Happy 20th Anniversary to Hieroglyphics’ debut album 3rd Eye Vision, originally released March 24, 1998.
Not so long ago, hip-hop artists like Chance the Rapper made headlines by deciding to not sign with a major label, preferring to release his music independently. He wasn’t the first major aspiring rap superstar to go this route, as Drake made a huge showing after releasing So Far Gone to continue to forgo signing with an established record company.
Staying independent may be an almost passé move in 2018, but during hip-hop’s glory days, it was unthinkable. Emcees and crews’ main aim was to sign with a record label that would put them in every record store around the country, produce and promote their videos on MTV, and send them on worldwide tours. And if an artist got dropped by one label, they were soon angling to sign with another.
The Hieroglyphics crew began their musical journey like just about every other group. The Bay Area-based collective first came on the scene in 1991, through Teren “Del the Funkee Homosapien” Jones’ debut album I Wish My Brother George Was Here on Elektra Records. The other members of the crew, including Souls of Mischief, Casual, and Extra Prolific, signed with Jive Records soon thereafter. They earned respect and acclaim for being young and braggadocios rappers with ample emceeing skills and a unique approach to recording music. They released various albums until things went sour with their labels right around the same time. By late 1994 into early 1995, all of the Hiero artists signed to major label deals were once again independent.
But instead of scrambling to find an in with, say, Capitol Records or Tommy Boy, Hieroglyphics went a different route. They were one of the first crews to understand the necessity of Internet and online fan interaction. In order to remain in the consciousness of their fanbase, Hieroglyphics turned to their online community through their website to stay active. They did all the things in the mid ’90s that most artists take for granted in the ’10s in the name of social media: they communicated extensively with their fans, updated them on their tour schedule, and began to release exclusive music.
Hiero fans have always been an extremely passionate bunch, seeking out as much material from the group as possible. During the tape trading days of the mid ’90s, early demos and unreleased tracks by Hiero artists were hot commodities. The members of Hieroglyphics created the Hieroglyphics Imperium label and released tapes that featured collections of Hiero demos and previously unreleased material from their major label albums. They eventually released Future Development, the shelved third album that Del recorded for Elektra Records, as well as 2 For 15, Extra Prolific’s second album.
Then 20 years ago, Hieroglyphics ostensibly began the second act of its career by releasing 3rd Eye Vision. It was the first album that the crew released as a unit, and it demonstrates the breadth and depth of the collective’s skills. It captures the crew firing on all cylinders, releasing an album governed by their own uncompromised terms that remains true to the group’s creative vision.
The core of the Hieroglyphics crew is made up of the aforementioned Del, John “Casual” Owens, Adam “A-Plus” Carter, Opio Lindsey, Tajai Massey, Damini “Phesto” Thompson, and Paulo “Pep Love” Peacock. Duane “Snupe” Lee of Extra Prolific left the fold during the recording of 3rd Eye Vision for reasons that have never been publically discussed, only explained as “musical differences.” The rumor was that the album was delayed so that all of his verses and his solo cut could be removed from the project.
Rivaled only by Wu-Tang Clan in the east, Hiero featured the best collection of pure talent in a hip-hop group in the ‘90s. Each member was (and still is) a superior emcee and the crew had a deep bench when it came to its production roster. Damian “Domino” Siguenza, the group’s manager and CEO of Hieroglyphics Imperium at the time, produced the most tracks on the album, but Touré, Jay Biz, and nearly every other emcee in the group also assumed duties behind the boards.
3rd Eye Vision is unsurprisingly a lyrical tour de force. I could very easily paper this review with quotables from any and all members of the crew, from each and every track on the album. It’s impossible to say who shines the brightest on the album, as all seven members rise to the occasion. Every member of the crew raises their game on the album, elevating their execution of complex verbal stylings and showing creativity in lyrical content. This album may feature each of the crew members’ best performances to that point in their careers.
But when many members of Hiero work together on the album, the results are always excellent, whether they decide to smooth things out or make straight rough raps. The crew opts to go smooth on “You Never Know,” the album’s opener, which finds the majority of the group displaying their abilities over a light and airy keyboard-based loop produced by A-Plus.
Hiero then goes the rugged route on “The Who” which functions as the group’s version of Wu-Tang Clan’s “Deadly Melody.” As Del, Opio, Phesto, and Pep Love each pass the mic back and forth, trading line for line, they flow together in one singular voice, or, as Opio states, they “fuse together like Bruticus, we move with ten ton thrusters” over a pulsing bassline and horn stabs.
