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Subterranean Homesickness

[whitespace] The Hieroglyphics
Jetty Lads: The Hieroglyphics came heavy with 'The Who' at their Maritime Hall show.

The Hieroglyphics, Living Legends and Rasco unearth the best of Bay Area hip-hop

By Todd S. Inoue

The boos rained down in sheets. A preshow DJ had mistakenly played a song by crossover producer Jermaine Dupri, and the Maritime Hall crowd expressed its displeasure. It was as if a Steve Young fan had paraded in a 49ers jersey at an Oakland Raiders pep rally.

The March 19 show was an underground function, and spinning crossover artists between groups is an offense equal to treason, punishable by pimp slap. Since there were no pimps, pushers, hustlers, big ballers or shot callers anywhere in sight (they don't listen to this shit), the DJ, feeling the boos, corrected his gaffe and segued to another track. He shrugged his shoulders, acknowledging a mistake never to be made again.

Not even Dupri's brief phonographic appearance could weigh down the feelings of empowerment surging through the crowd. The Hieroglyphics (Souls of Mischief, Casual, Del, the Prose), Living Legends (featuring Mystik Journeymen, Grouch, Arata, Aesop, Eligh and Murs) and Rasco were showcasing the power of the West Coast underground hip-hop movement. Three acts with no radio airplay, videos or major label backing filled a medium-sized venue with eager fans.

The show had the feeling of a coming-out party. The Hieroglyphics slogged it out on majors before controlling their own destiny. The "family album" Third Eye Vision was released on the Hieroglyphics Imperium label on March 24. The Living Legends collective has long espoused the ownership of its master tapes, releasing cassettes and vinyl, financing its own tours.

The Mystik Journeymen plan on releasing four full-length albums this year (Independence Day, Black Sands Ov Eternia, Fate & Destiny, and a compilation called Worldwide Underground), while the other members all have new cassettes out.

Rasco Rules

Opening the show, the inimitable Rasco represented the local-owned Stones Throw label. Backed by DJ Serg, Rasta Cue-Tip and Asia One, Rasco displayed his commanding vocals. His two sidemen did little more than cast shadows and get in Rasco's way. Not that they were bad rappers, they're both very skilled, but their carelessness--letting mics feedback into the monitors--slowed the momentum.

It would be nice to hear "The Unassisted" and "Run the Line" with just Rasco's voice, not a chorus crossing over his lines. At the end, members of Rasco's former group, Various Blends, entered the stage and freestyled to tighten the seal.

Next up were the Living Legends. The crew had just played Canada and the Pacific Northwest and was anxious to get back to the bay, and what a show! As DJ Bizarro (obscured by a yellow mask) let loose a beat, the entire Living Legends collective swung into action.

Each member got time on the mic to perform a few songs and add color. When Japanese native Arata got on and flexed his rap in Japanese, the crowd exploded with hands and leaps. At the end, Arata clutched his chest, out of breath.

Even with the mounting attention coming their way, the Mystik Journeymen haven't lost their edge. They're moving forward--dropping favorites like "Never Forget" in favor of new tracks like "The Firefly Rebellion" and "Right Now."

What makes the Living Legends so entertaining is that each member has distinct, surreal traits. Arata looks confused until he grabs the mic. Aesop is mischievous and sly. Murs should be encased in battle fatigues. An elephant gun couldn't calm Tommy down, and Corey flips from eye-popping postal worker to ethereal angel in a blink.

Grouch is self-described. At one point, he caught a glimpse of his image blown up on the Maritime video screens, turned to it and berated, "Why do you make me get up? Why do you make me go to work?"

It's easy to get caught up in their unifying display. During a track like "Escape Forever," the members circle the stage like a pack of hyenas closing in on the kill. Together, they're an imposing front line that feeds off one another's talents and eccentricities.

Dr. Bombay

Hieroglyphics, too, is a blend of distinct talents and personalities. The problem, from my experience at recent shows, is that there's always one Hiero member who punches in but is mentally somewhere else. Del was the offender tonight. He must have been smoking horse tranquilizer because he was in a drunken stupor the whole time.

He rendered his hits ("Mr. Dobolina," "Dr. Bombay") sloppily and his freestyles even more so. At times, he laid down on the stage or rested his head against Domino. If fans felt cheated by his half-assing, they had a right. It would be a miracle if Del remembers anything at all.

The show wasn't a bust. Casual, in particular, is an emcee's emcee and came heavy with "The Who." The Souls of Mischief were tight and composed, as usual. Tajai, A-Plus, Opio and Phesto disposed of pretense and got right to it on "That's When You're Lost" and the crowd-pleasing "93 'Til Infinity." Their lyrical skills made Jive look jive for dropping them.

One of the T-shirts at the show, mimicking the Timberland logo, read "Oakland: West Coast Renaissance." If things go in cycles, as they often do, the Hieroglyphics, Living Legends and Rasco are ahead of the curve, waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. The crowd at Maritime exited the hall with wide, privy smiles, holding in a secret that could escape anytime.

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Web extra to the March 26-April 1, 1998 issue of Metro.

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