Internationally active since 1991, Hieroglyphics have maintained a strong presence in independent hip-hop circles with consistent releases from its respective crew members for over 15 years. Consisting of rappers â€” most of whom produce as well â€” Casual, Del, Pep Love, and the Souls of Mischief (A-Plus, Opio, Phesto, and Tajai), Hiero has always been a strong unit, coming together as a collective when necessary, but most often offering each other support for solo work in the form of features and production.
Itâ€™s unfair to say that without Domino, the main producer of Hieroglyphics, and label-head of Hieroglyphics Imperium, Hiero wouldnâ€™t have seen success â€” many members of Hiero already were making noise before coming together as a collective â€” but as the spearhead for the crewâ€™s break into the independent realm, and as the foundation of many of their classic records, Dom is arguably the third eye in Hieroâ€™s full circle.
“A lot of these promoters got their start by booking us, so we kind of laid that ground work, which is obviously the m.o. of an indie rock group, but that was something that we did.”
Format: When and why did Hieroglyphics make the transition from major label to independent?
Domino: The transition was kind of sly; the main point was that we decided that the best way for us to come back was to do it as a collective, meaning by putting out a Hiero album. I mean, all the early Jive records, the Souls of Mischief, and Casual and Del and Elektra, all the records were kind of a mix and match of various Hiero members anyway and we were all the Hiero crew, but we felt like weâ€™re gonna start our own thing, and so now letâ€™s come out all together as one super group in a way, you know what I mean. Itâ€™s almost like the reverse Wu-Tang, where Wu-Tang came out as Wu-Tang, and then they all kind of branched out and did their solo stuff. We all had done our solo stuff and after that, came out as everyone together. And that was kind of the main thing that transitioned it.
Another thing that was kind of the bridge was Delâ€™s third album, which was called Future Development, that he was recording on Elektraâ€”and he was still signed at that point, Souls of Mischief and Casual werenâ€™t signed any longer, so it was just Delâ€”and basically I remember our idea, the plan that we had, was to do a Hieroglyphics album and then kind of use Del, the fact that he was still on a major, use that to kind of promote our own thing in the midst of Del promoting his new Elektra album. So heâ€™s gonna be getting all these resources from Elektra, and weâ€™re just gonna kind of piggyback it with our indie thing, you know?
And it never happened, like he ended up getting dropped in the midst of recording that album so we just kind of went in alone. And some of the songs that were on the first Hiero album were actually originally recorded for Delâ€™s third Elektra album that we just kind of on some songs, added people, or some songs like â€œAt the Helmâ€ were strong enough by themselves, and we kind of just put them on the Hiero album as well.
Format: What was the most difficult part of the transition?
Domino: Resources. I think that, and kind of starting from nothing really. We basically funded the endeavor by selling cassettes at the time, of unreleased music online, selling t-shirts and also doing touring. Touring a little bit and we put all the proceeds back into the company. And those were the main ways that we funded it. And we were fortunate enough to actually get a small loan that helped us with our manufacturing cost, but basically the resources, or lack thereof, were the trickiest thing. And we also got help from our engineer Matt Kelly who secured some studio time that we didnâ€™t have to pay upfront, so that kind of helped. Those were the main things that allowed us to overcome, but certainly the resources were the toughest thing about the transition.
“I remember our idea, the plan that we had, was to do a Hieroglyphics album and then kind of use Del, the fact that he was still on a major, use that to kind of promote our own thing in the midst of Del promoting his new Elektra album.”
Format: Now, as CEO of Hieroglyphics Imperium, what are your day to day responsibilities?
Domino: My responsibilities are basically to oversee the company, kind of like basically deal with getting records done by the individuals, signing outside groups, setting up tours, getting sponsorships, trying to get licensing deals, dealing with international licensing. I mean basically everything, and also since Iâ€™m a producer Iâ€™m also involved in the creative process of it.
Right now, Iâ€™ve kind of tooken a step back and Iâ€™m just focused on being creative now, making music in the studio and Iâ€™m actually not really in the office as much, but the main stuff that I do, or that Iâ€™ve done, was pretty much everything. And it just depended, like in the beginning I did it all, you name it, I did it. I called radio, I secured a publicist, I boxed the 12 inches that we sent out, and we sent out the orders from our online store. Thereâ€™s not anything that anyone could do at our label that I havenâ€™t done at one point or another.
And as we had more success we brought in more people that are able to do some of the stuff that I did. But I basically was doing every job initially with a little assistance from Tajai, but for the most part I did everything for a long time until we had some success and be able to hire some people.
