This is how David Ma rips shit.
Once a year, Oakland reminds the world of its longstanding music scene with a celebration of hometown kings, the Hieroglyphics crew. Traffic arteries are blocked, downtown’s disrupted, and extra cops are out in a positive swarm of civic pride and profusion.
Held on Labor Day weekend, Hiero Day presents crew members, guests and friends, in what’s essentially a mini-rap fest with local supporting businesses and vendors. Local news outlets estimated upwards of 20,000 attended last year and the amount is expected to grow this year. Under the summer heat, it feels like an enormous block party, soundtracked by Too Short, blanketed by Dubs gear and bluntsmoke, squished between 3rd and Chestnut Street.
This has been long in the making for Hiero. These guys, notably Souls of Mischief, Domino, Pep Love, and Del, have all been doing music, both together and apart, since early high school. On “Step To My Girl” for example, an early Souls track, you hear wild yet advanced cadences from 14 and 15 year olds.
Eventually they were all on MTV, world tours, and signed to majors. If you’re from the Bay, you’ll recall them on CMC (California Music Channel), a local music video show where they were staples for many years. Now they’re rap veterans with businesses, families, and their very own day decreed by Oakland in 2014 by then major, Jean Quan, as Hiero Day, every September 3rd. A real sense of triumph washed over the moment the announcement was made.
Of the collective’s solo acts is Jon Owens, known as Casual or sometimes his other handle, Smash Rockwell. Understated yet prolific, the forty-one year old has had ten solo releases, an EP, countless guest appearances, a monster Bandcamp, and that’s not including Hiero’s group efforts. Hard lyrics, measured rhymes delivered with brevity and (a casual) nonchalance anchor his years of work. “Equipped be my adjectives, ‘cause I had to live long, in slums where chums come at you wrong…” he says with aplomb, on “Chained Minds.”
Ahead of the next Hiero Day (with more to come I’m sure) we revisit his first album, Fear Itself, a colorful yet grimy work that’s aging incredibly well and sits among Hiero’s best. Owens had just turned 18 at the time and here’s the story behind his big debut. The album was on Jive and charted Billboard but it always sounded like a gritty tape your friend handed you.
Along with Domino (who produced the majority of the cuts) the two give a track-by-track breakdown of the criminally underrated West Coast classic. Says Casual: “My mom bought me an EPS-16 Plus when I was 15 years old and I credit her for the entire album.”
Like most of Hiero, you were pretty young when this came out. Did you intend to release these songs when you were still making demos?
Casual: I was 17 or 18 when it came out but recorded most of those tracks as demos when I was 16 I think. They were rhymes I just wrote at home but even as a young child I always wanted to release an album. I always wanted to do music. So a lot of that stuff was definitely written to be used for my debut. I had a feeling when I was recording the demos that it’d be used later on for sure.
It was a challenge. I rarely have challenges like that. I kind of always know what I want to do. I came into this recording the whole shit in Brooklyn, with a different engineer than I’m used to, different producer than I’m used to, different sound than I’m used to, and it came together on some shit like, ‘I’m just going to rap hard on all of this.’
When was the last time you heard it in full? What about your first release strikes you?
Casual: I heard it as recently as a year or so ago. Before that I haven’t just sat down and listened to it in depth for a while. I’m always surprised when people say it’s my best album. To me it was just raw artistry. This was before we were all affected by the music industry. This young kid AFRO reminds me of my earlier self when I hear him rhyme. Not because we sound alike or anything but because he’s raw potential that’s yet to be affected by business and career side of things.
It must’ve been an exciting experience being on a major label for your debut. What was working with Jive like?
Casual: It was a learning experience indeed. I think most artists these days aren’t privy a big label experience simply because of how the music industry is nowadays. I was a young guy basically working inside corporate America. But it gave me a lot experience as a businessman. It also exposed me to a lot of other artists who were on that level at the time. Jive got us the majority of our exposure before we took that momentum and formed our independent label.
Although the entire crew was on the album, Del had a serious presence both production wise and guest verses. What do you think was his mark on Fear Itself?
Casual: My debut single, “That’s How It Is” was actually produced by Del, many people don’t remember that. At that time, it was a part of our plan as young MCs. Del was like ‘When I come out, I’ll put y’all on too!’ So we were executing that plan, watching his success and preparing for ours.
How did you think your demos sounded after being professionally mixed and engineered?
Casual: I loved the way they turned out. The process of recording was pretty short because back then we did a lot of pre-production. We already had stuff recorded; demos, samples, beats, verses, everything. So when it came time to actually record, I just got in there and did it. I just plucked the songs that got the best responses and ones I liked most. Me and Domino did the majority of everything. So when Jive sent me into their studio, we just went in to re-record and deliver.
