CASUAL, PHESTO, AND TAJAI TALK PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE HIEROGLYPHICS
Hieroglyphics, an underground hip hop collective from East Oakland, California, is composed of rappers Del the Funky Homosapien, Casual, Pep Love, producers DJ Touré and Domino, and the four members of the group Souls of Mischief: Phesto, Tajai, A-Plus, and Opio.
The Culture Crush’s Debra Scherer sat down with Casual and Souls of Mischief members Phesto and Tajai to get a glimpse of the early ‘90s Hip Hop scene in Oakland. They recounted the origins of the crew, which date back to the members’ elementary and middle-school days, and delved into their current state of affairs in an area of the country that is succumbing to the ever-growing technology sector.
In an effort to sustain Hieroglyphics as well as grow their community, the crew has taken advantage of their location, both the land itself and the advances in technology that encompass it, to create and plan several projects that aim to give back to a community in need, following in the footsteps of the Bay Area social movements that preceeded them.
Casual: I’m the co-founder of Hieroglyphics, current CEO and a pillar in the Hiero crew. You know what I’m saying? That’s me. But you can’t do nothin’ with just one pillar, you know?
Tajai: I’ve been down since day one, just doing this, and also I’m a designer at an architectural firm. I hope to build many Hiero layers throughout the world.
Phesto: I’m also one quarter of Souls of Mischief, Hiero crew, an MC, producer, and visual artist.
Tajai: You may have seen our symbol? It’s the circle with the three dots and a line, like a stern face with a third eye. Del the Funky Homosapien came out with his first album, I Wish My Brother George Was Here, and put us on the B-side of one of his first singles. We all grew up together.
DS: So where did the name come from?
Phesto: Well, the name really came from Del The Funky Homosapien.
Casual: He really got the name from some of our high school peers. They fell off. They were like, “We ain’t rappin’ no more” and we were like, “For real?”
Phesto: There was a rapper named Hieroglyphics, and he thought the name was whack and didn’t want it anymore.
Casual: We were originally calling ourselves The Mad Circle, so it’s funny that our logo turned out to be circular. But it represented something else. We started rocking that symbol so early on in our career. One day, right after Del drew the logo at his house, we came back to school, and the symbol was already spray painted on the side of everything. We were like, “Who did that??” It was a high school dude who had been chilllin’ at that moment there, and he had come back to school and interpreted that moment as if he was a member!
This is how far back we go. Tajai and I lived on the same street since elementary school. I made my first trade, barter, with Del, in kindergarten, and he was like a third grader, and it was an intimidating trade. It was Asteroids and Yars’ Revenge, two Atari cartridges. So we’ve got a long history.
DS: So when you guys came together, was it for music? Or just a general creative urge in common?
Tajai: We all grew up together, played with toys together, and were really brought together by hip hop. Not just the music, but graffiti, beats, and breakdancing all brought us together. For anybody to say hip hop is a negative influence on somebody’s life—that’s a crock of shit! You know what I’m saying? That’s just a crock of shit. That’s actually what drew us together and kept us together to where we are having this conversation 30-plus years later in a building that we own.
Our kids are each other’s godchildren, so that was really the force that kept us going. We all grew up playing whatever together, from toys to going to the same school, but hip hop is what drew us together and made it so that we are talking every single day. We are building something—making something every single day. We actually had a mission. Before that, it was just regular kid shit.
Phesto: Also, the time we grew up in was the ’80’s—Reaganomics and the crack cocaine era—so hip hop was looked at as a definitely positive alternative to that lifestyle. It was really about defying these stereotypes that we were being potrayed as. At that time, there were a lot of people who were older than us, almost looking down on hip hop, like it was a square thing you were doing. They were like, “Ahhhh, they be rappin’, all those little rap dudes—getting money, wearing a gold chain, and a British Knights sweatsuit or something.”
Tajai: It was cool, but like being in a doo-wop group or some shit like that!
Phetso: They were giving us props but making fun of us at the same time.
