The creative landscape is changing. Technologies like Pro Tools, the iPod, and peer-to-peer networks have become mainstream in the digital age, creating a wild frontier of sorts in music. Independent artists can reach mass audiences once forbidden to them. These technologies are fostering the rise of “semiotic democracy”—where more and more people are no longer passive consumers of mass media, but active participants in creating culture. Cops vs Lawyers, Issue 3

الاثنين، تموز ١٩، ٢٠٠٤

Tajai on the Spot

Illustration by Andrew Strawder .
by Jesse Ducker

Before Hieroglyphics, hip-hop artists dropped from one major label and immediately bounced to another, occasionally finding success, but mostly fading into obscurity. When the members of the Bay Area-based Hiero crew lost their deals, they decided to take a different path.

In the early 1990s, Hieroglyphics—composed of the Souls of Mischief (A-Plus, Tajai, Phesto, and Opio), Del the Funkee Homosapien, Casual, and Pep Love—either had major label deals or were hustling to get one. Most enjoyed some level of success, all enjoyed critical acclaim; Souls of Mischief, for example, has sold over 400,000 copies of their debut album ’93 Til Infinity.

Then, Souls and Casual were dropped from Jive Records and Del from Elektra, and rather than rebounding to another major label like Def Jam, Hiero decided to regroup. They continued recording music on their own, touring nationwide, and communicating with their core audience through their website. They eventually formed their own label, Hieroglyphics Imperium, and put out new material without any major label support.

Hiero’s efforts have impacted underground hip-hop throughout the nation. Artists behind other indie labels might not have taken their chances on the independent route if Hiero hadn’t shown they could make it happen.

The Hieroglyphics crew has maintained its artistic integrity without having to compromise in order to pay the rent or feed the kids. Though Souls of Mischief’s releases off Hiero Imperium have sold maybe a quarter of the units as ’93 Til Infinity, they’ve enjoyed far more financial success independently than Jive Records ever provided. Tajai, who runs the label along with long-time Souls’ manager Domino, says he’s already made more money in 2004 than he ever made through two albums on Jive.
Hiero continues to distribute that success back to the Bay Area community. After years of releasing albums from inside the immediate Hiero camp, in the last 18 months Hieroglyphics Imperium has dropped four albums from Bay Area-based artists, including the Delinquents, soul songstress Goapele, San Francisco-based MC Z-Man, and Milpitas-based MC Encore. But according to Tajai, it’s only the beginning...

SHOUT!: So how was the Bay Area scene changed since Hiero first came out?
TAJAI: Well, for one, it exists. Before us, there was Too Short’s Dangerous Crew, Coughnut, and some other artists, but mostly gangsta rappers. Now people expect groups on some real hip-hop shit to come out of here every year.

So how much do you think Hieroglyphics is responsible for that?
I think we’ve a got a lot to do with it. We’ve brought out a lot of new styles over the years that other local groups weren’t doing before us.
It’s been almost 10 years since Souls of Mischief or Del has put out a major label release, but the Hieroglyphics crew still commands a very loyal following. Hiero has captured a lot of fan’s imaginations.

Why do you think that is?
We’re coming from a real perspective. It’s kind of hard to explain. Take Eminem for example. On some level he’s really popular because of his skin color, and a lot of fans relate to what he’s saying because he looks like them. But it’s also in the way he rhymes, which isn’t complicated. It’s straightforward. It’s hip-hop as conversation. And I think we rhyme a lot like that. We don’t use a lot of slang. We’re not trying to hide behind hella vocabulary. It’s real. I mean, a lot of what Del says, you can take it and write it down as sentences. In fact, I don’t think we use as much poetical language as we want. Our stuff isn’t as cryptic as we’d like it to be sometimes.

How has your music evolved?
The music has gotten a lot richer. It’s more organic. We’ve got more knowledge of everything, and better knowledge makes for better music.

So what do you see for the future of the Bay Area scene?
It will become a viable industry. People should be able to go and see live music every night, in a diverse number of scenes, not just the hip-hop scene. There are not many venues out there. There’s the Fillmore, but that’s owned by Clear Channel. We got to get our people out there and going to shows.
We have to have spaces to perform in the Bay, ...because there aren’t many. Which is a trip, because the San Francisco Bay Area is one of the biggest cultural centers in the country. I mean, I’m from Oakland, but I’ve only rapped in Oakland like three times.

So why do you think that there aren’t any shows in Oakland?
Because there’s always this perception that people in the ’Town are always wylin’ out. But promoters need to step it up. As far as planning, there needs to be spots were both mainstream and underground groups can perform. You have to have both, but right now we don’t have any. When acts from out of town come here, they do their show and visit KMEL and that’s it. There’s no where else for them to go.
People in the Bay have got to get creative. Promoters have got to create 18 and under spots for kids to go to. They’ve got to bridge the gap. And they’ve got to get hip-hop cats in there. They’ve gotta respect hip-hop as music.

Why do you think they don’t?
There’s this oppressive police state mentality. People are like, ‘There’s these kids with their skateboards and their hip-hop music and they’re causing a nuisance.’ So venues won’t book hip-hop regularly. I mean, why is there no phat spot near the UC Berkeley campus? There’s like 30,000 students right there, and there’s no really hype spot to see live music. There’s a bunch of problems. For example, cats are scared to take a loss on setting up these shows. There’s also a generation gap between the promoters and the performers.
But I guess the fact [that] there’s never been a really live place to catch live music is why we even have a “scene” in the Bay. People are at home recording music because there isn’t anything to do. I mean, for me and the rest of Hieroglyphics, that’s how we got started. We started making music because we didn’t have shit else to do.

You started the Hieroglyphics Imperium record label a few years ago. But it’s only recently that you have used the label to put out artists outside of the Hiero family. What made you guys decide to start putting out other artists?
We realized that if we wanted to be a franchise, we had to be making opportunities for people other than ourselves to shine. If you start a business, you shouldn’t be greedy. We don’t waste all the time and money just on ourselves. That’s selfish.
All of the groups on the label have followings. Z-Man has a solid cult following, Encore has a core following. Same with Goapele. We’ve brought in bands that are trying to create something. They already know how to be artists. They’re not going to have to get their show down and get their chops up. They already know what they’re doing.

SHOUT!: So what’s next for Hiero and yourself?
TAJAI: Well, I’ve started my own label, Clear Label, which is distributed through Hieroglyphics Imperium. I’m gonna put out Shake Da Mayor through the label. I’ve got my album, Power Movement. Casual’s gonna drop a new album called Casual Presents: Smash Rockwell. A-Plus will release a new solo album. Opio has got a new album called Triangulation Station, Pep Love has got Reconstruction, and Del has got 11th Hour. Just check it out.