**Update: The Paid Dues Independent Hip Hop Festival has been cancelled. See below for more details.
I'm not accustomed to receiving rappers at my home at 8 a.m. an hour most rappers have only heard of but I made an exception for Tajai Massey, member of Souls of Mischief and Hieroglyphics. A self-confessed early riser and the first MC to ever accept my offer of a cup of coffee, Massey is a busy man.
While gearing up for the Hieroglyphics' Freshly Dipped tour, which kicks off June 14 with the Paid Dues Festival at the Berkeley Community Theatre, the lanky 33-year-old head of the group's Hiero Imperium label was about to head to Seattle for a spot date with his new rock outfit, Crudo, with Dan the Automator and ex-Faith No More frontman Mike Patton. Meanwhile Massey's been juggling two upcoming projects, one of which he hopes to release in the fall: a new, self-produced Hieroglyphics disc and the fourth studio release by Souls of Mischief, produced by legend Prince Paul. In the interim, he's prepping fellow Souls-member Opio's second solo album, Vulture's Wisdom, Vol. 1 (Hiero Imperium), for July.
Yet none of this accounts for our meeting. Our conversation instead focused on Massey's other job: overseeing his own imprint within Hiero, Clear Label. Though begun in 1999 to release his SupremeEx trip-hop collaboration with Hiero Web designer StinkE, Projecto: 2501, Clear Label really established itself circa 2005 with two artists of a very different sort: Shake Da Mayor of "Stunna Shades" fame and Beeda Weeda, whose 2006 full-length, Turfology 101, yielded the hit "Turf's Up."
While Shake has since departed, Beeda has cemented his Clear Label connection, moving his whole camp, Pushin' the Beat (PTB), into Hiero's two-story East Oakland compound, which was purchased by the veteran collective in 2004. Known within Hiero as "the Building," though designated "Hiero" by everyone else, the space houses nine rooms, five studios, and a small warehouse of T-shirts, CDs, and other goods. Soon Beeda's friend and collaborator, J-Stalin himself signed to one of the Bay's biggest rap independent labels, SMC began bringing his own Livewire crew by, including Shady Nate, Clear Label's next signee.
Bulging with the usual conglomeration of computers, mixing boards, rough-hewn vocal booths, and a fine layer of empty 1800 bottles and Swisher Sweet ashes, PTB's two ground floor studios contrast with the Building's general tidiness, like a kids' playspace in an otherwise adult house. Yet they also exhibit an atmosphere of dedication. Dropping by on any given day, among the crowd of just-past-high-school aspiring MCs, you might see Beeda and Stalin studiously hunched over spiral notebooks with Mistah FAB, working on their NEW (North-East-West) Oakland project.
And FAB isn't the only high profile visitor: everyone from San Quinn to the Federation comes through. Too $hort stops by regularly, and even national acts like Dem Franchize Boyz and Cease of Junior Mafia have found their way here. Given that Beeda and Stalin are two of the hottest young Oakland rappers and attract such elite company, Hiero suddenly finds itself at the center of what might be called the Bay's post-hyphy moment, one embodied in a tougher, less dance-oriented sound, combined with classic Bay slap and tempered by R&B overtones.
"I wasn't after a bunch of streeter-than-street dudes," Massey said, laughing. "But I sure ended up with some."
THE OTHER BAY BRIDGE
Intentional or not, the current emphasis on street rappers is consistent with Clear Label's overall mission.
"Our fans aren't that forgiving.