Casual: It was a way to have an occupation, but you had to have something else to do outside of that. Like Taj played football, and if you rapped, you had an occupation. In our upbringing, there was a lot of competition. In the hood, when you are ready to form a team, you seek out the best people. Whether it’s basketball or something, you think of the dudes you’ve been beefing with because you know they are raw. You are like, “I’m calling him, and I’m calling him, because then that shit’s gonna be raw.” Honestly, it just happened after a battle. We were like, “You know what? Let’s just go be a crew, ‘cause we raw!” You know what I’m saying?
DS: So how old were you guys when it all came together?
Casual: That was junior high. At that point, even the Souls of Mischief— what were you called?
Tajai: The Syndicate!
DS: Different name, same shit?
Casual: They were already rollin’ with Del. They already had a conglomerate. I joined at that point, and then it kept on growing.
Tajai: I’m just thankful for us to have an enduring friendship. For us to have enterprises together based on mutual interests that we felt could be a vehicle. We weren’t unrealistic. We weren’t naïve about it. We never looked at it like, “Oh, we are going to make billions.” But in that era, when you started rapping, you were a rapper. It wasn’t like, “I rap.” It was more, “I’m a rapper.”
Ds: So it wasn’t what you did, it was who you were.
Tajai: And this was a 12-year-old kid talking. It really did give you something to do. It’s the same as a kid who goes and shoots a billion free throws. We were just doing some shit that manifested into something bigger. A-Plus and I were rapping together since ’83, and we started working together with Casual in ’90, but I’ve known Casual since 1980. It all started congealing when Del started writing for [Ice] Cube and put out his first record. That’s when we started getting public recognition as Hieroglyphics, but we had been doing it for a while.
Casual: It was ’89, because I remember when I came back to get the Big Daddy Kane record.
DS: So what do you think makes the music “Oaklandesque”?
Tajai: OK, so try and listen to our music in the system. Our music is made more for listening in cars than just a Walkman or a boombox, and when I say our music, Hieroglyphics, we have more like ride-out music. It’s like, “I’m going to get on Highway 1 and drive to L.A., and oh! I got this new Hiero record!” You know, we try to make our shit scenic. Still pounding, but not necessarily bass driven all the time. If you think about DJ Touré, he makes damn-near blues. Like he and Casual, when they make music together, it’s like blues, whereas Souls of Mischief, we make more like jazz fusion.
Casual: Jazz funk.
Tajai: Del makes more straight up funk, space funk. And Pep Love.
Phesto: A lot of his work was produced by A-Plus. His style was almost more worldly.
Tajai: That’s a dope way to put it!!
Phesto: It’s almost like folk.
Tajai: It is like folk! A-Plus was a guitar dude!
Phesto: He has Jamaican roots. His parents were Jamaican, so I think that has something to do with his particular production style. He used a lot of acoustic guitar, but what he samples—there is no limit to that. If you listen to his production, his catalogue—it’s everything. I mean, he did 93 ‘til Infinity. That’s the definition of jazz fusion.
DS: I have to say, when jazz started to leak into hip hop—that’s when it got really interesting—I feel like that’s coming back now.
Tajai: You should listen to our new album, There’s Only Now. It’s like a jazz record.
Phesto: Yeah, it’s all acoustic.
DS: So we were talking about layers of culture. You can’t talk about Oakland without thinking about how it is part of the ecosystem of this Bay Area thing. Musicians are kind of in a conundrum, as a lot of creative industries are right now, because we are all one big industry now, whether it’s fashion, or music, or tech, or Hollywood. It doesn’t matter. There’s only one industry now: entertainment. And I think you guys happen to be in the epicenter of either being exploited or being able to exploit that in an incredible way.
Tajai: We were talking about tech sort of draining the cultural lifeblood— life-force—out of the Bay area. By literally and physically displacing people. And also culturally just by bringing on this sort of metric-based culture, not something that’s based on feel or experience. It’s more based on, “This is what’s hot! And look! I have the numbers to prove it.”
And that’s not just in music, like you said. Right now, we are moving into a numbers-driven society for everything. It is kind of draining the culture because people are doing things more for clicks or things that translate into actual food for your children. You think, “I got 10 million views,” equals, “I got this check,” equals, “I got a yacht.” I don’t know if it’s just the tech industry. I think it’s true throughout our culture in America, where entertainment is our product. And thus, hits are the goal, the thing we are working for. Whether you are in sales or in marketing, it’s all numbers-driven and dehumanizing. But between art and commerce, that’s how it always is.