Let’s dissect the album, song-by-song.“Intro”
Casual: This whole song was a freestyle [laughs]. At the time it was 1993 and was all about off the top and battling and this is something our crew really helped push to the forefront. So with that in mind, I just did it off the top. It was a one-take-Jake. We didn’t want it to be perfect. We didn’t want to play a beat over and over until we got a ‘good intro’. We just wanted to set it off and play the beat and let me freestyle. It was real smooth, thunderous baseline, slapping bongos. I really think it’s a nice intro that set the tone for the whole album.
Domino I’ve always been a big fan of Roy Ayers this sample is one of two from the Coffee Soundtrack. Part of the reason it’s short because at the time we always wanted to have an intro and I felt the actual sample was short and sweet and pretty good on its own.
Casual: That was a track I produced at home. And when I say at home, I mean my parents’ basement. I sat in front of my ASR-10 and a speaker box set with four 10-inch woofers in it. It was loud. I always thought the beat went really well with what I wanted to say. I think I used a Les Mcann record or something. It was really just showcasing the attitude we wanted to present, which was basically telling all other MCs that ‘you flunked!’ [laughs]
Casual: The song was kind of about myself and a little about Oakland. It was an introspective track. And you know, I guess I wanted to have some type of substance to it so if you listen to the song, I tell a story about my earlier life and upbringing all the things that led me to becoming Casual, as a person. I’m not sure if we had a demo to before going into Jive’s big studio. I think it might be one that we specifically produced for the album. It’s one of my favorites. It was single; we even shot a video for it. Parts of the song are really abstract but my growth as a person is what it’s really all about.
Domino This wasn’t a demo. It was recorded for the album in the new studios. Not sure when Casual wrote the rhymes, but as far as the beat I was really into standup bass at the time. I really think it was Tribe’s influence. Anytime I’d hear standup bass I’d get excited and this sample in particular always had a real bending sound to it, if that makes sense. There’s a lot of different elements I threw in there, there’s some sitar in there for example. This is one of my favorites.
“Get Off It”
Casual: I produced this one too—just another jazzy joint. Just the usage of jazz at that time was real big, especially with cats like Tribe [Called Quest] and De La [Soul]. So we were coming out from that era and I grew up on that sound, and I loved it, so I wanted a real jazzy one on the album. I took the smallest snippet and just stretched and looped it. It turned out wild. It was my style at the time. I wanted to be hard but not gangster. I didn’t want my production sounding like it was keyboard either. I just remember I was sampling and recording collecting was my main hobby then—it was my first love.
“That’s How It Is”
Casual: I remember going to Del’s house and hearing this beat on his SP-1200 and when I first heard it I was like ‘Man, I need that beat.’ I wrote that verse at Del’s mom’s house. It’s a cool battle rap song, just a straightforward track.
“That Bullshit” (ft. Saafir)
Casual: Saafir was at the time a friend and I knew he did music. In the same way Del put us on, so to speak, I felt like I wanted to give him a cameo on my album with the hope of it setting off his career. We probably met at A-Plus’ house or something. Boxcar Sessions is a West Coast classic. It’s an album that’s noteworthy, just to hear different styles of MCs and MCs pushing the envelope. That album is all about that. And so I’m sorta proud when I hear Boxcar Sessions because I feel like “That Bullshit” kind of exposed Saafir to a lot of cats.
“Follow The Funk”
Casual: The song from Happy Days comes to mind when I hear this and so does Fonzie [laughs]. I was like trying to be a smartass, cool guy with a leather coat with a collar turned up, wise-cracking. And that was the attitude of the song and kind of slow. I like rocking out to slow tracks at that time. It’s slow and laid back but it wasn’t a ball.
Domino This is one that was for sure a demo. What I think is interesting about this is the bass line. I lined everything up so that at the end of every 4 bars, you’d hear these two samples on top of each other. The samples were from 2 separate records so I was proud of that. I even added a little breakdown on it too. At that point in production I liked to have a lot of little pieces that came up and that was the case with this.
“Who’s It On” (ft. Del and Pep Love)”
Casual: This is our cypher song. That’s why the hook just gets to the point and let’s the next MC get on and do his thing. It was just fun. We purposely didn’t have a specific topic.
