Oakland's annual all day hip-hop festival, Hiero Day 2016 that took place two days ago, was both amazing and historic. Only in its fifth year, the Hieroglyphics collective curated event has not only already established itself as the best annual music and cultural festival in The Town (Oakland). But this annual Labor Day's sold-out, talent-packed, festival comprised of three different concert stages, each offering top notch and totally diverse hip-hop acts, elevated Hiero Day into the best damn hip-hop festival anywhere! Attended by respectful hip-hop fans of all generations and races, but each sharing an appreciation for all styles of hip-hop, Hiero Day 2016 exuded the most positive, peaceful, uplifting vibe of any hip-hop event of its scale that I have ever witnessed anywhere. And that prevailing positive vibe that permeated the air on Monday all seemed to fuel the energy of the acts on stage and their tight sets. Monday's diverse list of over 50 performers included Too $hort, Paris, the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, Dilated Peoples, Murs, Mr. Lif, Just Blaze, Young L, and the Hieros themselves..
What really made this big peaceful festival all the more profoundly impressive was that it took place in Oakland, California: a city historically with a bad rep for rap/hip-hop shows, to put it mildly. Back in the old days (late 80's/early 90's) at rap shows in Oakland, either fights broke out or a fear of "rap music" stopped them from ever taking place. In fact for one solid year the City of Oakland banned rap shows altogether following a December 1989 fight between rival gangs during a rap show at the (now closed) Kaiser Auditorium down by Lake Merritt. And when the City of Oakland finally did lift that ban, exactly one calendar year later for an Ice Cube and Too $hort double bill at the same venue, it felt more like a warzone than the setting for a music concert. I'll never forget it. From the parking lot to the streets on either side of Kaiser, on the Lake side and over by Laney, there were cops and cop cars everywhere. And if these menacing, mean-mugging cops, looking like they were just waiting for shit to break out, wasn't unsettling enough, then the loud noisy and blinding light from the OPD helicopter hovering above sure did the trick! Talk about raised stress when all you want to do is go see a post-N.W.A Ice Cube and hometown rap hero Too $hort perform. Fast forward 26 years to Hiero Day 2016 and to a polar opposite environment. In sharp contrast yesterday was nothing but a loving peaceful vibe everywhere from everyone. Even the Oakland cops working around the event as people entered and exited were not just courteous but they appeared genuinely warm and friendly: even smiling and chatting with concert-goers. My mind couldn't help rewind back to that earlier hip-hop show in the same town and with one of the same artists performing. Surreal! I felt like I had entered some alternate universe. And in a way I had: this was the New Oakland of the Hiero era.
Hiero Day 2016 was in the same general area as last year but had shifted down one block along 3rd Street to begin at Linden. As in all previous years numerous local vendors and food booths lined either side of the main 3rd Street drag that led blocks away down to the main Infinity Stage where the Hieros, Too $hort, and the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and others would all later perform. The other two Hiero themed stages, the Full Circle Stage and the Third Eye Stage, were off toward the railway tracks at the ends of the adjoining side streets including a very packed, fun-in-the-sun Myrtle Street where people danced in the street and on a rooftop. The booths of primarily hip-hop or somehow related entities included such organizations and companies as the Hands Off The Hook graf clothing and art company, the Hip Hop Caucus who were encouraging peeps to vote, and a ton of cannabis related entities such as OakDECC.
But perhaps the best, in terms of tactile hip-hop, was the booth by longtime Bay Area turntablist ambassadors Skratchpad (founded by Deeandroid and Celskiii) who had set up a tent with turntables and mixers for people of all ages to jump on the ones and twos and, in most cases, experience scratching for the very first time. They were also offering complimentary hip-hop DJ lessons from such resident Skratchpad DJs as none other than the reigning 2016 USA DMC Champion DJ Traps. The experienced Bay Area battle DJ will travel to London later this month to rep the USA in the DMC World finals where he has a very good chance of taking the prestigious title. But on Monday in Oakland this potential world champion of the "Olympics of DJing" was doing one-on-one free DJ lessons for anyone who took advantage of the offer.
With so much good stuff happening simultaneously the challenge facing festival goers was deciding on what acts to see/not see and what stage to head toward and when. For example most of Just Blaze's set overlapped with much of the Dilated Peoples' set on two different festival stages, If you were willing to run back and forth between the three spaced out stages, and deal with the crowds in between, you could see a little bit of every act. For me the top priority was catching the final three acts on the main Infinity stage: the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, Too $hort, and the Hieroglyphics. To be able to catch these three legendary longtime Bay Area acts back to back was a once in a lifetime experience. And to witness the Godfather of Oakland rap Too $hort, whose pioneering career three and a half decade career literally set the stage for hip-hop in Oakland and in turn this event, was a something of monumental significance!
Additionally of significance to any longtime Bay Area hip-hop follower was noting all of the other key figures and contributors in Bay Area hip-hop history buzzing about throughout the day. In just ten minutes late Monday afternoon before the Piklz went on at that one stage I noted a list of such individuals as Dan The Automator, Chuy Gomez, Davey D, Ivan from the Pirate DJs, Shomari Smith who made the Souls documentary, He was onstage filming, as was Rome Diggs the Piklz videographer. Lil John Francisco and Vogue and other members of TDK, the revered 30-year strong East Bay aerosol art collective crew, were also present and enjoying the vibe. Two weeks earlier and just several blocks away they were busy at work when they threw their own iconic annual Oakland hip-hop event: DREAM Day 2016 event. Speaking of fallen Bay Area heroes, very much there in spirit throughout Monday was the late Mac Dre who got lots of love including shout-outs from artists to DJs such as D-Sharp dropping into his mix such crowd pleasers as "Feelin' Myself" -the Bay anthem that was recently paid homage to by Mistah F.A.B. who was also there Monday.