Format: How, if at all, is Hieroglyphics financial situation different now that youâ€™re independent?
Domino: Well, I guess itâ€™s a couple ways to look at it. When youâ€™re on a major, you get an advance and thatâ€™s pretty much all youâ€™ll see. The main difference though is that we obviously make more money per sale than we would if we were on a major. The main thing that we did and we kind of tapped into was the whole touring aspect. When we were on a major, we didnâ€™t really do much touring and it wasnâ€™t just like lets go tour – this is our main way to get the word out that we had projects, and so that kind of was our thing, is that we decided that we were going to get out there and promote, and also we realized that we could make money on the road. We could sell a lot of merchandise on the road, so I think that the main difference, besides the per unit money that you make, is that we found a lot more of the auxiliary income, the merchandising, the touring, the getting songs in video games, and things of that nature. Licensing stuff.
Those are the main things that we tapped into, particularly because when we first went indie and we first started touring there wasnâ€™t really an indie hip-hop circuit, you know how nowadays every indie group is going on a tour, everyone has a tour going at some point, all kinds of cats. In fact you see more indie groups doing shows than major groups, but when we first went indie in 97 there wasnâ€™t that market, and it was kind of something that we started basically. It really started because I was calling a lot of these DJs to talk about playing our first single, and saying â€œweâ€™re going to go on a tour, who puts on the shows in your area?â€
So I just set up a makeshift tour, not like everyday, but we would go to different markets and weâ€™d have days off, because I didnâ€™t have that many connections, cuz I was doing it myself and so we would do three to four shows a week, the rest of the week we would go to record stores or set up college radio interviews, or regular interviews, but as far as the touring aspect, there wasnâ€™t a whole quote unquote Chitlin Circuit like there is now, so that people know its viable. A lot of these promoters got their start by booking us, so we kind of laid that ground work, which is obviously the m.o. of an indie rock group, but that was something that we did.
Format: In a recent interview, O.C. spoke about going on tour with you two years ago, and how he learnt the importance of merchandising. How important is merchandising specifically to Hieroglyphics?
Domino: I mean very very important, not just from the standpoint of the money that you make but also it helps promote you. People are paying you to wear shirts that promote you in a way. And I think that fans, if you have a fan-base thatâ€™s lucky enough to be into you, they wanna support you and they wanna buy the things that you come with. So itâ€™s super important and you know because we have a cool logo and people like the stuff we come out with, it helps promote us, but also weâ€™re about to make a significant amount of money.
Format: What makes an artist a perfect fit for Hieroglyphics Imperium?
Domino: Well thereâ€™s a couple things. I think for the label, we like for it to be within the vein of what Hiero stands for which is progressive hip-hop, but we also are trying to expand more just as far as our distribution, because thereâ€™s a lot of music thatâ€™s viable, and it is a business too, and to be able to put out more records is kind of the key. So we do deals with people who are looking for distribution that we feel can do well and to give our label some diversity as well. I think that weâ€™re kind of pushing the envelope more as far as what weâ€™ll get down with, as opposed to before, we were more just within the vein of what weâ€™re about, but then we realized that if weâ€™re going to be a viable company we have to be open-minded to anything that we feel can be successful. We work with a lot of stuff that we just distribute and donâ€™t actually do the marketing and promotion. If weâ€™re gonna market and promote something we really have to feel the music that itâ€™s about and it has to be in the vein of what weâ€™re about.
“weâ€™ve kind of given up on trying to be in the mainstream, kind of being on the majors, I donâ€™t think we have to curtail what we do.”
Format: You spoke about Hiero standing for progressive music. Considering the current landscape of music, especially hip-hop, to what degree do you struggle with being progressive?
Domino: I donâ€™t think we struggle much, to me, because I think weâ€™ve kind of given up on trying to be in the mainstream, kind of being on the majors, I donâ€™t think we have to curtail what we do. I think different guys in Hieroglyphics, they have different outlooks, so there will be guys in Hiero that are kind of harder edge, like maybe Casual will do something thatâ€™s a little bit more street or more commercial, where Del will be more to the left or Pep will be more to the left, but I think for the most part we donâ€™t follow what is trendy because we realize that weâ€™re not gonna be able to do that successfully, all weâ€™ll do is just alienate our fan-base if we donâ€™t stay true to who we are. I donâ€™t feel like weâ€™re super to the left and underground like a lot of groups, I think we have some commercial viability, but I think we just do what we do and donâ€™t worry.
Format: Please discuss the Hieroglyphics Over Time release.
