Moment of Truth: Pep Love on the Elbo Room and What the Bay Area Hip-Hop Scene Needs

This piece is part of SF Weekly’s new weekly hip-hop column, Moment of Truth, beginning now with a conversation with Pep Love and then continuing every Tuesday here at All Shook Down. Moment of Truth will seek to address the pulse, vibe, and condition of hip-hop in the Bay Area and beyond; often bringing you takes from the personalities that form and live within the culture. And with that, here’s our inaugural Moment of Truth interview on Pep Love.

The Hieroglyphics crew isn’t just a Bay Area hip-hop staple, it's the Bay Area hip-hop staple. From 1998’s game-changing 3rd Eye Vision, to a slew of elemental solo releases from Hiero’s MCs, few albums from the Hiero Imperium catalog resonate as soundly as Pep Love’s 2001 existential and uplifting Ascension. The sage-like Oakland rapper just put out the Dolla Daily EP, his second release in the last three years, and checked in with us on a call ahead of tonight's (Jan. 9) show at Elbo Room to talk about his continuing career, Hieroglyphics and the state of hip-hop in the Bay Area.

[jump] Appreciate you taking the time to do this. You in Oakland right now?

I am. In the studio here in the industrial area, off of International Ave.

I know a lot of Bay area hip-hop cats grew up on Hiero and Ascension and are looking forward to the show on Friday.

No doubt. Think it could be one of the last events that they have at Elbo Room before they close down. It’s sad. That place has been there ever since I’ve been old enough to go out.

It’s definitely a cool place for an intimate hip-hop show. How many times have you played there?

Not too many, cause it’s a smaller venue. So like three or four. But it’s a local staple man. It’s a place that’s been there for a long time and it won’t be the same once it’s gone. But they got the Chapel right up the street, that’s a newer venue that’s pretty dope.

Let’s talk about Dolla Daily. Diggin it, it’s cool a EP and I’m happy y’all [Hiero] are making music still and going strong after all this time.

I was just reading about one of my favorite jazz musicians, Yusuf Lateef, who died last year [2013] at 93 years old and he played all the way til he died.

You know, music and creativity…the only reason you stop is ‘cause you lost the ability to do it. There’s no real reason to stop. It’s not like playing sports. Music, art, and creativity have nothing to do with how old you are, it’s just how good you are, really. 
So tell me this, on Dolla Daily, from your perspective, has your style changed at all? I hear a lot of it that sounds like classic Pep Love and some sounds different…so what’s changed about your style, if anything?

I look at it more like my style is just refined. I’m always starting things that are more appealing to both me and the general audience. I’ve toned down some of my vocal inflection and been more monotone cause its easier for me to get my point across and capture people’s interest. Along with the right kind of tempo/tone to the music. Vocally, to be monotone, is a way that you pierce through the music in people, just focusing on your words and enjoy singing along.

Another thing I don’t do, is I don’t really yell. The way I push my voice. I don’t try to pronounce every word to the last letter, which I used to try to do. I intentionally changed that about my style, which to me is just refining.

I’ve always liked your moments of when you have been monotone through your career, because you’re so naturally articulate.

Yeah…it’s just something I noticed because I started recording myself and was my own engineer. I’m engineering, writing and reciting the lyrics. And I noticed that I was getting better takes when I was more monotone, so I stuck with that in a way. My inflection is way more subtle than it used to be.

So you say you’re engineering. Is anyone else producing with you on Dolla Daily?

Dolla Daily was all me. I produced it all, but there was one track that my man Indeed produced, but other than that it was all me and I recorded myself the whole time. But i didn’t mix the record, obviously.

Right on. I love “Stargazin’” and “Parasail Ferris Wheel.” “Parasail..” feels like something out of a dream. Kinda like the title track on Ascension. What’s the imagery of a “parasail ferris wheel” and how’d you come up with it?

It’s meant to be a metaphor for the possibilities that life can bring you when you adopt a positive attitude and good vibe.
Nice. So switching gears for a second, your Wikipedia page says you’re a motivational speaker too. That’s new to me, is that something from the past?

[laughs] I have never been a motivational speaker! Ha…someone pulled that out of their ass. We try to edit that shit on Wikipedia, but they don’t let you do it. I don’t know where that comes from though…If they consider my lyrics to be motivational speaking, then I can say that. Some new-age concepts. But in general the conscious part of hip-hop has been a self-help type wisdom and philosophy for some.

What else are you doing besides hip-hop?

We own our own label, Hiero Imperium. I’m really involved with music mores than anything. Most of what I do revolves around music, even though I try to live a balanced life.

[page] What’s been your role within Hiero?

More than an artist/performer, I’m trying to help to carry our brand in a direction focused more around what we do creatively, which feeds into our brand (a lot of people know us for the Hiero logo)…over the years, our individual identities have been obscured behind the Hiero brand and Im just trying to procure a situation where its more about us.