DJ D-Sharp got a great endorsement from Davey D who noted how D is the official DJ for the Warriors during games. Longtime Bay Area hip-hop DJ/journalist/radio personality Davey D Cook, who had been spinning himself earlier in the day, was now hosting with some help from fellow Bay radio icon Chuy Gomez. The Invisibl Skratch Piklz DJs Qbert, D-Styles, and Shortkut took to the stage to do an intense but truncated set compared to the one they had done two days earlier and a few miles away at Amoeba Berkeley. Like the next act that came on stage, their 16 minute set was too short. But fefore the godfather of Oakland rap would hit the stage Davey D led the crowd in a lively "Fuck Donald Trump" chant before D-Sharp jumped in with the music. Highlights of the DJ's set included his back to back '93 classic singles (KRS-One's "Sound of the Police" & the DJ Premier produced Jeru The Damaja hit "Come Clean") and the crowd reaction they received. Even better was when he played the Luniz "I Got 5 On It (Remix)" and it got to the part "Where you from? Oakland!" and the crowd went really wild at those well known Richie Rich lyrics of the remix. Speaking of the legendary veteran East Bay rapper, a little later surprise guest Mistah F.A.B. would shout out "Free Richie Rich" of the recently incarcerated Oakland rap star. F.A.B. joined Too $hort for the Traxamillion produced hit "Sideshow" (inspired in part by the Rich/415 classic "Sideshow") that features both rappers. $hort also mentioned collaborator E-40 with whom he has done a lot of music (full albums worth like History: Mob Music and numerous individual tracks) in the past and promising that, "There's new shit's that's coming" from the two who have been in the game a long time.
"I been doing this shit your whole muthafuckin life!" accurately noted Too $hort to the predominantly young crowd that packed the area in front of him. He noted how he who just turned 50. But regardless of age everyone at Hiero Day loved and knew every word of $hortdog's songs. Digging from from his deep back catalog, Too $hort's set ranged from such tracks as his 2006 hit "Blow The Whistle" to 1993's "I'm A Player" and 1996's "Gettin It." The title track of what was supposed to be his last album, he has never stopped rapping. In the twenty years since then, he's continued to release albums and see his fanbase continually grow to embrace new generations of hip-hop fans coming up. More than anyone at Hiero Day, Too $hort has witnessed firsthand the ever shifting and growing force of hip-hop music and its all inclusive audience: something personified by Hiero Day. Fittingly the final act of the day was the people who made it all possible: the Hieroglyphics. The inseparable extended crew of Oakland artists, whose tight and long friendship goes way back and predates them all becoming hip-hop acts, featured on stage all together Pep Love, Souls of Mischief, Casual, Del The Funky Homosapien, Domino, and relative newcomer DJ Toure who joined seven years ago. Their closing set included such Hieros tracks as "At The Helm" and the Gorillaz international smash hit "Clint Eastwood" featuring Del that the whole crowd knew well and grooved along to. By now the sun was beginning to go down. It was the end of a long sunny day, that marked the end of the summer of 2016. And no better way than at the Oakland cultural landmark day that is Hiero Day.
Begun in 2012 by the Hieroglyphics as a way of giving back to their town and community, Hiero Day initially was a smaller scale block party held over by the New Parish. But with the overwhelmingly positive response and large crowds that first year drew, it immediately outgrew its limited space and expanded into a several blocks wide sprawling event about a mile away, over in the industrial area surrounding 3rd and Linden streets. By that time the City of Oakland honored the event by, under then Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, officially declaring September 3rd as “Hiero Day.” Worth noting is that this was the same City of Oakland who had banned all rap/hip-hop shows for an entire year back in 1990! In its new location, the free annual festival continued to grow and attract increasing numbers of fans. By year four (last year) they began selling tickets to Hiero Day, but at a very nominal cost and with kids getting in for free since the crew place a lot of emphasis on family. Selling tix brought to the once free event, brought the packed attendance numbers down a little at first. But this year the numbers were back up again and this year it completely sold out!
Most impressive for this huge event attended by a crowd of thousands was that, with the exception of one unfortunate incident involving one person (a woman who climbed up onto a roof and fell through skylight and had to be taken away by ambulance), it was a blemish free event: one that raised spirits and sent everyone home satisfied, smiling and feeling like they're part of a community. That feeling undoubtedly was bolstered by the finale performance of the day on the Infinity Stage with the headlining Hieroglyphics who led the crowd in a mass raised arm showing of the peace symbol. Then at the very end of their set and the day, Tajai of the Souls gave the final word of the day. Pointing at the Oakland crowd he encouraged everyone to respect one another and their immediate community. He advised to directly support each another by shopping/trading locally and to keep things in the community. As one of the main orchestrators of an event that is all about keeping in the Town, he truly practices what he preaches. practice It's another 362 days away to September 4th of next year, but mark your calendar now for Hiero Day 2017