Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, it was often difficult to discover new underground Hip-Hop—unless you worked at a skate shop like I did (and I use the term “work” loosely).
At Way Out, founded by the late Tony McMillan, 411VM videos and other ‘90s gems were always playing on whatever rickety VHS player was around at the time — and they were educational to say the least. Bad Brains, Fugazi, Hieroglyphics, and Souls of Mischief were among the many groups I discovered through those old videos, which ultimately shaped who I am today. Del The Funky Homosapien’s No Need For Alarm and Souls of Mischief’s ’93 Til Infinity will forever be the soundtrack to my youth. Almost 30 years after Tajai, Phesto, Opio, and A-Plus dropped their seminal debut, they are pillars in not only the Bay Area Hip-Hop community, but also around the world.
As they were preparing for their 10th Annual Hiero Day, Tajai and A-Plus took some time to discuss what makes them so revered, the behind-the-scenes story of “Make Your Mind Up,” and their evolution through the years.
Rock The Bells: What do you think it is about you guys in particular that has created so much loyalty amongst your fans?
Tajai: There's the genius of the Hiero logo, which unites everybody. But I think really it's just being regular relatable people. I think for a long time, rappers were bigger than life by design. So they had big chains, all this crazy regalia. You look at the Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 and all that, and we came like we walked in off the street with our Vans and North Face or whatever. We was just busting, and it was more about skills and the music and being a regular person outside of that. So, I really think that relatability. We're larger than life characters based upon our speech, not based upon our individual character. We're regular people. And I think when it comes down to us touring, us hanging out with our fans during and after shows, us just traveling all over the world and connecting, I think that connection goes a little bit deeper because people can relate to us in a different way than they can a lot of the rappers who are big on being rappers.
Rock The Bells: I've always felt that about you guys. A-Plus, I don't know if you remember this, but I mean, you and I had a pretty good moment in Albuquerque reminiscing one night. Do you remember that?
A-Plus: Yeah. I do.
Rock The Bells: We just related on some real shit and there's not too many artists who will do that with you. That also makes me love you guys even more because you take time for your fans and you really do care about people. And that's dope.
A-Plus: Thank you. Thank you.
Rock The Bells: Obviously "‘93 Til...” is such a huge song, but are there any other songs that you just loved to perform off that record?
A-Plus: I really, really like performing "Make Your Mind Up."
Rock The Bells: I was hoping you'd say that.
A-Plus: Yeah, I really enjoy that one. Pretty much all of us, it's one of our favorites off the album. It's one of the fans' favorites as well. We always get a really good response when we perform it, and that beat is just very special. It was recorded really early. It was a demo song from us before we even had a record deal, so it was a standout, really early, and it showcases how far along we were skill wise. We were really MCs destined to do this, and I think that song reflects that. It's just guys busting over a beat that just repeats with scratching on the chorus. It embodies that time so well, and yet it's still timeless. It's one of my favorites.
Rock The Bells: You just took the word out of my mouth. You could put that out now, you could put that out in 1991, whatever. It is timeless.
A-Plus: Shout out Del on the production for that one. He really hooked us up.
Rock The Bells: So what year do you think that was made then?
A-Plus: I want to say it was made '90, '91 because Del was holding that beat for himself. And I swear, we were relentless trying to get the beat from him. Seriously. I know myself, I would just hammer it in. He said no to me. I know at least 100 times, he would say no. And we really had to wait it out to where he was just over it because he had made so much new stuff because Del moves on. So I want to say all of that asking happened probably within a year's time. For a kid, that's a super long time. But when he finally broke and said yeah, we hit the studio immediately, which was his bedroom.
Rock The Bells: How long did it take you to lay your verses? You must have been ready.
A-Plus: I laid mine immediately and was by myself when I laid it. And Phesto ended up laying a verse to it as well. This is when he would rhyme with us sometimes and me, Tajai and Opio were the main MCs. This is when he was stepping it up. So he actually laid a verse on that song and we were like, "Yo, that's dope. That's dope, but you got some ways to go." And then Tajai and Opio laced their verses. I think Tajai might have had a completely different verse for the original.
Tajai: I remember that, yeah. I remember that.
A-Plus: [Starts rapping] “Life is wonderful, but only that if you let it.”
Tajai: We don't got to go any deeper than that [laughs].
A-Plus: Oh yeah. Yeah.
