Print & Magazine

‘Hieroglyphics Imperium – Karen Dere Talks Keeping it Indie,’ San Francisco Bay Guardian

What does it take to be an independent record label? Hiero’s Karen Dere talks about the challenges and rewards of the modern music industry.

A scanned image of the musical supplement titled, "Noise." Graffiti artwork is featured prominently on a brick wall, with a headline reading, "State of the Art. Oliver Wang and company look at hip-hop cover imagery; Erik K Arnold lists and listens to hip-hop anthems. Plus: Indie label owners sound off; drum 'n bass + diva = Breakbeat Era; the sound of happiness."
San Francisco Bay Guardian, October 1999

Talking shop with a fledgling Oaktown indie hip-hop label.

Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian / NOISE Music Supplement
Oct. 6-12, 1999 • Vol. 34, No. 1
Page 8

Story: Sylvia W. Chan

You might have seen the logo — the nonjudgmental mouth, the ambiguous eyes/nose, like a full-frontal Pac-Man gazing quizzically into your soul. This face stares back at me as l take one last look at the Hieroglyphics Imperium’s business card and enter a very loud elevator that will bring me to Karen Dere, Hiero’s manager-P.R. person-administrator-business executive-general jill-of-all-trades (when I asked what her job title was, she simply chuckled).

Hiero is like a hip-hop co-op where the artists are the administrators, the fans are employees, and everyone kicks in because they know they’re down with something tight. They operate as a crew, an Oaktown version of Wu-Tang. The artists running the joint are some of hip-hop’s finest — rappers Del the Funky Homosapien, Casual, the Souls of Mischief, and the Prose, along with producer and general overseer Domino. Hiero also operates a heavily trafficked Web site featuring all their merchandise. They handle all the orders themselves, and as I sit down to talk to Dere, we are dwarfed by stacks of white boxes containing T-shirts and other wares bearing the logo that is now permanently emblazoned in my brain.

Bay Guardian: How’d Hieroglyphics come to be?

Hieroglyphics' iconic logo with three circles aligned horizontally, with a straight line below them, appears in a scanned image from the magazine article.
San Francisco Bay Guardian, October 1999

Karen Dere: Casual, Del the Funky Homosapien, and Souls of Mischief were all on major labels, and they all were released from the labels about the same time period. And then they went through their period of depression. Well, I don’t know if you’d call it that…

BG: Soul searching?

KD: Yeah. And then they decided, fuck this, we might as well start our own label — we have marketable music, plus we want [to make] something that goes beyond a certain time period. Especially for hip-hop, because good lord, people in their thirties are already like ancient dinosaurs in this business.

BG: How many records have you put out?

KD: Right now we only have one [1998’s 3rd Eye Vision, featuring all of Hiero’s artists], and there’s going to be three more soon.

BG: How do you guys keep afloat financially?

KD: The record sold really well. But we constantly have hustles everywhere.

Selling stuff on the Internet has really helped.

BG: Is the day-to-day stressful?

KD: It is. Domino and I were just talking about this yesterday. I was typing on the computer, and I said, “Why is it I never leave here feeling like, ‘Wow, I’ve gotten everything done, like l’ve accomplished something?’ I’m always leaving here thinking, ‘Fuck, there’s eight million things I haven’t done.'”

BG: How did Hiero all hook up?

KD: They’ve been friends forever. Del and A-Plus from Souls have known each other since they were young ‘uns. Everybody else went to high school with each other. They’re all from Oakland. The way they all got put on initially was because Del is Ice Cube’s cousin, and Ice Cube helped put out Del’s first record, which was on Elektra. On the B-side to one of [Del’s] singles, “Mistadobalina,” was a song called “Burnt,” and a bunch of people from Hiero were on that song. They all had demos out, and so people were peeping, and then there was a huge bidding war for them. Most of them ended up on Jive.

BG: Compared to big-label life, what are the rewards of running an independent label?

A scanned image of the newspaper's cover, featuring its title in large, bold orange letters.
San Francisco Bay Guardian, October 1999

KD: Oh, that’s easy. The music. Hopefully if you work at a label where you have some say, you don’t ever have to push anything that you don’t believe in. And that’s not the case at big labels. Also, at a big label, you do one specialized thing.

You work on sales and marketing. You work on radio promotion and that’s all you do. When you work at an independent label, or when you start your own label, you realize you need to not only be the accountant, you also have to worry about everything you thought you’d never have to worry about. You learn how to get a CD pressed. You learn about artwork. You learn about film output. You learn the entire structure of how this business is set up.

Del the Funky Homosapien and Casual play Maritime Hall, Oct. 24, 7 p.m., 450 Harrison, S.F. $15. (415) 974-0634. Check out Hieroglyphics Imperium’s Web site at

Reproduced on for educational purposes.