Domino: Bascially over time, we have always been really big on putting b-sides and extra bonuses ever since Delâ€™s first record, with a song like â€œBurnt,â€ and â€œEye Examination,â€ and â€œUndisputed Champs,â€ just like b-sides that some arugably were better than what was on the record. Thatâ€™s always kind of been our thing, is to offer a little extra bonus to our 12 inches. Thing is though, not everyone has a turntable, especially now, who even buys vinyl? And so at that time where a lot of these got released, the only people that knew about them were DJs and heads, so I feel like weâ€™ve kind of built up enough thatâ€™s kind of under the radar that we should offer it on cd for the first time.
And I kind of got the idea from listening to the â€œPhoney Phranchiseâ€ remix that I did, because itâ€™s one my favorite tracks that Iâ€™ve done and so I was just like, this is really only on 12 inch. I went through all the masters and compiled a lot of the b-sides and remixes that I felt were good and underrepresented to a point, and even some of the songs on there we licensed to small compilations, independent compilations that people might have missed, and I kind of came up with the list and went over it with at our office, and we kind of just went back and forth about it, and we added an unreleased track. So itâ€™s kind of an Over Time, the rarities and b-sides of Hiero overtime, and its kind of a retrospective, not a greatest hits of course, but a retrospective of stuff that some people might have missed, or some stuff that people always wanted on CD.
“I think the hardest part is keeping the resources going, particualrly when itâ€™s an artist run label, where weâ€™re, for the most part, a lot of the product, so if we donâ€™t have product, then thereâ€™s not a whole lot.”
Format: You mentioned before that Hiero is kind of the opposite of Wu. It feels like there hasnâ€™t been a lot collaborative work going recently, is there a reason for that? Whatâ€™s the deal with Souls and Hiero, how come there havenâ€™t been records dropping that often?
Domino: Itâ€™s kind of hard to pinpoint. I just think that people are getting older and they have a lot of other things going on in their life. A bunch of the guys have kids and family and what not, and I just think that itâ€™s been a little harder to get everyone together, and I think that thatâ€™s probablay the only real reason. You know, I think that with Souls doing a record now, weâ€™re gonna do a new Hiero album. And you know honestly, we havenâ€™t really been super prolific as I would like, even from the beginning of what we released indie. I feel like each individual should have an album a year. I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s too much to ask, it just hasnâ€™t happened that way.
A lot of it also is because we tour so much and so that takes you away and itâ€™s hard to restart, but I just think that once we get the ball rolling, weâ€™re able to put out songs pretty consistently. Itâ€™s just sometimes, itâ€™s hard to get started, particularly when youâ€™re talking about a Hiero album where you need to get eight people on the same page, or a Souls album where you need to get four people on the same page. Probabaly starting late this year, or early next year, there will be a bunch of releases.
Format: Whatâ€™s the worst thing about running an independent label?
Domino: I just think again, it always comes back to resources, because you donâ€™t have a parent company. You have no one paying the bills, itâ€™s all you. I think the hardest part is keeping the resources going, particualrly when itâ€™s an artist run label, where weâ€™re, for the most part, a lot of the product, so if we donâ€™t have product, then thereâ€™s not a whole lot and it all trickels down to resources. If you donâ€™t make records, you donâ€™t sell records. I think thatâ€™s probably the most difficult part, is the resoures, in addition to just being able to get the respect on a radio level or on a retail level because of the fact that youâ€™re not Universal or youâ€™re not Jive or whoever. I guess thatâ€™s a resource as well. It always goes down to resoures and I donâ€™t think that will ever ever stop, I think that youâ€™re always up against more, and youâ€™re always working with less, but I think it allows you to be creative as well, because you have to use different means to get people to know about your records.
“I think that youâ€™re always up against more, and youâ€™re always working with less, but I think it allows you to be creative as well, because you have to use different means to get people to know about your records.”
Format: Whatâ€™s the best thing about being an independent label?
Domino: I think the best part is creative control. I guess thatâ€™s coming from an artistic point, but because Iâ€™m an artistic person, Iâ€™m not just a guy running it, that thatâ€™s probably to me, you donâ€™t have to answer to anyone and you can set your own rules for the type of music that you do. And itâ€™s ownership, that all your work is going into building equity into yourself and to the company that you started with your fellow crew members. Thatâ€™s the best part, that if youâ€™re running a label, and all your hard work, yeah, youâ€™re getting paid for it, but itâ€™s not going into anything that you own. You just got a job and it pays your bills, but youâ€™re not building your own equity, and I think thatâ€™s probabaly one of the best things, that everything you do is helping build in yourself.
More Info: http://www.hieroglyphics.com/