Domino For sure this was also a demo first. It’s credited to me but Casual actually made the original beat. But when it came time to make the record, we couldn’t find the disk and I had heard and already knew the samples Casual used so I basically re-did the production. I changed the drums and my version’s faster, but the original concept and beat was made by Casual. We didn’t really know about production credits and all that then. I’d say that one is co-produced by us both.
Pep Love: We did the original to this at Casual’s parents’ basement on a 4-track, if I remember correctly. I had just moved from Albany, California and met most of Hiero at Skyline high school. I was so taken back by these guys’ Bay Area style. I was just so excited about hip-hop at the time. I was mainly just working with Jay Biz at the time and we were listening to Leaders of the New School, Das EFX, and Main Source. No one our age was doing what we were doing at the time.
“I Didn’t Mean To”
Casual: This is probably the only song I wrote where I sat down and wrote each line, word for word. Even if it’s a written track, I usually have moments of freestyle in my songs or different cadences but not this one. I produced it too and felt like it came off well. The whole idea and concept popped in my head as soon as I finished the beat. I was kind of based on some real life shit. End of the day it was just another example of the attitude coming out of Oakland, California.
“We Got It Like That”
Casual: This was just me saying, ‘Okay now we need some more up tempo shit on the album!’ We did this one in a 15 minute drive from East Oakland to Hyde Street studios. Domino was playing the beat on repeat as we drove. So I started writing the verses and wrote one verse in the car. We were stuck in traffic though [laughs]. I finished the second verse once we arrived at the studio. It was another brand new one that wasn’t on the demo and we made it kind of on the spot. I still perform it now and I like too because it a sassy track.
Domino: I do remember making this one later in the process and I always really liked the sample even though it’s a real short one. Even now I still like the sample a lot. I used to have a bunch of records that I’d keep aside to sample this and that off of. So for this one, I used a stack that was in my ‘horn records’ pile. I don’t like how the drums are mixed though and would’ve done them different in hindsight. It is what it is. I think the drums sound a bit light and wish I could changed them now [laughs].
“A Little Something” (ft. Del)
Casual: This was just a short one with Del. It was like a minute and was more like an interlude. Just us two, dope interlude. It was called ‘A Little Something’ for a reason. The label let me do whatever we wanted so we did this real quick.
“This Is How We Rip Shit”
Casual: Jay Biz was one of the earlier producers of Hiero from a group called the Shaman, which was him and Pep Love. It was one of his earliest production credits that everyone thought was a banger. I think that was one that was on the demo and we did it at Jay Biz’s house. It was another freestyle one essentially, which was new for the album.
“Lose In The End”
Casual: It was one of those hood songs that everyone loved. I was rapping about a riot that happened in people’s park in Berkley and it was right after the Rodney King riots, a little after, an it was a good story that mixed my own story mixed with my personality and current events. This wasn’t meant to be a protest song. Produced by Domino, possibly on my demo I believe.
Domino: I made this beat before I even met Casual and it might’ve been one of the first ones we did together. I know it was a demo for sure. It’s just such a dope groove. I love Casual’s story telling on this too he’s running from police, using wits to outsmart everyone. Casual doesn’t get too much props as a storyteller because his battle raps are so good, but this on shows his abilities. This one of my favorite songs on the record.
“Thoughts Of The Thoughtful”
Casual: Domino beat as well. I think when I recorded it I wanted I to be extra bomb on the album. But once we sequenced it wasn’t right, so we put it towards the end. Domino and I had a nice chemistry, and it was either my mom’s house or his. It was all Oakland living right there.
Domino: This is another one with Roy Ayres and I remember when we made it, I was like ‘We need to put this out before other people find the sample and put it out!’ I always liked the funky cool blues and this was one of the samples that stood out to me. I believe it was a b-side to the first single. I love using those old Blaxploitation records but they’re dense so you need to know when not to add shit. The main loop was already pretty complete with this one so I just added horns and fills. I’m almost positive the drums were already a part of the main sample.
Casual: Kind of on the serious tip and it’s just talking about stupid stuff that happened in the damn hood. It takes balls to brawl with minds in chains basically talking about mental slavery. Half of the seriousness that song had to do with people in our community at the time.
Casual: We was listening to Ice Cube a lot at the time. It was a modification on Ice Cube’s saying ‘’Audio 5000” which meant it was time to go. It was a good one because it was a story that used a lot of my imagination; it was fiction, exaggerated hood scenarios. At the end, Domino, I was going crazy over that beat then. And that’s one where I feel like I would rap over that today still. It was my age, my youth, dealing with a major label, it was like Lebron getting a contract straight outta high school and that wasn’t happening then in those days. It closes the album, which as a whole, strikes me as a blessing.