Tajai: Oh my gosh. That's crazy.
Rock The Bells: You have different memories of it though. You can spark Tajai's memory and he can spark yours.
A-Plus: Yeah. Yup. Him and Opio, I think they kicked different verses when we got into the studio and redid it for the album, so the demo version might actually have those old verses on them.
Rock The Bells: Who has the demo?
A-Plus: Oh, it exists. It exists.
Tajai: Dude, I forgot that verse. I remember Phesto, but then I forgot mine. I remember Phesto’s [starts singing]. Something like that.
Rock The Bells: I’m a little intrigued by the fact Del did the beat. I was trying to remember the timeline. I Wish My Brother George Was Here was '91 and then No Alarm was '93?
A-Plus: So I Wish My Brother George Was Here was done by this point. And I think it may have been ready to come out or had just come out in that time. But I know that he was holding that beat for himself. He wasn’t considering it for I Wish My Brother George Was Here, he's considering it for whatever was on the horizon.
Rock The Bells: Right, which would've been No Alarm because that was the next album. Obviously the world has gone through a big change with the pandemic and we're still dealing with that. How did it impact you guys on a personal and career level?
A-Plus: Well, man, I don't know. I guess everybody would have a story to go along with this as it was very impactful to pretty much everybody on earth. But personally, I was by myself a lot. So I just dealt with myself a lot and I ended up quitting drinking and smoking cigarettes and drugs and all kinds of it.
Rock The Bells: Wait, I need to get Tajai's reaction to that. Are you proud of him?
Tajai: Super proud of him, man. Not to get too deep into it, but sometimes it takes away from your overall ability to enjoy your homie. I'm talking about from a selfish, personal perspective because they be off into their thing where it is cool to have the homie back because our friendship is lifelong.
It's gone in waves, up and down, not to use a surfing metaphor or whatever. But it's good to be on the upside now—because I think we got a lot more that we're going to achieve as friends. And it's easier when somebody is there and happy and full and living their life how they're supposed to be living it. That's not on some judgment or anything. It's just from the outside looking in, watching how happy and how much more full I believe his life is now than in a few years previous. We can't make a VH1 movie out this or nothing, you know what I'm saying? It's regular life shit, but it is great to be able to chill and interact with the person that I've known his whole life in all states. I'm trying to be clear. Somebody doesn't stop being your homie because they going through something.
Rock The Bells: You love him through all of it.
Tajai: And if not, that says more about you than the person who's going through what they're going through, you feel what I'm saying though? It's just good to see my partner whole and present and excited about what we can now achieve moving forward. You've achieved so much already. It's like, "OK, now let's take it to the next level."
Rock The Bells: It's really good to see you smiling and just looking so happy.
A-Plus: Right On. Appreciate y'all, man. Love always.
Rock The Bells: Aside from Hiero Day, what are you guys working on?
A-Plus: I'm just enjoying life. I'm working. I'm building, still always doing music, but I’ve also learned when you're doing stuff, don't jinx it by telling a whole bunch of what it is. Just building from here, cleaning up old messes, building new buildings and right at this present moment, Hiero Day is pretty much consuming all of my mind.
Rock The Bells: Let’s ask the architect in the room. So are you at building houses as well for real?
A-Plus: Literally [laughs].
Rock The Bells: Literally [laughs].
A-Plus: I was speaking figuratively. He's literally building buildings.
Tajai: Yeah, doing a lot of stuff in the cannabis space as far as bringing people who are not in compliance into compliance. Then, I'm doing a lot of restaurants and housing and also working on building up my hotel down in Panama. I’ve been doing a lot of design, probably a lot more design than rapping. During the pandemic, I think people were stuck at home, and so they hated their houses and wanted to do upgrades. Also, I think a lot of kids moved back home and a lot of parents moved back home as far as those who are advancing in age, so older parents. So people were expanding their homes instead of selling them and doing that. So I've done a lot of work on that. And music wise, A-Plus been on fire. How many albums you drop during the pandemic? Three, four?
A-Plus: Wait, four vocal albums and two instrumental albums.
Tajai: So he's been a little bit more busy than me. I've recorded some, but I've been waiting to release them because I wanted to be able to tour with them. But now I'm like, I could have dropped them and toured with him now and people would just be able to research them before coming to the show.
A-Plus: The dope thing about unreleased music is that it's always new.