And our festival, Hiero Day [held every Labor Day], which is a contribution where plenty of people help us, but we want to do things to keep that prevalence of hip-hop within the culture of Oakland and the Bay Area. We have such a good event that has gone off without a hitch, I feel like we can do other things and smaller events and make the contribution even greater. To where hip-hop is more of a presence. Bring the DJ back to the forefront, who can curate hip-hop in their own way.

You know…over the years, hip-hop has become so much about the image of a rapper or artists that are trying to succeed, but we want to do something to bring it all together and instead of it being about the biggest artists, it’d be about hip-hop in general and the contribution that hip-hop is making. In the future, I definitely plan to be a part of that movement.

Hiero Day was incredible. It was so Oakland, so Bay Area. There were cats from everywhere co-existing through music, no fights… and Adrian Younge put it down. It’s cool that ya’ll are connected with him now, through his collab with Souls of Mischief.

Adrian is amazing. I was just watching one of his DJ sets from the PRhyme record release party. He’s a great example of what you can do with hip-hop. Cause over the years, EDM exploded and i feel like hip-hop can emulate that. Get to the nitty gritty and nuts and bolts of it and celebrate the culture; something thats more palpable and that people can experience on a regular basis.

Big picture, what do you think about the state of hip-hop in the Bay right now? Do you feel like Hiero has a big responsibility to be a difference maker in the classic West Coast sound?

It’s true. Thats why I mention the Bay Area and Oakland in particular. Cause I have a very large and strong hip-hop fan base in the Bay. There’s a lot of people that love it, but I don’t feel like they’re being serviced with hip-hop. Like there aren’t the best leaders and front-line activists to give them a scene for them to appreciate it in the Bay.

I’m sure you know, L.A. has a stronger hip-hop scene. L.A. is more hip-hop oriented in that way than the Bay is, but it’s not cause the fans aren’t here. The fans are here, but the people that make things happen, that play that leadership role, that make hip-hop be seen in the streets…I don’t mean, like walking down the street, you know…I feel that with Hiero. We’ve shown that this is one of the strong contributions that we’ve made. It shows that its there and there’s people out there that want it.

Now it’s just about the people with the minds, getting more organized and thinking in another direction. And trying to give people some regular raw hip-hop. And it's kinda on us…cause we’re like a pillar here, we did that over the years. We contributed to universal hip-hop. Not just regional either. I feel like now it’s time for all of us, not just Hiero, but all the people in the Bay area who have that bend towards hip-hop. Who are doing stuff already in the promotional and making events happen-type sphere, that the whole Bay Area sees. Just to take it in the direction for the Bay Area to embrace hip-hop…and not just what’s the most popular or what’s “the sound.”

And L.A. has the whole music industry out there, which doesn’t mean that we can’t have a strong hip-hop night. You know, just some straight up hip-hop…not the biggest rapper putting on a huge show at Staples Center or whatever.

It’s crazy how much mileage they’ve gotten in L.A. out of Low End Theory. The Airliner is a tiny club…but it’s the continuity and every now and then they get the Skratch Piklz or FLyLo showing up.

You know, I got my plan. It’s bubbling, but I don’t think people will believe it before they see it. Like…to have our own Low End Theory type thing in the Bay. And it’s gotta be viable in a way. And thats the main point that I’m making: There’s proof that it can be viable, now we just gotta cultivate it.

The old guys cultivated it and now there's traction. There’s no reason we can’t do it. And it’ll help the shows, set the tone and make the live shows a more appreciated event. cause theres a lot of people who are like “Ah…another underground rap show? I’m not gonna hit that up, cause it's bullshit.”

I think having a DJ at the forefront to be a little more certified in the “Have I ever heard your music played anywhere.” Cause hearing music for the first time at a show, there’s a huge gap in between it. All the way from those who have started building a fan base to those that are fully established. Theres not enough ways for these cats to get established in a viable way. Theres no place for artists to get established. New music being played and getting on some kind of rotation in some kind of way…then we start to see artists build their names a little bit.

That’s definitely the challenge that independent hip-hop has. Cause you see a lot of these new rock bands are selling out shows without a full album, cause indie labels are backing ‘em hard, but we don’t see that in hip-hop so much.

This is what I’m talking about in general. That hip-hop needs a lot more, cause the only thing that’s doing that is YouTube. If something about you goes viral, that’s the only way artists can make a name for themselves. So in that environment, a lot of good shit is getting missed.

Again, appreciate you being candid and getting this conversation going; we’re gonna keep addressing a lot of these things in this column. We’ll be looking forward to Friday at the Elbo Room.

No doubt. Expect some raw hip-hop shit with me and DJ Nocturnal.

Pep Love with Khafre Jay, Hazel Rose, Golden Age, Malik Diamond, and DJ Kevvy Kev

9:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 9, at the Elbo Room. $15; elbo.com

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