As Hieroglyphics, we are working on ways to sustain ourselves through things like organic farming, through co-oping on buildings like this. If we take care of our basic needs, then the need to chase after this invisible carrot that leads to sacrifices in the music, etc., becomes less and less. We are dads. We all have kids that need care. Our childcare can be very expensive, or it’s something we can give to ourselves. If we work on the basics, if we have land, and we have food, and we have homes, and we have a building out of which we can manufacture, and all this kind of shit, then the need to sell out—the need to have to lead this sort of mainstream lifestyle—lessens and lessens with each stride we make in that direction.
So we are investing in all of those things. We are still making the music, but on our terms, and that’s the least of it. Now that everything is all jumbled up, that’s the least of it. We all are trying to get land, learning new farming techniques, learning how to pool our money, how to acquire equipment, and shit we need—logistical shit—through new means that are available through technology.
DS: What are some examples of some specific things you are working on?
Tajai: We have multiple farms. I’ve got a tree bank and a food bank where I will plant your trees for you if you have space and you want food-bearing crops.
Casual: A lot of plans for the future concern land aquisitions, beyond just musical purposes. We are talking about forming a whole community. I mean, I’m just keeping it real. I’m talking about overall goals in life, and things that we use hip hop to springboard into.
Tajai: It’s about independence. That’s just the term used to explain the musical way that we do things. This geographical area we are in is where all of these entrepreneurs and multi-billionaires are created, so if we are in this environment and its culture and around people who are making these kind of moves, it behooves us to do the same kinds of things.
I think that the level we are thinking of is definitely informed by being based out of not just Oakland, but the San Francisco Bay Area. Not just its musical history, but also by the environmentalist movement, the hippie movement, the Black Panthers—all of those things. It’s all about self-determination and equality and being able to create a playing field—not just level it. So we’ve got a lot of plans, but it’s all centered around land acquisition, food-bearing crops, developing volunteer programs for the students from local high schools and colleges to participate in these farms and receive school credit, linking culinary schools with our fresh produce, and getting corner stores to directly buy and sell our product.
Imagine if the corner store down the street was selling our locally-grown produce. That selection would improve immediately, and even if it didn’t make money, the quality of life around here would improve. So it’s things like that that we are trying to move into because our legacy with music, while that’s something we love—that’s our thing—but what about all of this other shit we are tied and connected to? That is directly informed by the Bay Area experience. It’s a vortex out here, or an epicenter, of worldwide movements.
Ninety percent of all digital transactions go through this area. All of these movements, from the women’s movement, to the hippies, to the Panthers, to the student movement, the disabled movement—they all originated here, and these are things that have spread throughout the known world. And if we are a part of that, then that’s part of our legacy, too. Let’s elevate beyond just music, although music is great! I’m not putting it on a hierarchical scale in terms of value or contribution to the world, because we have these opportunities, and we are about to take them. We are busting some moves, man!!!!!!!!
DS: Wait! I keep looking over at Casual and I feel like something’s going on!! What are you not telling me?!
Tajai: Well, he’s CEO of the company, and head of acquisitions and movements that will hopefully move way beyond music and become more about a quality of life thing beyond just audio. The best compliment we get is when a kid says, “You changed my life. I was going to kill myself and I turned this song on.” And it’s never our biggest song. We are like “What?” “—And then I decided not to do that shit.” I think we are improving quality of life by making good music, but we got 50-60 more years left on Earth, so what can we do now? We are trying to green this building. We are trying to do a garden on top. We are trying to do block parties where independent vendors can have events, like farmer’s markets that are sort of just popping up ragtag. Hopefully, that’s the Hieroglyphics that people will think of. When they see the symbol, I want it to have meaning, like the Kosher symbol on this bottle of water. Like, “Oh, it must be alkaline, it’s Hieroglyphics!”
DS: So tell us more about the symbol?
Phesto: It’s like the perfect example of “less is more.” If somebody just drew that for me right now and said, “This is going to be your logo,” I would be like, “Really? Seriously?”
