Fan Website Kept Hieroglyphics Crew Alive

Site gives crew easy access to its fans and offers devotees song previews.

When you are a Web designer running the Hieroglyphics' official fan-controlled site as Yameen Friedberg is, you're privy to details about the crew and its struggles to make music that few people know.

As the creator of "Hieroglyphics Dot Com," a website that tracks the

movements of rappers Souls of Mischief, Del the Funkee Homosapien, Casual

and the Prose, Friedberg said he used to get e-mail all the time from people claiming to be members of the rap collective Hieroglyphics.

Then one day, something strange and important happened.

"One time I got this page with a 510 area-code on it [the area code for Oakland, Calif., the crew's hometown]," the 19-year-old Philadelphia Web designer said. "When I got the guy on the phone, he said he was Tajai from Souls of Mischief. I was just like 'Yeah, right. I get people telling me this all the time. I'm going to need to see some proof.' " But when a Jive Records press packet arrived at his house later that week, Friedberg was convinced. "I was just blown away," he said. "I took it to school and I was just like, 'Man, look at these stickers!' "

What Friedberg soon learned was that what had started as your average fan site was slowly becoming the online headquarters for the rap crew. While this may not have been so unusual at first, the site became a vital line of communication from the crewmembers to their fans when they were individually dropped from their various labels in 1996 and were searching for a way to keep making music. "The website was essential for us," Souls of Mischief's A-Plus said during a recent interview in Casual's home-based studio in Oakland.

"There were times during our hiatus that some of us thought no one was feeling us anymore," he added. "But hearing that there were all these people around the world who were going to our site, that's what kept us going at times."

Visitors to http://www.hieroglyphics.com over the past two years have been

presented with a variety of contests, opportunities to purchase merchandise

and news updates. When the crew decided to come back with a group album,

Friedberg, who goes by the moniker Stinke, set up a page entitled "Third

Eye Central" that allowed fans to read what the crew was up to and

download samples of works-in-progress for its upcoming LP, Third Eye Vision (Feb. 26). "One of the main positives of being independent is to be able to give [fans] something that they usually wouldn't get," Hieroglyphics manager/producer Domino said. "Third Eye Vision will be in stores like a regular album, but we have separate stuff for the core fans.

"If we can constantly do that," Domino continued, "have an album in stores and extra stuff at the shows and on the Net that we did on a whim, I think we can build a bigger hardcore fan-base that way."

Not only that, but the crew can get a sense for how its fans like the new material based on early reaction to clips put up on the site, Tajai said. "Getting that kind of instant feedback was essential for us," he added. "We can put a song out right now and instantly hear back what people thought about it." Both the Hieros and Stinke said that the crew will continue to use the website as a fund-raiser and a communication device after the release of Third Eye Vision.

The website was not only the crew's outlet for fan feedback, it was

also an essential fund-raiser to cover the production costs of the new LP. While the crew didn't have a steady income from its music, Tajai said, the members decided to take any money earned from shows and merchandising and put it back into the project.

Souls of Mischief's Opio was quick to head off criticism that the Hieros are making money hand-over-fist by selling merchandise with no middleman. "There ain't nothing wrong with making money," he said. "But right now we're on a whole different level. We're just trying to get our shit started again." [Wed., Feb. 4, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]