Twenty years have passed since Oakland-bred hip-hop group Souls of Mischief released their seminal album “93 Til Infinity.” But despite cultish support, the group, and the Hieroglyphics collective that encompasses them, have until recently remained where they started—in the underground.
For the second year in a row, Hieroglyphics organized a free music festival in Oakland showcasing Bay Area hip-hop and putting on full display their love for the city. And the city is making it clear that the feelings are mutual. Mayor Jean Quan issued a proclamation honoring the hip-hop powerhouse, calling Hieroglyphics “a bright spot for the city of Oakland” and declaring September 3 “Hiero Day” in the city for years to come.
“It’s completely humbling,” said Adam Carter, better known as Souls of Mischief rapper A-Plus. “We all wanted to grow up to be rappers but it was inconceivable that someday we’d have a holiday named after us.” The Mayor’s proclamation coincides with a peak in interest in Oakland’s underground hip-hop scene as more venues begin to open their doors to rap shows.
According to Carter, finding places to play in Oakland was never easy. When the group was first getting started in the early ‘90s, he said, “there were no clubs.” Souls of Mischief would organize their own shows, usually in Berkeley, and pay for and promote them on their own. “As gangster rap started taking hold [in the early 1990s], things got more violent and the culture of the streets got more violent,” he said. “No venues were messing with hip-hop.”
The biggest venue in town, the Oakland Arena (now the Oracle Arena), put a moratorium on hip-hop shows after a melee broke out at a MC Hammer concert in early 1990. The ban would last 10 years; when it was lifted in 2000, the inaugural concert was cut short by gatecrashers and fistfights before the headliner, Hot Boys, could ever make it on stage.
For the Hieroglyphics crew, whose artists often write cautionary tales about the lure of gangster life, the stigma attached to rap music made for an unwelcome environment in their own city. “The city was against hip-hop,” Carter said. “It wasn’t an acceptable part of culture.” But Hieroglyphics, and Souls of Mischief in particular, were determined to write lyrics that reflected the reality of the neighborhoods they were raised in. “We tell stories with bad endings because when you do bad things then bad things happen,” he said. “We look at things from the perspective of the people who listen to our music—not to preach at them but because we knew what it was like for them.”
When Hieroglyphics was formed, it was tough to find a venue in Oakland where they could express those messages. Carter says things started to change around the time Art Murmur began in 2006, when underground hip-hop experienced a surge of popularity and venues like The New Parish began putting on shows. “Love it or hate it,” he said, “gentrification is a big part of the change.”
But not everyone is so enthusiastic. Lukas Brekke-Miesner, founder of Oakland arts & culture website 38th Notes, is skeptical about the Mayor’s honoring of Hieroglyphics being emblematic of a broader shift in support of hip-hop culture. “When Jean [Quan] says it’s now ‘Hiero Day,’ it’s cool that she’s recognizing the history,” he said. “But I don’t think that naming a day after them is anything more than symbolic.”
According to Brekke-Miesner, disproportionate measures are still taken against venues seen as catering to an African American clientele. For example, he says, the city has threatened in the past to revoke the liquor license of Oasis, a club in Chinatown. “How the city was approaching it was ‘there are people of color hanging out and drinking outside, and it’s ‘bad news bears’,” he said. “But then you have the Art Walk, where groups of people are walking around drinking wine. The attitude rubs some people the wrong way.”
But for Hieroglyphics, this convergence of gentrification and art has only led to increased support for the group’s music. The collective currently operates their music label, Hieroglyphics Imperium Records, out of a downtown office and a warehouse they own in the Fruitvale district. They also tour internationally – and even employ young interns from the neighborhood so they can learn how to run a business. Still, even with the Mayor’s endorsement, Carter doesn’t shed the underdog mentality.
“It’s always an uphill battle out here,” he said.