Hiero Day 2015: High Temps, High Spirits and Hip-Hop Fest Growing Pains [VIDEO]

Hieroglyphics, the collective that in the early '90s birthed Del the Funkee Homosapien, Souls of Mischief, and other mainstays of the fiercely independent sound that would come to define Bay Area hip-hop for decades, has always been under-celebrated on a national scale.

There are myriad reasons for this: a lack of corporate promotion, the sociopolitical atmosphere in Oakland at the time the Hiero guys were coming up (when police crackdowns on clubs left the East Bay with very few stages for musicians, period) -- but it's nearly undisputed, to the point that this permanent underdog status is woven into the scene's mythology. It's a source of frustration, and it's a source of very deep pride.

Let all of that serve as color for the following: In 2013, Mayor Jean Quan named Hiero Day an official city holiday. If you had told anyone in 1993 that the City of Oakland would at some point formally recognize the positive contributions that hip-hop had made to the community -- to youth, to education, to non-violence -- they probably would have laughed in your face.

So what changed? In 2012, after a Souls of Mischief fan posted on Facebook that he planned to introduce as many people as possible to Hieroglyphics' music on Sept. 3,  or 9/3 -- in honor of the group's iconic record 93 'til Infinity -- Hieroglyphics took it one step further and decided to throw a block party in downtown Oakland, with free music, food, beer, you name it. As many as 10,000 people showed up. There were babies, grandparents, and everything in between. It felt scrappy in comparison with larger corporate festivals, but wasn't that kind of the point? Local hip-hop legends mingled with fans; the pungent scent of weed mixed with barbecue smoke wafted through the air. It was an "only in Oakland" kind of feeling. By 2014, attendance hit 20,000.

Zion I at Hiero Day 2015. Photo: Instagram / dj_tre
Zion I at Hiero Day 2015. Photo: Instagram / dj_tre

As for this year? The lineup was stacked, with The Coup, Tha Alkoholiks, Aceyalone, Compton's Most Wanted, Luniz, Peanut Butter Wolf, Zion I, and a slew of other West Coast hip-hop luminaries packing three stages around 3rd and Chestnut in Downtown Oakland. But the discussion on everyone's lips -- okay, aside from the fact that unannounced guest Dru Down appeared to perform "I Got 5 On It" with Luniz -- was that organizers were charging admission. Presale was $19.93; same-day tickets at the door were $35 -- a relatively modest price for an eight-hour lineup of legends, but make no mistake: That's a formidable expense for plenty of people, and there was no question it changed the feeling of the fest. (We're still waiting on official turnout numbers, but it seemed more sparse than usual, especially early in the day.) Plus, the little gripes that are happily tossed aside when an event is free -- not enough shade or water planned for a 92-degree day, overflowing trash cans and Port-A-Pottys -- become more substantial gripes when organizers are charging, ostensibly, to cover the cost of preventing those very issues.

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Still, as the blazing sun finally set in downtown Oakland and little ones were hoisted onto shoulders while the Hiero guys finally took the stage and performed "93 'til Infinity," you would've been hard-pressed to find a bad mood on the block. Backstage felt like a family reunion of the past 30 years of West Coast hip-hop; rappers and rappers' toddlers ran amok in nearly equal numbers, with sweaty, happy hugs everywhere you looked.

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If you haven't heard, Oakland -- still undersung, undercelebrated, and often misunderstood -- is going through some changes lately. Its favorite holiday will probably keep doing that too.

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