Casual: We were also wise enough to realize it was clean, though. I think it’s great because you can’t read too far into it and go off track. How could you misread that logo?
Phesto: I remember in Brazil, hopping off the plane and on the side of the freeway, there it was!!
Casual: I was thinking, “Did they do that two weeks before we got there because we were coming?” because it was too crazy.
Tajai: Yeah, the whole way in Brazil, along the freeway, there was Hiero. That shit was crazy. The headline in the newspaper when we went to Brazil was, “Hieroglyphics Crew Comes To Town,” and then in small print underneath, “Jay Z becomes president of Def Jam Records.” I was like, “Whoa!! Bizarro world.”
Phesto: I kept like four of those newspapers. I took them home.
Tajai: The Mayan symbol for eight—it’s supposed to mean harmonic resonance. So everyone brings their cultural references to it. It’s just a really cool logo.
DS: It’s just cool; we just love it.
Tajai: I know kids who wear our shit but don’t even listen to our shit. They say, “Yeah, Hiero, yeah.”
DS: And that’s a very powerful tool to have in your toolbox, to do all of these things you want to do.
Casual: Some people say it was one of the most well-rendered logos in music.
Phesto: I think Rolling Stone Magazine gave us the third position: The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead and then us. The three most recognizable symbols in music, which is a huge compliment.
Casual: And again, for us, we want simplicity, even in terms of what we put the logo on. We try not to over-trend it. It helps it to remain, it’s simple. People have been buying this same black tee for almost 20 years. Over and over again. That’s wonderful.
DS: So Casual, tell me more about your interest in language and in Egyptian hieroglyphics for real?
Casual: I took an interest in ancient Egyptian language and human nature. Really, I was drawn to it because after a while of calling ourselves the Hieroglyphics, the way my brain was working was like, “One day, somebody’s gonna call you out about that. You need to study up on that!” So that’s what guided me towards actually studying. But honestly, initially when we took on the name, Hieroglyphics, which was not when we formed our crew, but when we took on the name, I shot over to Berkeley and bought my first ancient Egyptian dictionary and it was just sitting in my house for like 20 years...
Tajai: And I think I got a tattoo based on something from that book.
Casual: ...but in around 2006, I started collecting a lot of data and doing a lot of work actually in the real field. I have actually dialogued with authority and translated their emails.
DS: Can you write “Hiero” too?
Casual: Yes, definitely, read and write. It’s something that sticks with you, but you know, if you stop studying you could fall off. But you know, at the same time, I can read and translate anything. You are dealing with a written body of work that is static because it’s not changing unless they find something new, so some people just memorize that stuff. I don’t think that’s a true grammarian. I got deep into that stuff. I wrote a book called Madjai-A Handbook For The Conscious Community, which contains a lot of that type of content. I just got excited.
Phesto: It’s just like reading English. It’s memorizing the symbols and the sounds.
Tajai: At first, we were all on it. Then everybody sort of fell off. But he keeps studying it, and he came back, full circle, like, “Here we go, I got it!” He puts himself through trials. He’ll go off and study some shit inside out. It’s dope. He just comes back like, “Oh, I speak a new language,” and shit.
Casual: Of course, he’s leaving out that his studies in Arabic started my studies too. I started with Arabic, but I didn’t have the same motivation. That actually inspired me.
Tajai: We are going to start doing sponsored trips to Egypt where we can go look at the actual hieroglyphs and study, try to sponsor kids to go out there, and also with some of our fans and his co-scholars, etc. Maybe to Cairo and Luxor. Oh man, it’s crazy out there when you see the scale!!! You are like, “OHH!! They might have been aliens.” Then you realize when you look at the pictures like, “Oh, there were a lot of slaves.” Basically, there were the priests and then slaves. “You boy! You go work on that toe for the next three years.” But the scale is so huge it’s unbelievable. You are sitting next to a foot that’s the size of a bus.
Casual: And it’s only right that everything we are talking about is incorporated into our work. At this point in our career, we should pull off something like, Hip Hop Egyptian Tours, where we are Hieroglyphics reading the glyphs for the people who came with us on the tour.
DS: OK, can I shoot that documentary film?
Casual: OK, let’s go!