, the gathering itself has become the main attraction, over and above any particular artist on the bill. “It’s almost like, I don’t think the groups who are playing are as much of a factor on whether someone’s gonna come," says Domino. "People just kind of make it, this is what they do.”

The number eight holds particular significance for Hieroglyphics, in that their iconic symbol—three dots above a straight line—represents that number in the Mayan numerology system. Even more significance can be gleaned from the fact that Hiero has been touring this year in commemoration of their groundbreaking Third Eye Vision album, released in 1998.

As Domino recalls, “The initial goal for us was, OK, let’s put out this Hiero record, get a little buzz, and then we can get everyone signed again [to a major label].”

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But once the album was released, the group soon found that their DIY approach worked better for them than a major-label record deal. “We were making more money and we were touring more than we were when we were on Jive," says Domino. “It kind of opened our eye to, hey, this is really the way to go.” This led to “the important thing, which is ownership. Control of not only your masters and publishing or whatever, but also control of the marketing. Control of how you disseminate information on your record and picking the singles.”

To rappers like Yukmouth, Hiero has become ubiquitous. “They’re worldwide. They were one of the first groups out of Oakland to be accepted by New York. That’s a hard market to even be accepted in,” he says. “They have a cult following and I’m glad I grew up with these dudes. And watched ‘em do it from the bottom to the top. It remains a totem pole in the hip-hop game and in the Bay Area rap culture.”

Dante Ross and Tajai of Souls of Mischief at Hiero Day 2019.
Dante Ross and Tajai of Souls of Mischief backstage at Hiero Day x 45 Sessions. (Eric Arnold)

45 Sessions founder DJ Platurn, who’s spun at Hiero Day for five of its eight years, explains that Hieroglyphics' sample-based, conscious hip-hop sound marked an important departure from what other established Bay Area artists, like E-40 and Too Short, were doing in the '90s and 2000s. “What is really important about what Hiero means to us as DJs, and diggers, and hardcore music aficionados, is that they came along at a very important time that showed that there’s more to the scene than [what] the Bay is traditionally known for,” he says. 

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Legendary A&R and Hiero Day DJ performer Dante Ross, who signed Hiero founder Del the Funky Homosapien to Elektra in the early '90s, recalls Ice Cube sending him Del’s demos. “It was the first time I heard somebody from the West Coast who reminded me of the Native Tongues,” Ross recalls. "He had his own style, but you could see the synergy.” There were other lyrical West Coasts artists, he says, “but I hadn’t heard anything quite like Del before.”

Within the hip-hop ecosystem, Ross says, “Hiero are a unique voice. To this day, there hasn’t been anyone who did exactly what they did in the Bay Area. They had their own style, their own voice, even their own slang. Their Bay Area slang was not Town slang, necessarily. They had their own perspective on everything.”

DJ Lady Ryan at Hiero Day 2019.
DJ Lady Ryan at Hiero Day 2019. (Eric Arnold)

Compared to typical West Coast gangster rappers popular at that time, “[Hiero] were way more intricate and a little more advanced. They had their own style of production, which was sample-based, and to me, that’s one of the reasons they’ve had so much longevity.”

To date, Hieroglyphics have collectively released three group albums, and innumerable solo albums and side projects, from 2000's Deltron 3030 to 2019's Stoney Hawk.

A-Plus isn’t sure when their next group album will be released, but notes that Hiero Day has made up in some ways for the gap between albums by keeping the crew in the spotlight. The celebration is also something that helps the collective—who were teenagers when they started and now each have their own families—stay connected to each other. Yet despite its apparent success, he says, Hiero Day remains a grassroots undertaking and hasn’t yet become a cash cow.

As A-Plus puts it, “It’s a labor of love.”

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