At this year’s Hiero Day, on Sept. 5, you got the sense that Oakland’s hip-hop scene is one big family. Only at this festival—put on by the venerated crew behind hits like “’93 Til Infinity”—do you see Bay Area stars like Mistah F.A.B. and D-Lo walking through the crowd shaking hands, or Hieroglyphics’ own Tajai working the ticket booth and personally welcoming fans.
Longtime listeners could be seen coming up to OG artists, giving hugs and reminiscing. A well-curated lineup of both emerging rappers and seasoned legends drew crowds of teens through 50-somethings willing to brave the heat wave. People brought small children, babies and dogs. Above all, the festival celebrated the Bay Area’s hip-hop lineage—how distinctive styles like mobb music, hyphy and conscious rap have informed each other throughout the decades, and how younger artists are taking that legacy and building something new.
After a year off in 2020, and a scaled-down event in 2021, Hiero Day made a true return this year for its 10th anniversary. The event wasn’t perfect—more water stations would have helped, as temperatures on 3rd Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way climbed to 99 degrees. The three stages ran a couple hours behind schedule, with no way to communicate lineup changes.
But so it goes at Hiero Day, where it’s better to stroll around and vibe instead of over-planning your afternoon. The event stands as one of the last affordable, unpretentious music festivals in the Bay Area, and its laid-back atmosphere once again made it a gem. Here’s what we saw this year.
The Mekanix Bring Out Keak Da Sneak
The Mekanix specialize in trunk-rattling beats, but this mobb music super-producer duo wasn’t behind the decks during their Hiero Day set. Instead, 4rAx and Kenny Tweed took the main stage, hyping the crowd as DJ D Sharp (who spins for the Golden State Warriors) dropped song after song crafted by The Mekanix for their featured artists—E-40, Snoop Dogg, the list goes on. The audience was already hyped.
Then, magic began to happen as guest artists joined The Mekanix and their dancers on stage. Mob Figaz’ Husalah, who swore he doesn’t really rap anymore, jumped into the crowd, moshed and rhymed a cappella. When Keak the Sneak came out on stage, the crowd went crazy—and went even crazier when he performed “Super Hyphy,” produced by the late Traxamillion, a track Baydestrians young and old have tattooed on their hearts almost 20 years later.
A Zion I Tribute Honors Zumbi’s Legacy
Stephen Gaines, a.k.a. Baba Zumbi, died under mysterious circumstances at Alta Bates Medical Center in Berkeley just over a year ago, and his family, friends and fans are still waiting for answers and accountability. It’s difficult to heal without closure, but moments of joy shone through the sadness at his tribute concert featuring MCs The Grouch, Deuce Eclipse and Dustin Sharpe, with Kev Choice on keys and Codany Holiday IV singing soaring backing vocals. Amp Live, Zumbi’s music partner in the duo Zion I, looked on as the ensemble covered tracks like “Don’t Lose Your Head” and “The Bay,” sometimes letting Zumbi’s recorded voice take over.
During a particularly resonant moment, Choice stepped out from behind his keyboard to rap “My Antenna,” which, in this context, sounded like a yearning to reach someone who’s already in the afterlife. The performance came to a beautiful close when Zumbi’s entire family, including his three young boys, stood up on stage during “Coastin’” to feel the love from the crowd.
Food for Thought and Laughs from LaRussell
LaRussell’s casual uniform of Crocs and a T-shirt lends him a sort of down-to-earth relatability, but that belies his powerful confidence and lyrical insight. On the smaller 3rd Eye Stage at Hiero Day, the quickly rising Vallejo rapper captivated a small but appreciative crowd, holding each person’s gaze as if rapping directly to them.
LaRussell has an uncanny ability to switch between sermon-like wisdom (he restarted several tracks to make sure the audience was really listening) and free-spirited moments of silliness and dancing, taking the crowd along for the ride. When LaRussell raps about building his own opportunities—like the music venue he started in his backyard—you can’t help but believe in him and the self-starting, independent musical community he’s created in Vallejo. The performance touched listeners’ hearts and left them with big smiles.
Keyshia Cole Delivers a Rare Intimate Performance
Keyshia Cole has played for arenas of tens of thousands, so her headlining set in front of an intimate hometown crowd that grew up alongside her was something special. After taking the stage with her backup dancers, the Oakland R&B star dropped the formalities and began asking the audience what they wanted to hear. When they shouted “Let It Go,” she indulged, performing her post-breakup dancefloor hit featuring Missy Elliott and Lil Kim.
Then she began talking to the audience like family—she mentioned her skyrocketing rise in the music industry in the early 2000s, her mother’s drug addiction, her anxiety. “I made it, so fuck that, that’s not the end of my story,” Cole said as she announced that she’s filming a movie about her life. When she belted her ballad “Love” in front of a peachy sunset sky, the entire audience sang along.