Opio and Pep Love display serious chemistry with each other on two of the album’s tracks. The first of the two is “All Things,” a high-paced, horn driven track dedicated to staying aware of your surroundings and recognizing that the power structure of this country is not configured to benefit those who aren’t wealthy. The second is “See Delight,” a track with a jazz-fusion feel, held together by a buttery bassline and stabs of guitars and spacey keys twinkling in and out. The two first trade verses, then trade stanzas back and forth, flowing together effortlessly. Fifteen years later, the pair officially recorded an album together as First Light, releasing the extremely dope Fallacy Fantasy in 2013.
Truth be told, Opio has chemistry with just about everyone in Hiero on this album, and he appears on many of the album’s best tag-team tracks. He works behind the boards of “Oakland Blackouts,” providing a guitar and organ heavy riff for him and Del to contribute wickedly complex verses. Opio also teams with Casual, Hiero’s blunt-force instrument on the raucous “Dune Methane,” a dedication to their own lyrical domination. Here, it’s Casual who pulls double duty, ferociously attacking the beat he created with lines like, “Follow me on my Exodus / My poetics will earn the respect of thus / An individual crushing hypocritical nothings / Like aluminum cans, put me on the mic and I'm dooming ’em.”
All seven emcees in Hiero got their time in the sunshine, with each blessing 3rd Eye Vision with at least one solo showcase. Every member raps on their own interlude, with each lasting about a minute and a half, and each an exercise in superior verbal gymnastics. The crew’s O.G. Del shines on “At the Helm,” a driving, electric guitar centered and drum heavy track. Del utilizes his unique delivery and unorthodox rhyme schemes to explore the essence of creating great hip-hop music and chastises those who misuse the music to achieve selfish gains. He speaks of taking the music to a higher level, rapping “And, I will expand hip-hop as well / Might even kick a little impromptu, to stomp you / Weaklings, speaking things foreign to the human ear / That you will fear now, whether you like it or not.”
While I mentioned earlier that it was impossible to identify which member of the group came the tightest on 3rd Eye Vision, I can safely say that Pep Love sounds the hungriest. Pep was the only member of the group who had yet to release his own project, and he shows and proves that he can hold his own throughout 3rd Eye Vision. “After Dark” is the album’s most straight-up aggressive track, as Pep attacks the sinister bassline and string-driven track, produced by Domino. He warns, “Beware, the boy’s bad at the seven / When the lights go click my mic injects nitro / Into my bloodstream, I get to gushing / Cold crushing lyrics so much reach out and touch things / Unexplored, from hits to flops that plummet / The synopsis is we rock this shit.”
But the emcees in the crew function exceptionally well when they can feed off of multiple emcees on a song. “Mics of the Round Table” is a sword and sorcery-styled epic that sees A-Plus, Tajai, and Phesto journey on a quest for the Holy Mic, travelling across the vast kingdom while “hob-nobbing with Hobgoblins, drinking blood out of golden goblets.” “Off the Record” has the feel of an open mic cipher at a smoke-filled lounge, as Casual, Del, Tajai, and A-Plus kick short, off-the-cuff verses over live instrumentation reminiscent of a Brand New Heavies track. The song also features the sole remnant of Snupe’s presence on the album, as he provides ad-libs between each verse, attempting to hype the “crowd.”
Hiero closes Third Eye Vision with “Miles to the Sun,” probably the most dizzying lyrical display on the album. Jay-Biz provides a spritely and spacey track for Opio, Tajai, Pep Love, and Phesto to demonstrate their complex cadences and intricately constructed rhyme schemes. The four members switch effortlessly from slower flows to acting as rapid-fire lyrical laser cannons, taking the listeners on a journey to the end of the cosmos and back. Tajai decrees “the bonus bestowed beckoning those who know us / To get to checking it and oppose the onerous decadence / Infecting the music we grown upon,” while Phesto crafts perfectly assembled stanzas like, “The kinetic poetic lyrical archer with phonetic marksmanship / Splitting moving targets apart with / Aero dynamic rhymes from the barrel leaving your mic sterile / Paralyze while I send you muppets / By the quintuplets with your tuxedos and cufflinks / Blush and Maybelline, get rushed disabling me, to rock the show / Is not an option so…”
3rd Eye Vision proved to be the launching pad for Hieroglyphics Imperium, which they still operate to this day. The label continues to release music by each member of the crew, and has given them the freedom to grow and experiment in ways that never would have been available in their previous major label deals. They’ve also continued to cultivate new talent and release projects from established artists that they’ve built relationships with.
In the process, Hiero have continued to build their reputation and solidified their status as one of the best and most important crews in hip-hop, especially on the independent side of things. They’ve remained a Bay Area institution, and Oakland has continued to celebrate the annual Hiero Day for each of the last six years. 3rd Eye Vision played a big part in helping them achieve their goals, and stands as a prime example of established MCs remaining true to their core audience and transforming that loyalty into long-term longevity.