Sleepless in Sactown
Sacramento deejay crew Sleeprockers harnessed social media to work on a new album with Oakland rappers Hieroglyphics
It sounds like a joke, but this hip-hop story begins with Twitter: In the summer of 2011, Tajai—a rapper in Oakland's hip-hop collective Hieroglyphics and CEO of the Hieroglyphics Imperium Recordings music label—tweets that he's looking for a deejay for his next project. A few days later, Christopher Jaime—a.k.a. DJ Nocturnal, part of the five-man Sacramento deejay crew the Sleeprockers—replies.
“Within the next day or two, we go to Oakland, and we all just hit it off with [Hieroglyphics] right out of the gate,” said Nocturnal, who joined the rest of his group to chat with SN&R, moments before leaving to perform a weeknight deejay gig at a Midtown bar. “It still trips me out why they chose Sleeprockers, [but] there's a creative aspect to that: You've got five dudes who come from different backgrounds.”
Now, about two years after the chance social-media fueled pairing, Hieroglyphics is ready to release its third full-length studio album, The Kitchen—featuring scratches, cuts and samples from the Sleeprockers—on July 16.
Networking has long been in the DNA of Nocturnal, Ron Florente (DJ Rated R), Raphael Hubilla (DJ Mr. Vibe), Jesse Alfaro (Kwes the Bess) and Shinya Fukuta (DJ Wanted), who formed the Sleeprockers in 2010. After being on so many show bills together, people kept on telling the guys they should start a crew.
They eventually listened.
“At the time, a lot of us were doing a lot of shows on our own, and that's why people started throwing the whole ‘supercrew' word around,” said Nocturnal. “Because we all come from established backgrounds.”
Rated R and Nocturnal were the first to pair up and came up with the name Sleeprockers. They soon brought in mutual friends Mr. Vibe, Kwes the Bess and Wanted. Together, the five utilize turntables, knobs, buttons, guitar pedals and other electronic instruments to create a unique live show that blends each of the artists' musical tastes.
Since forming, members of the Sleeprockers have continued to remain active in their solo careers as well: DJ Wanted is still a battle deejay; Kwes the Bess is a producer; and Nocturnal, Rated R and Mr. Vibe are all well-rounded deejays who battle and produce records for local emcees. They also perform together, and, as a group, they have collaborated with Sacramento-based hip-hop artists Mahtie Bush, Rasar (formerly Random Abiladeze), Live Manikins and Another Rap Group.
But since meeting Tajai and the other seven members of the Hieroglyphics crew, the group has been busier than ever.
“Initially, they wanted us to do The Kitchen first, so we started working on The Kitchen, and then Tajai was like, ‘I got this project that I want you to do first,'” said Mr. Vibe, of Tajai's 2012 mixtape Machine Language. “We smashed that in, like, two nights, on top of working on The Kitchen.”
Hieroglyphics had almost completed the album by the time they handed The Kitchen over to the Sleeprockers in mid-2011. The Sleeprockers were then given the creative liberty to add additional touches to tracks, some of which were incomplete and missing verses or choruses. With eight emcees in Hieroglyphics and five deejays in Sleeprockers, the album was never short on ideas.
Logistics, however, were difficult.
“It was a task trying to get everybody to focus on recording this,” said Rated R. “[The Sleeprockers] had to do several retreats to Visilia, [Calif.], set up at my parent's house and stay up until, like, 3 or 4 in the morning sometimes.”
While working on the album as a five-man group over the span of a year, the Sleeprockers would drive out to Oakland to visit the Hieroglyphics' place every few months to show off their newly completed work.
And that's when things got even more complicated.
Most members of the Hieroglyphics crew have their own solo careers: Del the Funky Homosapien is a solo artist also famous for his Deltron 3030 project with Dan the Automator and numerous collaborations with Gorillaz; A-Plus, Phesto, Opio and Tajai perform as Souls of Mischief; and Casual, Pep Love and Domino all individually make their own music. And each of these artists has his own albums to record and shows to play.
So, each time the Sleeprockers showed up to Hiero H.Q., not everyone was always around to work on The Kitchen. Nevertheless, this disjointed studio time seems to have worked to the album's creative advantage.
“I think the whole philosophy of when you're in a kitchen—you're choppin' shit up, you're choppin' vegetables and you're cookin'—that was kind of like what we were doing to it,” said Kwes the Bess. “They gave us the ingredients, and we cooked it.”
Group members describe the project as a dream scenario, despite currently working for free (royalties may come later). They did it just to be collaborating with an influential hip-hop group.
“We kind of made it like a movie, almost,” said Mr. Vibe. “Songs match what the next song is, and you can put it on and drive to San Francsico, and you get the whole story.”
The album's first single, “Gun Fever,” was released in April and received praise from hip-hop blogs such as BallerStatus.com and Rap Genius. As a result, Sleeprockers have been earning some accolades from the hip-hop deejay community.
“It's cool, because a lot of the pioneers and legends are recognizing Sleeprockers,” Nocturnal said.
“Twitter is no joke, I realize that now.”