fter Pep Love finished his recent in-store performance at San Francisco’s Amoeba Music (a five-song teaser for the release of his debut LP Ascension), a shop employee announced, “Pep will now sign copies of the album at the side of the stage. You must purchase a copy before you get in line, so have your receipt ready.” A line formed of sixty or so fans, almost entirely male, many sporting extra-pocketed, skater-sized pants, slightly off-center baseball caps, and nothing to sign other than the free promotional posters that were lying around the store. Pep dutifully signed whatever was placed before him by the succession of kids, most of whom greeted him in what turned into an almost ritualistic procession. Each would offer an arm-wrestler-style handshake and a “What’s up, Pep?,” tell him who to make the autograph out to, and then bluntly make a pitch — “Hey, I’ve been rhyming for a few years now…,” “I want to put a Hiero show on…,” “…you should check out my tape,” “Yo, I make beats….” It sounded like dialogue snatched from an entrepreneur’s conference rather than a record-signing.
“Dude, that shit was weird,” recounts a still perplexed Pep over the phone from LA a week later. “This one fool even asked me to do a song with him. Can you believe that? I guess they just think it’s easy like that — overnight, you just meet Pep Love at his in-store and do a song with him. Wow, things have changed. I never would’ve had the gall to do that back in the day when I was coming to see artists I liked.”
With hip-hop magazines brimming with tales of the latest flavor-of-the-minute getting signed after handing Jay-Z or Master P a demo, subtlety has gone the way of other outdated concepts like career development and dues-paying. Now even an artist like Pep, who’s releasing his first album, is seen as holding the keys to the platinum universe. This sea change in the way MCs go pro particularly irks Pep, a veteran of Oakland’s mighty Hieroglyphics consortium for well over a decade, who’s been known only as its secret weapon until his long overdue Ascension. Rhyming since the ninth grade at Skyline High with the rest of Hiero, Pep put together the Prose with producer Jay-Biz, then was almost swept up in the major labor signing frenzy that followed Del’s breakthrough, I Wish My Brother George Was Here. The early ’90s saw every Hiero entity besides the Prose — Souls of Mischief, Casual, and Extra Prolific — pen questionable deals and then have their labels balk at second or third albums. Pep and Jay-Biz, sensing that the writing on the wall was made in disappearing ink, passed over each of the offers made to them except one that looked solid, only to have it vanish also.
Hiero membership has its perks though, and the unsigned verbalist scored a number of choice cameos on his friends’ records, including “Who’s It On” from Casual’s Fear Itself, and the B-side to Del’s “Wrong Place” 12-inch, “Undisputed Champs” (featuring Q-Tip). His first solo number, “After Dark,” was a standout of the 1998 Hiero posse album Third Eye Vision and enjoyed mixtape anthem status for months. The unusually long incubation period for such a gifted rapper turned out to be good for him, allowing him to develop one of the most distinctive rhyming styles to emerge in recent memory. According to him, it also helps explain the deep metaphysical currents that run through the lyrical content on Ascension.
“I thought [releasing an album] was going to happen a lot sooner than it did, honestly,” he says. “But it was right on time because I wasn’t focused like I am now; my mind wasn’t on the same things it is now, in terms of having a real purpose. I just wanted to do it because it was a cool thing. I really genuinely am and always was into hip-hop and MCing, and the whole colorful culture and the creative aspect of it. But now I have more than just that, I have a purpose and something I’m trying to give to people, and I think that’s going to power me more and give me a firmer foundation in music.”
As a result of his broadened vision, the record is a rare hip-hop work that has as much to say as it has technically compelling ways of saying it. As a fan aptly put it in a post to the pep-love.com message board, “He’s actually doing something all of these so-called indie MCs are trying to do but failing. He’s getting hella topical but he’s still staying really rhythmic and funky without getting boring.” Or as Pep himself raps on “Different,” “My intricate flow is chock-full of info.” His style is a study of balance and contrasts, raw battle rhymes juxtaposed with spiritual insights. Favoring the odd cadences inherent in polysyllabic words like “vindictive,” “individual,” and “tumultuous,” Pep’s complicated meters give the impression that if one word were to be removed, the whole song would collapse. And somehow his short, choppy rhymed bits fit together to form fluid lines, just as a ray of light can be described as both a particle and a wave at the same time.
