I Wish My Brother George Was Here, the 1991 debut album from Del the Funky (nee Funkee) Homosapien, wasn’t my introduction to Hieroglyphics, but it is, for all intents and purposes, the genesis for the Bay Area crew – a fact that’s being celebrated in Flagstaff on Jan. 22 in what’s being called a 20th anniversary show.
As much as I’d like to claim that I’d been there since the beginning, I came upon Hiero two years later, in 1993, through Souls of Mischief (as I assume many others did, too). I’d never heard of Souls when they opened for A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul in December 1993 at the long-gone Roxy in Phoenix – and they weren’t even promoted on the ticket stub (one of many stubs/fliers I’ve kept) – but it didn’t take long before I had to have 93 ’til Infinity, an album I bought on cassette (yep, still have that, too). I was just an impressionable 16-year-old with a fresh driver’s license, probably oblivious at the time that I possessed a hip-hop classic.
That set off a level of fandom that, 18 years later, is almost hard to imagine. Souls shouted out the entire Hiero crew – and then some – on 93 ’til, and I did my damnedest to buy records by all of them. By fall of 1995, when I started college, I spent countless hours at Hiero Hoopla, the fan message board at Hiero’s website.
In some ways, I’m jealous of my 16-year-old self. Between Tribe and Hiero, I’m not sure I could ever invest in fandom like that again. Skepticism has replaced my youthful exuberance. I went to show after show, saved fliers, bought T-shirts, scribbled the Hiero logo all over.
But what I can truly appreciate about Hiero now, that maybe I didn’t fully grasp back in the day, is that they defined what it meant to be independent. After a falling-out with Elektra (Del) and Jive (Souls of Mischief and Casual), Hiero regrouped and, relying on their devoted fan base, founded Hiero Imperium, a record label that (in my mind) branded them as innovators. Remember, in 1995, record labels were far more of a necessity than they are today.
I interviewed Tajai of Souls of Mischief nearly three years ago, and this was his take on labels: “We signed a contract with the devil. They’re bankrolling your marketing and promotion to get you out there, so they feel like they can control the creative process. … They feel like they can invade your creative process under the guise of, ‘I have more experience and I know how it’s going to hit at radio.’ We’re lucky to have learned from it. It’s the best thing that happened to me (being on Jive) … We maybe didn’t get paid as much as we should have. But we’re getting 10 to 20 times more now. We’re finally seeing real money.”
And Hiero’s status has been further cemented as part of an art installation by When Art Imitates Life (W.A.I.L.) – Hiero: The Valley of Kings. To celebrate, the group released a new track, the aptly titled Reputation, which features A-Plus, Opio and Casual. Twenty years later, it’s a fitting reminder of Hiero’s place in hip-hop (and my own pantheon of artists).