The iconic crew is an important brick in the wall that helps hip-hop stand so tall …
The word “legendary” gets kicked around indiscriminately in cultural critiques like worn out hacky sacks on college campuses.
With ease of technology and reach to a viable market, anyone can release a semi-catchy single with a professional looking video attached — publications and blogs often citing most of them as “legendary” just to fill word count and appear tuned in. But to veterans of the culture, only emcees that have really pushed the culture forward are heralded as such.
Hieroglyphics, a crew name synonymous with hip-hop, has rightfully earned the title.
The rap collective is a consciously forward group straight from the streets of Oakland, CA. Founded by Del The Funky Homosapien, the group also contains proven solo artists such as Casual, Pep Love, Domino, DJ Toure and the four members of Souls Of Mischief (Phesto, Opio, A-Plus and Tajai). Throughout the years, few other groups have brought the sound of a city to life like they have. And they’ve done it by focusing on what’s most important to them as preachers of the sound.
“It’s got a lot to with a focus on the lyricism,” says Casual. “I think it was Opio who said if you took away the beats, we’d still be interested in the music.”
Though it isn’t just the lyrics that make Hieroglyphics such a legendary rap crew. Its ability to make widely appreciated music while touring the world without the backing of major labels was ahead of its time — and opened up the path for independent hip-hop artists and groups today like Tech N9ne and Chance The Rapper (two other wildly successful independents).
“Clearly we have strong songs and music that’s there,” rapper Opio continues, ”But I think a lot of it is just us breaking off from major labels and going the independent route. We kind of blazed a trail in that fashion.”
Today, Hieroglyphics continues to embody everything that is pure about hip-hop. Nearing 20 years since its debut album, 3rd Eye Vision, was released, the group still tours the globe both together and individually. on Saturday, Mar 26, all of the original members of the group will take the stage at Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom in one the biggest reunions the city will ever see.
Yet, even though something like the Raiders/Broncos rivalry keeps our cities at arm’s length sometimes, Denver holds a special place in the hearts of the Oakland natives.
“It’s a place that we’ve been coming to for a long time,” says Opio. “It’s a place that has always shown a lot of love to each individual member of Hieroglyphics, as well as the collective. So it’s all love.”
Music and touring isn’t everything the group is involved in now, however. Casual says he founded a community organization called Madjai Archers. “It’s really a co-operative economic conglomerate for hip-hop,” the rapper explains. “It’s a place for people to go to pick up on some of the skills that we’ve learned over the years. Skills that will translate over into the hip-hop industry, as well as life lessons we’ve picked up along the way.”
The purpose of Madjai Archers emulates the ideals of the Zulu Nation, a members-only hip-hop organization that contains many of the legendary veterans you read about in genre-specific history books.
“We are all honorary members of the Zulu Nation,” Casual says. “So it’s like we’re in the right position to bring about something new with a new mission statement.”
As any head will agree, the current landscape of hip-hop now is far different from the climate of the industry when Hieroglyphics first made their impact on the game in the late ‘90s. The focus on lyricism that Hieroglyphics is so often credited for is obviously not as apparent in chart hits of today. 808 drums and auto-tuned mumblings have taken over the airwaves. While the artists of Hieroglyphics are still old school through and through, adapting to the current climate of hip-hop has given them varying opinions on where it’s at right now.
“I’m not the biggest music connoisseur,” Casual admits, “But, it’s funny though, I’ll hear a beat today and just be like, ‘Man I would gas that beat!’ But they ain’t putting no hip-hop over it though! I don’t listen to much of the rap today, but I haven’t heard a beat that I didn’t like for a while.”
The sentiment of a beat carrying a song (rather than the lyrics) is a common gripe of hip-hop purists when discussing the current state of the game. But Hieroglyphics isn’t the type of group to conform to these trends in order to make people happy or sell a few concert tickets. Inspiration for them, Opio and Casual agree, comes from a much more authentic and traditional place.
“From Too $hort to KRS-One to NWA,” Opio reminisces about the group’s origins, “there’s all these groups and artists that taught us how to be original, just in the things they said. And with that, we were able to lay down the foundation for what would become underground West Coast hip-hop. But everything they did before us was original, and we used it and we just tried to stand out from everything and everyone.”
While there will never be a hip-hop top 10 that everyone in the culture agrees on, it’s a fair assessment to proclaim that Hieroglyphics is one of the groups that have staked its claim high on the list of greats. When the legends return to Denver, they’ll bring with them a breath of old-school air — and it certainly won’t be their last rodeo, as they all continue to innovate and crank out great music.
“Part of being an artist is always being inspired and staying creative,” says Opio. “We are always trying to think of something new or using an experience I had and turning it into lyrics that are innovative.”
To create is duty; to inspire and innovate, legendary.