Woven throughout the LP’s nineteen tracks are some pretty provocative philosophical suggestions as well, such as a radical humanist take on creation (“the most creative force in the universe is us/ so just stay on course/ listen to the song of the stars/ harmonious brilliance/ we are the filaments of this“) and the possibility of transcendence through art (“jungles of concrete/ where the people be walking asleep/ consumed/ talkin’/ they eat/ the fumes of Babylon/ while I travel on to the land of Avalon/ to learn what I haven’t known/ apprenticeships from avatars/ avidly advocating the avant-garde“). When prodded about the potential deeper implications of these lines, Pep chuckles and admits he hadn’t thought about them too hard.
“I mean, it just came out, you know, just a flow — it was kind of like alliteration: ‘avidly advocating the avant-garde,'” he states. “But really though, that’s saying that part of the lessons I’ve learned as far as how music can take me to a higher level is always pushing the envelope, always trying to create something new. That’s part of doing the work of God — creating. If God made us in his image, then we can also on all levels do what He did — He created us, so we can create. To me, being on the cutting edge is the ultimate of creating.”
Pep clearly isn’t the analytic type (“I leave it to the hypercritical to do that,” he raps), but after this close reading of his own words, he concludes that there might be something else lurking below their surface. “That line came out as just trying to rip, basically, but after I examined it like you did, I see that it meant something. It really didn’t have that much of a deep meaning to me when I wrote it, and only when I come back to it do I see that it meant something greater. A lot of times I see that in my work only later.”
There may also be a political point or two behind a few of the cuts, he concedes, most notably in “The Fight Club,” which like its cinematic namesake concerns itself with seemingly unprovoked violence and vague calls to revolution (“The collective objective is to overthrow/ we are soldiers here to let the po’ folks know/ imperialists get the fist“). Just as he describes himself as spiritual but not religious, Pep says that there’s a political component to what he does, although he’s uninterested in politics per se.
“There definitely is a political message in [“The Fight Club”], but it comes from a general understanding of what’s going on and not really from being a politically oriented person,” he relates. “I understand what imperialism is, though. And I understand the effects and implications that it has on our society. Really the purpose for my music is to make a strong, aggressive stab at making a change, instead of what some people do, which is to change things in a very undisciplined or unintentional way, and sometimes negatively.”
Pep likens the role of the MC to that of a cultivator of minds, and as an extension of this concept and his overall anticorporate, DIY worldview, he finds inspiration in the art of botanical cultivation — landscaping. He explains, “I haven’t really done much with it, but that’s what I want to do. I’m interested in nature and plants and I want to learn how to cultivate for real — to grow plants and bring my surroundings into balance. I think part of the duty of man on this planet is to be able to grow your own food, but people don’t take advantage of it anymore — we can buy flowers from the florist instead of growing our own. People should come together and form cooperatives based on agriculture and start community gardens in their cities where there are vacant lots; beautification of run-down neighborhoods provides alternatives to genetically altered food.”
In hip-hop terms, that means banding together the way the Hieroglyphics, Living Legends, and Hobo Junction collectives did to reject whack major label deals — not waiting for a signing bonus or Pep Love to get back to you on your demo. A smidgen of patience is also recommended –Pep’s debut took more than thirteen years to reach the public. But the time couldn’t be riper for the Hiero Imperium label, with Ascension marking the crew’s return to form. As an Internet fan concludes, “Man, I’ve already put it up there with [Casual’s] Fear Itself, [Del’s] No Need for Alarm, and [Souls of Mischief’s] 93 ’til Infinity. This album is going to be an instant classic in my head. I mean it sounds so much like the early ’90s Hiero goodness.”
Another post wraps it up even more succinctly: “After all these years, a favorite MC.”