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Photograph by Johnny Tergo

Paging Mistadobalina: The producer gets to pose with the drum machine. They didn't make the rules, they just follow them.

Full Circle Imperium

Underground legends the Hieroglyphics return to the Catalyst

By Peter Koht

Estimating the difference between underground and mainstream success in the hip-hop world, the Hieroglyphics' Tajai is pretty pragmatic:

"50 Cent's kids probably go to private school."

While "Fiddy" may be well known for his nine gunshot wounds and notorious run-ins with the NYPD, the Hieroglyphics have always taken a more positive approach to hip-hop culture. Coming together as childhood friends who first formed their crew in high school, the Bay Area group has since spawned its own hip-hop empire via its label Hieroglyphics Imperium. Yet they've managed to do so without resorting to major label co-option or gangsta posturing that so often go together.

In fact, unlike many of their contemporaries, the Hiero crew have consistently focused on the positive social effects that hip-hop has had on them and their families. A collective in the truest sense of the word, the Hieroglyphics Imperium manages to produce not only albums by the entire crew but also support the solo efforts of its various members including Casual, Del the Funky Homosapien and the Souls of Mischief. Del's cousin Ice Cube helped the group get its first real break, but unlike their L.A. connection, the crew never left their Oakland home.

As elder statesmen of Oaktown hip-hop, the Hiero crew is thrilled that the local scene has, as Tajai puts it, "exploded and expanded" from the time when only "the dope boys could afford the equipment." But as their lyrics promise, you won't find any member of the Hieroglyphics on MTV "livin' outta they means, tryin' to bling bling."

But even though the gangsters have always had more capital funding, Z-Man isn't bitter. "Since the beginning of hip-hop there has always been an element of street culture," he says, though the Hieroglyphics "got some luck early in life, so we didn't have to deal with that kind of lifestyle."

Tajai concurs. "Hip-hop culture is a positive thing for everyone. It has been a good influence on our lives and a way for us to make money and feed our families. The negative thing is that some people believe in the bullshit and take it to heart and use it as an excuse to act dumb."

After almost a decade of shows, the Hiero tag can now be found on just about any stationary object in the Bay Area, but the crew functions without a street team or a focus group. According to Tajai, who once was signed to Jive records, keeping things independent is a better way to manage a career. "Unlike when you are at a major label, when all you have to think about is recording," he says, "you have to worry about press-up and artwork and servicing your videos. It's a lot more work, but it's a lot more rewarding."

This creative independence has allowed the crew to produce some of the most off-kilter and genuinely innovative hip-hop yet to make it to vinyl. Though lyrically grounded in battle rhyming and freestyling, it's the production work of their manager/producer Domino as well as Pep Love and Jay Biz that give Hieroglyphics albums such high replay value.

Riding high on the reception of their latest release, Full Circle, the Hiero crew still sees hope for mainstream hip-hop. "There is a resurgence of people trying to speak to the real elements," says Z-Man. "As the real elements of hip-hop emerge, the principles that we follow will become more popular and the line will blur between what is mainstream and what is underground culture."

The Hieroglyphics perform Saturday, Sept. 3, at 9pm at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave; Santa Cruz; tickets $18/adv, $22/door. (831.423.1338; www.cataylstclub.com)

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From the August 31-September 7, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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